Philosophical Friday: Augustine of Hippo and Signs

In previous experiences, I viewed Augustine of Hippo, the 4th century Christian writer most well-known for texts like On Christian Teaching and City of God, primarily as a theologian. Although he is concerned with theology, he sought to understand more clearly the Christian biblical texts. One of the consequences of this aim was the development of a link between signs and language, namely signification, a issue most famously addressed by the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. In what follows, I will briefly lay out his view of “signs” and “language” and offer a few thoughts on his ideas.

Augustine defines given signs as “those which living things give to each other, in order to show, to the best of their ability, the emotions of their minds, or anything that they have felt or learnt” [1]. That is, signs are primarily meant to signfify something intended to be transmitted to another person. They include language, shouts of pain, facial expressions, etc. Now, because spoken words, words themselves being signs, “cease to exists as soon as they come into contact with the air” [2], Augustine suggests that writing was invented. From his theological approach, though, writing was invented in order to enable divine scripture to be circulated through the world.

With this foundation, Augustine continues by describing the problems in written texts: the meaning of signs in texts “may be veiled either by unknown signs or by ambiguous signs” [3]. In order to deal with this problem, Augustine encourages readers to refer back to the Greek, Hebrew, and Latin original texts. Essentially, he encourages a triangulation of the texts in order to identify the meaning of the text, that is in order to interpret the ambiguous or veiled sign. Another solution to unfamiar signs is simply a problem with knowledge of things. For example, when a biblical text refers to hyssop, Augustine notes that we may not understand the sign in a text because people are “unaware of its power to cleanse the lugns or even (so it is said) to split rocks with its roots” [4]. In other words, in order to understand certain phrases, the reader much have pre-knowledge which will help to inform how certain signs should be interpreted.

At base, then, Augustine argues that knowledge of literature and how literature works, namely the issue of signifiers and the signified. For, “A knowledge of them is necessary for the resolution of ambiguities in scripture because when a meaning based on the literal interpretation of the words in absurd we must investigate whether the passage that we cannot understand is perhaps being expressed by means of one or other of the tropes” [5].

From this brief summary of Augustine’s perspective, I want to emphasize two aspects.

First, Augustine explicitly describes letters, written signs of words, as an extension of speech. Without them, speech ceases to exist when it comes into contact with the air. This is an important point to me because, in my perspective, all texts are, to a certain degree, a simulation of a speech situation. This same principle may be extracted from Augustine’s treatise On Christian Teaching.

Second, and in a similar vein, Augustine recognizes that all people speak in figures of speech: “Almost all these tropes, which are said to be acquired through one of the ‘liberal’ arts, are also found in the utterances of those who have had no formal teaching in grammar and are content with the style of ordinary people” [6]. On account of this, Augustine suggests that all people should understand should understand the metaphorical nature of speech itself. By understanding the metaphorical nature of speech itself, both in literature and ordinary speech, a reader of the Christian biblical texts is more likely to investigate the meaning of the passage.

This comes back to something I observe in the field of Biblical studies and Near Eastern studies: there is a surprising lack of engagement with literary theory. Augustine goes as far as to suggest that those who are ignorant of tropes and the names of certain types of metaphors are uneducated. Though I don’t go that far, I do think he has a fair point: people should know how language works. In my case, this principle is applied to scholars: scholars should know how language works and how literature works. Only in doing so can we begin to more fully examine and understand the texts that we study.

[1] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 166.

[2] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 167.

[3] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 168.

[4] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 172.

[5] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 177.

[6] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 176.