My Philosophy (Materialist Grammar)

Category: Guides

1 Introduction

My non-sectarian outlook on ancient learning is shaped by my commitment to the model of ancient Grammar, the ‘art of letters’ or ‘of literature’ (Grammatikē). Although in the Ancient Mediterranean, Grammar was not seen as a philosophical school, but as a pursuit distinct from – and, according to philosophers, inferior to – philosophy, nevertheless it does represent a philosophical outlook to me. As I will explain below, the philosophy of Grammar as I conceive it is broadly in line with ancient Pyrrhonism, contemporary Foucauldian discourse analysis, and Materialism in the Marxist sense.

Despite the (unfortunately well-earned) reputation of Marxists as anti-religious, Materialism is in the first instance a method, and what I call Materialist Grammar is my method for embracing all modes and aspects of pagan learning without imposing a single overarching logic or metaphysics on them. It does not lead to perfect neutrality and openness, of course, which is beyond human reach. But it does allow me to engage with the texts that survive from antiquity with a degree of honesty that I think would be difficult for me to reach if I followed some one ancient philosophy dogmatically, or if I adopted an “objective” outsider perspective from which to evaluate ancient thought.

I do not say any of this to promote Materialist Grammar as a philosophy for anyone but myself. On the contrary, I aim for SARTRIX to be “all things to all people”, not “so that I might save some by all means”, as Paul of Tarsus put it (1 Corinthians 9:22), but so that Platonists may find honest information about Platonism, Stoics about Stoicism, devotees of the Mother-of-Gods about the Mother, and so on. I want to lay out my philosophy here to show how and why I do this, and to allow anyone to see and judge the strengths and weaknesses of my approach.

2 Grammar as a tradition

When I say that I follow or model myself on the ancient tradition of Grammar, there are some things I emphatically do not mean:

  • That there is a universal tradition or philosophy of grammar – Sanskrit grammar (vyākaraṇa), for instance, is an entirely separate tradition, which was even consciously developed into a distinct philosophical school by the 5th–6th-century CE scholar Bhartṛhari (off-site link).
  • That there is a continuous ‘Western’ tradition of grammar – in fact, ancient Grammatikē lives on partially in various modern fields (including what we now call grammar, but also linguistics and literary studies), but none of them take Greco-Roman Grammar as their model.
  • That ancient Grammar is continued in modern Classical Studies – modern Classicists regard ancient grammarians primarily as sources, and perhaps secondarily as proto-Classicists, but do not adopt their aims or methods.

To work in the tradition of ancient Grammar today, then, is not a matter of tapping into something timeless or transhistorical. It is necessarily a matter of reconstruction and revival, constrained by historical chance, which has left a somewhat random assortment of texts for us to study.

To me, it is precisely that historically contingent character which makes Grammatikē relevant. According to the principles of Materialism as a method of historical analysis, as laid out in Marx and Engels’ critique The German Ideology, we must ascend from the Earth to Heaven, not descend from Heaven to Earth; that is to say, we must begin with the painstaking analysis of particulars before we begin to abstract and generalize, rather than taking certain preconceived generalizations for granted at the outset.

Applied to ancient literature, this means that we should not rely on our assumptions about which texts are important, or our innate ability to read ancient texts in the correct way, but make close study of all that has come down, and specifically of how texts have been read in antiquity and in the time since. Otherwise, we will be more likely to project our biases onto an antique work than to truly confront it and let it challenge them.

3 Some characteristics of ancient Grammar

Ancient Grammar can be loosely divided into two sub-fields, the technical part and the historical. The former corresponds to what we call grammar or linguistics today; the latter relates not to history but to historía, the accumulation of knowledge. This means information about historical events, mythical narratives, philosophical theories and much else – not so much historical and philosophical truth or the true meaning of a myth, but any and all lore that can assist in expounding a poet or prose writer. (Poets were the special province of grammarians, prose writers were shared with the rhetoricians.)

Because there was no expectation on a poet to be speaking the truth, and it was in fact regarded as a point of excellence for a poem to contain a broad variety of learning, grammarians likewise were more interested in what was being said at any given moment, and how it was to be understood, than in what was strictly true. This also affected their own practice, in which argumentation for a certain viewpoint could certainly feature, but it is not necessarily the conclusion that matters, but often the presentation of multiple opinions, each with its own arguments.

The reason I regard this method as constituting a distinct philosophy is that it is not a haphazard amassing of material,

definite rules – discourses

+secular? Materialist / Foucauldian method
Pyrrho & epoché
Islamic & Confucian stuff

room for many philosophies
creation of secondary intertextuality
doxography and rhetoric

subjective perspective, as