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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.

The Purpose of a Word: a note on PI section 6


Wittgenstein, in attempting to upend the picture-in-the-mind theory of meaning writes rather innocently:

Well, it may mean various things; but one very likely thinks first of all that a picture of the object comes before the child’s mind when it hears the word. But now, if this does happen�is it the purpose of the word?–Yes, it may be the purpose.–I can imagine such use of words (of the series of sounds). (Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination.) But in the [bring me a slab] language of section 2 it is not the purpose of the words to evoke images. (It may, of course be discovered that that helps to attain the actual purpose).

–Philosophical Investigations, section 6

There are a few problems here. One is that is that the word “purpose” is not included in the block-pillar-slab-beam primitive language game Wittgenstein is referencing, so to speak definitively of what is and is not the “purpose” of an action is really to superimpose our description upon it. The word “purpose” does not exist in that world.

Secondly, the entire idea of purpose, as it relates to instrumentality, depending upon the models of mind being used, varies with each model, as it is so conceived. I might push a button so as to cause an explosion, and one might say that the purpose of my pushing of the button is to cause that explosion, but if the button is stuck and doesn’t move, it makes little sense to say that the purpose of pushing on the button is not to get the button to depress. If I push the button and it does not move, my original purpose to make move will be exposed as I push at it again and again. In just this way, if the model of the mind one is working with is that of thinking that one gets a picture in the mind before being able to match a word to its object, it makes little sense to say that the purpose of using a word is not to bring a picture of the object before the child’s mind. In fact, like the button/explosion example, if the desired result does not occur, I might go about trying to get the child to hold just such a picture (for instance I might draw the object, or mime its outline), just as I might press repeatedly at a button that does not move.

Thirdly, since language games could be seen to be historically contingent, and a particular teacher might very well be under the according to Wittgenstein mistaken view that the child must hold a picture in the mind before being able to identify the word to its object, then it certainly can be asserted that the purpose of stating a word is indeed to put a picture of the object before one’s mind. In fact, if the picture-before-the-mind model of language is as pervasive as some might think, one could argue that it is exactly such a purpose that is present in many of everyday uses of language (that is the assumed button that almost always depresses).

It seems that speaking about the purpose of an action is fraught with the difficulty of assembling a description, and each description is itself a framing of the action. Ultimately there is no “purpose” actual or otherwise, that does not rely upon some description of purpose as such.

[written September 20, 2006]

Spinoza’s Rose

Spinoza would sign his letters with the above image of a rose and the word “caute” (Latin for caution, carefully, beware). It was a ring that he wore.

What I find of note here is that in resorting to, and seemingly having some enjoyment in, an iconic communication of an idea, he is communicating in a way quite distinct from his geometric style of so much fame. Instead we have a double movement. You have an image and its word below it, a veritable thing (extension) and its idea. Af first glance it seems to hold a fairly conservative and moral meaning. Sensuous images, attractive things, emotions are things one should Beware. But there is more to this image and word. Firstly, the rose was not just the image of the sensuous, but also that of secrecy. The Rosicrucian movement was in full swing at this time (and there is even some evidence that Descartes was a member or adherent early in his life), an esoteric vision of the world in which mathematics played an interesting part.

This is not to say that Spinoza’s Rose was Rosicrucian, but that the image holds something of the occult in the literal sense, that every physical thing keeps in its heart causal consequences which are hidden, a secrecy of effects. Further, the Rose is an image pun, in that Spinoza’s name holds the Portuguese word for “thorn” espinoza. And he was of Portuguese descent. (The ring has not only the image and word “caute” but also his initials.) It reads something along the lines of “I am a rose, beware the thorns”. Interestingly to me, this departs somewhat from the cool, rational picture we have of Spinoza, and contributes something to how he saw the world, and himself. In a sense, caute is the idea which lies behind every appearance for Spinoza. But this caution cannot be read merely as a moral conservatism, a simple, “don’t indulge”, but rather as expressing the idea that all things have edges and complex consequences.

By signing his letters and wearing his ring in such a personal way, Spinoza expressed something of himself that we miss. He was a very thorny person. He was excommunicated from the Jewish Community as a young man, no light event. His ideas would unleash any number of accusations and consequences over the next 150 years. He was a particular kind of rose. There is also the sense that by so suitably carrying his message in a pictorial form, he seems to be embracing the very thing which Idealism would diminish, the real Image, the physical rose. We can see the difference between his Rose and the word “caute” and a similar combination of the Image and the word “rose”. He is not making a Saussurian point between the signifer and the signified, but between a thing and its real consequences to us. He says, I appear to you as a rose, beware.

What is one to make of Spinoza’s play with puns and pictures?

What happens when we take even words as roses?

[written September 23, 2008]