Philosophical Reflections
In which a philosopher speaks, sometimes without having been asked

On Saying and Doing

by John Ziegler

Logicians know what speech is, because their very professional competence depends upon it. If man did not speak, logicians would no doubt have to employ themselves as hewers of wood and drawers of water. Delicacy forbids me from mentioning what would then be the lot of the politicians, radio and television interviewers, sporting officials, and purveyors of hortatory messages of all kinds. And no civilised person would wish me even to hint at the fate, in that case, of those given to calumnies, lies, and the promotion of unwanted merchandise.

What do we say? The logician has a ready answer: apart from fragmentary exclamations like 'ouch!', we speak in sentences (just as a character of Molière discovered, to his surprise, that he had been speaking prose all his life). Sentences have subjects and predicates tied together, like 'the cat sits on the mat', or 'on the whole, it seems likely that the Australian dollar will rise in relation to the yen'. Subject, verb-copula, predicate. Furthermore, our logician will point out that the verb, like 'sits', really conveys 'is sitting', so that 'the cat is sitting on the mat' is understood as 'the cat IS (something) sitting on the mat'. In other words, the subject, 'the cat' IS IDENTIFIED with 'something sitting on the mat'.

The logician hastens to sum this up: every sentence amounts to a subject identified with its predicate.

So, to say anything completely (apart from 'ouch!'), we simply have to convey a subject and a predicate. Arranged together. In Latin, syntaxis, from the Greek. Sentences are syntactic.

But lest the words should carry us away from the point, lest some obsessed grammarian seduce us, let us reflect that subjects and predicates are not words. The words only represent. Aristotle remarked that we bring words into our discussions because we cannot bring the things. So, a sentence can be conveyed without words, as is usually done in gestures when people do not understand one another's language. The important thing is that there is syntactic speech, and the syntax does not refer to words (in the grammarian's pedantic way of looking at it) but to realities.

At this point the logician reminds us that there are three grades of act of the mind: the first, grasping reality in a concept; the second, composing realities in that act we call judgment and in which we attain truth of thing; and the third, seeing the nexus between antecedent truth and the truth consequent upon it, in that insight we call reasoning.

Judgment, then, is clearly the basis of syntactic speech. In the judgment, we signify identity between the words of the grammarian's subject and predicate, between the concepts representing the things, although neither the words nor the concepts are identified with one another. The word 'cat' is no more identical with the words 'something on the mat' than is the case with the corresponding concepts. Thus, the way we signify the judgment, the very syntactic sentence, is a paradox. For the identity is, and can only be, in the realities: those realities that Aristotle remarked that we cannot bring into our discussions. And it is precisely here that there is a fundamental failure in those philosophic systems called nominalism and conceptualism.

Syntactic speech, then, is a sign of judgment. And judgment is itself syntactic. The important thing, then, about syntactic speech is not that it might have a verbal structure (or it might not); it is that it necessarily signifies the fundamental structure of the judgment by conveying those terms united in the judgment (or, conversely, divided in negative judgment). Syntactic speech is not merely verbally syntactic, as it is in the grammarian's realm. Syntactic speech is syntactic precisely as it signifies. It is not merely syntactic in grammatical matter; it is syntactic in form.

Let us go a little further. If, after assiduous checking of the facts, I judge 'the cat is sitting on the mat', then I can say so in syntactic speech. But suppose that I check facts of another sort and come to the judgment that there is a fundamental consonance between me and chocolate coated ice cream; so that I judge 'I like ice cream'. I could say that, too, in syntactic speech; and have indeed been known to do so. But, instead of stopping to say so, I might simply start eating a suitably handy ice cream, on the principle that the judgment is father of the deed. Now, if I had said so, you would know that I like ice cream. But equally, if you saw me eat it, you would know it, too. What I do tells you what I like; such a judgment is betrayed by such a deed.

What's the saying; 'by their fruits you shall know them'? 'Of what sort someone is', says Aristotle, 'such is what appeals to him'.

Not only, then, is syntactic speech a sign of judgment: any deliberate deed is a sign of judgment (of what is to be done, and therefore of what I deem good).

But a deed can be more than that. It can be a certain sort of speech. Suppose I would like you to think that I like ice cream. Well, then, I could make sure you see me eat one with every sign of relish. And such a speech would be the truth. Or I could try similarly to make you think that I like haggis; but that would be a lie, and I am sure many such lies are enacted at many a Hogmanay.

We have here left the realm of the logician. Let him (or her) not try to tell us that all human speech is syntactic! Even so, the logician will not brook the grammarian's opinion that subjects and predicates are words. All speech that is syntactic in its manner of signifying because it signifies judgment is of one sort; but this other speech, which rather signifies what I like and therefore is without syntax (quite apart from the fact that it is without words), is of another sort. It has its natural significance as well as the significance imposed upon it by 'speaking' it. It can be said, therefore, to signify not after the fashion of truth, but after the fashion of good. It does not signify terms and couple them together as its fundamental syntactic property. Rather it signifies the unity, expressed by the deed, between me and what I love. This asyntactic speech, speech of a different and second mode, is something which accounts for a great deal of our human behaviour.

We need to pause here to satisfy the logician's notion of what constitutes speech. According to this notion, speech is a conventional sign of judgment, and is syntactic, as we have seen. The logician points out that art is fundamental to speech, and that this is verified in its being done through conventional signs. Well, there is more to it: if I speak to you, not only do I use artificial-conventional signs, but also I use art to cast it in your direction. I order it to you. Thus, the speech of the logician is artificial on two scores: it is conventional as a sign, and it is ordered by art to the hearer.

The deed-speech, asyntactic speech, as a sign is not artificial: it is natural. The deed of eating the ice cream is a natural effect of the judgment 'I like ice cream', which in turn is a natural effect of my love for ice cream. But as regards order to you, the deed is a speech if I do it to 'tell you something': whereas if I simply do the deed anyway, without regard to your knowing of it, it does not qualify as a speech. That is to say: syntactic speech is artificial both as a sign and as ordered to a hearer; but asyntactic speech is natural as a sign, being artificial only in being ordered. It becomes clear that what distinguishes speech, understood broadly to include both, is not artificiality as a sign but artificiality in so far as it is ordered, aimed, at someone's understanding. There is an English word by which we name this ordering, this aiming: we say we 'utter' ('outer', put out) a speech (just as in English law there is the offence of not only forging false money, but of uttering it).

This second mode of speech, this asyntactic speech, as I said, accounts for much of our human action. Certainly, not all human action is speech, or this sort of speech. But it remains that a good deal of it is. It is one thing to absent-mindedly agree to be invited to the Joneses' party because I think it would be fun: but then the consideration enters: 'If I didn't go, they would take it as a slight', or something of the sort, so part of the reason I agree to be invited is to tell them something.

And so it is with our transactions with one another. Almost never will we act with others with complete spontaneity. We forever want to 'tell them something'. Most people would not wear their most comfortable shoes in public, or be seen to behave 'out of character'.

The ceremonies we perform, especially the most public ones, are asyntactic speeches, even when they incorporate, as usually they do, speech of the syntactic sort. Thus, we signify our loyalty or affection by a toast, or by designating not only someone to speak but many to listen respectfully. This is a dimension of liturgical action that is often overlooked. And it is the very motive of what we refer to as 'standing up to be counted'.

Any action performed before other people is open to be speech of this second sort, including speech of the first sort. Indeed, in speaking syntactic speech, we usually speak also asyntactically. Thus, what we emphasise, the very words we choose, even what we say; even whether we say it, all come within the scope of what can be, and usually is, however little aware we may sometimes be of it, another order of speech. Otherwise, if not meant to convey something, these things are not speech but mere evidence, as is spontaneous 'body language'. If I pass the time of day cheerily with you, or if I do so in a bored fashion, makes a difference to what I convey to you. 'Good day' is a magnificent greeting; but if said in a grudging tone of voice it means 'bad day'. Thus do we speak even in spite of syntactic speech.

No wonder, then, that any adequate study of rhetoric, the study of urging our judgments on others, must accord an important place to this second mode of speech. It is, indeed, distinctive of rhetoric. Logic, and dialectic, know not of it.

Thus, one should not think of there always being a choice between saying or doing. For the truth is, much of the time, we are saying by doing.

- JZ


John Ziegler is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted May 1999. It was published in Universitas, Vol 2 (1998), No. 1.
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