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“Augustine starts the next part of his dialogue with Adeodatus in discussing signs that “do not signify other signs but instead things” (The teacher 8.22.25). Augustine first asks Adeodatus “whether man is man” (The teacher 8.22.64). Adeodatus responds that man is in fact man. Augustine then asks if the syllable “ho-“ means anything but “ho-“ and “mo-“ means anything but “mo-“ and that those syllables conjoined are man. Adeodatus responds that each syllable means only what they mean and that they conjoined are man. Augustine then asks then, if you are a man (homo) are you then those conjoined syllables? Adeodatus then realizes where Augustine was taking his line of questioning—drawing the distinction between sign and the signifiable.
In analyzing where Adeodatus erred in reasoning he realized that he should never had granted that “ho-“ and “-mo” conjoined are man but rather that they form the sign that represents man. Augustine reinforces the point by bringing forth an example where a comic would get a person to say lion and then couldn’t deny that lion had come out of the mouth of the interlocutor to the great taunting of the comic. Adeodatus points out that it is obvious that what we say doesn’t come out of our mouth but rather we signify things through our speech unless the “signs themselves are signified, and we discussed this class [of signs] a little while ago” (8.23.109).
Augustine continues his line of reasoning in asking whether man is a name. Adeodatus begins to accept this in light of the prior established conclusion that every word is a name. Augustine points out that the language he uses isn’t precise because, in saying that man is a name he would be saying that he himself is a name. Augustine understands how Adeodatus came to accept the conditions that would lead him to a false conclusion. “The law of reason that is implanted in our minds overcame your caution” (8.24.122-123). Augustine explains that we subconsciously make a distinction between whether we are discussing the word “man” as a sign or as a signifiable. If we understand man as a part of speech (a sign) then it is correct to say that man is a name, however if man is understood to as a reference to the signifiable—then it is correct to say that man is an animal. Augustine points out that unless someone explicitly asks about man as a sign, for example “is man a name”, then the rule of language would immediately go to what is signified by the syllable ‘man’ — for example if he asks “what is man”.
The conversation then moves on to why the rule of language is as it is, for example, why is it that saying that “Hence you are not a man” is offensive when, in context of ‘man’ being a syllable, it is true. Augustine explains that by virtue of what a sign is supposed to do, the sign points away from itself and toward the signifiable by default because it “naturally has the most power—so that once the signs are heard the attention is directed to the things signified” (8.24.150-151).
Augustine then raises the point “that the things signified should be valued more than their signs. Whatever exists on account of another must be worth less than that on account of which it exists” meaning that the word man, for example, is worth less than the concept of man itself. Adeodatus points out that in some cases, the concept is held it great disdain giving ‘filth’ as an example. In itself, the word ‘filth’ is only one letter away from the word for heaven in Latin, but the concept of filth couldn’t be farther from what heaven embodies. Augustine then asks whether the knowledge of what is filth is more valuable than the word for filth. Augustine points out that while it is true that not all concepts are to be held in as high esteem as the words that represent them, the mere knowledge of what the concept is should be held in higher esteem than the word itself because if the knowledge was absent then the word would be meaningless to the person. Augustine brings forth an example about a glutton who said that he lived to eat — a temperate man chastised him saying that one should eat to live. While the concept of gluttony is not more valuable than the word gluttony, the temperate man should be praised that for his knowledge of gluttony he was able to see the error in the glutton’s ways. The line of reasoning follows in another example, those that teach in order to talk. It makes more sense to talk in order to teach, as words are a tool to be used to teach-words exist so that we may use them. It stands to reason that what we derive from the tool is worth more than the tool itself — what we learn from speech is worth more than the speech itself. Augustine then concludes from this line of reasoning that knowledge of the things signified, regardless of the value of the actual signifiable, is preferable to knowledge of their signs.
Adeodatus brings forth his continued misgivings about the relative value in comparing the sign, the signifiable, and the knowledge of each—namely, if the name has greater worth than the thing itself, shouldn’t the knowledge of the name be greater or at least equal to the knowledge of the thing itself? Augustine responds with the example of vice. The word vice is much better than the signifiable, but the knowledge of the name ‘vice’ is far inferior to the knowledge of vices. If someone knows the name ‘vice’ but doesn’t know what they are and how to avoid them, then the knowledge of the name ‘vice’ is worthless compared to the knowledge of vices. Augustine does concede that there is a conceivable scenario where the knowledge of the sign would be preferable to knowledge of the signifiable.
Adeodatus and Augustine then come to the conclusion that the knowledge of things signified is preferable to the signs themselves, though not to the knowledge of signs. Signifiables give meaning to signs and thereby signifiables are superior to signs, but it remains debatable the knowledge of which (sign or signifiable) is preferable.”
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