Thursday, 15 February 2018

augustine the little boffin

I recently attended a very helpful presentation on the opening sections of the Investigations, and amongst other things it got me asking myself what it is that makes us want to say that Augustine's description of his younger self's word learning is hyperbolic. Here is the Augustine and here is Wittgenstein's critical remark:
PI 1: "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 shewn 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 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."
PI 32. Someone coming into a strange country will sometimes learn the language of the inhabitants from ostensive definitions that they give him; and he will often have to guess the meaning of these definitions; and will guess sometimes right, sometimes wrong.And now, I think, we can say: Augustine describes the learning of human language as if the child came into a strange country and did not understand the language of the country; that is, as if it already had a language, only not this one. Or again: as if the child could already think only not yet speak. And "think" would here mean something like "talk to itself". 
At this point one might ask, 'Wittgenstein - what's the problem?' 'Don't children learn the meaning of words for things by - amongst other things, sure - seeing adults use and repeatedly name and otherwise deploy these names in talk about these things? Of course they do!'

Imagine if the Augustine Confessions passage cited in PI 1 was describing not his own earlier self but rather the word-learning of another little boy. Augustine is watching little Geoffrey watching Aunty Helen gesturing towards a toy car, listening to her name it repeatedly, seeing her facial expressions, the play of her eyes, etc. From all of this he grasps the meaning of the word 'car', which is to say, he starts to use 'car' in appropriate ways and so on. Would it really be such a stretch to say that Geoffrey is 'grasping' 'seeing' 'understanding' what Aunty Helen means? I suggest it wouldn't and that, in such a case Wittgenstein would be wrong to say that a description of Geoffrey in such terms would be as if to imply he already had a language or was talking to himself.

However Augustine is not writing about little Geoffrey. He is writing about himself. And, despite what Augustine tells us in the Confessions - that his account is a reconstruction from the recollections of others - his description of his own learning is written in the voice of personal recollection. It is the use of this voice, I suggest, which gives rise to the jarringly implausible appearance of precocious boffinhood in the toddler. For if I say of myself 'then I realised what was going on' we default to seeing this as the expression of a memory of a judgement, and then, if the expression of the recollection is indeed to be criterial for the memory, we should expect it to have been the case that, were little Augustine to himself have had an Aunty Helen from whom he picked up the apt use of 'car', and were he to be asked what he saw, he could back then have said 'well yes, then I grasped that, of all the blasted things, it was that funny little car that Aunty Helen was going on and on about', which, of course, he couldn't have. 

What causes the mischief, then, is the use of 'and then I grasped' etc. Imagine Augustine the adult looking at a video of himself as a child playing with Aunty and describing what he sees in two voices. In the first he is saying 'Oh look, there I am looking at her and finally, yes, I grasp what she's on about regarding the blinking toy car'. No problem. In the second he says 'Yes, this concurs with my memory of her going 'car' 'car' 'car' and my grasping what she was on about'. Big problem.

The point, note, is not about memory fallibility. It is not that it's empirically unlikely that anyone could remember all sorts of things about learning the word 'car'. Maybe someone could. Maybe they could remember Aunty Helen coming round with her red polka dot dress on and banging on about cars. But what that person ('logically') couldn't do would be to express that kind of memory of their own learning experience which is individuated with words like 'and then I remember grasping what she was on about'. Whilst it makes sense to say that the retrospecting adult remembers Aunty Helen teaching him the word 'car', remembers her saying 'car' and waving the toy car around, remembers himself soon thereafter talking of cars and going to fetch a toy car when his dad asked him, it doesn't make sense to suggest that the retrospecting adult remembers grasping the meaning of 'car'. It is one thing to grasp and retain the meaning of 'car', another thing to know that that is what one has done. When Augustine tells us he remembers grasping the meaning of 'car' this is tantamount to his saying that he has unimpaired-by-time knowledge of learning the meaning of 'car'. But when he was young he couldn't have known that what he was doing was learning the meaning of 'car' - since such knowledge, unlike coming to know what 'car' means, is only intelligibly had by someone with a rather larger linguistic repertoire than was enjoyed by little Augustine. In short it is only to be had by someone who can amongst other things wield descriptions like 'I am learning the meaning of 'car''. And to be able to do that would be tantamount to already having a language, even if not the one that is currently being learned.