Frames /sing


Wittgenstein’s Abuse of Augustine’s “making/doing the truth”

Wittgenstein famously begins his Philosophical Investigations  with a quote from Augustine’s Confessions, in Latin no less, which is supposed to reveal a hidden “picture” of language that was damagingly influential across the centuries of Western philosophy, an influence that goes unabated until Wittgenstein theraputically provides us with a new picture, more than 1,500 years later. A seductive story if their ever was one. The problem is that it is quite likely that Augustine did not hold such a “picture” of language, and that Wittgenstein’s snap-shot method of interpretation does not capture at all the fullness, or even sense, of Augustine’s conception of language. Wittgensgtein wants to say that Augustine sees language as fundamentally a naming process, as essentially designative, something of an over-simplification, and in so doing fails to see the consitutive role of truth, the theoretical role of God, creation and incarnation in an expressive vision of language.

I had been discussing this over at Methods of Projection, in response to the site’s  inspired attempt  to reconsile Wittgenstein’s interpretation with Augustine’s actual position on language, via Hacker. Below are some thoughts on the overall conceptual mistakes that Wittgenstein makes in a failure to read Augustine with com-prehension, perhaps in a pursuit to ground his own Tractatus  endeavours across the centuries. These thoughts flow from Wittgenstein’s admitted attempt to separate out the purely ritualistic (and expressive) from actual theory, between which the analytical idea of “picture” seems to float.

A first quotation comes from Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Frazer. In his attempt to separate out mere symbolic expression found in magical ritual and “false pictures” in a pure categorical fashion, he refers to Augustine’s calls to God:

“Was Augustine mistaken, then, when he called on God on every page of the Confessions?
Well – one might say – if he was not mistaken, then the Buddhist holy-man, or some other, whose religion expresses quite different notions, surely was. But none of them was making a mistake except where he was putting forward a theory.”
(“Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough” )

This may explain why Wittgenstein failed to take into account Augustine’s reasoned positioning of God unto the very powers of speech and the use of signs, both in the immediate context of the passage he cited, but also in the breadth of reference to language throughout the Confessions. For instance, when Augustine questions the very capacity for sign-use to explain what is going on in the expression of will, calling to God, “Is anyone to be his own artifex?” (1.6.10),  just a few paragraphs after the cited passage, are we to read this not as a “mistake” in Augystine’s reasoning, but rather part of a simply ritualistic, symbolic God-calling expression which simply does not put forward a “theory”?  It seems that the position of God in Augustine’s conception is not for Wittgenstein “theoretical”, it is not part of the all important “picture” of language.

(Concordantly, one wonders if Wittgenstein had taken to interpreting Anselm’s so called Ontological Proof in the Proslogium, if he would have been able to parse out the many appeals to God from the very content of those appeals, or the substance of the proof itself. Somehow this parsing appears to be how he conceived the Confessions.)

Now this is an odd way of reading Augustine, if indeed Wittgenstein is thinking in this way, for the very purpose of the Confessions  is to confess the errors of his ways. Quite apart from the idea that the Hindu holy-man whose religion has different “notions” than Catholic Christianity is not a man in error, it is specifically the case that Augustine’s appeals to God (and the attendant notions), are part of his Confession of the mistakes, the errors of his Manichaeism. What is the Confessions if not a description and philosophy that works toward this very idea of moving from error to truth? Wittgenstein is right the confessional attitude is expressive and symbolic, but he does not see that just this expressiveness plays for Augustine a constitutive role in the nature of truth and communication, at the theoretical level.

James O’ Donnell makes the point quite well in his introdution to a much respected commentary on the Confessions:

“He who makes the truth comes to the light.” [cited at Bk 10.1] The truth that Augustine made in the Confessions had eluded him for years. It appeared before us as a trophy torn from the grip of the unsayable after a prolonged struggle on the frontier between speech and silence. What was at stake was more than words. The “truth” of which Augustine spoke was not merely the quality of a verbal formula, but veracity itself, a quality of a living human person. Augustine “made the truth” — in this sense he made himself truthful–when he found a pattern of words to say the true thing”

See how far such a comprehensive and linguistic interpretation of Augustine’s Confessions  is from Wittgenstein’s attempt to isolate out a “picture” of language amid confession itself. This process of picture isolation is part of a conception which distinguishes the sheerly expressive/symbolic, from the theoretical, finding in confession itself solely an irreducible gesture,

“The religious actions or the religious life of the priest-king are not different in kind from any genuinely religious action today, say a confession of sins. This also can be “explained” (made clear) and cannot be explained.” (“Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough”).

Clearly here Wittgenstein has in mind pure ritual (if there is such a thing, imagined to be empty of ideas or conceptions), like perhaps the actual act of going to a confession booth, yet given the proximity of the quote above to an initial reference to the Confessions,  it actually shows the instability of the category Wittgenstein is attempting, parsing sheer expression from all theory and idea. Counter to this segregation of empty, symbolic rite from theoretical meaning, we must say that Augustine’s Confessions  is indeed a “religious action” (at least as he conceives of it), but definitionally not one that can be separated out from the entire theoretical and linguistic expression of the self which Augustine carries out. The entire work is an expression. The searching for words, the searching for true words, creates a horizon of authentic expression for Augustine from within language, positioning what language itself, the use of signs, is; and it is only from within this horizon and personal arc that Augustine’s story of early thought and language can be understood.

Far from indicating a Slab language, where words merely correspond to objects, or even more a “system of commuication” which explains the whole of language (Philosophical Investigations, section 3), the aim of language is to “make/do the truth” and thus to “come to the light” (John). Augustine makes this plain at the beginning of Book 10, which O’Donnell had cited above:

1. Let me know thee, O my Knower; let me know thee even as I am known. [Cf. 1 Cor.13:12]. O Strength of my soul, enter it and prepare it for thyself that thou mayest have and hold it, without “spot or blemish.” [Eph. 5:27]. This is my hope, therefore have I spoken; and in this hope I rejoice whenever I rejoice aright. But as for the other things of this life, they deserve our lamentations less, the more we lament them; and some should be lamented all the more, the less men care for them. For see, “Thou desirest truth”[Ps. 51:6]. and “he who does the truth [ho de poiõn tên alêtheian] comes to the light.”[John 3:21]. This is what I wish to do through confession in my heart before thee, and in my writings before many witnesses. (Confessions)

Somehow Wittgenstein in his mind had turned Augustine’s call to God, “Let me know thee, O my Knower; let me know thee even as I am known,” into part of a call to God “on every page,” a substanceless reading, not seeing how “knowing” and being “known” are part of a reasoned constitutive of “making/doing” the truth through words. This is the wish of both the confession  in Augustine’s heart, an in the religio-linguistic action of the writings themselves. 

(Or would not such a call to God fall into Wittgenstein’s wide-sweeping category of Augustine’s calling to God? We cannot ever know, for Wittgenstein’s PI analysis is incredibly devoid of any additional textual reference, or even the clue that he has read into the context of the work or ouevre at all.)

Part of Wittgenstein’s deep misreading of Augustine’s early language (1.6.8) may also fall upon his perferred method of historical analysis. Aside from the general manner in which one examines historical texts through an understanding of the likely ideas or beliefs held by authors or actors and the social influences that may have lead to them, in a narrative of development, he favors a kind of “picture” theory of history, where one can simply look back in time and just compare these pictures discovered in texts and accounts:

“The historical explanation, the explanation is an hypothesis of development, it is only one way of assembling data…It is just as possible to see the data in their relation to another and to embrace them in a general picture without putting it in the form of an hypothesis about temporal distance.” (PO, p 131)

This precisely seems to be what Wittgenstein has done in his reading of Augustine’s infant learning of language, only to uncover a “picture”. He imagines that Augustine is putting forth a “picture” of language that is the same “picture” that he himself had when writing the Tractatus. Now, this is an interesting way to do philosophy, or to conduct a history of philosophy, or even study history itself. Wittgenstein feels that one can simply take snapshots of a text, and snapshots of another text (no matter how distant in time) and just see how they are the same. Now this is perhaps a helpful way to start  an interpretation of an ancient text, to notice similarities, but really the next  step is to see if these similarities bear out in context. Simply laying one passage upon another, like transparency photographs of faces, and seeing the resemblance, without looking at context is simply not the end of an analysis. The Kodak method of historical interpretation really is not a method at all, and seems that it is just this method that lead Wittgenstein to take a short passage of Augustine’s Confessions and expand it into a vast “system of communication” meant to explain all of language, leaving Augustine’s actual ideas about the self, language, incarnation and truth far behind. We might say, turning Wittgenstein’s analytical category upon itself,  Wittgenstein’s “picture theory” of historical text is a false, or at least deeply misleading, picture of history.

10 responses to “Wittgenstein’s Abuse of Augustine’s “making/doing the truth”

  1. Frank D December 29, 2008 at 1:09 pm

    Wittgenstein’s picture theory — which perhaps he died doubting — must necessarily isolate individual ideas (or, as Spinoza might have said, “conceptions of thought”), treating them as “things” (objects) that sprang whole from the mind. Thus follows the validity of your criticism of W’s historical method. It is also good that you distinguish the theoretical nature of words from their naming function, for, in my opinion, the historical development of all words begins in theory and maturates into convention.

    I also believe a much simpler correction of W’s view of Augustine’s “error” can be obtained by broadening the meaning of the Latin “rem aliquam” to mean all objects, including those that are not things of the “table,” “chair,” and “bread” sort. From the bodily gestures of his “elders” Augustine may very well have deduced the meaning of all the sorts of words W subsequently deals with, again, putting the quietus to his picture theory.

    We may, however, offer balm for his wounds in the form of the notion that the pictures are not “stills” but are actually motion pictures that the mind adapts to its own uses, those being, in my opinion, to justify itself to itself. We transcend the mind’s selfish self concern — when we do — by statements that defy categorization as other than “organizers.” “We are not bound by our beliefs,” one such statement, while probably untrue (if we treat the statement as a belief) fits very poorly into a structure of ideas that demand to be “maintainers of the status quo.” Such statements may lead the mind to question itself and lead it (on rare occasions) to work for the good of the Self rather than its own good.

    I believe Augustine’s “Confessions” can be more adequately understood in the light cast by a model of that sort. As Spinoza remarked, “nobody as yet has learned from experience what the body can and cannot do” (E3p2,note)). He would just as easily as Augustine have attributed the cause of the as-yet-unknown to God, but of course, to God as he understood God to be.

  2. kvond December 30, 2008 at 1:31 pm


    It is unclear quite how far Wittgestein meant to take naming to mean signifying in the vision of the Augustinian “picture”. As Method of Projections pointed out, Wittgenstein sees even the marks of a tool capable of standing for an object (and its hidden command form), quoting below.

    “The word “to signify” [bezeichnen] is perhaps used in the most straightforward way when the object signified is marked with the sign. Suppose that the tools A uses in building bear certain marks. When A shews his assistant such a mark, he brings the tool that has that mark on it.

    It is in this and more or less similar ways that a name means and is given to a thing.—It will often prove useful in philosophy to say to ourselves: naming something is like attaching a label to a thing.”
    (PI, §15; cf. §10, §13)

    Now in such cases we still are dealing with objects proper, and not Latin res. And it does not see that Wittgenstein comes close at all to the nature of Augustinian semiotics (let alone his conception of truth). Also, if we expand the number or kinds of things that can be referred to by a sign, it seems that Wittgenstein himself employs a kind of sign-res conception, where the sign points to the “use” (those conditions, those rules, that “situtation”), showing it.

  3. ere January 1, 2009 at 4:04 pm

    [i]Wittgensgtein wants to say that Augustine sees language as fundamentally a naming process, as essentially designative, something of an over-simplification, and in so doing fails to see the consitutive role of truth, the theoretical role of God, creation and incarnation in an expressive vision of language… [/i]

    What is the role of God, or more generally, myth-making in the development of language? The sign-making, first discovered at the caves of Lascaux, are efforts to transcend into the world of concepts – the “other” world. Sign-making is a rule following designation. These rules are after matters – After material (beyond material). “Material” comes from “mater”, meaning “mother”. “Father” comes from “fader”, meaning to appear or disappear gradually. Father (God(s)) appear after mother. God is after matter. God is beyond matter. Mother is immanence, and Father is transcendence. Fathers provide, hence the etchings of bovines and spears, oddly. Tool-making is a rule-following activity, just as symbol-making is. Fathers make thier appearance after matter – after mother. God(s), are inextricably linked, I think, to rule-following. Rules appear as fathers appear, in thier after-matter.

  4. William January 4, 2009 at 8:10 pm

    I appreciate all of these ideas on this site greatly. I do believe, consistently with some your own views, that Wittgenstein did not take the important religious ideas into consideration when he commented on Augustine’s work concerning “a certain picture of the nature of the humanly language” (i.e., my translation from PI §1. “ein bestimmtes Bild von dem Wesen der Menschlichen Sprache”). However, I think that there is some misinterpretation of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s works here.

    Wittgenstein appears to me to be treating St. Augustine with the utmost respect, and he is only focusing on a particular paragraph of Augustine’s dense philosophy. As a consequence of this latter fact, I think that it is unfair to treat Wittgenstein as interpreting St. Augustine’s whole philosophy of language rather than using just a paragraph of Augustine’s book to support Wittgenstein’s purposes. Moreover, I take it that there is no evidence to suggest that Wittgenstein was an expert or even that he considered himself to be an expert on these matters concerning Augustine.

    I believe that some of the misinterpretation may come from reading Anscombe’s translation rather than Wittgenstein’s original Austrian text. Please consider my translation of Wittgenstein’s third paragraph in his PI.

    I translate it as “Augustine does not speak about a difference about the parts of speech. To whom the Learnings of the language are so described, do think, as I would like to believe, initially about nouns such as “table”, “chair”, “bread”, and the names of persons, which only in the second case of the names shall one discover certain occupations or activities and qualities and the remaining parts of speech as something.”

    This is quite different than Anscombe’s translation. It is also a good idea to take a look at Wittgenstein’s Zettel from 681. through 691. because it was written later by Wittgenstein and 681-91 refer back to his PI, especially the sections that are important in relation to this paragraph written by Augustine.

    Thanks for your time and thoughts.


  5. kvond January 4, 2009 at 9:55 pm

    William, thank you for your thoughts and your translation. Unfortunately I do not share your benign treatment of Wittgenstein’s reading of Augustine. There can be no doubt that he respected Augustine highly, but there are all kinds of respect, and his respect did not lead to a close or comprehensive reading of Augustine’s Confessions. Language plays a very important role in that text. What I suspect is that Wittgenstein was caught in a picture of language that he thought he had located in a very brief passage, something that seemed to him very much like what Russell and put forth. The problem is that Augustine’s view of language, EVEN in the passage quoted, is much richer than that. Wittgenstein is very quick to leap from this little paragraph to an entire system of language which he calls “Augustine’s”.

    I think that signs of the malevolence of interpretation(unconscious no doubt) are found in the selective way that he quoted the material, leaving off the last sentence of the paragraph which works to undermine his interpretation (signs are not only of things, but of wills). He, through selective quotation, invents the over-simplifying picture. Further, in being unable to understand the role of God or a theory of truth plays in sense making in language, he dramatically undercuts Augustine’s entire point of writing the Confessions, in language. He may have respected Augustine, but not the content of his project. As quoted, he compares Augustine’s appeals to God in the Confessions as nothing more than the content-empty, non-theoretical rituals that can be found in the mouth of a Hindu. In some sense, Wittgenstein “respects” Augustine, in the way that one respects (idealizes) a primative or a savage. He finds in Augustine a primative, undeveloped picture. It is for this reason that he draws on primative language games to make clear the picture that he feels that Augustine is presenting.

    The last bit of difficulty I have in reading Wittgenstein’s interpretation charitably is that it makes a very significant point of quotation in Latin, as if this were a VERY close reading, one in which the specificity of the Latin exposes the entire reading. This appeal to the Latin is deeply contrasted with a non-appeal to ANY of the context of the passage (even its concluding line). Instead a meaning, indeed an entire system is exercised out, wrenched free from the context. This is exactly the abuse of not turning to the “rest of the mechanism” that Wittgenstein warns about in other conditions, and can only be achieved by de-theorizing, that is miminizing the role of ideas, in Augustine’s presentation. It must be a “picture” for Wittgenstein to be able to extract it.

    Augustine was not presenting a picture of language, and he certainly was not presenting an entire systemization of language. Instead he was arguing (in theory, using ideas) for the dependency we have upon others (authority figures,, the intersubjective significations of others in general, and ultimately God), in order to make sense of the world or ourselves at all. The entire world is signifying for Augustine.

  6. kvond January 4, 2009 at 10:10 pm


    I might add that though a fan of Wittgenstein, I have to say that due to his gnoimic, analogistic style, he is granted far more interpretive charity that is required. Regularly his comparisons, analogies, pictures escape any reflective, self-critical turn by readers that end up being unexpectedly dogmatic in their hook-line-and-sinker approach to Wittgenstein’s descriptions. In my view this approach that seldom if ever questions the form of the argument betrays Wittgenstein’s own liberating, and playful approach to thinking. One must be Wittgensteinian when reading Wittgenstein, and this means often challenging the very picture he presents, as a picture.

  7. William January 10, 2009 at 9:26 pm

    Thanks again for your comments. I enjoyed reading your responses to some of my thoughts. There is definitely a sense in which what you say is true, and it appears to contradict a couple of my own ideas above.

    Do you think that Anscombe’s translation of Augustine’s paragraph in Wittgenstein’s PI (i.e., in both German and English) is quite flawed? It seems to me to be flawed from the translation of the first word from Latin to English and from Latin to German.

    I translate Wittgenstein’s first words following Augustine’s “partial” paragraph as: “In this word we are receiving, so it seems to me, a certain picture of the nature of the humanly language. Namely this: The words of the language are naming objects–sentences are connections of such designations.– In this picture of the language we find the roots of the idea: Every word has a meaning. This meaning is assigning or classifying the word as belonging to something. It is the object for which the word stands.”

    I think that Wittgenstein perhaps would have agreed with your criticisms of his own works.

    Thanks for your thoughtful remarks about the picture theoretical views.

    William Brant

  8. duncan January 10, 2009 at 10:00 pm

    Thoughtful post. Not sure if a late comment is helpful – but for what it’s worth… Wittgenstein’s characterisation of Augustine’s theory of language is certainly (imo) a travesty. And Wittgenstein may just be being an idiot – he’s not exactly renowned for his close readings of other thinkers. On the other hand, I’d suggest it’s at least possible that Wittgenstein is here trying to do something equally strange but perhaps less foolish. The Tractatus (obviously) concludes with various propositions that are meant to be both profound in their mysticism and strictly speaking non-sensical. And I think it’s fairly widely agreed that this sort of “this sentence is nonsense” approach is at least problematic. Certainly Wittgenstein seems to have abandoned it by the time we get to the later work. It’s always puzzled me, however, that more attention isn’t paid, in Wittgenstein exegesis, to whether a similar preoccupation with the spiritual-unsayable is at play in the later writings. I’d be inclined to suggest it is: and I think I’d also probably argue that opening the Investigations with a quote from Augustine’s Confessions is meant, at least in part, as a kind of hint in this direction. If Augustine is just a stand-in for the picture theory of meaning, then I agree that the passage is almost absurdly ill-chosen (mis-paraphrased, etc.). If, on the other hand, Wittgenstein is trying (very obliquely) to suggest that his work is concerned with some of the same questions that preoccupy Augustine – for instance, the kind of human language appropriate to a properly spiritual life – then I think the opening section of the Investigations makes more sense. Wittgenstein is straw-manning Augustine when he attributes to him the picture theory of meaning, clearly. But I think the real engagement with Augustine (and Augustine’s theory of language), is taking place ‘off stage’, as it were. Wittgenstein, in the Investigations, is trying genuinely to remain silent regarding that of which one cannot speak. In this matter – the capacity of mortal language to speak of or to God – Wittgenstein disagrees with Augustine. Wittgenstein thinks we must remain far more radically silent than Augustine’s confessions would countenance – Wittgenstein thinks our language is radically, near-utterly impoverished, in its ability to relate to the divine. But he’s not going to come out and say this: to do so, he believes, would be to transgress what he regards as the boundaries of legitimate and holy mortal speech. So Wittgenstein brings on Augustine for entirely other, more or less spurious reasons, and leaves the question hanging: why quote Augustine at all, if one’s target is apparently the Tractatus?

    I’m not particularly confident in this read of the opening section, I should say. I’m just offering it as one way of making some sense of what on earth Wittgenstein thinks he’s doing. He may just be being an idiot. 🙂

  9. kvond January 11, 2009 at 2:47 pm


    Very nice thoughts.

    When you say, “If, on the other hand, Wittgenstein is trying (very obliquely) to suggest that his work is concerned with some of the same questions that preoccupy Augustine – for instance, the kind of human language appropriate to a properly spiritual life – then I think the opening section of the Investigations makes more sense.”

    I think you have a very good point. It is clear that Wittgestein at some level respects Augustine’s confessional discourse, and may even see its authenticity to be of the same kind he is aiming at in his Philosophical Investigations. But if you pay close attention to the “untheoretical” position he places the discourse’s orientation (it is not capable of making a mistake), perhaps the “silence” you invoke, you see that Wittgenstein must devalue the very claims, the very form, of Augustine’s Confessions. That is, his ideas either are NOT properly ideas (being pre-theoretical), or they are Ideas (or the roots of ideas) and are dreadfully wrong. As usual, Wittgenstein splits the baby with beautifully obscure rhetoric. The problem is the very form of Augustine’s confessions is a theoretical form, a form which turns on the very notion the possibility of “mistake”. Wittgenstein wants to honor Augustine’s gesture, but does so by either restricting it to pure gesture, or the source of a deeply misleading “picture” which has plagued the West until Wittgenstein comes along to save it. In my opinion, if Wittgenstein had paid closer attention to the meaning of Augustine’s words, the place they played in the arguments he was presenting, he would have seen that the “picture” of language Augustine presented was actually quite different than assumed, with some rather interesting affinities and contrasts with Wittgenstein’s own.

  10. kvond January 11, 2009 at 2:52 pm


    I like your retranslations, and it does go some distance towards minimizing the extent to which there is so stark abuse. But as you can see by Wittgenstein’s own examples (apple language and slab language), and the incredibly inflating claim of an entire system of word/object correspondence (missing the entire signs of our wills), I can’t say that even the most benign translation does not save Wittgenstein’s point.

    Anscombe’s translation takes out some of the flexibility of the expression, but works rather mechanically towards the same overall point.

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