St. Augustine'S Model Of Experiential Learning
St. Augustine of Hippo was the first to construct an theory of learning, or epistomology, that encompasses modern concepts of learning and memory.
In his account of Socrates' last day of life, Plato sets up a theory of "recollection" which makes as much of a statement about learning as it does about memory: all sensory information is faulty, so any knowledge must be learned initially without the senses before life begins or between lives. Although Augustine does not directly address or take down Plato's theory of recollection, he gradually sets up the exact opposite as his general theory of learning: all knowledge is learned from sensory evidence and experience. Often Augustine uses just a phrase to give a sense of it without explicitly stating it, belying the importance of the concept of the ability to learn something that was before unknown. In a sense, the entirety of the Confessions of St. Augustine is a record of how Augustine learned God, who he did not know before. If Augustine did not firmly believe and establish that an unknown can be learned, the Confessions of St. Augustine would lose its significance as a manual that teaches about Augustine's vision of God. If no one could learn anything, there would be no point in writing a book to help teach them; if they did not already possess knowledge of God, they would be unable to acquire it, and if they already did, they would not need to.
In order to understand the philosophy Augustine argues against, a basic knowledge of Plato is necessary. According to Platonists (and to many earlier philosophers), all information garnered by the senses is false, so no mental concept can be based on sensory information gathered through experiences in life. In the Phaedo, Plato uses the example of the concept of Equality (132 75B-C). As a character, Socrates sets up the argument that since no two things in the world are truly equal, no one could witness "equality". Yet, people compare objects and say they are more or less equal to each other, so they must have gotten the concept of equality somewhere. Because the senses could not have given that information (and it would have been faulty if they had), Socrates reasons that they must have acquired it before birth:
And if it is true that we acquired our
knowledge before our birth, and lost it
at the moment of birth, but afterwards by
pertinent exercise of our senses, recover
the knowledge which we had once before, I
suppose that what we call learning will
be the recovery of our own knowledge; and
surely we should be right in calling this
recollection. (132-133, 75E)
Going by Plato's theory of recollection, a person is logically incapable of learning anything they didn't already know, because any learning during life comes through the senses and the senses are fundamentally invalid. Christianity in general and Augustine in specific reject the notion at the heart of Plato's argument: they consider sensory information to be valid for philosophical and theological reasoning.
Plato makes his points using concise arguments that build on each other, whereas Augustine hammers his across via repetition. The role of the senses in life, the beauty of information they collect (memories of which are labeled as "treasures" (X, 8, 217)). Augustine begins very early on his quest to validate the senses by stating that God: "gave me when an infant life and a body which, as we see, you have equipped with senses, fitted with limbs, adorned with its due proportion and, for its general good and safety, have implanted in it all the impulses of a living creature..." (I, 7, 24) Augustine not only puts senses right on the list of things which God gave people for their benefit, but puts it before a necessary physical body part: limbs. Augustine goes on to give senses a set mode of action: "All the other senses [aside from those he's mentioned specifically] too have their own proper modulations with regard to their particular objects." (II, 5, 46) Most importantly, in Book Four, Augustine explicitly states that God created the senses for a "purpose": "Our bodily sense is slow because it is bounded by the physical. It is sufficient for the purpose for which it was made... " (IV, 10, 80) For Augustine, God is Truth and if God created the senses and gave them to mankind, he gave them for a reason and to be used, and the information they deliver will give accurate information within its design.
While emphatically embracing the senses, Augustine also threatens Plato's argument by questioning a life before birth: "And what about the time even before then [the time he was in his mother's womb], O God, my sweetness? Was I anywhere, or anybody?" (I, 6, 22) Augustine gives no answer to this question, only speculating that God might be smiling at him for asking it. Though he comes to no conclusion on it, he is certain that God created everything from nothing and that there was a time when he, himself, did not exist. The question doesn't require an answer to find fault in Plato's logic; by considering the possibility that there was no time before birth in which to learn everything one later recollects, Augustine throws the theory of recollection into doubt.
Augustine questions life before birth in the process of working through his life in chronological order. After dispatching things which happened or did not happen before his birth as things he can never know, because "My father and mother could not tell me, nor could the experience of others or my own memory" (I, 6, 22) Augustine moves on to describing his childhood experiences. First, he learns about his behavior as an infant from reports of others and watching other infants, because he has no personal memory of this period of his life. "...I began to smile; first when I was asleep and later when awake. So, at least, I have been told and I can easily believe it, since we see the same thing in other babies. I cannot of course remember what happened in my own case." (I, 6, 21) Augustine doubly describes experience based learning in this passage. On the first tier, he learns things he did not know about early life through observing others, with his sense, and on a second tier, he is informed by "others" about his actual behavior, which he openly states he cannot and does not remember. At no point does Augustine suggest that he was reminded of something he already knew and then recalled it.
Augustine reaches his height of attention to detail in his description of learning to speak:
It was not that my elders provided me with words by some set method of teaching. No, I learned to speak myself by use of that mind which you, God, gave me. By making all sorts of cries and noises, all sorts of movements of my limbs, I desired to express my inner feelings... Then I turned things over in my memory. When other people gave a particular name to some object and, as they spoke, turned toward this object, I saw and grasped the fact that the sound they uttered was the name given by them to the object that they wished to indicate. That they meant this object and no other one was clear from the movements of their bodies, a kind of universal language, expressed by the face, the direction of the eye, gestures of the limbs and tones of the voice, all indicating the state of feeling in the mind as it seeks, enjoys, rejects, or avoids various objects. So, by constantly hearing words placed in their proper order in various sentences, I gradually acquired the knowledge of what they meant. Then, having broken in my mouth to the pronunciation of these signs, I was at last able to use them to say what I wanted to say. (I, 8, 25-26)
To take this apart, bit by bit, Augustine believes that he learned to speak by observing the "elders" speaking around him and attempting to express his "inner feelings" to them in a way they would understand. In order to get from a state of ignorance of speech to eloquence in it, Augustine begins his journey by picking up on clues about what word indicates what object through watching people and using body language, facial expression, what they were looking at and their tone of voice as a process of elimination. The steps described here make use of the "mind" and creates a model of learning that is sequential, each piece is based on the last, tedious, difficult and based on sensory information. The difficulty of gaining this knowledge is emphasized by the phrasing, "having broken my mouth to the pronunciation of these signs," used to describe the physical element of learning to speak. Choosing to include the physical process alongside the mental gives Augustine a micromoment to remind the reader of two important things: firstly, that for a Christian body and spirit (or intellect, in this case) make a whole individual, secondly that the realm of the physical is as real as the realm of the mental.
Augustine proceeds to describe his entire experience in life up to the writing of the Confessions. He goes to school, and the learning process is addressed again in a myriad of ways, all of which mirror his earliest learning experiences in Book II: he learns something, examines it, "turns it over in his memory" and generally speaking, discards it. Finally, in Book X, Augustine learns (or completes and accepts his knowledge of) God. For sections of this Book, Augustine indirectly references Plato's theory of recollection when he asks:
"How, then, Lord, do I seek you? For when
I seek you, my God, I am seeking the
happy life...How, then, do I seek for the
happy life? For I cannot find it until I
can reach the place where I can truly
say: "It is enough; it is there." How
then, do I seek it? Is it by remembrance,
as though I had forgotten it but can
still remember that I have forgotten? Or
is it through desire to learn something
unknown, something which I either never
knew or which I have so completely
forgotten that I cannot even remember
that I have forgotten it?" (X, 20, 229-30)
Augustine begins here by setting up the question: how do you reach a state "the happy life" or find a being "God" which you've never experienced. He asks is it through remembrance or through experience; remembrance is Plato's concept of recollection of something which one already knows (though Augustine does not address the original source of the knowledge), and Augustine's line describing experience sums up the alternative he's spent Confessions building: the "desire to learn something unknown." Having set the stage, Augustine pursues the question, using the concept of eloquence as his reference point:
"Is it then, as we remember eloquence? No,
it is not. Though it is true that on
hearing the word 'eloquence' many people,
who have not yet become eloquent, call to
mind the thing signified by the word and
many people would like to be eloquent --
all of which shows that the thing is in
their knowledge; yet it is by means of the
bodily senses that they have been pleased
by it, and have wanted to become eloquence
themselves (though unless they had some
interior notion, they would not be pleased,
and, if they were not pleased, they would
not want to possess this quality); however,
there is no bodily sense which enables to
experiences the happy life in others." (X,
Here, Augustine demonstrates that all knowledge of a concept such as eloquence, even in people who are not eloquent, is garnered through use of the "bodily senses" but allows that knowledge of "the happy life" cannot by acquired through sensory experience, because watching someone else's happy life is not the same as having your own. Augustine is unable to determine the method that must be used to learn things that cannot be learned by sensory evidence -- he plays with Plato's model and a few of his own, including that everyone experiences a different version of "the happy life" -- until he comes back to the concept of God.
In the following passage, Augustine exempts two concepts from his theory of experiential learning. These are God and "the happy life": "but where did they [human beings] gain their knowledge of this happy life except in the place where they also gained their knowledge of truth?" (Book X, 23, 233) God and Truth are the same throughout the Confessions. The question transfers then back to "how does a person learn God (Truth)" which Augustine finally answers:
"Where then did I find you, so that I
could learn of you? For you were not in
my memory before I learned of you. Where
then did I find you, so that I could
learn of you? I could only have found you
in yourself, above me. Place there is
none; we go backward and forward, and
there is no place. Truth, you are
everywhere in session..." (X, 26, 235)
Here Augustine finally ends the line of questioning: God was not in his memory before he learned of God (whenever that was.) At some point, Augustine found God and learned of Him through experiencing Him (He was "everywhere in session"). The key to all of this is that Augustine moves from arguing the possibility of Platonic recollection of "the happy life" (or the search for God) back to stating that, at some point, he did not know God and at some later point learned God through his experiences.
Augustine never directly writes that he believes learning is the process by which a person gains knowledge of something which they did not before know, but the detailed descriptions he gives of the learning process throughout Confessions, combined with the story of learning about God which he tells, and that he chose to share his confessions with the world, hoping others would by edified by them, literally learn something from them, paints a complete picture of experiential learning.
This analysis makes use of the 1995 Penguin USA reprint of "The Last Days of Socrates: Euthyphro/Apology/Crito/Phaedo" by Plato; and the 1978 New American Library edition of the "Confessions of St. Augustine" translated by Rex Warner.