Summary of a Thought Pattern in Augustine’s Confessions

Augustine seeks the truth about himself by tracing an ascending spiral of levels of presupposition. What unifies the text of the Confessions is precisely this movement. To Augustine this journey represents the cognitive or discursive truth about the self as given to an essentially temporal being. Given that Augustine regards his conversion as an act of divine grace, he is convinced that the movement through the spiral ‘imitates’ or ‘replicates’ in temporal reflection a timeless descending order or chain of ontological conditions. Ontologically speaking the ‘truth’ of the self is contained in the being of God, i.e. an eternal being who is the unconditioned condition of all created beings.


Definitions


a presupposes b = the meaning or significance of a is fixed by the meaning or significance of b.


a conditions b = b exists or is real only because a exists or is real.


Levels of spiral of presuppositions


Level 1: Augustine’s re-evaluation of his past (pre-conversion) values in Books 1 – 9. This has the form: a sequence of events e1, e2 of the same kind (e.g. experiences of grief at the loss of a loved one) comes to have a different meaning to the experiencing self. To that changed self (Augustine after his conversion) the change is not a contingent, meaningless, change. To that self the change (conversion) is itself meaningful. It’s meaning is that it is a meaning-conferring event. Thus, to that self, the relation between e1 and e2 becomes a meaning relation; at time t2 event e2 (grief at the loss of his mother) fixes retrospectively the meaning of event e1 (grief at the loss of a friend). The hopeful grief at his mother’s loss fixes the meaning of the earlier grief as “hope-less grief’. The later grief makes intelligible what the meaning of the earlier grief was all along, even though at that time, t1, that meaning was not accessible to that self; the grief at that time felt like an inexplicable loss of self. To the converted self the meaning of e1 presupposes the meaning of e2. But what makes meaning conferring events possible? The answer to this question cannot be given at this level without risk of a vicious infinite regress. To the converted self the meaning of its conversion cannot be fixed by the meaning of another (later) event, the way the post-conversion grief fixed the meaning of the earlier grief. Thus, the meaning of the occurrence of conversion, if it has a meaning, must be sought elsewhere. Augustine is thus led to consider what in himself (the capacities of his mind or soul) makes possible meaning-conferring events like conversion, and, hence, what the meaning of the fact of their occurrence might be.


Level 2: A re-thinking of what it is to be a conscious mind aware of time, and of time as a mental medium within which acts of thought that encompass fragmented experiences occur. (Books 10 and 11). Here we are concerned with what makes meaningful the occurrences within Level 1 as a whole (i.e., not, as in Level 1, with particular events fixing the meaning of other particular events). We are concerned with the presuppositions of Level 1 itself, not the particular presupposition relations within Level 1. Augustine reflects that if we think of the mind’s relation to time not as the passive observer and measurer of the movement of bodies in the physical world, but of time as the mental medium within which an encompassing act of attention actively relegates a future to a past, we have a way of understanding the mind’s capacity to collect events (as mentally replicated in memory) into meaning-structured unities. This is the view of memory as the ‘distension’ of the soul in time and is illustrated by the analogy of reciting a psalm. So, the meaning-conferring acts of level 1 presuppose (only make sense in the context of) the mind’s capacity to shape into meaningful unities fragmented experiences found in memory. As Augustine thinks that the mind (or memory) contain ideas as well as replicas of experiences, the mental capacity he finds at level 2 is itself meaning-conferring; it is the capacity to shape into ever larger meaning-structures not only the events of one’s life but also the meaning relations between particular sets of events. But, now, a problem arises concerning Level 2 similar to the one confronting level 1. The freedom and apparent spontaneity that attaches to the exercise of the above mental capacity seems severely constrained by some sort of necessity; we are not free to put remembered experiences into any sort of meaningful structure, any more (as Augustine notes in Book 3.7) than we can, in composing a poem, fit any foot in any position we want. And yet we cannot appeal to the capacity itself as delineated at Level 2 to reveal to us the meaning of the necessity that governs our collecting the events of our lives into meaning structures. The question “are the rules that determine the order of words and expressions in a meaningful sentence themselves meaningful?” cannot be resolved by appeal to the necessity of the rules in question. We need to look elsewhere for the meaning of the fact that there are creatures whose minds have meaning-yielding capacities that seem governed by some sort of necessity. Augustine is thus led to the idea of a different order of mind, one which understands the necessity of everything temporal as an aspect of its own eternal necessity cast in a temporal mode.


Level 3: Re-thinking of time, both of physical things and of minds, as a creation of a timeless Being i.e. God (Books 12 & 13) At this level Augustine is entertaining the thought that eternity is the ultimate presupposition of temporality, for it is the ultimate context within which the whole temporal mode of being, including the idea of a mind that possesses our capacity to collect events into meaningful unities to an indefinitely large extent, a mind to which all past events and all future events are known as clearly as we know a psalm or a story. Such a mind is still in time. Ex hypothesi no human capacity can fully grasp eternity, yet Augustine finds in his human capacity to encompass scattered experiences into meaningful wholes an ‘imitation’, in a necessarily time-bound fashion, of understanding things under the perspective of eternity. This commits him to a task that seems to him inescapable (given the spiral that he has followed), yet whose completion is perforce indefinitely deferred while he remains a being in time. It involves him in an indefinitely open-ended interpretation of himself in relation to Eternity and Creation that carries a promise of finality (closure) it can never deliver. Augustine understands this task as the interpretation of the word of God as given to Moses. For it is there that the truth of his self (as of all creation) is to be found, and the meaning of the event of his conversion fixed.


The chain of ontological conditions


Augustine thinks that the spiral his reflections upon the meaning of his conversion follow correspond to a descending chain of ontological dependence between entities. Thus:

The Eternal Being’s mode of understanding

Temporal being’s mode of understanding

Capacity to collect experiences into meaningful units

Capacity to perform acts of meaning-conferring on events

Capacity to be converted.


Comments


1. The unity of the apparently disparate components of the Confessions is secured. In following the spiral of presuppositions, Augustine traces the meaning of his conversion to its ultimate ground: God’s eternal understanding is the only one that really knows Augustine as he is truly. Augustine in his text can only ‘imitate’, in a narrative that spreads over time, what the truth about himself might be were it to be given eternally. In the Confessions Augustine enacts that ‘imitated’ truth; he is not its authoritative possessor.


2. Though in Augustine’s case the spiral of presuppositions has religious significance, there is nothing essentially religious about the pattern of the spiral. It is, of course, metaphysical but other thinkers may follow the pattern while giving a different account of the levels of the spiral.


3. The spiral though seductive does not compel one to accept it. It can be stopped at Level 1 or at Level 2 by simply not allowing the move to the next level prompted by the undecidability of a question that arises at the lower level. One would then accept what occurs at that level as simply a contingent fact whose occurrence is not itself meaningful. Notice, however, that the attempt to offer a reductive explanation (in material or physical terms) of what occurs at that level, though seeming to escape the question of meaningfulness, may itself be caught in a spiral of orders of explanation. A theory that explains why meaning-conferring acts occur will refer to events or occurrences that themselves either just happen to occur or can in turn be explained by a higher-order theory which refers to a different order of events or occurrences, and so on. Reduction may escape meaning but does not avoid the spiral pattern.