Sunday, 3 May 2015

Erika Kidd: The Drama of Augustine's De magistro

In De magistro, Augustine is regularly taken to be worrying a skeptical problem of meaning: how do we know that the words we share with others are meaningful rather than meaningless? Many who read the dialogue in that way wind up dissatisfied with the solutions purportedly on offer; Christ's illumination of the knowing mind is arguably too light on detail for those looking to construct an epistemology, and too heavy on theology for those who prefer their philosophy neat. But if Augustine's solution to a skeptical problem of meaning looks only half-baked, we need to reevaluate whether it is really the point of the dialogue.
In this paper, I maintain that Augustine's articulation of a problem with words cannot be abstracted from the relationship and conversation between father and son in the dialogue. Therefore, I outline a new strategy for reading Augustine's De magistro. I argue the text is best read as drama and as a dramatic enactment of a specific but common human temptation to misconstrue how we humans speak with one another (in short: to think we speak only to inform each other). I examine features of the relationship between Augustine and his teenage son Adeodatus in order to show that the way they speak with one another regularly belies the arguments about speaking they seem to make. That tension-between avowed position and concrete practice-creates the dramatic tension that we must begin to see if we are ever to understand Augustine's De magistro endgame.

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