The Metaphysics of Grammar

Oct 3, 2014

Have you ever encountered a paragraph that itself was worth the price of the book? I did while reading Dr. Scott F. Crider’s The Office of Assertion. Here it is, linguaphiles (for free!):

In the metaphysics of grammar, each part of speech concerns one of three conditions—being, becoming, or relation: Nouns, pronouns, and adjectives concern being, and so too do both gerunds and participles, the first a verbal noun, the second a verbal adjective; verbs, infinitives (perhaps), and adverbs concern becoming; and prepositions and conjunctions concern relation [...] A rhetor who attends to nouns and verbs will be a better leader of souls toward any subject at hand because grammar discloses something constitutive of the world itself: everything has being, motion, and/or relation.

For grammarians and non-grammarians alike, the above is a shady wild—beautiful, but tangly. Everything stems from that introductory phrase: “in the metaphysics of grammar.” What is that, exactly? We are familiar with “grammar.” We are also familiar—albeit, probably less familiar—with “metaphysics” (in Aristotle’s words, “the study of being qua being,” “wisdom,” “theology,” or “the principles of things”). But what is a “metaphysics of grammar”?

We do not have to look far: this special study, Crider explains, considers how “grammar discloses something constitutive of the world itself,” the “being, becoming, or relation” of things. All words, he argues, reveal three elements of reality—what things are, what they do, and how they appertain to each other. The grammar one learns as a fifth-grader is no exception. Nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and so forth, in their discrete functions, name and judge the world, and even simple sentences indicate complex discernments about the nature of things.

On this matter of the relationship between language and reality, the author draws support (and even the title of his book) from Richard Weaver’s The Ethics of Rhetoric. In a chapter titled “Some Rhetorical Aspects of Grammatical Categories,” Weaver maintains that “language must have some connection with the intelligential world,” that while the word “is born psychological,” it “is ever striving to become logical.” For Weaver, words’ potential to engage reality explains why “the sentence through its office of assertion” can create “that uneasiness which we feel in the presence of power."  Given the abuse of language, the study of grammar becomes a means of using that potential responsibly.

Still, Dr. Crider goes further than Weaver in speaking of a “metaphysics of grammar” (a coinage which I cannot find in Weaver’s work). Weaver engages grammar mostly, though not exclusively, in rhetorical and ethical terms, but what Crider describes turns more philosophical. This is not to say that the philosophical is not ethical and rhetorical, but rather that the philosophical exceeds both. In addition to asking what is right and wrong or what the available moral means of persuasion are, philosophy also asks what is sound and unsound, real and unreal.

Naturally, the next question becomes what this “metaphysics of grammar” looks like in action. Crider leaves this question to us, so let me make my own attempt to answer it. Consider the well-known line from Robert Frost: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.” The grammatical metaphysician believes that there is more philosophy here than one can shake a stick at. In the first two words, Frost offers us a subject, “woods,” an object for contemplation. This isolated subject, though, is unimaginable, a pure essence, an abstract idea of “woodsiness.” (Just try to think of the woods in no particular season, with no particular weather, at no particular time of day; impossible, no?) But with the verb, “are,” that essence suddenly explodes into existence. The “woods” take on being by being “lovely, dark and deep.” We now can imagine the subject. And at this point the reader of Frost’s poem suddenly learns something about the nature of woodlands. While woods do not have to be “lovely, dark and deep” (some might be small, gloomy and half-lit, for instance), woods do have the potential to be “lovely, dark and deep.” Loveliness, darkness and deepness are ways woods can achieve being. Certainly, there are imaginable ways that woods cannot be, just as there are certain ways an orange cannot be. (To this day I have never found a purple orange with pink polka-dots.) But a wood can be “lovely, dark and deep” because loveliness, darkness and deepness are possible within its nature, and if we had never read Frost’s poem, we might not have known that.

"Is any of this teachable to fifth-graders?” someone asks. Maybe. Probably not directly. What we can communicate, however, are some important implications, some basic principles that stem from the fact of grammar’s metaphysical dimension. These are my own inferences: One, our words, for better or for worse, represent what we truly believe about our the world. What we say matters. Sound has weight. (Of course, a child can understand this without metaphysics.) Two, because words do relate to the world, grammar is a means of exploration. Language is a way of encountering what is actually out there as we feel our way verbally down the long, castle corridors of Creation. Three, the importance of grammar extends beyond the English classroom, reaching every school subject and, more significantly, the extra-curricular. We believe that there is nothing we do over which the Word does not reign.

Of course, if we learn to love language, these principles of grammatical metaphysics will probably flow naturally from our teaching. If we as educators and parents marinate in the finest forms of speech, then we will be seasoned to teach this study ourselves.

How about starting with Robert Frost? 

Josh Mayo

Josh Mayo

Josh Mayo is an Assistant Professor of English and Writing at Grove City College. He writes at joshamayo.com.

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