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Sunday, January 15, 2012

HEGEL ON GRAMMAR

As a grammarian of the Chomsky school of thought, one is always heartened to find supportive statements, even if the source is somewhat dubious (but highly acclaimed by others). In this case we are citing none other than Hegel, the German philosopher who in turn spawned many a controversial school of thought. Russell famously noted that Hegel is the most difficult to read philosopher known to modern mankind, and I have to concur. His sentences are embedded to the nth degree but lacking the stylistic artistry of a Nietzsche, hence reading Hegel is laborious if not tedious. As such I was pleasantly surprised that his little paragraph on grammar is actually not that difficult to read – and it even makes poetic sense to me. Equally surprising, perhaps, is the fact that he wrote it as part of a valedictory speech he gave at his school where he was headmaster. In any case I attach the paragraph in question in German and then add my own (free) translation into English. I conclude with some comments on the text.

Rede zum Schuljahresabschluß am 29. September 1809
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel


Mit diesem mechanischen Momente der Spracherlernung verbindet sich ohnehin sogleich das grammatische Studium, dessen Wert nicht hoch genug angeschlagen werden kann, denn es macht den Anfang der logischen Bildung aus,—eine Seite, die ich noch zuletzt berühre, weil sie beinahe in Vergessenheit gekommen zu sein scheint. Die Grammatik hat nämlich die Kategorien, die eigentümlichen Erzeugnisse und Bestimmungen des Verstandes zu ihrem Inhalte; in ihr fängt also der Verstand selbst an, gelernt zu werden. Diese geistigen Wesenheiten, mit denen sie uns zuerst bekannt macht, sind etwas höchst Fassliches für die Jugend, und wohl nichts Geistiges [ist] fasslicher als sie; denn die noch nicht umfassende Kraft dieses Alters vermag das Reiche in seiner Mannigfaltigkeit nicht aufzunehmen; jene Abstraktionen aber sind das ganz Einfache. Sie sind gleichsam die einzelnen Buchstaben, und zwar die Vokale des Geistigen, mit denen wir anfangen, [um] es buchstabieren und dann lesen zu lernen. —Alsdann trägt die Grammatik sie auch auf eine diesem Alter angemessene Art vor, indem sie dieselben durch äusserliche Hilfsmerkmale, welche die Sprache meist selbst enthält, unterscheiden lehrt; um etwas besser, als jedermann rot und blau unterscheiden kann, ohne die Definitionen dieser Farben nach der Newtonschen Hypothese oder einer sonstigen Theorie angeben zu können, reicht jene Kenntnis vorerst hin, und es ist höchst wichtig, auf diese Unterschiede aufmerksam gemacht worden zu sein. Denn wenn die Verstandesbedingungen, weil wir verständige Wesen sind, in uns sind und wir dieselben unmittelbar verstehen, so besteht die erste Bildung darin, sie zu haben, d.h. sie zum Gegenstande des Bewusstseins gemacht zu haben und sie durch Merkmale unterscheiden zu können. Indem wir durch die grammatische Terminologie uns in Abstraktionen bewegen lernen und dies Studium als die elementarische Philosophie anzusehen ist, so wird es wesentlich nicht bloß als Mittel, sondern als Zweck—sowohl bei dem lateinischen als bei dem deutschen Sprachunterricht—betrachtet. Der allgemeine oberflächliche Leichtsinn, den zu vertreiben der ganze Ernst und die Gewalt der Erschütterungen, die wir erlebt, erforderlich war, hatte, wie im Übrigen, so bekanntlich auch hier das Verhältnis von Mittel und Zweck verkehrt und das materielle Wissen einer Sprache höher als ihre verständige Seite geachtet.—Das grammatische Erlernen einer alten Sprache hat zugleich den Vorteil, anhaltende und unausgesetzte Vernunfttätigkeit sein zu müssen; indem hier nicht, wie bei der Muttersprache, die unreflektierte Gewohnheit die richtige Wortfügung herbeiführt, sondern es notwendig ist, den durch den Verstand bestimmten Wert der Redeteile vor Augen zu nehmen und die Regel zu ihrer Verbindung zu Hilfe zu rufen. Somit aber findet ein beständiges Subsumieren des Besonderen unter das Allgemeine und Besonderung des Allgemeinen statt, als worin ja die Form der Vernunfttätigkeit besteht.—Das strenge grammatische Studium ergibt sich also als eines der allgemeinsten und edelsten Bildungsmittel.
Connected with this mechanical aspect of language learning is the study of grammar, the value of which cannot be exaggerated because it is the beginning of education in logic – something I mention because it seems to be nearly forgotten these days. Thus grammar encompasses those categories that in themselves are the output and definitions of reason; it is in grammar that reason begins being learned. The spirited essences which grammar acquaints us with are natural phenomena for the youthful mind, as indeed nothing is more spirited than youth. The not yet all-encompassing strength of mind of this age cannot acquire the riches in all its manifold manifestations, however those grammatical abstractions are easy to understand. They are like the letters of the alphabet, indeed the vowels of the mind, with which we begin to spell out and then learn to read. Hence grammar proceeds in a suitable form for this age, inasmuch it teaches to distinguish things by means of external features which are mainly internal to language itself; the aim is to be able to better distinguish blue from red than those who are uneducated, not necessarily by providing definitions for these colours based on Newton or any other theory but by way of grammatical knowledge which is sufficient to note these very important differences. Because if and when the prerequisites for reason – and we are reasonable beings – have been internalized and are understood, then the first aspect of education is to have it (reason), i.e. to become conscious of it and to be able to distinguish (categorical) features. Since grammatical terminology allows us to learn to move within abstraction, it is this kind of study which is fundamental to philosophy, and therefore grammar is considered not only the means but the purpose when regarding Latin and German language studies. The general and superficial mindset that needed to be replaced by seriousness and the necessary force of revolution, has its analogy in the appreciation of language, whereby the relationship between means and purpose was also turned up-side-down, and whereby the material knowledge of a language has now a higher value attached than its communicative aspect. The grammatical study of an ancient language also has the advantage in that one has to constantly apply reason and analysis, whereby, unlike in the mother tongue, where unreflective habit yields the correct word forms, it is necessary to reasonably evaluate the phrases and to apply the syntax rules of the language. In this way there is constant computation in the mind, concerning the particular in relation to the general, and the general in relation to the particular – which is the way reason works. The rigorous study of grammar is thus one of the most general and noblest means for education.

Hegel’s mention of ‘revolution’ is of course in relation to the French Revolution which has shaped the thinking not only of his contemporaries but continues to exercise our minds to this very day. After all the French Revolution forever reminds modern mankind that there is no divine order, at least not in the political and economic spheres but that it is up to mankind itself to fashion a social system that is just and fair, striving for egalité, fraternité and liberté. To do so we must appropriate the knowledge contained in the apple from which Eve ate, in other words we must learn to understand how everything works so that we can, by force of reason, implement necessary changes that deliver us from, as Hegel says, a general and superficial mindset. One assumes that Hegel’s conception of the French revolution on the positive side was to have defined a new purpose (Zweck) while on the negative side the means (Mittel) employed turned on itself, i.e. the revolution eating the children of the revolution. When Hegel saw Napoleon in the flesh, he is reported to have said that he saw in Napoleon the embodiment of a man who ‘reaches out over the world and masters it’. It appears that means and purpose sacrifice each other ad nausea. If grammar is indeed a concept to be employed as analogous to these historical process, it is, however, highly questionable. When Hegel refers to language and language learning itself, one has to admire his touching belief that to learn grammar along the way is the only way to go. Here Chomsky is echoed in that we learn nothing much about a language if we learn a language only as a means to communicate. Even so it is difficult NOT to pick up some grammar of the language learnt but of course it would be vast exaggeration to claim – as Hegel did – that in doing so we enhance our powers of logical reasoning and in turn become better and more serious people. To study syntax certainly means the acquisition of knowledge about language per se, and as in other sciences we are driven only by the quest to find out what we didn’t know before. Once such new knowledge is applied as a means to a dubious end we are back to square one, namely to Hegel’s ‘Der allgemeine oberflächliche Leichtsinn’ which is as prevalent today as it was then. Hegel’s dialectic tension obviously impressed Marx who envisaged that the means to the communist end would finally exhaust themselves and that the purpose of social and economic justice would be the end product. Marx underestimated the means, leaving the purpose hanging in the air as a utopian concept. We shouldn’t stop trying though, just like the supreme grammarian of out time, Noam Chomsky, who also uses his formidable reasoning skills to remind us of the purpose of life, and how to get there without falling victim to the means. If on the other hand progress in grammatical knowledge is applied to the machine translation device the universal soldier carries with him, in order to interrogate the foreign enemy combatant, then we have lost again. Note that Hegel contradicts himself when he says in the last sentence that grammar is a ‘means’ to education. He should have employed the word Bildungszweck (education purpose).