Philosophy Theology

Augustine and the Theory of Signification

Saint Augustine of Hippo was one of the most consequential and influential philosophers in the Western tradition. Perhaps most remembered as a theologian, he was, nevertheless a theologian-philosopher whose various ideas and original insights have since passed into philosophical canon. One of Augustine’s more “secular” contributions to philosophy was his theory of signification which is relevant to language theory and metaphysics.

In De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching), Augustine develops a systematic philosophy of signification through signs and things. He also attempts to distinguish between signifier and signified. This is all bound up in a larger metaphysics of mediation with the signifier acting as mediator to thing signified.

God is the only proper Thing-itself, the ultimate Object of reality that the world and all creation signifies. Temporal things, however, exist in a pluralistic constitution of simultaneously being thing and sign. In the most obvious example, the human person is a corporeal object: a body, but also a sign: an image of God. The human person as a thing exists as a sign signifying God and God’s love. To less anthropomorphic matters, a tree exists as a thing-in-of itself but is also a sign of beauty which, in Augustine’s sacramental theology, is also a sign—different than human admittedly—pointing back to God.

But moving away from sacramental theology to such “secular” matters, Augustine’s philosophy of signification is also one of the first systematic attempts in Western philosophy to attempt to understand the nature of language. As Augustine wrote, “All instruction is either about things or about signs; but things are learned by means of signs.”[1] In the second book, Augustine develops a more mature philosophy of language as he turns with the attempt to communicate and understand Scripture (or any form of writing for that matter).

Language, according to Augustine, is the penultimate form of signification. Language attempts to communicate—signify—to us the ‘real meaning’ (so to speak): The ‘moral of the story,’ the ‘meaning of the play,’ the ‘intent of the speech,’ and so forth.  “Of the signs, then, by which men communicate their thoughts to one another, some relate to the sense of sight, some to that of hearing, a very few to the other senses. For, when we nod, we give no sign except to the eyes of the man to whom we wish by this sign to impart our desire. And some convey a great deal by the motion of the hands: and actors by movements of all their limbs give certain signs to the initiated, and, so to speak, address their conversation to the eyes: and the military standards and flags convey through the eyes the will of the commanders.”[2] What Augustine exposits here is how everything from speech, bodily motion, to organizational structures, all exist as a medium for signification. Bodily motion signifies something that the body, or person, wants. The chain of command is the medium of signification of the leader’s commands down to the junior officers and soldiers who then execute “the will of the commanders.” But of all the mediums of signification words hold the chief place in signification theory, “And all these signs are as it were a kind of visible words. The signs that address themselves to the ear are, as I have said, more numerous, and for the most part consist of words.”[3] (This is why, in particular, it is important to recognize that in the First Book of Genesis, God creates through speech which places emphasis on hearing rather than touching or seeing.)

Augustine goes on to write about how language is captured in writing and how writing is, itself, a medium of signification. “But because words pass away as soon as they strike upon the air, and last no longer than their sound, men have by means of letters formed signs of words. Thus the sounds of the voice are made visible to the eye, not of course as sounds, but by means of certain signs.”[4] Words, as a medium of signification through speech—is lost in writing. Writing doesn’t have a hearing sensation to it; writing’s medium of signification is through reading wherein words have meanings because words are meant to signify something beyond simply being subject or predicate, noun, adverb, or adjective. Indeed, our very construction of language is built upon signification: Predicate signifies subject; adverb signifies action; adjective signifies description, etc.

Language, according to Augustine, includes speech and written word; the totality of language is a signification of objective truths being communicated either through speech or written words. If language didn’t have meaning, then the philosophy of communicative knowledge would dissolve. No one would understand anyone, and nothing spoken or written would have any meaning as we could never be moved to what is being signified through speech or written words. Elsewhere, Augustine goes on to say that one of the remedies for ignorance is the study of language—principally the native languages of translated works—to avoid the error of miscommunication or understanding.[5]

Moreover, as Augustine writes, when you study language you run across signifiers that are figurative and literal. This is also important to understand when reading (or listening). To mistake figurative language for literal and literal language for figurative will result in misunderstanding because one has misinterpreted the signification. (This has dramatic consequences for reading Holy Scripture which is the focus of Augustine’s commentary in chapters 11-16 of the second book.) We might be familiar with such problems of signification when we’re trying to discern if a text or email was written with humorous or serious intent and we might look for clues, like with emoticons, or emojis, to help let us know if the text or email signifies a humorous intent.

This is not to say language cannot be understood. Augustine is arguing the opposite. Language can be understood. But the understanding of language is premised on recognizing language as a mediation of signification; the words—spoken or written—are not the things-in-themselves. Rather, language is the medium of signification to higher more objective ends that yield understanding. Since language is a construction of signification, it then becomes important in the study of language to start to realize all the nuances and meanings—the significations—of words and their construction in sentences and stories as communicative mediums to the reader or listener.

Augustine’s philosophy of language, as it emerged in De Doctrina, is a theory of communicative symbology. The language is not the thing. Language is a signifying construction to deeper meanings, deeper truths, and things that go beyond language which language exists as a mediating bridge to lead us to. It fits neatly with Platonic theories of signification and language too; where images are the first grammar of the psyche and language developed as a signifier for images. Language, then, in Augustine’s thought, is really a constructed means of communicative symbology grasping at things that lay beyond language itself. Utterances do not have meaning apart from the more substantial thing that structured utterances attempt to signify.

[1] Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, I.ii.

[2] Ibid., II.iii

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., II.iv.

[5] Ibid., II.xi-xii, xvi.


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  1. This always seemed to me the obvious solution to Kantian scepticism; the proper distinction in a theory of knowledge is not between phenomenon and noumenon, but between sign and meaning. What do you think of this?

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    1. I’m a pretty thorough-going Augustinian; I mean, my chapter for a book project on anthology rested heavily on Augustine’s signification theory to make the emphasis of persona being sign and narrative being the meaning (I was explaining how religious stories and archetypes are well-suited for synthesizing persona and narrative immersion). So if that means anything about me I guess it speaks volumes.

      While I’ve appreciated Kant, I’m largely unsatisfied with him. Spent too much time on Kant as an undergraduate too I think. Leo Strauss, I think, said it best in Natural Right & History (1953), Catholic science or worldview is largely undisturbed by the problems of modernity for a number of reasons (it being the most synthetic with the ancient outlooks). While he might change his opinion given the number of modernist mutineers in the Catholic establishment, among clerics to professors, the doctrines are still pretty ancient or, “reactionary,” so it still stands on other grounds.

      I do think the Kantian compromise is disintegrating as we speak. Hard to know what comes next. But I guess I probably lean in favor of signs and meanings. It’s where my chips are, as it were, at the present moment.

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