One thing I find gratifying about teaching my children the classical method is how simple lessons in grammar can lead to a primer on philosophical thinking which will give my children a taste of the questions they will ask when they are more developed in their frontal lobes and can ask questions about why things are they way they are. That’s my simple definition of philosophy: asking why things are they way they are. Philosophy asks the Big Questions of Life (God, meaning, suffering, & human destiny).
Hence, philosophy takes into account the whole of human experience, from extra-mental reality involving the world “out there” to the inner workings of the human being as a person who thinks, feels & emotes, makes decisions by means of a will, and wonders about the big questions of life such as the existence of God, human longing for meaning & happiness, evil, and questions about how we should live. Lastly, I think this all leads to Jesus Christ, it is in Him that all human longing is met, and it is in Him that provides the exemplar of how a human being should live: in faithful obedience to God in a relationship based upon the deepest of mutual love for the loved and the beloved.
Today, while using Memoria Press’ English Grammar Recitation (Workbook Three) with my eldest child, we looked at basic grammar questions about sentences, subjects & predicates, parts of speech, and the different types of nouns. It is the nouns that got us to talking about the Big Questions of Life.
Under the question, “What is a noun?” we find an answer that is more specific that what most people utter from rote; and it lends itself to philosophical inquiry to boot. The typical rote answer to the question, “What is a noun?” is “A person place or thing.” But that is not quite right, and this is no distinction without a difference either. The correct answer is, “A noun is a word that names a person place, thing, or idea.” The difference is that nouns aren’t things, and things aren’t nouns. Rather, nouns are words that name things. This is important to recognize because a proper philosophy of language has a proper philosophy of reality. And a knowledge of reality is something that seems reclusive to Western culture today, not the least responsible for which is professional philosophers who combine theories of reality with “neuro-something” or “cognitive-something” and concoct a notion of reality that is replete with notions of relativism and skepticism.
Nouns are words that describe things. Things truly exist, and human use words to describe them. In our discussion, I mentioned to my eldest that a tree, for example is referred to one way in English, but as Baum in German. And yet, both words refer to the same thing. Next, the following questions concerned concrete and abstract nouns. Concrete nouns are perceived by the senses (trees, dogs, 70% cacao dark chocolate, Cabernet Sauvignon, smoked gouda cheese), whereas abstract nouns are not perceived by the senses (truth, goodness, and beauty).
The key word I honed in on with my child was ‘perceived.’ “Sense-perception,” I said, is what we use when we engage in the natural sciences.” We talked about the five senses, and then I added that by using our sense-perception to detect concrete nouns (sensible things), we can also know that there are abstract nouns that exist as well. On this, Thomas Aquinas’ epistemology is of help. Thomist realism starts with the reliability of sense-perception, and moves up a ladder of abstraction from the empirical sciences, toward mathematics, to a philosophy of nature and metaphysics (which seeks to understand the essence of things).
I told my daughter that in the natural sciences, we can know causes based upon their effects. And from the effect of the world, we can know that there is a First Cause (that finite, contingent beings are in need of an origination by means of a necessary being).
What I find most impressive about the classical method of education is how it gives children a solid foundation for understanding language, and gets them thinking logically, analytically, and philosophically at an early age. I was really surprised to hear my daughter mention the word “essence” and talk about a “state of being.” While that’s not quite the correct definition of “essence,” it’s still a key indicator that a knowledge of grammar leads to metaphysical inquiry, which leads us to God. “Where did you learn that word?” I ask. She wasn’t sure, but perhaps she’d overhead Daddy using that word around the house.
In either case, it’s fascinating how the classical method fosters such good discussions about simple things like nouns, but leads us to an understanding of how things truly are. And that is much needed today, as people seem to have an abysmal understanding of what things really are based upon sense-perception. Eliminating the reliability of sense-perception, and hence, the nature of reality, leads to many social maladies, and much of the identity crises today are rooted in the subjectivist approach to the whole of reality.
The good news is, our grammar can lead us in the right direction, talking into account abstract notions of truth, goodness and beauty, climbing up the ladder of abstraction by means of the laws of cause and effect, and ultimately to God Himself, who is the Highest Good of all humans being.