Philosophical Investigations, Chapter 32.

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This paper examines Wittengenstein’s objections to St. Augustine’s characterization of the methods of learning language. (4 pages; 1 source; MLA citation style)

I Introduction
German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein describes his work as an “album,” a collection of thoughts about a variety of subjects, including meaning, understanding, logic, and language. (P. ix). He jotted down observations and questions about things that interested him, without attempting to write a book in the traditional sense. The first part of the book is largely concerned with the ways in which we finding meaning in language, and how we know what we mean when we say something; he also wonders how people learn to associate meanings with words, and why the same word has different meanings depending on usage. (These are only a few of the concepts he visits with regard to language.)
This paper discusses Chapter 32 of Wittgenstein’s book with the object of answering these questions: Why does Wittgenstein think that Augustine’s description of language, which he quotes in Chapter 1, compares a child to an adult in a foreign country who understands language, but not the local language? Why does Wittgenstein object to Augustine’s characterization of language in this manner?
To answer these questions, we’ll consider what Wittgenstein has to say about the differences between ostensive teaching of words and ostensive explanation of words; and his thinking in general about words and meanings.

II Discussion
“Ostensive” means “directly pointing out” or “clearly demonstrative.” Someone who teaches words ostensively does not deal in shades of nuance and meaning; he clearly says, this is the word and this is what it means. This is the way in which Augustine defines language, and the way in which one learns language.
St. Augustine says that he learned language by watching his elders, who named some object and moved toward it. “I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out.” (P. 2e). Augustine continues, saying that the elders showed their intention by the expressions on their faces, their movements, and their tone of voice; all of these mechanisms express “… our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting or avoiding something.” (P. 2e).
Wittgenstein says that Augustine’s description “gives us a particular picture of the essence of human language … individual words in language name objects … sentences are combinations of such names.” (P. 2e). But “Augustine does not speak of their being any difference between kinds of word.” (P. 2e). I suggest that this is the heart of Wittgenstein’s objection to Augustine’s characterization of language.
In Chapter 32, Wittgenstein explains Augustine’s viewpoint by drawing the analogy of the child who comes into a foreign country and cannot understand the language. The child can already speak a language, just not this one. Here Wittgenstein would seem to agree with Augustine: that someone who doesn’t know a language is very much like a child, and one way for the person to learn is to listen to the inhabitants as they tell him the names of objects. The reason Wittgenstein feels this is an inadequate methodology is, as I said, the fact that Augustine doesn’t differentiate among various kinds of words. In short, he doesn’t go far enough.
Wittgenstein explores this most clearly in Chapter 28, when he discusses the various meanings that can be found in the concept of “two.” He takes the example of someone pointing to two nuts, and saying “That is called ‘two’”. (P. 12e). We would probably intuitively accept this as a correct and meaningful definition, but Wittgenstein points out that it’s extremely limited. Recall that the person being instructed in the language has no idea of correct usage, inflections, alternative meanings, etc. (Think of English with “two”, “to” and “too” for a quick example of linguistic complexity.)
In the case of someone pointing to two nuts and saying “That is called ‘two’” to someone who doesn’t speak the language, problems arise immediately. First, the person who is being instructed may not understand that “two” is a number that can be generally applied to anything that comes in pairs; he may think that only this group of nuts is “two.” He may make the “opposite mistake” and understand “two” as a numeral, and then apply it to other nuts; that is, he will not understand that the word for “nut” is “nut”, not “two.” (One could wish that Wittgenstein had chosen another example.) The point Wittgenstein makes is that “an ostensive definition can be variously interpreted in every case.” (P. 12e).
Thus, he concludes that St. Augustine’s method, which is ostensive, would lead to misinterpretation and error, not clarity.

III Conclusion
Wittgenstein’s work is intriguing, since he approaches such seemingly ordinary subjects as language from a philosophical viewpoint. Here, he shows the inherent weakness in an ostensive approach to teaching language, and why St. Augustine’s approach is deficient in this regard.

IV Reference

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd, 2002.

Article name: Philosophical Investigations, Chapter 32. essay, research paper, dissertation