Analysis

The choice to open the Investigations with a quotation from Augustine is unusual, both because Augustine is not a philosopher of language, and because the selected quote is not representative of Augustine's position on language. In the context of t he Confessions, from which this quotation is lifted, Augustine is simply describing how he came to learn language, and is not attempting any theoretical explanation of how learning takes place.

Stanley Cavell and Warren Goldfarb have suggested a reading of the opening sections of the Investigations that focuses precisely on this contrast between Augustine's straightforward description of learning language and the subsequent "picture of la nguage" that Wittgenstein reads into it. On the descriptive level, what Augustine says is perfectly correct: young children learn words like "tummy" and "kitty" because parents point at objects and say what they mean. It is only when we take this descrip tion to be a theoretical explanation of how language in general is learned that we come up with the troublesome picture of language where words are names of objects and sentences are complexes of names. Theoretical explanation differs from description in that it infers something general about language from an isolated example.

Wittgenstein is not directly challenging Augustine. Instead, he is showing what is wrong with the way that Augustine reasons. This "picture of language" is not held by any philosopher, nor does it take a sharp mind to recognize what is wrong with it: word s like "the" and "under" are not the names of objects, and not all words are alike. Here, as throughout the Investigations, Wittgenstein is not attacking a particular philosophical position, nor is he trying to advance any philosophical theses of h is own. Rather, he uses simplified examples such as the theoretical reading of Augustine to show us the dangers of isolating and inferring general conclusions from particular aspects of how we speak and think. No serious philosopher holds Augustine's view , but most philosophical theorizing shares this tendency to move too hastily from a particular example to a general conclusion.

The example of Augustine and the subsequent language-games highlight our temptation to think of language as essentially connecting words with things. The language-game of section 2 is meant to be a paradigmatic case: if any language has a direct connectio n between names and things named, then this language does. But once we strip a language down to just four words, it is far from clear that these words are names of objects. In our language, we might call "slab" the name of an object because we can contras t the word with prepositions or names of colors, and we can say something like, "this is the word in the sentence that directs our attention to that object."

But in the simple language-game of the builders, there is no such complex machinery in place. Wittgenstein shows in sections 19–20 that our word "slab" is very different from the builders' word "slab." This difference has everything to do with the language that has been built up around this word. Wittgenstein is suggesting that words get their sense from the language that surrounds them and we cannot fruitfully isolate particular words and talk about their connection with the world. The Augustinian picture of language shares with more complex theories of language (including the view Wittgenstein himself held in the Tractatus) the tendency to extract certain parts of language from their larger context and to infer a certain relationship betwe en language and the world based on this isolated study.

Wittgenstein introduces language-games to counter this tendency. Rather than study what all language-games have in common, Wittgenstein shows us how much language-games can differ.

Popular pages: Philosophical Investigations