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Review of  Grammar and Philosophy in Late Antiquity

Reviewer: Benjamin Stevens
Book Title: Grammar and Philosophy in Late Antiquity
Book Author: Anneli Luhtala
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Philosophy of Language
History of Linguistics
Issue Number: 16.3543

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Date: Sat, 10 Dec 2005 14:26:08 -0500
From: Benjamin Stevens
Subject: Grammar and Philosophy in Late Antiquity: A study of
Priscian's sources

AUTHOR: Luhtala, Anneli
TITLE: Grammar and Philosophy in Late Antiquity
SUBTITLE: A study of Priscian's sources
SERIES: Studies in the History of the Language Sciences 107
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2005

Benjamin Stevens, Classical Studies, Division of Languages and
Literatures, Bard College


In Grammar and Philosophy in Late Antiquity, Anneli Luhtala (L.) of the
University of Helsinki argues that, since the grammatical treatise
Techne Grammatike is not wholly attributable to Dionysius Thrax and
thus does not date to the first century BCE, one must look to later
centuries for the development of the so-called 'standard philosophical
or semantic categories'; as a result of such later developments, L. is
able to argue for a continued interaction between grammar and
philosophy into Late Antiquity that is longer and more intensive than
traditional accounts would allow, and that better explains seeming
philosophical inconsistencies in the categories as they appear in

Written generally in the spirit of E. F. K. Koerner's 'linguistic
historiography' (the book is published in the series edited by him; and
see e.g. Koerner 1999), L.'s study is explicitly framed as a contribution
to the 'new model' of scholarship on 'ancient language science'
(Taylor 1987), and to its ongoing revision of traditionally teleological
and overly schematic accounts of nascent linguistics in the ancient
Greco-Roman world. It is detailed and, I think, convincing, and will be
of interest to students of the history of linguistics and philosophy
generally and the history of grammar in particular.


A short Preface (ix-x) contextualizes the study in terms of L.'s own
interests in ''Priscian's grammatical theory'' and ''the reception of
Priscian ... in the Carolingian Renaissance'': at issue are
the ''inconsistencies in [his] philosophical framework'' (ix). Rejecting
the influential but outdated work of Karl Barwick, L. aligns herself with
Vincenzo di Benedetto (1958-1959), in particular his ''arguing in
favour of the inauthenticity of the Techne'' (x), and with subsequent
scholars who thought out the consequences of the issue.

Chapter 1, Introduction (1-11), summarizes L.'s reading of the
traditional position and her response to it in light of more recent
scholarship: ''to diminish the role of philosophy in pre-Apollonian
grammar and to argue for a constant interaction between grammar
and philosophy in Late Antiquity'' (9). Traditionally, the 'standard
philosophical or semantic categories' of the noun (loosely defined 8-9;
see further the Critical Evaluation, below) were ascribed to the
Techne Grammatike, itself attributed to Dionysius Thrax. Since that
attribution is at least not wholly correct, in light of Taylor's ''new model
of the history of Graeco-Roman language science'' (Taylor 1987) a
revised understanding of the history of the categories is needed.
Going farther than Taylor, L. ''would like to emphasize a continuous
interaction between grammar and philosophy even after grammar has
become an independent discipline'' (7), i.e. into Late Antiquity. The
standard philosophical or semantic categories may thus be attributed
to an ''Apollonian renovation of grammar'' and to a
subsequent ''process of canonization'' (11).

Chapter 2, Philosophical Tradition (12-24), paves the way for there
being necessary what L. calls 'Hellenistic syncretism' (Chapter 4 and
below, Critical Evaluation) by examining the possibility that three
Classical and Hellenistic Greek philosophical schools may have been
the ''sources for the standard semantic concepts in ancient grammar:
the Academy, the Stoa and the Peripatos'' (12). The examination is
especially interested in comparing Stoic and Aristotelian doctrine (23-
24), in that the grammarians' definitions of the noun and the pronoun
are attributable to Stoic theory, whereas Aristotle's conception was not
influential; but also in that, despite this general Stoic origin, Priscian
occasionally defines the noun in a way that is not Stoic and thus
presupposes a ''different source'' that ''cannot go back to Hellenistic
times'' (24). As a result, a later antique development is implied.

Chapter 3, The Alexandrian Grammarians (25-29), briefly treats the
philosophical and philological researches of Hellenistic Alexandria,
concluding that their apparently more purely formal definitions of parts
of speech, linked to a prevailing concern with exegesis and textual
criticism, imply an absence of the more semantic subcategories of the
noun seen in later Antiquity.

Chapter 4, Hellenistic Syncretism (30-37), the final stage in L.'s
preliminary argument, argues that ''it is in the late antique context
where philosophers showed a vivid interest in language and literature
that ancient grammar received its canonical form'' (37). In particular,
philosophers of Middle and Neo-Platonism discuss ''the grammarian's
parts of speech'' (33), such that the interaction between grammar and
philosophy continued, in the event productively for the definition of the

Chapter 5, Latin Grammarians (38-78), building on the groundwork of
the preceding chapters, argues that the 'standard definition of the
noun' (by case inflection and a signification of concrete objects or
abstract things) ''is a novelty which [is] part of the 'Apollonian
renovation''' (39, citing Luhtala 2002): ''the Apollonian definition is
likely to have provided the basis for the standard definition'' (40). The
bulk of the chapter is devoted to demonstrating this point, including
interesting excursions on Greek vs. Latin grammarians (the former
more philosophically inclined) and into the idea of an ongoing debate
among grammarians as to the relevance of philosophical analysis in
grammatical analysis (in which Consentius assumes special
importance, 77-78).

Chapter 6, Priscian (79-128), is a detailed application of L.'s
developed argument to explain the seeming 'inconsistencies' in
Priscian's definitions of the noun: although part of Priscian's
discussion depends on a ''genuinely Apollonian'' set of standard
semantic subtypes for the noun, another part of his discussion is non-
Apollonian and ''contains many Platonic elements'' (128).

Chapter 7, The Status of the Eight Parts of Speech (129-137),
surveys the contrast between ''the grammarian's eight parts of speech
[with] the dialectician's two, the noun and the verb'' as an example of
how ''grammar continued to interact with philosophy in Late Antiquity''

The final substantive chapter, Chapter 8, Augustine (138-150),
extends L.'s central argument to a reading of Augustine's Ars breviata
as ''an excellent example of a total absence of semantic categories in
Latin grammar'' (138) - in the terms of her argument, Augustine's Ars
and his source material were not affected by the ''post-Apollonian
renovation of grammar'', i.e. by ''the introduction of the semantic
subcategories of common nouns'' (149), because Augustine himself
was unaware of such material: ''Augustine is therefore promoting
something which was already in existence, but the existence of which
he did not know'' (150). Thus the Ars is good evidence for how the
Late Antique interaction between grammar and philosophy, by now a
given, included many varieties dependant among other things on an
author's extra-linguistic concerns.

Chapter 9, General Conclusions (151-155), summarizes L.'s argument
about the 'standard philosophical or semantic categories': it is not in
the Techne Grammatike, wrongly attributed to Dionysius Thrax, but in
the work of Apollonius Dyscolos ''that we first encounter philosophical
definitions of the noun and the verb'' (152) which ''probably provided
models for the standard definitions used both in Latin and Greek
grammarians'' (154). Moreover, since Apollonius himself does not use
the definitions as such, whereas they are used as such in subsequent
grammarians, a continued interaction of grammar and philosophy is
implied for Late Antiquity.

The end-matter includes References (divided into Primary and
Secondary sources), an index of authors/passages, and an index of


For a long time, accounts of 'ancient language science' were
teleological. Accounts of Greco-Roman linguistics in particular looked
to the first century BCE for both (1) the decisive emergence of
grammar as a discipline independent of, on the one hand, rhetoric and
philology (textual criticism), and, on the other, philosophy (including
dialectic and the analysis of linguistic concepts, e.g. 'meaning'); and
(2) the canonization of grammatical concepts in a form which would
remain essentially unchanged through late antiquity, thereby to
influence European linguistics in the Middle Ages and the
Renaissance (see esp. Barwick 1922 and 1957; and Steinthal 1890-
1891). Recently such accounts have been subject to reexamination
and revision, thanks to the ''new model of the history of Graeco-
Roman language science'' as articulated by Daniel J. Taylor (1987).

L.'s study takes part in, and adds to, this ongoing revision. Although L.
agrees that grammar became independent in the first century BCE,
she seeks to extend one implication of the new model, that the
attribution of the Techne Grammatike to Dionysius Thrax is incorrect,
in order to argue that grammar, even after its emergence as an
independent discipline, continued to interact with philosophy through
Late Antiquity, and that it is primarily this late influence, and not a
putative earlier philosophical influence, that accounts for the
philosophical aspects of late antique grammar, including the so-
called 'standard philosophical (or semantic) categories' of the noun. In
L.'s words, the argument seeks ''to diminish the role of philosophy in
pre-Apollonian grammar and to argue for a constant interaction
between grammar and philosophy in Late Antiquity'' (9).

This application of the new model successfully produces a more
nuanced picture of a fundamental topic in Late Antique thought on
language. At a more general level (i.e., that of Koerner's
historiography of linguistics), the study joins others in demonstrating
how ancient thought about language, like pre-modern thought and
non-Western thought about the same, deserves careful attention
regardless of whether or not such thought is 'language science'
or 'linguistics' avant la lettre.

Some small complaints do not detract from the study's success. L.
alternates between 'standard semantic' and 'standard philosophical
subcategories', at times combining them, and defines the term later
than might be liked. Very awkward is L.'s term 'Hellenistic syncretism'
(Ch. 4). At first glance, this might naturally mean 'syncretism of
different definitions and theories in the Hellenistic Age'. If I have
understood L. correctly, however, this meaning is prohibited by her
own chh. 2 and 3, such that the term means something like 'Late
Antique syncretism of what were in origin, at least in some parts,
Hellenistic definitions and theories': for this I might have
preferred 'Late Antique syncretism'.


Barwick, K. (1922) Remmius Palaemon und die römische ars
grammatica. Leipzig: Dieterich'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung.

Barwick, K. (1957) Probleme der stoischen Sprachlehre und Rhetorik.
Berlin: Akademie-Verlag.

di Benedetto, V. (1958-1959) ''Dionisio Trace e la techne a lui
attribuita''. Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa. 2.27: 169-
210 and 2.28: 87-118.

Koerner, E. F. K. (1999) Linguistic Historiography: Problems and
Prospects. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Luhtala, A. (2002) ''On Definitions in Ancient Grammar''. In Swiggers
and Wouters (2002), 257-285.

Robins, R. H. (1996) ''The Initial Section of the Tekhne grammatike''. In
Swiggers and Wouters (1996), 3-15.

Steinthal, H. (1890-1) Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaft bei den
Griechen und Römern. Berlin: F. Duemmler.

Swiggers, P. and A. Wouters. (1996) Ancient Grammar: Content and
Context. Leuven and Paris: Uitgeverij Peeters.

Swiggers, P. and A. Wouters. (2002) Grammatical Theory and
Philosophy of Language in Antiquity. Leuven and Paris: Peeters.

Taylor, D. J. ed. (1987) History of Linguistics in the Classical Period.
Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Benjamin Stevens is Assistant Professor of Classics at Bard College in
Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. His research interests include the
history of thought about language, esp. the origin of language;
linguistic life in Roman antiquity; and Latin and Greek languages and
literatures. His current research project, tentatively entitled "Like
Strangers in our Own City: Roman Wanderings in Language and
Literature", explores the connections among literature as translation,
cultural multilingualism, and individual and group identities in language
in ancient Roman authors.