Nature and Convention: being part II of the essay that follows it below because it (that which is below) was written first

In Genesis 1 God created the heavens and the earth (we aren’t told how) and then He said, “Let there be light.” When He did so, it seems safe to assume He used some language to say it. That is to say, He used language to bring reality into existence.

In Genesis 3, Satan used language to persuade Eve to do evil. In so doing, he severed the link between language and reality. For the first time, nature and use were put in conflict.

I cannot remember who it was, but some medieval philosopher objected to teaching grammar on the ground that it enables a child to parse God, and who was the first to put God in the plural? Grammar, in other words, enables a person to mislead and corrupt others. The solution to these dilemmas always seems to be ignorance among the anxious.

In fact, I suspect that a case can be made for the overthrow of grammar having begun in the Middle Ages. When Occam (William of Ockham) won the day with his proto-nominalism the foundations for all ordered and civilized thought, community, and society were shaken. Occam denied that anything had an essence, particularly grammar. Grammar had no natural existence, but was merely a name that we attached to the conventional way we structure communication. Grammar is only a name, merely a convention.

It isn’t hard to go from Occam to the Enlightenment, especially the empirical branch that was obsessed with particulars and rejected universals as so much metaphysical claptrap. Since nature doesn’t exist in the Enlightenment scheme (it’s just a name for our conventional perspectives), it is an obstacle to our free development as human beings. Nature must be overcome.

Thus, I would argue, in the Enlightenment we see the radical separation of nature and convention and, both consequently and subsequently, the rejection of nature.

Convention severed from nature always leads to tyranny. This follows as surely as pain with age for the simple reason that when a leader convinces his people (teacher to student, politician to people, general to army) that there is no code of behavior that transcends their utility, no principle that orders their conventions, what he’s really done is prepare them for his behavior, which will be free from any code to restrict it or principle that orders it.

Only nature and nature’s law can restrain the tyrant.

Following hard on the misappropriation of convention as it occurred during the early and late Enlightenment (early: Louis XIV, Henry VIII; late: the English and French aristocracies) came the rise of radical relativism, which is conventions without any link to nature. The Enlightenment is the story of endless confusion about the place of nature. Thus, when the radical relativists of the French Revolution arrived, they sang of a return to nature. But nature, having been eliminated, was transformed into little more than a beast. It was powerless against convention and seemed to breathe its last on the guillotines of the revolution.

Then came the unhappy marriage of the radical materialists and the radical relativists. Both rejected nature for convention with a vengeance. Here we speak of the Marxists and the feminists, both of whom rejected human nature. Denying essences, they came to believe that masculinity is a convention for oppression and the femininity was a convention for – what? Survival under the oppressor perhaps. Neither were natural, in any case. Both needed to be overcome.

Grammar has walked the same path as sexuality over the centuries. Both have come unglued in the last 50 years.

One practical consequence is that both have come to be regarded as unimportant. If grammar is mere convention, and if convention is oppressive, why should we attend to grammar. It’s spirit has been released – it is deflated. Grammar lies on the classroom floor like a wasted balloon after a party, lying beside the prophylactics.

Since grammar is not important it is not carefully taught.

Since grammar is not carefully taught, we are in the early to middle stages of the obliteration of literary skills like reading and writing and we have lost the capacity to engage with a complex sentence. That would require too much personal commitment, and that would require acceptance of conventions, and that would imply that I am not utterly free.

Unless of course freedom has something to do with nature.

Conventions of Grammar

The point of conflict between the traditional and the contemporary approach to grammar is the triumph of convention over nature. Current grammar theories seem to argue that grammar is strictly a matter of usage (convention). Since this is so, we need to examine why people use grammatical forms and of course, the only possible explanation is that they want power over others. Grammar is an elitist enterprise in which the establishment keeps outsiders outside.

While that is an obvious caricature, life on the college campus and university classroom has itself become a caricature, providing far too many proofs of the approach to life described above.

So far as I can tell, nobody has ever denied the conventionality of grammar. In other words, nobody has ever developed a theory of correct grammar that has not taken usage into consideration. But that leaves at least two critical questions open: one, is convention the ONLY determinate of correct grammar, and two, whose usage should be recognized as authoritative?

This latter point is especially important precisely because grammar is so conventional. A convention is an approach to a given activity that people agree to. The world of computer and internet technology is full of such conventions. As long as people agree to HTML codes or Java script it works. But if someone were to come along and declare that they don’t work, or worse, that they are tyrannical, then a problem would arise.

In the realm of grammar, this reaction seems to be taking place, led by Marxists and feminists, with the ground prepared by Utilitarians and other nominalists. The argument is that grammar is a white man’s mechanism to oppress women and minorities. Let us grant, for a moment, that white men use grammar to oppress women and minorities. Is the solution to do away with grammar? Is it to toss aside the conventions altogether?

The very impossibility of that option prevents radicals from pursuing it to that extreme. They smartly focus their attention of conventions that are especially worth fighting over, like sexist language.

But the impossibility also points to a second vital question: whether there is something more than convention in the structure of grammar; whether, indeed, the structure itself of grammar is ultimately relative, created by man the measure of all, or whether the structure of grammar arises from nature itself and is therefore something we are bound to submit to at our peril.

To put it another way, the tension in grammar arises from the conflict between convention and nature. Convention can be understood as another name for usage, though it’s a little more precise and expressive. Nature is the essence of the thing, the underlying order linked to reality.

Convention alone is radical relativism.

Nature alone is radical intellectualism – irresponsible and impersonal.

We all, everyday, are called upon to negotiate this tension and while we don’t usually do it from an informed position, we seem all to have positions and impulses on this matter. For example, the adolescent who adopts the language of his peers is willfully adopting a conventionalist mindset. He’s not about to submit to the requirements of the teacher, which clearly arise from the representatives of the establishment.

The teacher might also hold to a conventionalist position, in which case the only reason for teaching grammar is utility, which is another word for power. You should learn grammar so you can be more persuasive, gain more pleasure from your writing, get a good job, etc. But when the teacher holds to a conventionalist position, there is no compelling appeal to justice by which the student can be called to honor the instruction. It might be imprudent or immature or impractical not to learn grammar, but it can’t be seen as inherently destructive of his human faculties.

My sympathies lie with the student in that context, as they always lie with the victim of tyranny, no matter how mild.

But if the teacher or student were to hold to an essentialist position, then I would have to see the student as a fool in rebellion. No longer is he trying to shake himself free from an oppressor, now he is trying to rise above the restrictions of human nature.

Which of the two options a society opts for makes all the difference.