More Musings on Language: St. Augustine on Learning Language

‘Passing hence from infancy, I came to boyhood, or rather it came to me, displacing infancy. Nor did that depart,- (for whither went it?)- and yet it was no more. For I was no longer a speechless infant, but a speaking boy. This I remember; and have since observed how I learned to speak. It was not that my elders taught me words (as, soon after, other learning) in any set method; but I, longing by cries and broken accents and various motions of my limbs to express my thoughts, that so I might have my will, and yet unable to express all I willed, or to whom I willed, did myself, by the understanding which Thou, my God, gavest me, practise the sounds in my memory. When they named any thing, and as they spoke turned towards it, I saw and remembered that they called what they would point out by the name they uttered. And that they meant this thing and no other was plain from the motion of their body, the natural language, as it were, of all nations, expressed by the countenance, glances of the eye, gestures of the limbs, and tones of the voice, indicating the affections of the mind, as it pursues, possesses, rejects, or shuns. And thus by constantly hearing words, as they occurred in various sentences, I collected gradually for what they stood; and having broken in my mouth to these signs, I thereby gave utterance to my will. Thus I exchanged with those about me these current signs of our wills, and so launched deeper into the stormy intercourse of human life, yet depending on parental authority and the beck of elders.’

– St. Augustine (Confessions, book I)

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Musings on Language, Logic and Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that language can’t even describe the smell of a cup of coffee – this is an interesting statement with not a small amount of truth to it. In his ‘Tractatus-Logicus-Philosophicus,’ Wittgenstein reduced language a tight logical system because he was attempting to explain one of Bertrand Russell’s big questions: what is logic? After his departure from and return to philosophy, Wittgenstein realized that what Russell tried to say about logic can’t be said with language – not because of any deficiency on the part of language but because he had misunderstood the limits of language.

What are the limits of language? Are there certain things that language can’t say? This is the idea of ‘the ineffable,’ present in a number of religious and mystical traditions – that the most deep and true things in the world can’t be said. Wittgenstein famously ends the ‘Tractatus’ with the proposition, ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’

But should this be seen as Wittgenstein committing himself to the idea of the ineffable? It’s difficult to say – there appear to be things that can’t be said, but must rather be shown – a family resemblance, for example.

So to return to the question, what are the limits of language? How does language relate to the world?

For Wittgenstein and the ‘Tractatus,’ the answer was logic:

‘Starting with a seeming metaphysics, Wittgenstein sees the world as consisting of facts (1), rather than the traditional, atomistic conception of a world made up of objects. Facts are existent states of affairs (2) and states of affairs, in turn, are combinations of objects. Objects can fit together in various determinate ways. They may have various properties and may hold diverse relations to one another. Objects combine with one another according to their logical, internal properties. That is to say, an object’s internal properties determine the possibilities of its combination with other objects; this is its logical form. Thus, states of affairs, being comprised of objects in combination, are inherently complex. The states of affairs which do exist could have been otherwise. This means that states of affairs are either actual (existent) or possible. It is the totality of states of affairs—actual and possible—that makes up the whole of reality. The world is precisely those states of affairs which do exist.’

‘There are, first, the propositions of logic. These do not represent states of affairs, and the logical constants do not stand for objects. “My fundamental thought is that the logical constants do not represent. That the logic of the facts cannot be represented” (TLP 4.0312). This is not a happenstance thought; it is fundamental precisely because the limits of sense rest on logic. Tautologies and contradictions, the propositions of logic, are the limits of language and thought, and thereby the limits of the world. Obviously, then, they do not picture anything and do not, therefore, have sense. They are, in Wittgenstein’s terms, senseless (sinnlos). Propositions which do have sense are bipolar; they range within the truth-conditions drawn by the propositions of logic. But the propositions of logic themselves are neither true nor false “for the one allowsevery possible state of affairs, the other none” (TLP 4.462).

‘The characteristic of being senseless applies not only to the propositions of logic but also to other things that cannot be represented, such as mathematics or the pictorial form itself of the pictures that do represent. These are, like tautologies and contradictions, literally sense-less, they have no sense.’

‘Beyond, or aside from, senseless propositions Wittgenstein identifies another group of statements which cannot carry sense: the nonsensical (unsinnig) propositions. Nonsense, as opposed to senselessness, is encountered when a proposition is even more radically devoid of meaning, when it transcends the bounds of sense. Under the label of unsinnig can be found various propositions: “Socrates is identical”, but also “1 is a number”. While some nonsensical propositions are blatantly so, others seem to be meaningful—and only analysis carried out in accordance with the picture theory can expose their nonsensicality. Since only what is “in” the world can be described, anything that is “higher” is excluded, including the notion of limit and the limit points themselves. Traditional metaphysics, and the propositions of ethics and aesthetics, which try to capture the world as a whole, are also excluded, as is the truth in solipsism, the very notion of a subject, for it is also not “in” the world but at its limit.’

Propositions Wittgenstein identifies another group of statements which cannot carry sense: the nonsensical (unsinnig) propositions. Nonsense, as opposed to senselessness, is encountered when a proposition is even more radically devoid of meaning, when it transcends the bounds of sense. Under the label of unsinnig can be found various propositions: “Socrates is identical”, but also “1 is a number”. While some nonsensical propositions are blatantly so, others seem to be meaningful—and only analysis carried out in accordance with the picture theory can expose their nonsensicality. Since only what is “in” the world can be described, anything that is “higher” is excluded, including the notion of limit and the limit points themselves. Traditional metaphysics, and the propositions of ethics and aesthetics, which try to capture the world as a whole, are also excluded, as is the truth in solipsism, the very notion of a subject, for it is also not “in” the world but at its limit.’

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/wittgenstein/#Phi

Logic represents the limits of the world for Wittgenstein. But is this true? What is logic’s relation to the world? Can meaningful things be said that don’t fit into the category of logical true/false propositions?  And finally, as Bertrand Russell asked, what is logic?

‘A Lover of Shows’

‘Why is it that a man likes to grieve over doleful and tragic events that he would not want to happen to himself? The spectator likes to experience grief at such scenes, and this very sorrow is a pleasure to him. What is this but a pitiable folly? The more a man is moved by these things, the less free he is from such passions. However, when he himself experiences it, it is usually called misery; when he experiences it with regard to others it is called mercy. But what sort of mercy is to be shown to these unreal things upon the stage? The auditor is not aroused to go to the aid of the others; he is only asked to grieve over them. Moreover, he will show greater approval of the author of such misrepresentations the greater the grief he feels. But if men’s misfortunes, whether fictitious or of ancient times, are put on in such a manner that the spectator does not feel sorrow, then he leave sin disgust and disapproval. If grief is aroused in him, he remains in the theater, full of attention and enjoying himself.

Tears and sorrow, therefore, are objects of love. Certainly, every man likes to enjoy himself. But while no man wants to be wretched, does he nevertheless want to be merciful? Now since mercy cannot exist apart from grief, is it for this sole reason grief is loved? This also has friendship as its source and channel. But where does it go? Where does it flow? Why does it run down into a torrent of boiling pitch, into those immense surges of loathsome lusts? For into these it is changed, and by ts own choice it is turned from the purity of heaven into something distorted and base. Shall mercy, therefore, be cast aside? By no means. At certain times, therefore, sorrows may be loved. But shun uncleanliness, O my soul! With God as my keeper, the God of our Fathers, worthy to be praised and exalted above all forever, shun uncleanliness!’
-St. Augustine (Confessions, p. 78)

An anonymous brief for Christianity presented to the Roman Emperor Diogenetus (circa early to mid 2nd century)

 

“For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life.

This doctrine of theirs has not been discovered by the ingenuity or deep thought of inquisitive men, nor do they put forward a merely human teaching, as some people do.

Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth.

They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them ever fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed.

It is true that they are “in the flesh,” but they do not live “according to the flesh.” They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, but in their own lives go far beyond what the law requires. They love all men, and by all men are persecuted. They are unknown, and still they are condemned; they are put to death, and yet they are brought to life. They are poor, and yet make many rich; they are completely destitute, and yet they enjoy complete abundance. They are dishonored, and in their very dishonor they are glorified; they are defamed, and are vindicated. They are reviled and yet they bless; when they are affronted, they still pay due respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; undergoing punishment, they rejoice because they are brought to life. They are treated by the Jews as foreigners and enemies, and are hunted down by the Greeks; and all the time those who hate them find it impossible to justify their enmity.”

A Brief Introduction to Apophatic Theology

Within the Judeo-Christian Tradition there are differing concepts of God – ideas range from St. Anselm’s ‘that which no greater can be conceived,’  to the more apophatic (more on that term in a minute)  ideas of Judaism and Eastern Orthodoxy – that we cannot know what God is, only what He is not.

Apophatic theology is also called ‘negative’ theology, in that it doesn’t seek to ascribe positive aspects to God in His essence; God is completely and totally beyond anything mankind could ever grasp. Passages of Scripture such as 1 Kings 19:11-13, Exodus 3:1-21, John 1:18, and St. Paul’s statement in 1 Tim. 6:15-16 all indicate a total other-ness that God has as well as the unbridgeable gap between God and humanity. The apophatic tradition also has strong roots in the Early Church fathers as well – St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Tetrullian and the Cappodician Fathers (  Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus ) are all apophatic in their theology. Apophatic theology was prominent in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas and in the writings of various other medieval figures such as Meister Eckhart and St. John of the Cross, and is standard in the theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church today.

Any direct, positive statement about God are only those which are revealed – for example, the Trinitarian nature of God, God’s love, compassion, and other attributes. These are revealed to humanity by God through Scripture and in the person of Jesus Christ – it is only through what is revealed that we can make any kind of positive statement about God.