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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.