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Augustine’s Own (Anti-)Private Language Argument

An Origin of Wittgenstein’s Private Language Argument?

I stumbled upon this proto-Private Language argument, even shorter than Wittgenstein’s. The more that I read Augustine’s De doctrina christiana, the more I get the feeling that Wittgenstein indeed had read this text fairly closely (I see many parallels in thought, including the tantamount notion that words are things defined by their use). These traces of familiarity make his vast misreading of Augustine at the beginning of PI all the more consternating:

Finally, the thousands of fables and fictions, in whose lies men take delight, are human devices, and nothing is to be considered more peculiarly man’s own and derived from himself than anything that is false and lying.

Milla denique fictarum fabularum et falsitatum, quarum mendaciis homines delectantur, humana instituta sunt. Et nulla magis hominum propria, quae a seipsis habent, existmanda sunt, quam quaeque falsa atque mendacia.

§39, Book II, De doctrina

One might not immediately recognized Wittgenstein’s Private Language argument here, but I provide the Latin because it may help. Augustine is speaking about the nature of signs and their necessary classification. He begins the paragraph with pictures and statues which he describes as superfluous to the truth of God (having in mind the arts of pagan Rome and Greece one supposes), and then in the cited passage he seems to have then turned to the myths and stories that go around these figures, narratives and tales. The passage ends with a nod to the useful significations of the sexes in dresss, and then the human systems of weights and measures, stampings and coins.

But what is not to be lost is the exact nature of the disqualification of the substance of human ficta et fabulae. Looking closely, there is nothing to a greater degree the propria of men. That is to say, particular to, peculiar of, but more importantly, the property of, or even especially the private property of men, than these narrative deceptions. And the reason for this is that men have them “a seipsis”, though themselves, to themselves. They are spun from, or as the translation above says, derived from, men themselves. They are, for Augustine, something like man’s Private Language, something that has its origin within the sphere of the human and a circulation solely among the human. But this is the kicker, this recursive privacy is due to their very mark of falsity and deception, their untruth. Augustine sets up an extreme, which at the limit posits a falsity working at the vector origin. That which men have in and through themselves as the sole cause is through the very nature of its privacy, or deprivation, false. (He elsewhere defines evil as a privation.)

Wittgenstein though has in mind not the story of how Zeus chained Prometheus, but the inner dialogue that is often assumed to be privately going on in someone’s head, not in English or German, but in some untranslatable form, utterly and categorically, private. Taken on as well are the private “objects” of such an imagined or subtly assumed language, whether they be private sense data of the world, or inner experiences such as a pain or a pleasure. Right here I want to concentrate upon the Beetle in the Box aspect of the Private Lanaguage argument. To repeat Wittgenstein’s own reductio ad absurdum:

Now someone tells me that he knows what pain is only from his own case!-Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a “beetle”. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says that he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle.-Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing.-But suppose the word “beetle” had a use in these people’s language?-If so it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty.-No, one can ‘divide through’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.

§293, Philosophical Investigations

Falsity and the Inner Beetle

Perhaps now we can see the parallel in argumentation. Because Augustine marks the falsity of human fabula through the very privacy of their origin, the same can be done to the supposed Private Language which Wittgenstein argues against. To draw the parallel explicitly, the beetle in the box is merely an insubstantial fabula in terms of reference. That is, because the word “beetle” has a function within the discourse of these imagined people the f actuality of the state of the beetle inside our heads (whether it be a sense datum of some kind of representation of the world or a pain, there is no fact of the matter of its state), ultimately plays no role in the justifiable functionality of the word, its public life. Thus the privacy of the imagined beetle is as Wittgenstein argues, “crossed out”, as a function of the truth of the discourse. The intersubjective (public) nature of discourse provides that any inner language that a person has a se ipso, in and through himself alone, will be marked by the very limit of falsity: when ceasing to make sense to others or oneself, one’s private objects simply dissipate as objects. As long as the person is using the language correctly, and can tell the difference between “getting it right” and not (which requires external criteria), this truth function of the language makes it not a proprium  of the man alone. Our thoughts can be translated, knowingly.

Further, as a point of interest, Augustine’s vector of falsity falls right across the register of our modern praise of originality. Something that has its origin solely  in the genius of a person, authored only there, made up, is only so by virtue of its falsity. The way that we conceive of the human subject as “cut off” in various positive ways often characterized by their independence and creativity (not to mention “taste” or commercial desires) is linked to this notion of the self as the origin of precious determinations. Our esteem of the Picasso, the Mozart is founded upon a sense of private invention, what we call “originality”. But what would be an originality so complete so as to be utterly private and unsharable? The very sharability of products of genius belie a certain communicability and therefore sharing of origin. Perhaps the ultimate falsifier, the schizophrenic, in the sense that mental events become unreadable, is taken to be utterly private. But we know that this is not so (for we have Schreber’s incredible account, and Artaud, and Holderlin and so very many others). So what is the ontological status of something that is only, as Augustine’s says, a “proprium hominis”? Perhaps we want to say,  just that feeling of hesitation that Joyce might have between a word and then another, that uncrossable ford, that ephemera of pace – but wait, we have shared it now, something of it, a bit (the absolute category collapses). In the end, something of the ontological status of a thing results from its lack of its privacy, until ontology itself fades as privacy increases.

Spinoza also takes up this notion that the privacy of the mind – insofar as it is seen to be cut off from the world that it is an expression of – exhibits imaginary knowledge which is fragmentary and confused…pictures on pictures. These false ideas he says are false only in the sense of a privation (something ultimately traceable back to Plotinus through Augustine’s appropriation of Neo-Platonism). Their partiality becomes an expression of their impotence to act. The utterly unique idea (private) is the utterly impotent one. And the strength of an idea is founded upon its public, that is, communicable nature. So it follows for Spinoza that even the most confused idea or imaginary relationship, insofar as it has something positive about it – the reality it has – has such not due to its falsity but rather its proportion of adequacy.

There is nothing positive in ideas on account of which they are called false. E2p33

Falsity consists in the privation of knowledge which inadequate, or mutilated and confused, ideas involve. E2p35

A Braid of Genetic Privacy

I am not so sure how comfortable I am with the categorical foreclosure in this line of reasoning, which is to say, there is some sense in which I do feel that there is Private Language (one wants to say private distinction, or distinctions which are recursively organized). But this is nothing more than the historical substantiality of genetic progression, which in Spinoza would be simply the reality of the modes, and in Augustine perhaps the reality of the fall. There is a sense in which when we are translating others indeed there is a horizon of rational holism which follows the truth/ontology argument that all three philosophers present. If you are thinking something, or even feeling something,  it is our mutual engagement with the world and with each other which makes the origin of this “something” not a private thing solely of the person. Its very status as something depends upon this mutuality of coherence, cause and origin, conferring complete ontology to it (and supporting all three arguments). But there is a different sense in which each person is a genetic unfolding of experiences and distinctions in time, one and then the other. This configuration through its very difference from my own (or the general consensus of others) is what presents its ultimate value (and perhaps danger). Here, the “origin” is not truly only in and through the person, but a braiding of a particular line of historical developments and the mutuality of world, onto which a distinct line of expression is fed back. These distinctions, their tempo’d unfolding of differences which constitutes an difference in itself, are the portion of the originality of expression which is valued, no aspect of it in principle untranslatable and knowable, the totality of it lost to time (and not subject).

Example: A man tells a story about a young girl caught in a parallel universe with white rabbits or Red Queens, and the ontology of it shines through. The originality serves as origin somehow through the sharing of origin. Should it have been the contingent or creative change of a Red King and not a Red Queen (a difference we might want to attribute solely to the privacy/decision of the author), this factuality is a ‘nothing’ without the relation to the rest of the piece, and the rest of the words and images in use. It becomes an insubstantiality, a difference without difference, an evaporating falsity, until there is a communication of differences. The origin of the difference becomes parsed between the history of the genetic author who “decided” it, and the great wealth of internal and external determinations, the subsuming author but a piece, a difference among differences.

Spinoza’s Logic of Affects and an Ontology of Torture


There is a curious shadow in the logic of Spinoza, a dark, foreboding underlogic that comes with its incredible sheen, its recourse to a path of Joy and Rationality. It is not so much a consequence of its argumentation, a conclusion drawable from within its aims, but a manifestation of its logic.

What I have in mind is Spinoza’s implicit imperative that Joy follows the aim of becoming more like God. That is, Spinoza’s argument for the path to happiness is that the more that we become like God/Substance, the freer we become, the more active, the least reactionary. This method of analysis is based on the idea that only the entirety of Substance is causa sui, its own cause. All other things are caused through other things. And concordantly, the more we become the causes of our own action, through our better understanding of the forces at play through clearer ideas, the more Joyful and powerful we become.

A single example suffices to get at the root of what Spinoza is after. A child is hit by another child, and reacts with anger, or even hate. A man is hit by another man, and in understanding the forces at play (perhaps the history of race, the residual and institutional sadnesses) is able to act, rather than react, in a more powerful and active manner. Each, the child and the adult, experience themselves to be “free”, but one is consubstantially freer than the other: so would argue Spinoza.

The result of this imitatio be-like-God-have-clearer-ideas-become-more-powerful-and-free approach is remarkable in the capacities of change that inhabit nearly every situation. Each and every moment is open to mental, and therefore physical, avenues of change. In particular, as beings locked in history, the diachronic unfolding of inadequate ideas, a finite existence which is overrun with imaginary effects, our possibilities become our ability to affectively, and intelligently engage with others. That is, we become more our own cause (like God), insofar as we no longer conceive of ourselves as independent and isolated units. We become more our own cause insofar as we realize ourselves to be part of an assemblage of affective and ideational bodies that are already existing, and that through our awareness, we can intentionally construct. We become our own cause, to the degree that “our own” becomes larger and larger. The political ramifications of this path are striking in their dexterity, and it is for this reason that Spinoza became the first modern proponent of a liberal democracy of intellectual freedoms.

All this stems from Spinoza’s idea that we become more Joyous and more powerful, the more we become like God.

But as I say, there is a shadow beneath the logic of this argument, a different kind of “becoming like God” that seems to belie the very logic and exemplification Spinoza uses. And I say this as a Spinozist, a firm admirer of the possibilities of his thought.

One of the most praised, and disconcerting aspects of Spinoza’s notion of God is that this God has no affects. That is, because for Spinoza an affect is the passing from one degree of perfection, to another degree, God being perfect in the expression of himself can have no affect. For this reason, “He who loves God cannot endeavor that God should love him in return” (5p19). That makes for a remarkable ontological set up. We and animals, as finite beings, though we feel, suffer, love, ache, laugh, wonder, etc. as the actual expressions of the Totality that is God, God itself experiences none of these things. In a strange way, we experience them (as a product of our finitude), but God cannot, or does not (which is the same thing for Spinoza). Our very affective state, in its quality, is a kind of illusion which does not register upon the totality as such.

What is curious about this set-up is that it bears striking resemblance to one of the more horrific conditions of human social function, that of the Totalitarian Torture State. That is, under some analysis the State, as a necessary condition of its ideological status as an horizon of social determination actually must torture so as to produce the very expression of its condition, an expression which it then represses.

Eric Santner in his Study of the first Schizophrenic, Daniel Schreber, describes how the mechanism of political torture functions in this way:

Torture is the way an institution simultaneously confesses and represses its deepest secret: that its consistency, its enjoyment of recognition as a really existing social fact, ultimately depends on the magic of performative utterances, on the force of their own immanent process of enunciation. The abjection produced in the torture victim, his betrayal of everything that matters and is dear to him, his confession of his own putrescence, is, as it were, the “substance” that stands in for the lack of substantial foundations to which the institution might appeal for final and ultimate legitimation. The torture victim’s abject body is the ‘privileged’ site of a politicotheological epiphany, for it is there that the reality of institutions and the social facts they sponsor – contracts, titles, money, property, marriages, and the like – bottoms out, touches on a dimension of vicious circularity that cannot be avowed if these social facts are to continue to enjoy credibility, if the social field structured by them is to remain consistent for the subject.

My Own Private Germany: Daniel Paul Schreber’s Secret History of Modernity

In a Spinozist context there are quite a number of things that stand out.

For one, the notion of a “politicotheological epiphany”. There is in Spinoza a remarkable sense of the epiphanic. In readers who have struggled through his precise stackings of propositions, there comes a time when suddenly it all locks into place, and a sudden sheen comes into being. I have experienced this myself. It moves from boring and unlikely logic, to brilliant and revealing clarity. And the marriage of the political and the theological of course speaks to Spinoza’s own Politico-theological treatise, which seeks to show the divine and natural expression of both these realms.

Secondly, the enunciative power of the victim is dependent upon the very unaffective status of the torturer (whether it be the person him or herself, or the State). In much the same way, our very affective states, our loud-ringing cries (and laughter), for Spinoza are leveraged off from a non-affective thing, which actually produces them in us. This goes to the very core notion of what an inadequate idea is in Spinoza. An inadequate idea is one which one holds thinking it is about the world, when in fact it is an idea only about oneself (the state of one’s body). In a certain sense, one is confused not only about what an idea (representation) is about, but also “who” is thinking it. For instance, when I think to myself “Sam is a bastard” this idea is really best understood as an expression of my body being in a certain state, and thus in that my body is an extensional expression of Substance, it is an expression made by God, and not me. This illusionary locus of enunciation which marks out the nature of what makes inadequate ideas inadequate, is what shapes the logic of torture under Santner’s description. The victim seems to be crying out a confession of his own experience, but in fact is only expressing a condition of the whole. The victim is confessing-expressing what the State or its torturer cannot, as a matter of its own ontological logic. It is feeling what cannot be felt, as a vector of its own power. The cries and putrescence become immanent to the State.

In Spinoza I think this link can be found right at the level of Affects themselves, joys, loves, hates, sadnesses, jealousies, etc. (again, a thing that God cannot have). Spinoza tells us in the General Definition of Affect, that whatever the affect “this [a confused idea], which constitutes the form of the affect, must indicate or express, a constitution of the Body (or some part of it), which the Body (or some part of it) has because its power of acting, or force of existing, is increased or diminished, aided or restrained.”

Notice the particular form his denomination, the confused idea “must indicate or express”.

In the Latin Spinoza uses a word of largely social obligation to convey this representational necessity, debet (indicare vel exprimit debet). To translate more literally, it “owes”, it “pays the debt,” to “indicate or express”, “to show or come out of” a condition of the body. And the Latin verb exprimit, to express, can even be a word of near torture, in that it can read that ideas owe it to “squeeze out, press out, extort, wrest from” an organization of the body. The double duty of representation shown here “to indicate or express” has affinities with Santner’s process of enunciation which “confesses and represses”. If one were to draw these terms strictly to each other. Our inadequate ideas which we take as being ideas about the world, and belonging to us, are rather confessions of a God-Substance that cannot feel, and the fact of this confessional character is repressed in the very conscious experience of ourselves as distinct and personal entities. Spinoza’s immanent expression of God in affective beings, becomes the nightmare confessional and repressed torture of political subject. Just as Santner strips away the mechanism of enunciation in the example of political torture, Spinoza strips away the representational mechanism of expression in the form of affects felt and ideas held.

To be fair, what seems at first distinct between these two views is that the State is (unconsciously) invested in a particular kind of horrific enunciation, while God as Substance is not. This becomes clear in Michel de Certeau’s essay “Institution of Rot” whose reasonings Eric Santner is working from:

de Certeau wrote:

…[the] goal of torture, in effect, is to produce acceptance of a State discourse, through the confession of putrescence. What the torturer in the end wants to extort from the victim he tortures is to reduce him to being no more than that, rottenness, which is what the torturer himself is and knows that he is, but without avowing it. The victim must voice the filth, everywhere denied, that everywhere supports the representation of the regime’s ‘omnipotence,’ in other words, the ‘glorious image’ of themselves the regime provides for the adherents through its recognition of them. The victim must therefore assume the position of subject upon him the theatre of identifying power is performed.

“Institution of Rot,” in Psychosis in Sexual Identity: Toward a Post-Analytic View of the Schreber Case

Perhaps one could say, following Spinoza’s ontological-affective logic that the degree to which a totalitarian subject agrees with and expresses joyful statements, it is doing so enunciatively on the behalf of a non-affective State, adding to its glory (thereby, holding adequate ideas), and to the degree that he is not, and is made to suffer, he is enunciatively manifesting the ideological substrate of the State’s “glorious image”. The investment of the State in the most abject subject is a very particular kind of investment which is otherwise a product of a general logic of the State.

What is disturbing about this comparison of course is that it is a result that is antithetical the aims of Spinoza’s political imagination. Attempting to be “like God”, the cause of oneself, is supposed to lead to more and more freedom, more and more Joy. But there is an afterimage of such logic, a way in which “attempting to be like God” results in the more horrific totalitarian processes. For if Spinoza’s vision of an affective and modal expression of a non-affective Totality called God is brought to the formal logic of a Totalitarian State, we see striking correspondence. And that this correspondence is not one of accident, but goes to the most central aspect of Spinozist epistemology (that which makes up an inadequate idea) makes it even more ominous. Further, the logic of epiphanic “glorious image” sheen that the very enunicative and repressional processes of the State produce, “squeezing out from the organization of the body” seems to characterize well what is most remarkable about Spinoza’s achievement of stacked and inter-indexed propositions, the sudden clarity of theo-political power, as expressed by Nature and Mind. In short, what is best in Spinoza seems to sanction in part what is worst in politics, through a logic of onto-epistemic imitation. And what is worst in the political seems to explain what is best in Spinoza.

What is one to make of this? Is Spinoza’s really only a vast totalitarian dream projected onto the Universe? Is it that Spinoza, in his reasoned argument for a liberal democratic state not living up to the full de imiatione Dei consequence of his logic? To the first possibility I would answer, I don’t think so. To the second, perhaps. It seems to me that what Santner and de Certeau’s analysis of the logical apparatus of the Totalitarian State reveals about Spinoza’s logic is that there IS a certain epiphanic mechanism employed in his means, a certain redemptive torture of affect which makes of the Totality a “glorious image”. But the value of his thought certainly cannot be reduced to such. What is more important I think is what Spinoza, once this mechanism is exposed, tells us about the liberal state and the path of acting more and more like God. Within such a political process, both doors are open, and perhaps necessary, that of the immanent, body-building, affective sharing that is effectively creative, combining powers as new bodies that de-centralize identity, across Selves, in a communication of reasons; but also, that there is a certain kind of necessary cruelty to social organization, as at times one is forced to collapse one’s own repressed state into a tortured mechanism of enunciation, which generates the very sheen which gives direction to society, the very epiphany which affectively condenses bodies together and facilitates their assembled state. And perhaps these two passages to social wholes, and communications, are phasal to each other. There is no Golden Rule (as golden as Spinoza was able to write it), which does not contain the possibility of political theophany through enunciative confession-repression. Perhaps this is due to the contingent nature of history, and that beneath - or more distant to - reason, IS this very epiphanic capacity of bodies to assemble affects so as to “make the god appear” through suffering, and that at times such a capacity acts as a resource, a resource needing to be checked, but never eliminable. Or perhaps this is written into the very logic of logic, the very capacity to organize ourselves around reasons, ideas and criteria, the dark, but luminous shadow of rationality itself





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