Papist Orthodoxy

October 4, 2009

Nature and Convention in the Linguistic Arts

Filed under: Education, Philosophy — Tags: , , — Antiochian-Thomist @ 10:25 am

by Antiochian-Thomist

With language, as with society, we have to hold that there is both a natural and a conventional aspect to it. It is not without significance that Adam’s naming of the beasts follows immediately upon the notice of the social nature of man. “And the Lord God said, It is not good for man to be alone.”i What Aristotle noted about the state holds also for language. Man is social by nature, and yet he who founded the state was the greatest of benefactors. Man is a talking animal as much if not more so than he is a breathing and walking animal. And in this sense language is natural to him.ii

-Otto Bird, PhD.

Sacred Scripture, Aristotleiii, St. Thomas Aquinasiv, the above-quoted Dr. Bird, and a plethora of other intellects of worthy reputation assert that man is a social creature. Let us accept that as an established fact. It is also therefore the case that man with his natural tendency to seek out and live in a societal environment must have necessary and corollary natural gifts if that social nature is to be properly fulfilled. But what are these “natural gifts” to which we allude? In ways not entirely dissimilar to man, we see brutes who, to use the term loosely, live in “society” such as herds, prides, packs, flocks, and so forth. What does experience show us these creatures –man and beast alike– have in common in regards to the successful functioning of their “society”? Communication or the ability to communicate should be an obvious answer. However, man’s primary mode of communication is language, and that is learned. Further, the reality that there are a multiplicity of languages gives evidence to the fact that languages are themselves conventional. Did we men forsake our natural mode of communication for the sake of an artifice? Hardly. Rather, it was the nature of man to verbally communicate and to contrive that caused him to fashion the particular, conventional languages –the linguistic arts– so that he may fulfill his societal nature.

Society requires a cooperation among its members for it to be called society at all. Thus, whatever the framework of that society, its ordering necessitates the communication of its members. Therefore, as the end is a cause, the end of society is the cause of communication in general for society.

Though animals communicate, and do so vocally, man alone among the composite creatures is rational and has the capacity to formulate and communicate both concrete and abstract concepts. This he does in various and sundry modes, but history shows his preference for the spoken word and later the written word, which is nothing more than the visual symbols of the spoken wordv. Why this preference? Why does he not prefer to normatively use flags and standards, drum beats, or interpretive dance instead of language? St. Augustine gives us a glimpse of a possible explanation:

The signs that address themselves to the ear are, as I have said, more numerous, and for the most part consist of words. For though the bugle and the flute and the lyre frequently give not only a sweet but significant sound, yet all theses signs are very few in number compared with words [emphasis added]. For among men words have obtained far and away the chief place in indicating the thoughts of the

Augustine argues for the sheer number of auditory possibilities that the spoken word offers above and beyond the noise-making devices than man can contrive. Here we implicitly see an argument for efficiency of expression that can more completely communicate the nigh-to-innumerable experiences, concepts, imaginings, and desires of man. Further, it can be noted, that since nature acts for an endvii, and since nature has supplied man with vocal chords with the possibility of a greater or more subtle sound variety which is more proportionate to his multitudinous experiences, it is proper than man employ his voice and the use of words for communication.

Particular language, however, is still an art and thus conventional. But art is produced from reason as the likes of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas assert frequently; and reason specifically differentiates man from brute. Thus, art comes not from nature generally, but from rational nature specifically, for “the human race lives also by art and reasonings.”viii More particularly, art is produced from the reasoned considerations of experiences and is thus a universal in man, not to be lost upon any one exercise of the art. This is why Aristotle says, “art arises when from many notions gained by experience one universal judgement about a class of objects is produced.”ix Moreover, man is expected to make reasoned judgments from his gathered experiences for it is in his nature as rational to do so. Art, then, resides primarily in the intellect, and that part of the intellect which is “productive”.x

But neither art nor Aristotle stop there. The Philosopher also says:

…art is identical with a state of capacity to make, involving a true course of reasoning. All art is concerned with coming into being, i.e. with contriving and considering how something may come into being which is capable of either being or not being, and whose origin is in the maker and not the thing made […].xi

This “state of capacity” of which Aristotle speaks is discussed in the context of the treatment of the intellectual virtues in his sixth book of the Nicomachean Ethics. In short, art is a rational, productive habit, an acquired disposition, which resides in the man himself and not the thing produced. But man is not born with this art. Rather, he is born (under normal circumstances) with the ability or potentiality of acquiring this art or habit. This forces the conclusion that this capacity in man comes from at least two principles: one which is intrinsic to the man –which is natural, and one which is extrinsic to him –which is learned or acquired. Otherwise, if this capacity was entirely intrinsic, and all men were born with the acquired habit of language, it would stand to reason that all men would speak the same language. Of course, experience shows that there are more languages than there are nations in the world. This notion of the two-fold principle is clearly drawn out by St. Thomas Aquinas:

There are, therefore, in man certain natural habits, owing their existence, partly to nature, and partly to some extrinsic principle: in one way, indeed, in the apprehensive powers; in another way, in the appetitive powers. For in the apprehensive powers there may be a natural habit by way of a beginning, both in respect of the specific nature, and in respect of the individual nature. This happens with regard to the specific nature, on the part of the soul itself: thus the understanding of first principles is called a natural habit. For it is owing to the very nature of the intellectual soul that man, having once grasped what is a whole and what is a part, should at once perceive that every whole is larger than its part: and in like manner with regard to other such principles. Yet what is a whole, and what is a part–this he cannot know except through the intelligible species which he has received from phantasms: and for this reason, the Philosopher at the end of the Posterior Analytics shows that knowledge of principles comes to us from the senses.xii

This explanation bears out with man’s capacity for language. For it is owing to the very nature of the productive part of the intellect, which is common to the species, that man has by nature the inclination towards and the general ability to acquire and produce language. This potentiality and potency resides in the man, and is thus of his specific nature, though it might admit of degree in the individual natures, and is therefore an intrinsic principle. The experiences men encounter, such as hearing parents, friends, and teachers speaking, which are external to the man, form the extrinsic principles and are taken in via the senses, ruminated upon by the intellect, and are subsequently judged and acted upon. The latter portion of this process, i.e. the judgment and action, can only occur if the intrinsic principle is in place. With both present, the conventional art of language is produced and resides in the soul. Therefore, the intrinsic principle is universal and common to all men, but of itself not productive of language or the linguistic arts. The variety of languages, then, comes from the extrinsic principle, for those experiences and customs are varied depending upon where the individual man finds himself. Thus we see the truth in Dr. Bird’s statement:

Through usage and customs certain sounds have come to be selected out of a whole range of human sounds and organized in certain significant patterns. The resulting conventional construct is a specific language, English or Chinese. Conventional as so used to characterize a language can be opposed to natural. It then describes not the origin of the language but the modality and signification between the pattern of sounds and the experience they are associated with. How, for example, the expression “man” in English means “a man”.xiii

We have been told that originally all men spoke one language, and that multiplicity of languages owes its existence “to the sin of discord among men, which springs from every man trying to snatch the chief place for himself”xiv when we in the earlier part of our history tried to build that infamous tower.xv This we do not dispute. Nor, however, does it weaken our claim for what was imprinted on us originally now must be gained through nature and convention.

Nature, therefore, under a certain aspect, is a cause of convention insofar as convention is art. For man has by his nature those organs requisite for spoken language which give the material cause for the linguistic arts. Man is a social animal by nature, and society provides the final cause of his communicative abilities. Further, man is by nature rational, and reasoned intent provides the efficient cause for his linguistic artxvi which works in conjunction with and serves the final cause. Man’s nature receives the intelligible forms of things via the senses and his intellectual nature formulates concepts which together provide the formal cause of language. The linguistic arts, though conventional, are habits which find their seat in the soul of a man and arise from an intrinsic principle which is found in all men of sound and whole nature, and when combined with the extrinsic principles of experience give rise to the celebrated and necessary convention by which we have all benefited and will continue to benefit.


iGenesis, 2:18

ii“Learning and the Liberal Arts”, Dr. Otto Bird, first lecture for the course, Liberal Arts: Their History and Philosophy, given by the International Catholic University through Holy Apostles College and Seminary, Cromwell, CT.

iii Politics, 1253a; Nicomachean Ethics, VII, 1155a5

ivSumma Theologiae, I-II, 72.4

vAristotle, On Interpretation, 16a 5

viDe Doctrina Christiana, Book II, Chapter 3

viiSt. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, Lecture 13 [198b34-199a33]

viiiAristotle, Metaphysics, 980b25

ixibid., 981a5

xNicomachean Ethics, VI,1139b

xiibid., VI, 1040a10-13

xiiSumma Theologiae, I-II, 51.1

xiii“Learning and the Liberal Arts”, Dr. Otto Bird, first lecture for the course, Liberal Arts: Their History and Philosophy, given by the International Catholic University through Holy Apostles College and Seminary, Cromwell, CT.

xivSt. Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, Book II, Chapter 4

xvGenesis, 11

xviAristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, VI 1139a31-32


Aquinas, St. Thomas. Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics. Notre Dame, Indiana: Dumb Ox Books, 1999.

_______. Summa Theologica (in English, 5 vols., Notre Dame, Indiana: Christian Classics, 1981)

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics (Richard McKeon, ed., The Basic Works of Aristotle, New York: Random House, 1941).

_______. Metaphysics (McKeon, Basic Works of Aristotle)

_______. On Interpretation (McKeon, Basic Works of Aristotle)

_______. Politics (McKeon, Basic Works of Aristotle)

_______. Physics (McKeon, Basic Works of Aristotle)

Augustine, St. De Doctrina Christiana (Philip Schaff, ed., The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Volume II, Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM. B. Eeardmans, 1993).

Bird, Otto, Ph.D. “Learning and the Liberal Arts”, International Catholic University, 1996/2005.

1 Comment »

  1. Nature and Convention in the Linguistic Arts

    Dear Antiochian-Thomist,

    Man is social because he comes from the Holy Trinity. Therefore, deep within his primordial self he knows unity and from the heart to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In his unity of body and soul he also speaks to men. His glory is that he would speak to God and men always from this Triune light.

    — Iakovos of the Desert

    Comment by Jim — October 4, 2009 @ 4:41 pm

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