Wittgenstein opens his famous work with a quotation from Augustine’s Confessions:
“When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shown by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all peoples; the expression of the face, the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of the voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting, or avoiding something. Thus, as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires”(Augustine, Confessions I.8).
Here is the rest of Remark 1 in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations:
These words, it seems to me, give us a particular picture of the essence of human language. It is this: the individual words in language name objects–sentences are combinations of such names.–In this picture of language we find the roots of the following idea: Every word has a meaning. The meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands.
Augustine does not speak of there being any difference between kinds of word. If you describe the learning of language in this way you are, I believe, thinking primarily of nouns like ‘table’, ‘chair’, ‘bread’, and of people’s names, and only secondarily of the names of certain actions and properties; and of the remaining kinds of word as something that will take care of itself.
Now think of the following use of language: I send someone shopping. I give him a slip marked ‘five red apples’. He takes the slip to the shopkeeper, who opens the drawer marked ‘apples’, then he looks up the word ‘red’ in a table and finds a colour sample opposite it; then he says the series of cardinal numbers–I assume that he knows them by heart–up to the word ‘five’ and for each number he takes an apple of the same colour as the sample out of the drawer.–It is in this and simlar ways that one operates with words–“But how does he know where and how he is to look up the word ‘red’ and what he is to do with the word ‘five’?” —Well, I assume that he ‘acts’ as I have described. Explanations come to an end somewhere.–But what is the meaning of the word ‘five’? –No such thing was in question here, only how the word ‘five’ is used(Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations).
Wittgenstein quotes Augustine’s philosophy of language here because it constitutes the bedrock assumption upon which Wittgenstein himself had constructed his theory of language, meaning and reference in the Tractatus. Wittgenstein opens his Philosophical Investigations with this quotation because the latter constitutes a retraction of the thesis of his Tractatus; namely, that the most essential functions of language involve the following(Baker & Hacker, 2008):
1) It is the function of words to name objects. The function of the signifier or the word is to provide the subject with a “picture” of the object to which it corresponds(Baker & Hacker, 2008).
2) Sentences are combinations of these names. The function of sentences is to provide subjects with a picture of the sum total of the state of affairs which constitute the world(Baker & Hacker, 2008).
3) Each word has a meaning(Baker & Hacker, 2008).
4) A word is correlated with its corresponding meaning(Baker & Hacker, 2008).
5) The meaning of a word is the object for which it stands(Baker & Hacker, 2008).
For the Tractatus-era Wittgenstein, therefore, the most essential functions of language have to do with naming, picturing and correspondence. Wittgenstein does not intend to argue in Philosophical Investigations that language does not actually serve these functions. Rather, what he has decided to retract is the position that these are the most important or essential functions of language. Instead, he is going to investigate functions of language which are at least as important as the aforementioned functions, if not even more fundamental.
One of the reasons Wittgenstein quotes Augustine here is not simply because it neatly summarizes the position he had initially articulated in the Tractatus, and which he now intends to retract, but because of how commonsense Augustine’s account of the essential function of language is. The infant or toddler language-learner approaches the world from a naive pre-linguistic, pre-philosophical, pre-theoretical perspective, observes physical gestures by which others come to associate words or names with corresponding objects, and imitates them. What is so controversial about such an understanding of language?
There are elements of the Augustinian conception of language other than its correspondence reductionism which Wittgenstein wants to critique. Its elements can be found in the following quote, also from Augustine’s Confessions:
Afterward I began to laugh–at first in my sleep, then when waking. For this I have been told about myself and I believe it–though I cannot remember it–for I see the same things in other infants. Then, little by little, I realized where I was and wished to tell my wishes to those who might satisfy them, but I could not! For my wants were inside me, and they were outside, and they could not by any power of theirs come into my soul. And so I would fling my arms and legs about and cry, making the few and feeble gestures that I could, though indeed the signs were not much like what I inwardly desired and when I was not satisfied–either from not being understood or because what I got was not good for me–I grew indignant that my elders were not subject to me and that those on whom I actually had no claim did not wait on me as slaves–and I avenged myself on them by crying. That infants are like this, I have myself been able to learn by watching them; and they, though they knew me not, have shown me better what I was like than my own nurses who knew me.
Augustine’s remarks that immediately precede the passage are(Baker & Hacker, 2008):
…later on I realized how I had learnt to speak. It was not my elders who showed me the words by some set system of instruction, in the way they taught me to read not long afterwards; but instead, I taught myself by using the intelligence which you, my God, gave to me. For when I tried to express my meaning by crying out and making various sounds and movements, so that my wishes should be obeyed, I found that I could not convey all that I meant or make myself understood by everyone whom I wished to understand me.
This text contains the other elements with which Wittgenstein takes issue, namely(Baker & Hacker, 2008):
1) This “inner/outer” understanding of the mind(Baker & Hacker, 2008).
2) The idea of a pre-linguistic consciousness and awareness of one’s own mental states(Baker & Hacker, 2008).
3) Just as Wittgenstein is going to deny the existence of something like a pre-linguistic consciousness, he is also going to deny any understanding of language which sees it as necessarily only for communication and not for thought and meaning in general.(Baker & Hacker, 2008).
4) Following from the latter two points, Wittgenstein is going to take issue with the idea that it is possible to have any understanding of “meaning” that is antecedent to language. (Baker & Hacker, 2008).
There are three points with which Wittgenstein agrees when it comes to what Augustine has to say(Baker & Hacker, 2008).:
1) Bodily motion and gestures are required in order to acquire a public language(Baker & Hacker, 2008).
2) A child learns a language by hearing words repeatedly in their appropriate places in various sentences by which they are able to integrate various combinatorial possibilities of expressions(Baker & Hacker, 2008).
3) Language can’t be taught(Baker & Hacker, 2008).
One of the most important criticisms of the correspondence reductionist understanding of language which we see here is that Wittgenstein demonstrates in his grocery shopping experiment that the correspondence understanding of language is inadequate and unnecessary to explain the pragmatic competence of the grocer who picks out five red apples. It is an unnecessary and inferior means of teaching what “five” means simply by pointing to five individual red apples. Rather, one learns to count, and adds five “ones” together to understand what “five” means. The question for Wittgenstein becomes not, What is the meaning of the word “five”, but rather, How does one “use” the word “five”? What sort of function or application does it have? As we will see, “meaning as use” will be an important and recurring theme throughout the Philosophical Investigations.
Baker, G. P., Hacker P.M.S., “”Wittgenstein:Understanding and Meaning: Volume 1 of an Analytical Commentary on the Philosophical Investigations, Part II: Exegesis 1-184.” Hoboken : John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2008. 01/01/2008 1 online resource (384 p.)