Augustine and Wittgenstein

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John Doody, Alexander B. Eodice, Kim Paffenroth
Augustine in Conversation: Tradition and Innovation
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , September
     216 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Augustine and Wittgenstein is an edited volume  that explores a significant variety of relations between the two thinkers. At least three questions can be posed to a collection of this type. Can it serve as an introduction to either of its figures? Does it break new ground in the study of the two together? And does it have significance for philosophical and theological thought beyond Augustine and Ludwig Wittgenstein themselves? The answer to each of these questions here is yes, and so this volume can be recommended to nonspecialists and specialists alike.

The series to which Augustine and Wittgenstein belongs is focused on Augustine.  Editors John Doody, Alexander B. Eodice, and Kim Paffenroth, however, achieve a remarkable balance across all the chapters. There are only one or two instances where one thinker predominates to the detriment of the other. As a result, it is ideal for someone familiar with Augustine who wishes to begin reading Wittgenstein, someone familiar with Wittgenstein who wishes to begin reading Augustine, or someone familiar with neither who wishes to encounter both. M. F. Burnyeat's chapter, “Wittgenstein and Augustine: De Magistro,” for example, contains a thorough and accessible introduction to Augustine's theology of language. And it is hard to imagine a more comprehensive, accurate, and condensed introduction to Wittgenstein's thought than the “twelve Wittgensteinian themes” that open Garry L. Hagberg's “Wittgenstein, Augustine, and the Content of Memory” (132–136).

Where there are mischaracterizations, meanwhile, the volume as a whole is self-correcting. The opening two chapters, for example, focus on Wittgenstein's famous use of a passage from Augustine's Confessions to begin his Philosophical Investigations. Seeking to defend Augustine against Wittgenstein, both proceed under the assumption that Wittgenstein uses this passage in order to deny or critique the picture of language contained therein, such that he must be either correct or incorrect in ascribing a false view of language to Augustine. Though it is not a closed issue, this idea has been sufficiently problematized for it to be inadmissible as a working assumption, and in isolation these chapters would give a distorted picture of Wittgenstein's engagement with Augustine.

Erika Kidd's chapter, however, expertly undermines the idea that Wittgenstein primarily uses Augustine as a foil, or as an example of a “bad” picture of language. Instead, she argues for a novel understanding of how Wittgenstein draws out the confessional aspect of Augustine's reflections on language. The limitation that Wittgenstein notes in Augustine's picture is then no longer a problem to be solved (or defended!), but a starting point for reflection on both how our use of language channels desire and how confessional reflection on that use can aid spiritual reformation. This contextualizes the previous two chapters while moving the question of Wittgenstein's engagement with Augustine beyond the constraints of a zero-sum critique, simultaneously ensuring the volume's suitability as an introduction to Wittgenstein and opening up new avenues for specialist inquiry. Indeed, Kidd perfectly substantiates Hagberg's comment, later in the volume, that looking at the relationship between Wittgenstein and Augustine through the lens of a single generic pronouncement—“Wittgenstein critiques Augustine's conception of the ostensive definition of a word”—prevents us from “seeing the deeper, particularized, and much more interesting relations between these two exemplary philosophical laborers” (149). And it is especially in the chapters exploring how Augustine and Wittgenstein broach the challenges of "removing an embedded way of thinking" (140), Kidd's and Hagberg's among them, that this volume can be praised for illuminating these deeper relations.

Finally, this volume should not be limited to those with a specialist interest in either Augustine or Wittgenstein. Several chapters develop issues of interest far beyond any question of “what Wittgenstein/Augustine thinks about X,” perhaps most notably Brian R. Clack's “Wittgenstein, Ritual, and St. Augustine's Attitude to Sex.” Clack draws attention to complexities in both Wittgenstein and Augustine's attitudes towards sex and sexuality, in the process complicating both anthropological and theological assessments of these phenomena. His analysis does not stop there, however, but delves into the affective logics of Wittgenstein's stated awe on the one hand, and Augustine's distress on the other. This enables Clack to gesture toward an ambivalence internal to sex, very much in the spirit of Geoffrey Rees' The Romance of Innocent Sexuality (Wipf and Stock, 2011), whilst also drawing out questions which potentially lie within this ambivalence. After all, as Clack writes, "a recognition that the origins of each one of us lie in a visceral act of intercourse . . . will be enough, typically, to produce feelings of wonder and disquiet" (91). And though he forecloses his own meditation on whether "reproduction is something in itself distressing," noting that "a discussion as to why might take us too far afield" (89), this is a live question beyond the bounds of either Augustine or Wittgenstein studies.

What does it mean to be a product of reproduction, and how do we relate to what makes us? How does an over-identification of sex with reproduction affectively charge attitudes towards both? Finally, connecting these questions with the themes of other chapters, have our ways of thinking about these phenomena been embedded in the forms of our language? If so, how? And what might critically reconfiguring this “how” look like? These questions would indeed be too far afield for this volume. Nonetheless, the fact its chapters pose questions worth pursuing beyond its own parameters demonstrates its potential relevance to readers from other fields. For this, the editors and authors are to be greatly thanked.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ed Watson is a PhD student in religious studies at Yale University.

Date of Review: 
August 2, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Doody is Professor of Philosophy and Robert M. Birmingham Chair in Humanities at Villanova University.

Alexander R. Eodice is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Iona College.

Kim Paffenroth is Professor of Religious Studies and the Director of the Honors Program at Iona College.


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