December 8, 2008

Augustine on speech and sense

AUGUSTINE: Now let me ask you: do you think that in our words, the sound itself is one thing and what is signified by sound another?
EVODIUS: I think they are the same thing.
AUGUSTINE: Then tell me where sound comes from, when you speak.
EVODIUS: Who could doubt that it comes from me?
AUGUSTINE: So the sun comes from you, when you say its name?
EVODIUS: You asked me about the sound, not the thing itself.
AUGUSTINE: Therefore sound and the thing signified by sound are different? But you said they were the same.
EVODIUS: Okay, I now concede that what signifies the sun is different from the thing which is signified.
AUGUSTINE: So tell me whether, knowing the Latin language, you could name the sun in your speech, if an understanding of the word sol did not precede its sound.
EVODIUS: In no way could I.
AUGUSTINE: And how about when you plan to say it but remain silent for a brief period? Before the word itself comes out of your mouth, is not something kept in your thought, which someone else will hear when your voice expresses it?
EVODIUS: Obviously.
AUGUSTINE: And while the sun itself is great in size, what about the notion of it held in your thought before it's voiced? Is it possessed of length or width or any such visible quality?
EVODIUS: In no way.
AUGUSTINE: Come now, tell me: when the word comes out of your mouth, and I on hearing it think of the sun -- which you thought of before and during its pronunciation, and now we're both probably thinking of it -- does it not seem to you that what meaning the word transports to me, through my ears, it gets from you?
EVODIUS: So it seems.
AUGUSTINE: Given that a word consists of sound and signification, with sound pertaining to the ears and signification to the mind, would you not therefore conclude that -- like a living being -- the word comprises a body, which is its sound, and something like a soul, which is that sound's meaning?
EVODIUS: Nothing seems likelier to me.
AUGUSTINE: Attend now to whether the sound of a word can be divided into letters, if its soul cannot, since truly: signification is that thing in our thought which a little while ago you estimated to have neither width nor length.
EVODIUS: You have my full attention.
AUGUSTINE: Here's the question. Does it seem to you that when a sound is divided into individual letters, it retains the same signification?
EVODIUS: How could individual letters have the same signification as the word made up of them?
AUGUSTINE: And when the sound is divided into discrete letters, its signification lost, don't you agree that it's no different from the departure of the soul when a body is torn to pieces? and that something like a death has come to pass?
EVODIUS: Not only do I agree, but so freely that nothing in this conversation has delighted me more.
AUGUSTINE: If it is clear enough to you from this comparison that the soul is not cut apart when its body is, now hear how the body's severed members may have life, where an uncut soul abides. For you have conceded -- rightly, I think -- that a sound which functions as a word has something like a soul, which is its meaning; and though the sound itself (which is its body) can be split up, its meaning can't be. Now the name of the sun is such that when a division is made within its sound, no part of it retains any meaning. When the body of the name is torn apart, we therefore consider those letters to be dead members, which is to say they lack signification. But if we find some word whose individual members are able to communicate meaning when separated, you'll have to concede that the "death" effected by their dissection is less than total, since when you regard its members separately you'll see them "breathing," so to speak.
EVODIUS: I concede it heartily, and demand that you give voice to this sound already.
AUGUSTINE: Here it is. When my attention turns to the neighborhood of the sun whose name we were just discussing, it is met by
When a cut is made between the second and third syllables of this name, the first part retains some significance ["By daylight"] when we say Luci, and in this way more than half the body of the name is left alive. The last part too has soul, for you hear it whenever you are ordered to carry something. How indeed could you obey, on hearing Fer codicem ["Bring the book"] if fer signified nothing? Accordingly, when Luci is added, we hear
and it signifies the "Lightbringing" star; but when Luci is subtracted, Fer still means something, and therefore may be said to stay alive.

On the Measure of the Soul, 32