Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Instrumentality: Drawing an Analogy Between Wittgenstein's Philosophy of Language and Thomas's Christology

It occurred to me, while reading the Philosophical Investigations, that a potentially helpful analogy for understanding Wittgenstein's notion of language as "instrument" is Thomas Aquinas's defense of speaking of the Word using Jesus's human nature "instrumentally." (I suppose the helpfulness could extend in the other direction as well.) For Wittgenstein, language isn't an instrument because it's an item in our world external to us, ready for use in executing goals unrelated to language, that is, as a tool that could otherwise be accomplished equally well without language. (Not: this hammer will do, although that screwdriver would work, too.) Rather, language is an instrument because it performs work: we should keep ourselves from asking about something other than language that is the "real" thing happening or being communicated above or behind or within the language. When talking about meaning and communication, we should simply ask what the language itself is doing—what the words are up to in shared discourse. Language as a feature of human life is pragmatic; it fulfills tasks. If you want to know what the words mean, look to see what particular people are doing with them; observe what they're using them for.

Which isn't to say, as one might take it to mean, that language is not constitutive of human life and being. It unquestionably is. But its centrality to human sociality and existence is not to the exclusion of the practical, even mundane role it plays. Language, in other words, isn't a hammer next to the screwdriver. It's the toolset we're born with and into, which we receive and are trained in the exercise of, and which we develop and refine over a lifetime.

It seems to me that Thomas's understanding of the relationship between the divine Word and Jesus's human nature is quite similar to this account. Thomas argues that the divine incarnate Son's human nature is indeed constitutive of Jesus—who is a divine person enfleshed as a human being—precisely because he would not be human apart from it. But the human nature is nevertheless "instrumental" to the Word insofar as it is a medium of the Word's action and presence in the corporeal world. In this way it is neither accidental (because he wouldn't be human) nor essential (because he either wouldn't be or would cease to be divine), but rather—following the Word's assumption of human nature, resulting in a union in the hypostasis of the Word (not in the divine nature)—subsists as constitutive of the man Jesus of Nazareth, who just is the eternal Son in the flesh. Just so, because the human nature, which includes the soul and body of the man, is the Word's own, it is the instrument of the Word's agency in human, physical, material life. When Jesus acts, it is the Word acting, that is, acting in and through the instrument of its own (assumed) human nature.

In short, language is to human life (for Wittgenstein) as human nature is to the incarnate Word's agency (for Thomas): a not-quite-essential, but nonetheless-not-accidental, instrument.

(Actual scholars and experts in these figures, commence your corrections.)


  1. But what is the nature of language, mind, brain, silence and Real Intelligence.

    REAL Intelligence is tacit or intrinsically wordless and silent living existence.

    The reason we are so confused, misdirected, and un-Spiritual is that our consciousness has been made to adapt to the views of men who have not been Elightened by the Realization of God. We are a mind rather than intelligence. We do not openly commune with what Is, and the One Who Is. The brain and nervous system can then Commune, or Abide in unobstructed continuity, with the Current and Process of Existence, and the Great Secret will be sponataneously revealed to and as Consciousness.

    The human mind is a facsimile machine. This "machine" replicates language forms in the illusion of mind. The "machine" feeds language into the computer of the illusion of mind with which people identify themselves.
    That illusion is who they mean and when they refer to themselves - the body-mind complex, the mortal bio-form associated with the "artificial intelligence" of talk, of space-and-time "point of view", of ego-"I" constructs, of language, of language based brain, and, altogether, of ego-based and brain-based psycho-physical ideas and perceptual memories.
    The mind is simply stored as language-bits, or patterns of language and remembered perceptions in the brain. When a particular brain dies, the other replicating machines carry on the language-mind - continuing it from one generation to the next.

    Where is the "God" in all of that? Where is the Divine in that? Where is the Truth in that? Where is the Reality in that?

    Speaking of Wittgenstein and radical philosophical investigations the various resources available at this reference begin there investigations into the nature of Reality, from the holy-jumping-off-place where Wittgenstein inevitably got stuck.

  2. I know Aquinas and Wittgenstein equally well, which is to say I've read only a very little. But I've read Marie Louis Chauvet's 'Symbol & Sacrament' and he uses Heidegger (humans exist in the house of language; language happens to us) to critique instrumentalist/causalist/productionist ('Scholastic') view of sacraments and of language, in favor of a relation to sacraments and language based in symbol, understood not just as referent but as a thing in which we participate and that acts upon us and upon which we act. I have a hard time with the notion of instrument because it requires, to my mind, a reduction of the object/subject to a means. Though I agree that perhaps instrumentality is inevitable in some respects. At any rate, that's all I got for now. (Peace!)