Re: Hardening of the Categories (Arteries?)

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Sat Jun 06 1998 - 18:33:08 EDT

At 11:08 AM -0400 6/06/98, clayton stirling bartholomew wrote:
>James Kugel* argues that Robert Lowth bound and gagged the analysis of Hebrew
>Poetry by establishing categories of parallelism that would remain dogma for
>over 200 years. My interest here is not Hebrew Parallelism, but the role of
>categories in the analysis of K. Greek syntax.
>When I read a serious NT Greek grammar published after 1990 which is still
>using the taxonomy for the cases and the verb tenses which was in vogue over a
>hundred years ago, I see a close parallel to what Kugel is complaining about.
>What we are suffering from is hardening of the categories.
>I am not suggesting that we create a new system of categories. Far from it. I
>am suggesting that we throw out the system of categories altogether.
>The categories which have been used for so long have become a major impediment
>to analysis. There is always the temptation to look at a genitive substantive
>as something that needs to be stuffed into one of the time honored pigeon
>holes. This danger here is more acute for students than for competent
>grammarians. The competent grammarians in the last century have really
>operated as if the system of categories were just a convenient working
>hypothesis, and for that reason they were not terribly hindered in their
>research by this system of categories.
>But for the typical seminary student the categories become Torah. The seminary
>student will readily fall into the trap of accepting the taxonomy as something
>real, some actual feature of the K. Greek language system. For this reason
>the categories are dangerous. They promote habits of thought and analysis
>that, being established early, will resist change and will be passed on to the
>next generation of students.
>The alternative to this system of categories is a rigorous linguistic
>description the meaning of each case, verb tense, etc. within the K. Greek
>language system. Take the genitive** case as an example. There needs to be a
>separation between the meaning of the genitive case and the multitude of
>functions a genitive substantive may have in context. Confusion between these
>distinct issues is like confusing symbol, sense and referent in lexical
>semantics. We can start by proposing a single-invariant grammatical meaning
>of the genitive case form (contra my previous arguments) while recognizing
>that this meaning is not equivalent to the genitive substantive's function in
>a particular context. This kind of analysis needs to be applied to all the
>other morphologically identifiable syntactical classes within the K. Greek
>language system.
>If my thinking on this subject seems to be drifting it is because I am still
>learning, and revamping my language model.

My own view, for what it's worth, is that we can afford neither to accept
the traditional categories uncritically nor to throw the baby out with the
bathwater. Rather, the teaching and learning of grammar OUGHT, I think, to
a probing with blind fingers in the dark on a Greek text, but an
opportunity and a challenge to rethink the problems and examine the data
offered as evidence for the principles that have been handed down. I think
IF this WERE TO BE done honestly, we'd likely find more of the tradition
valid than not--but we'd be able to know some of the difference between
what we really do know and what we only think we know. God help us if we
had to start off anew in each generation to learn the Greek language
without the assistance of our predecessors, most of whom labored harder for
understanding than we have had to do.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
Summer: 1647 Grindstaff Road/Burnsville, NC 28714/(828) 675-4243

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