G is for Grammar

“Theology as grammar.”

Wittgenstein suggests this, parenthetically, in the Philosophical Investigations S373. In Wittgenstein’s work, grammar is a big thing: he asks us to distinguish between the surface grammar of a remark – perhaps we could say the linguistic grammar, or the rules governing the way a word can be used in language – and the depth grammar, the way in which a word can coherently be used. Getting at this difference is difficult, but perhaps it helps to think of Mad Libs, a game where words are replaced according to their surface grammar. “The cat sat in the tree” makes sense and “the cat sat in the joy” does not, even though both ‘tree’ and ‘joy’ are nouns, because the deeper grammar of ‘joy’ (not least that it is abstract) dictates that it’s not something cats can sit in.

The idea that theology or doctrine might be regarded as the grammar of religion, the part which tells you which new sentences are acceptable and which are not, was taken up by Lindbeck as part of his broader religion as language analogy (for more on this, see my post about fluency). In particular, I talk in that post about the idea that fluent speakers of a language or a religion will be able to detect grammatical errors instinctively, rather than rationally.

It’s worth remembering here that, despite the impression sometimes given by English teachers and people who sell books about grammar, grammar in language is something which evolves over time, which is flexible and creative, and which varies according to context, rather than a set of absolute rules. In particular, grammar arises from language which is spoken and written, it doesn’t spring into life as a fully formed rule-set. This is especially obvious where subcommunities develop their own grammar; for a recent and light-hearted example, read Anil Dash’s post on the grammar of Lolcats, Cats Can Has Grammar. (Or should that be ‘haz grammar’?) In religion, too, then, we expect there to be books which record the grammar at a particular time, and for there to be some consistency through time as well as some change, but the real judges of correct grammar are the fluent speakers and not the books.

In a recent post called Quakerism as a Second Language, Craig Barnett compares the position of Quakerism today with minority languages, such as Welsh, which need both active support and a continuing process of creating new and relevant ways of speaking. In some ways, the portrait he offers of Quakerism sounds more like a dead language, like Cornish, being revived from books in the absence of fluent speakers. I don’t think this is actually the situation, and to extend the picture I would add to Craig’s list of useful resources for learning the Quaker way. Specifically, I would add that other Quakers and conversations with them are a powerful part of any attempt to learning the living tradition.

In order to learn a language, there comes a point at which it is necessary to practice producing it for oneself. I do think that this needs to be supported by explicit teaching of grammar (one of the things which was missing from my school experience of learning languages, and which I have found most rewarding in studying Biblical languages and conlangs), and an encouragement to listen and read and go on listening and reading (for longer than might seem necessary; many people, including myself, can’t accurately repeat back a word or phrase having heard it only once or twice). However, eventually a learner needs a space in which they can try out what they are learning, safely make mistakes, and be corrected. Especially in recent years, I have been lucky to have these spaces among Quakers, with family, friends, and Friends who are willing to engage in these conversations. How can we provide them more generally?


10 responses to “G is for Grammar

  1. very interesting. who was it who said that religion is a language virus?

    • A quick Google suggests that it’s a quote from a TV show, True Detective. Whoever said it, I don’t think that I agree – the virus image may be vivid in modelling the passing of ideas from one person to another, but it is flawed even for that (religions and languages both need communities while viruses can pass between individuals), and the proposed ‘inoculation’, usually secular humanism, is equally easily regarded as a pattern of language games each with their own grammar.


      • Austin Starr

        you’re rite — it’s one of Rustin Cole’s memorable quotes. I’m curious about your assertion that religions . . . need communities. What about the image of the mystic in the desert, St. Jerome & Co. Are you suggesting that religions have to have groups of adherents in order to qualify as religion? Does faith need a crowd of like minded believers to be valid? I don’t understand what you’re saying about secular humanism being an innoculation. It’s clever so it seems compelling but I don’t really get it.

  2. The mystic in the desert, as far as I know, always turns out to be supported by community in at least two ways – teaching (maybe through texts, but always from others; even the great religious innovators draw on previous religion), and practical support (what did Jerome eat? who made it and brought it to him?). I’m not terribly interested in what ‘qualifies as’ a religion by an invented rule, so I’m not out to invent one, but the things which we call religions do, as far as I know, all consist of communities.

    The inoculation comment was meant to be a continuation of the virus metaphor – some anti-religion campaigns, mainly New Atheists, who like to call religion a virus or a meme, seem to think that their way of thinking is not just as much a social construct which they have inherited and which they share with their community.

  3. Thanks for explaining. I think I get it. I found quite a bit on religion as a language virus when I searched on line. Most of the ‘philosophical’ statements that Rust Cole made in True Detectives (yes, a tv show, but HBO and brilliant in many ways) refer to the writings of philosophers such as when he says we live the same life over and over (Nietzsche) and his references to membranes, which is pretty current string theory.
    What interests me specifically is how certain words trigger endorphin release and the people who write about religion as a meme are at least flirting with that idea. One of my favorite examples is ‘forgiveness’ which is, at best, undefinable and illusive and, at worst, imo, psycho-babble. That’s why I love Wittgenstein because, whether or not he meant to, he has me thinking about how words are used that have no definable meaning but give pleasure in some way (patriotism, family values, etc.)

    • Hmm. I hadn’t heard the bit about certain words triggering endorphins before, that’s interesting. Where did you find it? Whether or not there’s a brain chemistry involvement, there certainly do seem to be some terms which function as simply ‘positive’, especially within some political discourse. ‘Hard working families’ seems to be a common one at the moment.

      • Austin Starr

        I figured that out myself. Think how society sets up certain words as revered ‘concepts’ — frequently having to do with marriage, procreation and patriotism. If a woman is killed in a traffic accident, for example, she’s likely to be referred to first as ‘a mother of three’ rather than an accountant. We’re also trained to have synapses fire with non-verbal cues, like seeing the American flag.
        What do you think?

  4. In case of interest, and you may well already be aware of this paragraph:

    ’28 Let us look at the grammar of ethical terms, and such terms as “God”, “soul”, “mind”, “concrete”, “abstract”. One of the chief troubles is that we take a substantive to correspond to a thing. Ordinary grammar does not forbid our using a substantive as though it stood for a physical body. The words “soul” and “mind” have been used as though they stood for a thing, a gaseous thing. “What is the soul?” is a misleading question, as are questions about the words concrete and abstract”, which suggests an analogy with solid and gaseous instead of with a chair and with permission to sit on a chair. Another muddle consists in using the phase “another kind” after the analogy of “a different kind of chair”, e.g., that transfinite numbers are another kind of number than rationals, or unconscious thoughts a different kind of thought from conscious ones. The difference in the case of the latter pair is not analogous to that between a chair we see and a chair we don’t see. The word “thought” is used differently when prefaced by these adjectives. What happens with the words “God” and “soul” is what happens with the word “number”. Even though we give up explaining these words ostensively, by pointing, we don’t give up explaining them in substantival terms. The reason people say that a number is a scratch on a blackboard is the desire to point to something. No sort of process of pointing is connected with explaining “number”, any more than it is with explaining “permission to sit in a seat in a theatre”.
    Luther said that theology is the grammar of the word “God”. I interpret this to mean that an investigation of the word would be a grammatical one. For example, people might dispute about how many arms God had, and someone might enter the dispute by denying that one could talk about arms of God. This would throw light on the use of the word. What is ridiculous or blasphemous also shows the grammar of the word.’

    From Ambrose and Macdonalds’ notes (’32-’35). I’ve always thought the excerpts on theology as grammar particularly interesting. Parallels can be seen in the 1929 lecture on ethics, too, where describes religious language strictly as similes. That it was also discussed in the ‘Lectures on Religious Belief’ I am sure goes without saying.

    You may well have read all of this already but thought it would make for interesting reading in case you did think it was only alluded to in PI.

    Many thanks for sharing the article; very interesting.

  5. Pingback: W is for Wittgenstein | Brigid, Fox, and Buddha

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