Augustine’s dialogue with Adeodatus presents a dilemma concerning the complex issue of knowledge; that is, whether or not it is possible to arrive at the knowledge of things via the employment of words. “Can nothing be taught by means of words? ” This question summarizes the problematic of the dialogue to which Augustine provides two theses: (1) that words cannot provide us with knowledge, and consequently, (2) that knowledge cannot be taught by the mere employment of words. These theses, in their own right, provide us with a glimpse of the profundity of the general problematic that the dialogue seeks to resolve.
Augustine claims that words (and the knowledge of them) cannot provide us with the knowledge of things. At the onset, it is important to note that for Augustine, words merely function as signs. “We agree then that words are signs. ” Such being the case, words (by virtue of being signs) are mere labels which represent things other than themselves (i. e. the word “chair” for example, represents an actual object that is located in space and time, an object which we call by the word “chair. ” Consequently, it is also because words function as signs that accounts for the possibility of things’ being presented to our minds (i.
e. when we try to recollect or remember something). This initial discussion of Augustine’s treatment of words remain crucial if we are to arrive at a fuller understanding of the obvious implication of Augustine’s theses; that is, that we cannot learn from signs to things themselves. Distinctions are imperative in unveiling the reasoning behind Augustine’s claim. First, knowledge of the signs is different from the knowledge of things. This is to say that even if a person is knowledgeable of the signs, it does not necessarily follow that the person is also knowledgeable of the thing to which the sign refers to.
This is so because the knowledge of signs merely points out other signs and never the thing itself to which the sign refers to. This disparity accounts for the impossibility of arriving at the knowledge of the thing itself via the employment of signs. Second, from a more theoretical standpoint, one may say that such impossibility is arrived at because the move from the signs to the thing itself (to which the signs refer to) is in itself, a move which is ontological. Such being the case, Augustine’s argument is thus made clear.
The knowledge of words (and of signs) does not provide us with the sufficient and the necessary conditions for the knowledge of things. Simply put, the being of things cannot be arrived at by the mere employment of words for the simple reason that a word (or a sign) can only point out other words (or signs) and they cannot teach us (or make us remember) what we do not already know. Augustine wrote the following: If we consider this a little more closely, perhaps you will find that nothing is learned even by its appropriate sign.
If I am given a sign and I do not know the thing to which it is the sign, it can teach me nothing. If I know the thing, what do I learn from the sign? When I read… “Their saraballae were not changed,” the word, saraballae, does not indicate what it means. If I am told that some covering of the head is so called, would I know what a head is, or a covering, unless I knew already? Knowledge of such things comes to me not when they are named by others but when I actually see them. (qtd. in Hyman and Walsh 1983, 30)
The foregoing passage brings to the fore Augustine’s reservation to the idea that the knowledge of things can be achieved via the employment of words. In as far as words (and signs) are employed in order to teach, Augustine argues that it suffers the same predicament as the first; and that such a task can never be accomplished. In the final analysis, Augustine’s argument challenges the very core of the assumption that it is possible to teach something to someone via the employment of words.
The force of Augustine’s argument shows that words (and signs) merely point out other words (and signs) and can never have an access to the being of things; that is, as to what things really are. Furthermore, Augustine argues (in a very similar way as Socrates) that it is not possible to teach someone something which he does not already know. ABAILARD’S ARGUMENTS AGAINST MATERIAL ESSENCE REALISM Peter Abailard’s main problematic concerns the problem of universals v. particulars. His arguments are directed to the realist position in general.
In particular, he forcefully argues against a realist position called material essence realism. This position argues that material essence, the genus in relation to its subordinate species, or the species in relation to its subordinate individuals, is present simultaneously as a whole in distinct items; since they are the material of their essential being. For example, the material essence animal is present in both man and horse. In the same vein, the material essence man is present in both Plato and Aristotle. Describing the material essence realism’s position, Peter Abailard wrote the following:
Certain philosophers, indeed, take the universal thing thus: in things different from each other in form they set up a substance essentially the same; this is the material essence of the individuals in which it is, and it is one in itself and diverse only through the forms of its inferiors. If these forms should happen to be taken away, there would be absolutely no difference of things, which separated from each other only by a diversity of forms, since the matter is in essence absolutely the same. (qtd. in Hyman and Walsh 1983, 172)
Such a position was the main focus of Abailard’s arguments and it is to those arguments that we shall now turn. First, consider the material essence animal as an example. For the material essence realist, the material essence animal is wholly present in its subordinate species which are man and horse. The difference between these two is that the former is rational and the latter is irrational. For Abailard, this is absurd. Abailard questions the cogency of the material essence realist’s position. If material essence realism is correct, then how come contraries are simultaneously present in the material essence?
The absurdity of this position is made clear because of the fact that according to material essence realism, it is the selfsame material essence that is wholly in each of the species man and horse. This absurdity poses a great threat to the material essence realist’s position. Second, as Abailard sees it, the diversity of things seems to go against the doctrine of material essence realism. “How should we explain the plurality of things under substance if the only diversity were of forms while the subject substance remained at bottom the same?
” Abailard adds a further complication for the material essence realist’s position; a rejoinder in the form of a reductio. If we assume that individuals are to be identified with their material essences, then it follows that Socrates can be identified with the material essence animal. The same is true for a particular horse, Brunellus. But, by the principle of transitivity, Socrates is Brunellus therefore he is both rational and irrational. As far as the argument goes, contraries are thus, present in the same individual; as against the doctrine of material essence realism. Third, material essence realism in itself is inconsistent.
If material essence realism is correct, then an individual like Socrates can only be identified with his material essence and its advening forms and not with its accidents. However, Abailard argues that the differentia (which is part of its advening forms) cannot merely be a part of making a thing as what it is. Rationality then cannot simply be a part of making a thing as what it is; it (rationality) is constitutive of what it is to be a human being and as such cannot merely be accidental. It is important to note that the foregoing argument, that is, Abailard’s argumentum ad absurdum of the material essence realism on individuals holds.
In the final analysis, the foregoing arguments put forth by Peter Abailard against material essence realism points the main problem with such a framework. As far as Abailard’s arguments are concerned, his point of attack focuses on the internal consistency itself of material essence realism as it tries to solve the problem of universals v. particulars. BIBLIOGRAPHY Hyman, Arthur and James Jerome Walsh. Philosophy in the Middle Ages: The Christian, Islamic, and Jewish Traditions. Np: Hackett Publishing, 1983.