Augustine's Theory of Language and Dialectic[1
Jamie Mellway Introduction
In the selection of De Magistro reprinted in Hyman and Walsh [i 1-iv 10, ix 25-xii 40], Augustine develops the thesis that dialectic is by itself not sufficient for knowledge, but that it is necessary as a trigger for illumination. This maneuver parallels Plato's discussion with the slave boy in the Meno, with the notable exceptions that Plato's uses recollection and not illumination to get at truth.
In the first part of this essay, the different conceptions of dialectic found in De Magistro and De Dialectica will be discussed. Secondly, simple words are discussed while explaining Augustine dialectic excursion that all knowledge requires signs. Then, Augustine's rejection of the need of signs for knowledge is discussed. Then, why Augustine uses illumination instead of recollection is discussed. Finally, the role of language in the dialectic found in De Magistro is discussed. Augustine's Dialectic and "Dialectic"
It is unclear if the dialectical method used in On The Teacher is within the scope of the "dialectic" described in De Dialectica. (Since possibly two different senses of dialectic are discussed, Platonic/Aristotelian dialectics will be denoted without scare quotes and the dialectic in De Dialectica will be described with scare quotes.) While the method seems to be within the Platonic/Aristotelian tradition of dialectics, the description of "dialectics" in De Dialectica seems to be 1) devoid of any discussion of questions and 2) focused on the construction of propositions that seem inessential to dialectical illumination.
if any.e. a word is a sign of any sort of thing. where a thing is whatever is sensed (i...e. 5]. other than the word itself. Augustine is implying words are signs in the sense that the speaker is using words in order to demonstrate or reveal something. The nature of words is then considered. God) [DD v]. spiritual things) or is hidden (i. corporal things) or is understood (i. 3]. Where the Platonic/Aristotelian dialectic involves asking questions to get the interlocutor to a topos. The possible objections of singing [i. 2]. it seems unlikely that De Dialectica revolves around the notion that propositions are secondary to questions. In the method found in De Magistro the illumination is induced by reflecting inwards the words of the questioner. they may or may be not have any special status in De Magistro. De Magistro starts by contemplating the purpose of words. whereas Aristotelians denied. Vocal words are not the only things that
.A way that the method used in De Magistro can be within the scope of De Dialectica is that propositions have no special status in learning. Simple Words And Learning Most of De Magistro and De Dialectica are concerned with simple words. questions are not even considered in De Dialectica.'
An alternate reading is to say that the two dialectics are quite different. and the spiritual things may include states of the mind (this similar to Aristotle's claim that "spoken sounds are symbols of affections in the soul" [DI 16a3]). 1] and inner prayer are considered and are dismissed [i. and in De Dialectica sentences are formed by combining simple words. The corporal things can include observable qualities [iii. and that propositions are merely developed in De Dialectica for rhetorical purposes or recalling things learned before. Augustine is in the Stoic tradition by asserting that all words are signs. and not sentences. Augustine presents the thesis that "words are signs" [ii. that prepositions signify anything [Poetics 1257a].. In this reading the dialectical method could have been elaborated in the section devoted to the part of his "dialectic" called `on expressing.1]. As questions are not even listed as one of the examples of sentences that "cannot be affirmed or denied" [DD ii].e.
In either case. and speculating that we use words to either teach or remind [i. While propositions have special status in De Dialectica. They discuss what purpose. That is. for instance. words have and what words are. both methods focus primarily with simple words.
The force of a word can also move the hearer. The first half of the dialectic (i 1-x 31) ends by returning to the question of whether teaching can be accomplished with or without giving signs. and whereas they would have argued before that the instance was too ambiguous to learn from (e. This is analogous to what we now call `mentioning' the word. the condition that allows something to be dicibile is not semantic nor linguistic. written words signify their vocal counterpart [iii. The smoothness and connection with other words have connotations that can be misleading (DD ch. `Verbum' refers to word uttered for the sake of the word itself and does not refer to something else. A name is a type of word that points to. it is not clear what a word signifies if we are not getting one distinct presentation. This seems to be the referent of a word/sign. but involves the inner mind. 5]. A name is. (DD ch. The term `res' refers to something that is neither a word nor a conception of a word in the mind. they now suppose that they do learn. That is. then it is obscure to what thing we are supposed to understand. First. an instance of verbum. vii-ix) In other words. 6] and gestures (including the act of speaking) can also act as signs [iii. then. When a word moves the listener on its own account (i. vi). Learning Without Signs The first dialectical alternative. This is analogous to what we call `using' the word. a word itself does not inform us about the referent. Second. Augustine develops a four-fold distinction of signification in De Dialectica. but is that which is understood by the word. if more than one thing is presented. there are some problems with the idea that we learn from signs as it is not always clear what is being presented.e. What Augustine does is to create an instance where a sign is given without a word. the force of the word) and because of what it signifies. Unfortunately. Similarly. (DD ch. The stronger claim that nothing is learned from signs is argued with more force and has two prongs. then the listener will be attending to the direction of both. This means literally `sayable' but it refers to something in the inner mind that can be expressed in words. nothing can be learned without the signs. Since the act of speaking is itself considered to be a sign and no teaching can occur without speaking. `Dictio' refers to a word that is used to signify something other than itself.. is that something can be learned without signs.signify. In order to clarify what we would now call `use-mention errors'. from that we learning everything with signs to that we learn nothing with signs.. although there is not necessarily a word associated with each `res' [DD v]. Unfortunately. other signs. The term `dicibile' does not refer to another word. The signification distinction is seen in De Magistro through the distinction between names and words. `walking' could be "walking" or "walking four feet"). if nothing seems to be presented. the "argument" here is merely assuming the conclusion. or mentions. Words affect us in other ways that need to be looked at. then it would be ambiguous to which presentation is to be understood. From this supposition.
. Augustine says that they have shown that men can be taught some things without signs—although they merely supposed that they could in their counter-example. vii) Furthermore. the notion of dicible is not fully elaborated in Augustine. The origin of words shows parallels between meaning and how the word was formed.g.
Augustine has now presented the idea that language (and hence the dialectic) are not sufficient for knowledge. whereby a theory of illumination presents the objects of the mind to the person directly. Illumination and The Necessity of Language To understand what someone is saying we need to already understand what that word means. Three possible options are the Platonic theory of recollection.) Augustine also argues that being told of a word will not teach us anything of the thing signified. Even describing a saraballae as "head covering" gives the new problem of figuring out what the words `head' and `covering' mean.' Saying `their saraballae were not changed' does not teach us anything about what a saraballae is. Since Augustine believes that we do have knowledge in the ideal Platonic sense.(Augustine does not seem to argue that it is impossible to get only one distinct presentation. He used the example of the word `saraballae. Augustine's theory of knowledge is also constrained by the hierarchy of being. all knowledge requires its object to be present to the mind in person and not by proxy [see Spade v1c19]. Augustine rejected Platonic recollection (and would similarly reject innate ideas) on the basis that. In order to get to truth. The theories of Plato and Descartes present the objects of knowledge in a representational manner and are thereby presented merely as signs. Conventional language is not needed in heaven and conventional language was not needed on earth before the fall. or Augustine theory of illumination. If knowledge is given a Platonic ideal. language is not needed to gain knowledge. we are still faced with the problem of why we seem to require language for teaching. Describing words only by other words will go on ad infinitum without us understanding anything.xii 40) in our text gives a presentation (without argument) of how God teaches us by illumination and the role of language for illumination. Nevertheless. In the Platonic tradition. we must understand the signs by some other means than speaking. The Role of Language
. then the only way we can get knowledge is that it must be produced in us by something higher. the Cartesian theory of innate ideas. although it is needed for us. The original sin made language a requirement for man on earth. The last section of De Magistro (xi 36. this entails that a metaphysical source of knowledge is presupposed. the only live possibility is that God gives us knowledge directly. They do not address the problem that we cannot learn from signs. and why God just does not teach us everything we need to know without effort. Strictly. although that claim would need to be given for the argument to hold.
3] Instead. Augustine is focused on simple words and on questions.F. Propositions do have a feature that words do not.M. (Cambridge University Press.It is unclear if propositions have any role in Augustine's theory of knowledge. Christopher Kirwan's "The nature of speech" in Augustine (Routledge.
.  Note that I am using question in the broader and conventional sense and not in the sense found mediaeval logic that a question is a proposition that is in doubt. 1985. 40]. they are either true or false.
 This essay was originally written for an undergraduate class in mediaeval philosophy. I like to thank Jenny Ashworth for her comments on the earlier draft.  That is. 1973. signs and things" and "Porphyry's account of the sentence in the De Magistro" in Augustine: Ancient Thought Baptized. Proposition have meaning. and are intentionally not asked to lead the interlocutor to propositions. 1989). and M. J. The questioner acts as a Socratic midwife. that is. The questions are asked such that the interlocutor reflects on what the simple words refer to. trying to help the interlocutor give birth to the illumination of the reality that simple words reveal. [ii. hard copy). 1994). Paul Vincent Spade's A Survey of Mediaeval Philosophy (Version 2.  Besides our text Hyman and Walsh's Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Rist's "Words. Burnyeat's "Wittgenstein and Augustine De Magistro. to direct him to a place (topoi) that they can look inwardly for truth. Supplementary volume 61 (1987). In the method described in De Magistro [xii. 1-12) were consulted. Augustine has the questioner ask the interlocutor questions. Indianapolis: Hackett)." (Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. proposition are not signs as such but are merely the sum of the signs they contain. but are not signs themselves. (2nd edition.
. He also claims that propositions have a "privileged status" in De Magistro. As opposed to `on asserting' [propositions] and `on concluding from assertions' [arguments]. See Rist Appendex 1.  Although if every word is a sign of itself. which seems unjustified.  Rist suggests that Augustine's theory of propositions follows from Porphyry. then there will always be scope for ambiguity.