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Augustine's answer to Jacques Derrida in the 'De Doctrina Christiana.' (Saint Augustine of Hippo)

The De Doctrina Christiana, besides its many other features, is a systematic defense of a science of reading, or hermeneutics, which Augustine argues is essential to understand Scriptures. Because revelation,' as exemplified by the perfect Egyptian monk" Antony, who memorized and understood Sacred Scriptures "simply by hearing them," eludes most readers or listeners, Augustine argues that training in reading is essential if we are to understand Sacred Sciptures.(1) While Augustine does not reject "revelation" as a means to understanding the Bible, he does recognize how uncommon it is, and therefore spends the first three books of the De Doctrina Christiana developing a theory for how to read Scriptures in the absence of spontaneous, Antony-style, divinely inspired, unmediated insight.

Augustine's discussion of how to read Scriptures distinguishes between kinds of reading. On the one hand is the ability to pronounce and decipher words, and on the other, and more importantly, the ability to understand them: "he who explains to listeners what he understands in the Scriptures is like a reader who pronounces the words he knows, but he who teaches how the Scriptures are to be understood is like a teacher who advises how the words are to be read."(2) Critical distinctions between basic literacy, reading as an interpretive act, and direct unmediated insight form the foundation for his discussion of Christian teaching. As a consequence, instead of considering the De Doctrina Christiana an adaptation of Ciceronian rhetoric and interpretive method, though it is influenced by it,(3) we might see it as advancing a methodical approach to Christian intellectual activity or how to read as a Christian, particularly as applied to biblical interpretation.(4) Augustine's doctrine of signs, as advanced primarily in Books 2 and 3, presents a method for harnessing the meaning of ambiguous (ambigua) or unknown (ignota) signs, both problematic areas for accuracy in interpretation (OCD 2.10.15). Though "unknown" signs can be made known through translations (OCD 2.11.16) or knowledge of disciplines (OCD 2.27-40), ambiguous signs which are made so by grammar problems or figurative language are more difficult to decipher (OCD bk. 3). From the perspective of current theories of interpretation, Augustine's theory of how to render these ambiguous or unknown signs offers both a challenge and a tentative corrective.

For Augustine, all Scripture is intentional, because it is God's present Word as written. As Mark Jordan argues, "In Augustine's thinking, any method of reading the Scriptures is fundamentally a reflection on words as analogous to Christ the Word. It is not only that they convey the Word, it is that they are like the Word."(5) Augustine nevertheless recognized that understanding this present Word was not available to everyone: but anyone who understands in the Scriptures something other than that intended by them is deceived, although they do not lie.6 For Augustine, despite all the ambiguities of meaning in Scriptures, all interpretation must lead back and forward to the realization of the "double love of God and our neighbor" (istam geminam caritatem dei et proximi), or the Scripture has been misunderstood (OCD 1.36.40). This is the fundamental religio-cultural arena in which scriptural interpretation must operate. Augustine, therefore, by enlisting the existence of an infinite being in his discussion, circumscribes his own interpretive activity. For Augustine, this is the uncontingent boundary which girds the territory of interpretive possibilities. To move outside these parameters is to move into the locale of possible error, as far as understanding the Bible is concerned, for Augustine writes, if someone is deceived in an interpretation "which builds up charity, which is the end of the commandments, he is deceived in the same way as a man who leaves a road by mistake but passes through a field to the same place toward which the road itself leads."7 Although the interpreter has found the right end, he has deviated in the path to that end, which Augustine applauds, but nevertheless warns against, for it is "more useful not to leave the road" (quam sit utilius viam non deserere) (OCD 1.36.41).

The Christian concept of the presence of the Word in Sacred Scripture is challenged by postmodern interpretive methodology, and deconstruction in particular. For deconstructive thinkers, meaning is not immediately present in signs. Writing effaces both the idea of the presence of meaning and meaning itself. The meaning of a sign is a matter of what a sign is not, so that its meaning is always in some sense absent. Meaning cannot be fixed because it is fragmented or scattered throughout a large range of possible meanings; it is never completely "present," but wavers back and forth between absence and presence. Because meaning' is so fluid, it is impossible for what is written to be fully present, and therefore also unlikely that one can determine any truth or absolute meaning.(8)

In Jacques Derrida's version of deconstruction, because the subject (for instance, the creator or writer) of the text is absent, its referent must also be absent. Clearly Derrida's intention here is highly radical, for he attacks the concept of the text as an ideological entity in itself, and as a consequence destroys the idealized or canonized text. He writes, "To make enigmatic what one thinks one understands by the words |proximity,' |immediacy,' |presence' . . . is my final intention in this book. This deconstruction of presence accomplishes itself through the deconstruction of consciousness, and therefore through the irreducible notion of the trace."(9) The "trace" for Derrida is the written text, and because it is inscribed and therefore open to a diversity of interpretations, there is nothing fully present in its signs. Rather the trace is not the signified but another signifier inviting the reader to make meaning of it; any intrinsic meaning formerly associated with any text is a fiction created by interpreters of the trace. Because the "voice" of the text is absent once it has been inscribed on a page, any notion of the presence of the word, or the Presence of the Word, is only a creative possibility, for the "logos," the meaning or voice of the text, its revelation, in traditional terms, is absent. This overview is intended to show that Derrida's challenge, though received more readily in the world of secular letters, is fundamentally a theological proposition, for, in undermining the notion of presence in words, he attacks the ideology of the logos.

In challenging the idea that the text is the signified (signifie) and suggesting rather that it itself is the signifier (signifiant), Derrida hopes to proclaim the death of the metaphysics of the logos,' of presence, and of consciousness as tradionally understood. But this is not a tragedy for Derrida; rather, it is an opportunity and a resource for playful re-creation and for literary renderings divorced from the limitations which ruled earlier interpretive activities: "The advent of writing is the advent of this play; today such a play is coming into its own, effacing the limit starting from which one had thought to regulate the circulation of signs."(10)

A consequence of these Derridean presuppositions is that deconstructive thought attempts to take away mystification and canonical status from texts. Derrida seeks to expose the assumed relationship between sign and signified which unites intelligibility and the absolute logos. When he writes, "the intelligible face of the sign remains turned toward the word and the face of God" or "The sign and divinity have the same place and time of birth. The age of the sign is essentially theological,"(11) he identifies the source of the metaphysics of language. His desire to locate the source of the ideology of the signified word has merit if it forces us to confront our own ideologies as they inform our re-creation of the text. What Derrida identifies as absent is the "idealized" text, just as Nietzsche told us that the idealized God is dead. Derrida, like Nietzsche, challenges the sanctity of "absolute" convictions, particularly as they inform interpretive methods. In this sense, the challenge is a possibility for creativity, for discovery, and for renewed understanding.

Applied to interpretation of Scriptures, deconstructive thought asks whether there can be any |traditional' knowing. Is |presence' of the logos possible outside our re-creation of it? Is our attempt to make the logos present a conjuring or incantatory activity? Thus deconstruction asks a fundamentally religious question, and a question, I believe, which must be asked. And neither modem philosophy nor modem theology has ignored this type of challenge.(12) In fact, a central concern of modern Christian philosophy has been to ask in what way God is dead, or to apply this question to the problem at hand, how is the signified absent? Is it possible to fill the void? And if it is, what will fill it? For Karl Rahner, the question concerns itself with the finitude of man and the possibility of revelation by God; thus he presupposes that "all that is, can fundamentally be turned into |true' speech, into an information, addressed to the mind. Only on this condition can the possibility of the imparting of facts that are hidden in God be considered at all. This, at the very minimum, is what we mean by revelation."(13) Rahner avoids the problem of the text,' writing instead of "speech" as the economy of the living Word. Rahner's second presupposition for the possibility of revelation is man's condition: man must possess an openness for the self-utterance of the one who possesses being absolutely through the luminous Word. This openness is the a priority presupposition for the possibility of hearing such a Word' (53). Rahner's response to the assault against the potentiality of the "luminous Word" is phenomenological. Hearing is available only to listeners. This concept of "listening" is not a new concept, but it has a long tradition in the Judeo-Christian tradition, where God (or Jesus) often addresses humans with the injunction, "Listen." In contemporary philosophy, Martin Heidegger has also discussed the ontology of listening.(14) Hans-Georg Gadamer confronts similar intellectual propositions, presenting in Truth and Method a systematic program for how to become a "listener" to the past.(15) The work of Paolo Valesio on listening and silence is further development of the phenomenology and rhetoric of listening."16 But Derrida's breakup of the word/hearing connection, engineered by writing, makes "listening" irrelevant.

Paul Ricoeur in the Conflict of Interpretations confronts textual difficulties caused by ambiguities more directly than does Rahner, and unlike Derrida, contradicts the idea that the separation of the signified and the original signifier and consequent multivocity of written words makes their meaning elusive and absent. Connecting modem thought about textual equivocalness to what Augustine called "the ambiguities of figurative words" (verborum translatorum ambiguitates) (OCD 3.5.9), Ricoeur, who recognizes that only logical thought can make the claim to univocity, asserts that "symbols symbolize only within wholes which limit and link their significations."(17) Therefore, the text, or any discrete part of it, as signifier, must not be separated from its context if we wish to understand its signification within its own horizon, even though the passage of history has disconnected the text from its context, the part from the whole, and the symbol from its tradition. For Ricoeur, as for Rahner and the Pauline and Augustinian tradition informing them, meaning" is apprehended, the Word made present so to speak through hearing or listening to the "spirit which gives life to the letter,"(18) for as Augustine says, quoting Paul, For the letter killeth, but the spirit quickeneth" (Littera occidit, spiritus autem vivificat) (OCD 3.5.9).

To reexamine whether this religious tradition still has meaning, Ricoeur confronts Nietzsche's and Freud's critique which led to the death of God movement. Derrida's attack on the "idealized" text is similar to Freud's and Nietzsche's critique of idealized religion. The absence that Derrida identifies in the "idealized text" parallels the Nietzschean concept of the death of God as conceived in the idealized religion. Ricoeur asks whether Nietzsche and Freud actually murdered God or a specific version of God, whether indeed it was not the "nothingness" that lies at the heart of the ideal which murdered God (446). Derrida's critique of the book as "ideal form," like Nietzsche's and Freud's of the formidable, unchanging "ideal" God of morality and condemnation, is worth considering because the "book" deprived of living audience has become an "idealized form," the canon separated from the living action of speech. As Walter Ong points out in his discussion of deconstruction, In breaking up what he calls phonocentrism and logocentrism, Derrida is performing a welcome service."19 This attack on the metaphysics of the logos of the text, and the consciousness which accompanies it, is for Derrida a resource, with the trace offering the opportunity for re-creation.

The challenge is particularly apropos to the history of Judeo-Christianity because the tradition of exegesis is primarily the effort to resurrect the text which is the revelation of the Word of God; it is in essence an attempt to make the reader a listener, one who hears and understands within the context of the Judeo-Christian tradition. One of the main tasks of this tradition has been-as Walter Ong, echoing Augustine, reminds us-to ask what its role is as perpetuator of the dialogue in the Holy Spirit with the Father through the living incarnate Word which gives the biblical text the life of faith at all times?" Or what its role is in "resurrecting the dead letter into living speech, so that the reader, whether an individual or a congregation, is in effect truly a listener?'(20)

To turn to the question at hand, that is, what would Augustine have said about the deconstructive assault on the presence of the Word? First, Augustine set out to write the De Doctrina Christiana precisely because he recognized the inherent interpretive problems of the Bible (OCD Prologue), and by implication, of written texts in general. In the remainder of this discussion, I will point out the areas of agreement between Augustine and Derrida, and Augustine's answer to the problem of ambiguous meaning in signs.

The major areas of agreement are the following: words or signs are ambiguous; therefore the signified (signifie for Derrida; signa for Augustine) is signifying (signifiant) for Derrida, and open to the possibility of diverse interpretations for Augustine. But Augustine would disagree with Derrida on the following basis: despite the ambiguities of words, words in Sacred Scripture, at least, link back to the originating Word.' Second, Augustine advances a method for interpreting written 'signs' on the grounds that they are social utilities and are intended to communicate: the meaning of verbal signs can be bridled by the context, tradition, and history with which they are aligned; words belong to communities of linguistic and symbolic signification; as a consequence, words can be interpreted incorrectly. For Augustine because only God, the immutable and eternal, is enjoyable (frui), and all other things are useful (uti) (OCD 1.22.20), words are useful means to lead to this joy. Derrida dismisses the uti or useful in written language transactions: "The advent of writing is the advent of this play" (L'avenement de l'ecriture est l'avenement du jeu) (OG 7; DG 16). Also, because of the seriousness of the interpretive enterprise, for Augustine humility is a necessary constituent of the act of interpretation. Most important for Augustine, language is a temporal dispensation (dispensatio temporalis), and therefore a vulnerable, fragile, and transitory human utility in contrast to God who is the permanent, immutable, ineffable enjoyment. Words may lead toward this ineffability, but they can never fully express it. Thus, though their aims and reasons differ, both Augustine and Derrida dismiss the metaphysics of the logos as an actual presence in words.

Having made the distinction between thing (res) and sign (signa) (OCD 1.2.2), and set the terms for words as signs which reach back to the single Word, Augustine would agree with Derrida's assertion that the written text deploys ambiguous signs which are open to numerous interpretations and as a consequence that all a text's significations are in some sense potentially viable, that is if they are interpreted outside Augustine's limiting context for understanding: the aim of all interpretation is to support the double love of God and neighbor. Because of his insistence on a method of interpretation for reading words, it is clear that he would agree that the text is a signifier and not the signified. He would also agree that the text is therefore a trace which offers numerous ambiguous meanings, and he would be content to allow readers to indulge in what Mark Jordan has called "over-constructions"(21) of these figural potentialities: "Distinctions in interpretation of this kind may be made at the will of the reader."(22)

Augustine, in De Magistro, Confessions, and De Doctrina Christiana confronts the dichotomy between speech and writing and the alienation of the spoken word from the written which for deconstructive thinkers makes the "word" absent. For Augustine, as Kenneth Burke wrote, Word was "the spoken word; the spoken word silently conceived as spoken ... the preparatory attitude guided by experience, that precedes human action; the word of God in the sense of religious doctrine transmitted by Scriptures and preachers; the Word of God as Wisdom, second person of the Trinity; the Word of God made flesh."(23) The word of God, as represented in the Bible, was a single communication from God to man, which nonetheless required a theory of signs for its interpretation.

But this interpretation is not so fluid as mere translation from one system of signs to another as in the deconstructive formula. Rather, as John Freccero has written, language is rooted "in a point that was at once its origin and its end ... a point of intersection with reality ... in the Word made flesh-a signifier that was, at the same time, its own signification, whose lived reality rooted it to the concrete in a way that achieved what is an unrealizable goal of all language."(24) At the root of Augustine's theology of signs is a verbal principle which understands God as speaking to man and man, in his turn listening to God, or failing to listen. For Derrida, this linking back to the presence of the logos represents a dichotomy between body and soul, good and bad writing, and the natural and the artificial: "There is therefore a good and a bad writing: the good and natural is the divine inscription in the heart and the soul; the perverse and artful is technique, exiled in the exteriority of the body."25 He proposes to abrogate these dualisms which he believes underlie the ideology of presence and which hover over western thinking. He applies his generalized interpretation of the western philosophical and theological tradition to his own program, concluding that these traditions separate a good from a bad writing, a conclusion he bases on a Pauline reflection, "the divine inscription in the heart and the soul."(26) He takes this to mean that God's writing on the soul is "good," and all else is attached to the body and therefore bad. He finds the roots for this radical separation of body and soul in the Platonic schema. His argument represents a naive and fundamental misunderstanding of "the inscription on the heart' and how this presumed dichotomy works in Augustine or other Christian writers. This "inscription" is the rare case of unmediated insight, God's writing, which eludes most of us. Since the Fall, according to the Christian schema, mediated communication substitutes for direct exchanges between human beings and God. Though Derrida is right about a dichotomy in the western religious formulation, it is not the presumed neo-Platonic dualisms which account for them, but the rupture between God and humankind. There is not a good and a bad writing, one for the soul and one for the body. For Augustine, there is God, who is immutable, and from whom humankind was separated since the Fall. This is the only separation which counts, for all "human things," including writing, are mutable. Both human body and soul must seek to overcome this separation. For Augustine, all writing, because it uses language, is a human utility and therefore ambiguous and subject to decay and corruption.

For Augustine, however, this equivocalness is the starting point for interpretation, not Derrida's end of interpretation and beginning of the game. Augustine's theory of signs is a systematic method for providing meaning or access to the presence of the Word, which he accepts as the essence of scriptural rendition, despite the ambiguities of the language used by the men who wrote Holy Scripture: "Nor is there any other reason for signifying, or for giving signs, except for bringing forth and transferring to another mind the action of the mind in the person who makes the sign. We propose to consider and discuss this class of signs in so far as men are concerned with it, for even signs given by God and contained in the Holy Scriptures are of this type also, since they were presented to us by men who wrote them."(27)

In his discussion of how to understand both ambiguous and unknown signs, Augustine presents a series of means to establish their intended meanings. These include applying the central underlying conviction as outlined above, that what is gleaned from the text must teach love of God and neighbor, or the interpretation is certainly wrong. He also advances a scientific and intellectual methodology.

The fact that God's Word as represented in the Bible speaks obliquely is for Augustine a challenge, because what is discovered with difficulty provides greater pleasure (OCD 2.6.8). Augustine's absolute commitment to the interpretive presupposition that words in Scriptures link back to the Word is the context through which the equivocalness or ambiguity of the texts, or by association, God's revelation, must be understood. Since all the teachings which involve faith are said openly, obscure things should be interpreted only according to these clear communications (OCD 2.9.14). The equivocalness of the word conveyed through unknown (ignota) or ambiguous (ambigua) written language, furthermore, does not make meaning absent. Rather, he insisted that signs exist within a context of understanding which provides the clue to their meaning. This context embraces human history, textual traditions, human communications as represented through language, as well as the larger context of central Christian teachings.

This argument for language as an essentially social instrument, a traditional rhetorical position, together with his idea that signs open themselves to meanings within a "context," one might say "community" of communication, bridles potential constructions of meaning. The context for clarification may be within the text itself, for which he recommends consulting translations which are word from word (verbum e verbo), not because they are better but because they help to sort out obscurities (OCD 2.13.19). Also, following Cicero, he places great emphasis on scrutinizing the "preceding and following parts" (praecedentibus et consequentibus partibus) (OCD 3.2.2; 3.3.6) to clarify a text. Because textual traditions also help establish context, it is important for Augustine to identify what books in the Bible are "canonical," which he does early in Book 2 (OCD 2.8.13). He recommends examining this second context of other biblical texts where similar ambiguities occur (OCD 2.6.8; 2.8.12; 2.9.14; 3.27.38), on the grounds that "Hardly anything may be found in these obscure places which is not found plainly said elsewhere."(28) Thus, he argues that ambiguous signs make sense because of their connection to a community of related texts belonging to a continuous culture. For Augustine, meaning moves outward from the sign itself to the immediate social context of tacit agreement on what it might mean, to the local textual context in which it is written (that is, the biblical words themselves), to the larger textual context (that is, other related texts, for example, New Testament texts), to an enlarged textual context (the entire Bible), and finally to the largest context of all, the central teachings of Christianity, the "rule of faith" (regulis fidei) (OCD 3.3.6), for "Scripture teaches nothing but charity" (Non autem praecipit scriptura nisi caritatem) (OCD 3.10.15).

Aware that ignorance may lead interpreters to think that texts or words (signa) and things (res) are ambiguous (OCD 2.16.24), Augustine argues for the necessity of a knowledge of languages, history, geography, zoology, geology, logic, and math in order to clarify interpretations (OCD 2.16.28, 32-40). To determine what is figurative or literal before the work of interpretation can begin, it is necessary to have a knowledge of things (OCD 2.16.23-24). With numerous examples, he demonstrates that what may appear obscure may be clarified by knowledge, whether of languages, translations, history, or any other discipline suggested by an ambiguous sign. Here also, where conflicts in interpretation may occur, he admits human vulnerability, and emphasizes the usefulness of consensus and context to clarify conflicts in meaning which stem from translation. Recalling the number and variety of Latin translations of the Bible, Augustine considers this an opportunity for greater clarity rather than an impediment: "For an inspection of various translations frequently makes obscure passages clear."(29) Also, defending pagan culture, he argues that knowledge from outside the Church may prove useful in interpretation: "Thus whatever evidence we have of past times in that which is called history helps us a great deal in the understanding of the sacred books, even if we learn it outside of the Church as part of our childhood education."(30)

The obliqueness in the meaning intended by signs, however, opens up the possibility of "wrong readings," for Augustine "carnal" understanding, and what Derrida would call the area for creativity. Augustine sets out to harness these potentially "carnal" interpretations of the Bible ("That is, when that which is said figuratively is taken as though it were literal, it is understood carnally")(31) by systematically presenting guidelines to moor readings within the central understanding, "the double love of God and of our neighbor" (istam geminam caritatem dei et proximi) (OCD 1.36.40). One might argue, in fact, that the De Doctrina Christiana's particular purpose is to offer a guard against individualistic readings, that is, interpretations exiled from literary and cultural contexts, whether within a single text or in relationship to a text's "textual community"(32) or historical and social context, an exile which the deconstructive critique, on the other hand, encourages.

Furthermore, for Augustine, there is no point in signs if they are not directed to signify something, in fact, intended to make contact with other people - so for Augustine, words, whether figural or literal, are a human means to facilitate communication between people: "For no one uses words except for the purpose of signifying something. From this may be understood what we call |signs'; they are things used to signify something."(33) They are not an end in themselves - but move back and forth from persons to persons, from the historical past to the present and into the future - pointing to the beginning Word and to the final Word.

Thus on a number of fronts, Augustine had prethought the deconstructive critique of the metaphysical aims of interpretation. If we put aside his central Christian convictions, that these "tentative" and ambiguous words lead ultimately back to the Word, the heart of the doctrine of the idealized text, Augustine nevertheless has much to offer to help clarify ambiguous textual communication. Though he is intellectually and emotionally sensitive to the difference between unmediated insight or experience of presence and the silence of the inscribed word, he rejects the idea that because the words are written on the page their communication is therefore absent, insisting instead that no one uses signs unless they intend to communicate with them (OCD 2.2.3). Writing (that is, letters) replaces sounds which have no durability at all beyond the moment when the vibrations pass away in the air (OCD 2.4.5). Writing is an attempt to retain contact with those it addresses when sound has disappeared because, for Augustine, writing substitutes for the absence which follows silenced sounds. Augustine's conviction about the communicative possibility of writing is reminiscent of Hans-Georg Gadamer's debate with Derrida in which he accused him of rejecting the possibility of conversation between people because Derrida's theory about the "absence" of meaning in signs suggests that the basis for understanding, for any consensus, had been interrupted.(34)

Augustine's grounds for a science of hermeneutics do not rest only on his faith formulations, but as I have discussed, he spends the largest portion of the treatise elaborating a variety of means whereby ambiguous or obscure signs can be interpreted. These include using the resources of a number of ancient versions of disciplines including history, grammar, mathematics, zoology, rhetoric, and logic. Also, he argues persuasively for the notion of the cultural and linguistic continuity, despite the differences of languages, time, and social context, to which the biblical texts belong. This textual and cultural continuity, he shows, will help to unveil both unknown and ambiguous signs.

His deference to the model of revelation experienced by Saint Antony recalled at the beginning of the De Doctrina Christiana serves to expose this type of unmediated understanding as rare. In other words, right from the beginning in his discussion of interpretation, he sets out to distinguish unmediated revelation from the work of interpretation. It is not incidental, either, that in his discussion of his conversion in Confessions, he again raises the specter of Antony.(35) Augustine likens his own conversion to Antony's, for both experiences came in response to scriptural readings. But Augustine distinguishes his own "reading" conversion, which came after arduous scriptural study and his early rejection of what he could not understand in his reading from Antony's, whose conversion was an epiphany, a moment of spiritual intersection between the hearing and understanding of spoken words.(36)

The connection Augustine makes between his conversion and work of interpretation emphasizes the relevance he assigns to this activity. But as an intellectual activity, it may lead one into arrogance, against which Augustine warns throughout the text (OCD 1.37), particularly for those who love disputation for its own sake (OCD 2.31.48). To counter this intellectual temptation, so that "knowledge cannot puff (him) up" (scientia inflare non possit) (OCD 2.42.63), he recommends that this work be approached "with a meek and humble heart" (mitem et humilem corde) (OCD 1.40.44; 2.41.62; 2.42.63). Humility and purity of heart, he argues, should rule the interpretive exercise. I would suggest that this is one of Augustine's most important contributions to hermeneutical theory. It is in profound disagreement with deconstruction because to attack the power of words to communicate, however tentative their formulations might be, is an arrogant expulsion of language as a social phenomenon, a dismissal of history as a flawed but hopeful human system for remembering, and finally a failure to appreciate how culture mediated through language enriches our ways of understanding difference and similarity. Such an attitude of the scholar, even in the secular framework, echoes the same captiousness that Augustine warns against (OCD 1.37.41; 2.31.48).

Finally, I want to focus on Augustine's position on the status of human language because this places the entire earlier discussion in a different light and in some respects is an answer to the deconstructive critique of the metaphysics of the sign. In Augustine's formulation, God's "ineffability" makes it impossible to say anything about His presence, for it is not possible to express God's ineffability. Augustine writes: "Whence do I know this, except because God is ineffable? If what I said were ineffable, it would not be said. And for this reason God should not be said to be ineffable, for when this is said something is said. And a contradiction in terms is created, since if that is ineffable which cannot be spoken, then that is not ineffable which can be called ineffable."(37) God's ineffability, that is, the impossibility of actually "speaking" of God, makes God's presence in human words tentative at best.(38) Such an admission openly declares the vulnerability not only of words, but of the metaphysical foundation of presence even in "sacred words." Since for Augustine God is beyond all mutable things (OCD 1.7.7) and not only man but his medium of experience, language, is transitory (OCD 2.4.5), then also Sacred Scripture possesses this same ultimately fleeting character: "We propose to consider and to discuss this class of signs in so far as men are concerned with it, for even signs given by God and contained in Holy Scriptures are of this type also, since they were presented to us by the men who wrote them."(39) Scripture is a means whose end "is the love of a Being which is to be enjoyed and of a being that can share that enjoyment with us."(40) It is a "temporal dispensation" (dispensatio temporalis) (OCD 1.35.39) which we should use, and it is like those things "by which we are carried along for the sake of that toward which we are carried."(41) These assertions place the whole concept of the presence of the Word" in Sacred Scripture in a contingent status, because they admit of the fragility and tentativeness of both the Scriptures themselves and of the capacity of language to express the presence whereof they hint. This is an essential agreement with the deconstructive proposition that language is vulnerable to uncertainties and that the sign may signify randomly and therefore be open to various constructions. But for Augustine this is the humble starting place for interpreters, in stark contrast to Derrida's playful delight in the death of the word through writing: "That the signified is originally and essentially (and not only for a finite and created spirit) trace, that it is always in the position of the signifier, is the apparently innocent proposition within which the metaphysics of the logos, of presence and consciousness, must reflect upon writing as its death and its resource."(42) In both Augustine's and Derrida's formulation, there is a recognition of the tentativeness of the human interaction with words, but in Augustine's case, it is the potential enjoyment of God that compels human efforts to interpret or make use of them, whereas for Derrida individualistic human efforts are a playful and useless end in themselves.


(1) Saint Augustine, On Christian Doctrine tr. D.W. Robertson (New York, 1958), Prologue, sec. 4; hereafter cited in text as OCD by book and section number. The Latin text is drawn from De Doctrina Christiana, ed. Joseph Martin, in Aurelii Augustini Opera: Pars. 4, vol. 32 of Corpus Christianorum Series Latina (Turnhout, 1962), pp. 1-167. (2) "quae in scripturis intellegit, exponit audientibus tamquam litteras, quas agnoscit, pronuntiat lectoris officio; qui autem praecipit, quomodo intellegendum sit, similis est tradenti litteras, hoc est praecipienti, quomodo intellegendum sit" (OCD Prologue.9). (3) For a substantial bibliography on Augustine and Cicero, see Gerald A. Press, "The Subject and Structure of Augustine's De Doctrina Christiana," Augustinian Studies, 11 (1980), 99-124. Also essential reading on Augustine's Ciceronianism is Joseph Mazzeo, "St. Augustine's Rhetoric of Silence: Truth vs. Eloquence and Things vs. Signs," in his Renaissance and Seventeenth-Century Studies (New York, 1964), pp. 1-28. (4) I am indebted to Brian Stock, whose forthcoming book Augustine and the Bird of the Medieval Reader argues that Augustine's innovative theory of reading sets the stage for the intellectual life of the Middle Ages. I agree with Professor Stock's argument that the act of reading for Augustine is not an end in itself, but a process of interpretation through which a personal transformation takes place. I am also indebted to Mark D. Jordan's essay, "Words and Word: Incarnation and Signification in Augustine's De Doctrina Christiana", Augustinian Studies, 11 (1980), 177-96. Also, still essential reading on Augustine's theory of knowledge and its connection to language is Marcia L. Colish, "Augustine: The Expression of the Word," in her The Mirror of Language: A Study of the Medieval Theory of Knowledge (Lincoln, Neb., 1968; rev. ed. 1983), pp. 7-54. Eugene Vance's argument about the difference between unmediated knowledge and the interpretation of words as suggested by Augustine is likewise important to my essay. See "Saint Augustine: Language as Temporality," in Mimesis: From Mirror to Method, Augustine Descartes, ed. John D. Lyons and Stephen G. Nichols, Jr. (Hanover, N.H., 1982), pp. 20-35. (5) Jordan, Words and Word," 177. (6) "Sed quisquis in scripturis aliud sentit quam ille, qui scripsit, illis non mentientibus fallitur" (OCD 1.36.41). (7) "qua aedificet caritatem, quae finis praecepti est, ita fallitur, ac si quisquam errore descrens viam eo tamen per agrum pergat, quo etiam via illa perducit" (OCD 1.36.41). (8) See Terry Eagleton, "Post-Structuralism," in his Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis, 1983), pp. 127-50 for a brief and clearly stated overview of this theory. (9) Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, tr Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore, 1976), p. 70; hereafter cited in text as OG. The French text is drawn from De La Grammatologie Paris, 1967) (page numbers for the original will be provided with the translation and cited as DG): "Rendre enigmatique ce que l'on croit entendre sous les noms de proximite, d'immediatete, de presence ... telle serait donc la derniere intention du present essai. Cette deconstruction de la presence passe par celle de la conscience, donc par la notion irreductible de trace" (DG, p. 103). (10) Derrida, of Grammatology, p. 7; "L'avenement de l'ecriture est l'avenement du jeu; le jeu aujourd'hui se rend a lui meme, effacant la limite depuis laquelle on a cru pouvoir regler la circulation des signes" (DC, p. 16). (11) Derrida, of Grammatology, pp. 13 and 14; "la face intelligible du signe reste tournee du cote du verbe et de la face de Dieu"; "Le signe et la divinite ont le meme lieu et le meme temps de naissance. L'epoque du signe est essentiellement theologique" (DG, p. 25). (12) Two books by Mark C. Taylor consider the implications of deconstruction to theology: Erring: A Postmodern A/theology (Chicago, 1984) and Altarity (Chicago, 1987). (13) Karl Rahner, Hearers of the Word, tr. Michael Richards (New York, 1969), p. 51; hereafter cited in text. (14) See Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, tr. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York, 1962), p. 207 passim. (15) See Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York, 1982). (16) See particularly Paolo Valesio, Ascoltare it silenzio (Bologna, 1986) and his essay, "A Remark on Silence and Listening," Oral Tradition, 2 (1987), 286-300. (17) Paid Ricoeur, The Conflict of Interpretations. Essays in Hermeneutics, ed. Don Ihde (Evanston, Ill., 1974), p. 60; hereafter cited in text. (18) 2 Cor. 3:6. (19) Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (New York, 1982), p. 167. (20) Walter J. Ong, "Maranatha," in his Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture (Ithaca, N.Y., 1977), p. 270. (21) Jordan, "Words and Word," 189. (22) "Tales igitur distinctionum ambiguitates in potestate legentis sunt" (OCD 3.2.5). (23) Kenneth Burke, The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology (Boston, 1961), pp. 50-51. (24) John Freccero, "Logology: Burke on Saint Augustine," in Representing Kenneth Burke, ed. Hayden White and Margaret Brose (Baltimore, 1982), p. 60. (25) Derrida, Of Grammatology, p. 17; "Il y a donc une bonne et une mauvaise ecriture: la bonne et naturelle, l'inscription divine dans le coeur et l'ame; la perverse et l'artificieuse, la technique, exilee dans l'exteriorite du corps" (DG, p. 30). (26) Rom. 2:15. (27) "Nec ulla causa est nobis significandi, id est signi dandi, nisi ad depromendum et traiciendum in alterius animum id, quod animo gerit, qui signum dat. Horum igitur signorum genus, quantum ad homines attinet, considerare atque tractare statuimus, quia et signa divinitus data, quae scripturis sanctis continentur, per homines nobis indicata sunt, qui ea conscripserunt" (OCD 2.2.3). (28) "Nihil enim fere de illis obscuritatibus ervitur, quod non planissime dictum alibi reperiatur" (OCD 2.6.8). (29) "Nam nonnullas obscuriores sententias plurium codicum saepe manifestavit inspectio" (OCD 2.12.17). (30) "Quicquid igitur de ordine temporum transactorum indicat ea quae appellatur historia, plurimum nos adivuat ad libros sanctos intellegendos, etiamsi praeter ecclesiam puerili eruditione discatur" (OCD 2.28.42). (31) "Cum enim figurate dictum sic accipitur, tamquam proprie dictum sit, carnaliter sapitur" (OCD 3.5.9). (32) "Textual community" is an important concept developed by Brian Stock for "microsocieties organized around the common understanding of a script." See his essays, "History, Literature, and Textuality" and "Textual Communities: Judaism, Christianity, and the Definitional Problem," both in his Listening for the Text: On the Uses of the Past (Baltimore, 1990), pp. 22-24, 140-58, and The Implications of Literacy: Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Princeton, 1983). I use this term more broadly to designate texts that are in a social, religious, or cultural relationship with one another. (33) "Nemo enim utitur verbis, nisi aliquid significandi gratia. Ex quo intellegitur, quid appellem signa, res eas videlicet, quae ad significandum aliquid adhibentur" (OCD 1.2.2). (34) See Jacques Derrida, "Three Questions to Hans-Georg Gadamer," in Dialogue and Deconstrution: The Gadamer-Derrida Encounter, ed. Diane Michelfelder and tr. Diane Michelfelder and Richard E. Palmer (Albany, N.Y., 1989), p. 53. (35) See Saint Augustine, Confessions, tr. R. S. Pine-Coffin (Harmondsworth, 1961), bk. 8, sec. 12. (36) See Augustine, Confessions, bk. 3, sec. 5, and bk. 8, sec. 12. (37) "Hoc unde scio, nisi quia deus ineffabilis est? quod autem a me dictum est, si ineffabile esset, dictum non esset. Ac per hoc ne ineffabilis quidem dicendus est deus, quia et hoc cum dicitur, aliquid dicitur et fit nescio qua pugna verborum, quoniam si illud est ineffabile, quod dici non potest, non est ineffabile, quod vel ineffabile dici potest" (OCD 1.6.6). (38) In a roundtable discussion with Derrida, recorded in The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation ed. Christie V. McDonald, tr. Peggy Kamuf (New York, 1985), discussing Augustine's Confessions, Eugene Vance presented a similar observation. All language, for Augustine, whether written, spoken, Latin, Greek, etc., Vance refers to as "This estrangement from the ultimate meaning of everything, this exile in the external shell of language" (p. 82). (39) "Horum igitur signorum genus, quantum ad homines attinet, considerare atque tractare statuimus, quia et signa divinitus data, quae scripturis sanctis continentur, per homines nobis indicata sunt, qui ea conscripserunt" (OCD 2.2.3). (40) "esse dilectio rei, qua fruendum est, et rei, quae nobiscum ea re frui potest" (OCD 1.35.39). (41) "ut ea quibus ferimur, propter illud, ad quod ferimur, diligamus" (OCD 1.35.39). (42) Derrida, Of Grammatology p.73; "Que le signifie soit originairement et essentiellement (et non seulement pour un esprit fini et cree) trace, qu'il soit toujours deja en position de signifiant telle est la proposition en apparence innocente ou la metaphysique du logos, de la presence et de la conscience, doit reflechir l'eriture comme sa mort et sa ressource" (DG, p. 108).
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Author:Schildgen, Brenda Deen
Publication:New Literary History
Date:Mar 22, 1994
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