Grammatical Sociology

Speech arises, Rosenstock-Huessy claims, from shock. The beauty of the world, the “it” outside us, shocks us with amazement, and loosens our tongues. A command from another confronts us and forces us to say Yes or No in response. Suffering evokes the cry of the “I.” If we confront beauty, command, and suffering together, all forms of speech are suspended, and we are left with the grammar of prayer.

For Rosenstock-Huessy, speech is central because life is central, because experience comes before our reflection, and experience is always first articulated in speech, first evokes speech, before we begin to think it all over.

What is Rosenstock-Huessy attempting to do in his discussion of grammar, speech and language? There are two major passions that I think drive the whole of his work in these areas. First, there is the concern to heal the breach that has opened up in Western humanity during the modern period, a breach that can be described in many ways but which is in one dimension a breach between science and theology. He offers grammar as a master science, which can unite theology and science in one overall framework.

In the new epoch, the key concerns are social concerns, and since language is the coinage in which social relations are established and maintained, grammar, which is the self-consciousness of language as logic is the self-consciousness of thought, can unite the sciences while at the same time acknowledging their multiplicity (Speech and Reality [SR], 9, 18).

This might seem to be a demotion of theology to a subordinate place beneath the grammatical method; but what Rosenstock-Huessy is aiming for is really a promotion of theology to the rank of a science. Simultaneously, the grammatical method, based as it is in the Cross of Reality, places limits on natural science, demonstrating that natural science is only the science of spatial reality rather than a science that encompasses reality (SR 20). Social science, he claims, attempts to draw its categories and inspiration from either the natural sciences or from theology, and he is attempting to find a framework within which theology and natural science can be fit, but which draws its categories from somewhere else.

How can we see science as something subordinate to speech? Rosenstock-Huessy argues that science is dependent on articulated speech: “Only when we speak to others (or, for that matter, to ourselves), do we delineate an inner space or circle in which we speak, from the outer world about which we speak. It is by articulated speech that the true concept of space, and that it is being divided into an outer and inner sphere, comes into being” (SR 21). Rosenstock-Huessy is aiming at three things here.

First, he insists that speech is what makes space apparent, meaningful, interpreted. Until we speak, we have not clarified what the natural sciences are going to deal with. Science thus is subordinate to grammar. Specifically, second, articulated speech divides between an individual inner space (“I”) or corporate inner space (“we”) and the outer space about which we talk (“they” or “it”).

Contrary to Cartesian conceptions, space is not merely external extension, but is dual, inner and outer, and this reality is evident in our grammar. Science, third, has its say in the realm of outer space: “The space of science is a posteriori, and just one half of the complete phenomenon of space.” The human character of space is not evident in this outer realm, which we confront as an “it.” The “truly human phenomenon of space is found in the astounding fact that grammar unites people within one common inner space” (SR 21).

In this way, Rosenstock-Huessy seeks to bring science into a human sphere, and to show that it has a limited sphere of operation.

Theology is, by contrast, a temporally oriented science. It is concerned with the historical events of incarnation, cross, and resurrection, and by emphasizing man’s response to God’s call and command, and man’s transformation as a result of that call, it is concerned with the temporal dimension of human existence. As with science, Rosenstock-Huessy sees theology as a limited “science,” which focuses on one of the two axes of the Cross of Reality.

And theology as a temporal science is as dependent upon articulated speech as the spatial natural sciences. Space comes to expression and becomes articulated through articulate speech. Time also is dependent upon human speech: “It is we who decide what belongs to the past and what shall be part of the future” (SR 19). As noted above, Rosenstock-Huessy’s main intention here is to raise the profile of theology to the level of a genuine science, with as much claim to scientificity as the natural sciences.

In short, through the grammatical method, Rosenstock-Huessy intends to show how his grammatical slogan, Respondeo etsi mutabor, encompasses both the theological credo ut intelligam and the scientific cogito ergo sum (SR 24).

Grammar as the master science is also a challenge to the primacy of Greek logic and abstraction that has dominated thinking for centuries. Rosenstock-Huessy describes his method as a challenge to the primacy of logic and reflection, which is to say, the primacy of the indicative. Since the Greeks, the indicative, in the form of “This is an answer,” has dominated logic and thought. Every other form of speech has been either rejected because it didn’t conform to this pattern or was reduced to this pattern.

But the triumph of the indicative, of “This is an answer,” is arbitrary. The Bible, he points out, discards this Greek logic entirely: “Anybody who reads the first chapter of Genesis or the last chapter of Revelation can test our assertion that Greek logic is discarded in favor of a logic in which all the sentences, Give answer May I have an answer You have answered me He answers, hold equal rank” (OS 40).

The key difference between the indicative and the other forms of speech is that the indicative detaches the speaker from the listener and reality, while other forms of speech connect all three in multiple ways. An indicative does not require the presence of the speaker or the hearer in the way that the other forms of speech do: “My sentence ‘he is answering him’ is much more specific about my own person than the other: ‘this is an answer.’ The pure brain is free to say the latter sentence. The whole man – legs, arms, rump and brain – must exist in the same pace and time for the former. The speaker of the sentence ‘this is an answer’ is an abstract being” (Origin of Speech [OS], 42).

Rosenstock-Huessy is very emphatic about the involvement of the speaker in his speech. One cannot speak at all without changing himself, as well as his listeners, a fact, Rosenstock-Huessy observes, that all propagandists forget (GA Morgan, Speech and Society, 3).

Far from being the right place to start a logic, the indicative “This is an answer” comes at the end. This syntactical form was originally the form of a legal judgment, coming at the end of a trial, a trial in which all the other forms of speech have been offered. These judgments are not the primary form of speech, but a secondary form (OS 43).

And this secondary form of speech, the indicative, does not operate on raw material of experience, but always assesses facts that have already been articulated by other forms of speech: “Nobody can tell a tale without exposing the listener to all the associations which accompany every single word. Some sound sacred, some ugly in his ear. Turn as he may – he will not get facts but narrative; never does a listener, a jury or a judge hear reality itself; they always hear people telling them about reality . . . . All data is historical and therefore told by somebody to somebody else” (OS 44). Semanticists, logicians, and mathematicians, who deal in indicatives, are “gravediggers” of speech; they can only deal with speech after it is already dead.

Thus, in emphasizing the primacy of grammar and speech, Rosenstock-Huessy is taking a swing at the rationalism of modern philosophy as well as at the hubris of modern science.

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