Material Logic: Grammar in the Generic Sense

By Dan Snyder

Dan SnyderCan you help me with my grammar? I’ve been asked this question by concerned students who notice themselves lacking in the ability to properly connect their thoughts in thesis class. Thesis, a class that is mostly about connecting thoughts and then connecting with an audience, is a pinnacle study for seniors at the Classical School of Wichita. The idea that someone would be coming to me at this late stage of our work, the stage that exhibits the sum of that student’s education and erudition, and asking for help with grammar, calls out exasperation. “Where to begin,” I think. And thinking so, I think to the beginning and meet Aristotle.

Ideally, we have endeavored to bring the student down the long path of grammar and logic to arrive at the possibility of rhetoric. I say ‘possibility’ because rhetoricians are those who have the opportunity to produce from the supposed storehouse of their skill and acquisition, to create composite works having toiled in careful formation of canonical practice and emulation. At the beginning, in grammar school, we are engaged in answering the question ‘what is?’ so that someday we may contribute to ‘what may come to pass.’ Part of our understanding, passed down from the medieval doctors of learning concerning education, who themselves were building on the foundations of the classical teachers such as Cicero, Quintilian, and even Augustine, was that the suitable time for this work was in the ‘pueritas’ or childhood. Aside though from all considerations of aptitude by reason of juvenility, the question of grammar must be a foundation of all directed thought in every age of the creature man. Naming things, after all, was the first work of our progenitor Adam. Naming things then is the first great work of bringing out, or bringing out ideas, children, and work. I name this naming ‘grammar.’ Teaching grammar is—to use a meaning-full name—fundamental. The question raised by the more advanced student in requiring grammar must have an answer that seeks first principles. What do I mean by this? I mean the generic precedes the specific, and that we must seek generic grammar.

One reason we study Latin in the classical schools is that it provides a more universal grammar, one that comprehends all of the grammar of modern languages. Declination, the categorization of nouns as regards ‘what is,’ as well as how they may be said, is one example of a grammar that is more precise and more encompassing than the simple English system of word order, direct and indirect object and so on. Amphiboly, the lack of clarity as to ‘who is doing what to whom,’ results in English because of its abandonment, for the most part, of this declination system. However, the student who understands this can easily master these relationships of concept in the output of their work in whichever derivative language they are attempting. What do we mean by ‘derivative?’ All languages are a derivation of the one language. I describe Latin as a ‘more universal language.’ This implies that there might be a universal language, and so there is. Jokes concerning which language God speaks (see the Quran) aside, language depends on the packaging of concepts for transport to other minds. Logos. How then can we help students and ourselves to wrap our thoughts more elegantly? Aristotle comes the closest to this tantalizing realization of universal or generic grammar that makes all other grammars special or ‘specific’.

Aristotle's CategoriesAcquainting students in the late logic phase of development with the grammar of Aristotle contained in his often overlooked work The Categories is the closest thing we have to a glimpse of the universal language of man. Teachers in the classical movement should reacquaint themselves with this key to understanding what grammar means. It may well be that Aristotle invented the study of grammar. His descriptions of the ways of being and predication, his exposition on distributed or universal nouns, and the distinction of properties and attributes are ‘upstream’ of and contribute to the study of Latin, and by extension all languages downstream. I propose for that older student the course of study that captures the ten categories. Memoria Press publishes Material Logic. This is one of the aids to this work that I am aware of, and having taught from it for two years now, I have found it a good primer. The layout of the work features a repetitive (ask any student) approach to ontology—the generic to specific ordering of knowledge—that aids processes like outlining, and the progression to a study of Aristotelian causes that can make the accomplished student nearly independent of the nervous tick of referring to a dictionary for essay work. Teachers in grammar school can benefit from this knowledge too in guiding their students in all endeavors that build the catalog of learning, expanding the repertoire of ‘who, what, when, where’ to include ‘by whom’, ‘because of’, ‘in the form of’, and ‘the quality of’ among others. Unlike Augustine, who was ultimately disappointed in finally acquiring Aristotle’s legendary ‘Categories,’ I found myself enamored as a logic teacher when I discovered that far from containing something called ‘informal’ fallacies, the world of illogic was full of ‘material’ fallacies. This work is key to forming a general understanding of language and ultimate grammar. Begin and supplement with these ideas, this approach, and grammar can be a lifelong study.

Mr. Snyder is a Rhetoric and Logic instructor at the Classical School of Wichita. Beginning with the Training and Education headquarters of the U.S. Marines in Quantico, he worked as a video game designer as well as a military simulation programmer, eventually delivering lectures on design theory around the world in the decade of the ‘90s. He was a training technology manager with the Drew biomedical division of the American Red Cross. In a parallel career, Mr. Snyder became a member of the U.S. Army Chorus, performing regularly at the White House, then going on to perform on concert and opera stages around the world in a wide variety of repertoire as an independent soloist. He has studied at Bryan College, George Mason, Mannes Conservatory, and The New School in New York, where he holds a certificate in screen writing.

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