An argument by analogy in answer to the question:
Is Martin of Denmark right in saying that the modes of signifying are the principles of the art of grammar?
By Patrick Shechet
In his work Tractatus de Modis Significandi, Martin of Denmark asserts that the “Modi significandi”, or Modes of signifying are the principles of the art of grammar. These modes of signifying are seen to be a valid basis for an examination of grammar in the work. Further, the relationship of the modes of signifying to the primary parts of speech – analogous to the way the modes of being are to the categories of thought, and mirroring the way in which the actuality of things is to their existence -- shows these modes of being to be valid principles of the art of grammar.
It is reasonable to start an exploration of this validity by defining what is meant by the words grammar and principles in general. After this it is necessary to see what Martin of Denmark means by Modis Significandi. From this understanding it will be possible to see a relationship of these modes to the art of grammar which mirrors the modes of being’s relationship to the ten categories. Thus, upholding them as principles.
Grammar is said to be the art of signifying through words. According to Aquinas “an art seems to be nothing other than a fixed disposition of reason concerning the manner in which human acts arrive at a due end through determinate means.” (Expositio libri posteriorum, translated by Matthew Walz, line 10) Grammar then, is the disposition of the mind towards the act of expression through words.
The word principle is from the Latin principium, meaning: beginning or foundation. In Mathematics we refer to as principles the smallest pieces of geometry from which other shapes are built. Thus, principles are those first pieces from which the rest of an art or science is developed. These must not be confused with the pieces which are best known. For Aristotle says, “what is to us plain and obvious at first is rather confused masses, the elements and principles of which become known to us later by analysis.” Just as when one looks at a house, one sees first the whole house and only upon closer examination are the building materials clear.
Martin of Denmark approaches the Modes of Signifying through examination of the process of verbalizing thought. He says that when the intellect, “wishes to signify its concept to another,” it does so through the voice, “in order that its concept, namely, the understood thing, be expressed through the voice as through a sign.” To show this he uses the example of a store sign, which pictures wine by showing a piece of a barrel. In this we are meant to see that in the same way we think of a wine barrel by looking at the sign, we also think of a wine barrel when we hear the words “wine barrel”. The voice uses a word which is seen as a part of the idea in order to show thoughts. He makes it clear that this is what is signified saying, “after the joining of the voice, the thing itself is called a signified thing.” He proceeds by using an analogy to the modes of being to show the relationship of the modes of signification, saying “all the properties of thing which formerly were called the modes of being of thing beyond the intellect and the modes of understanding of the thing understood, now are called the modes of signifying.” Thus the modes of signifying are the properties of words, which reflect the properties of the things signified.
This is a cursory analogy. To fully understand the modes of being as principles it is necessary to see in more detail how they are the properties of things in the same way the modes of being are. Particularly the statement “the modes of signifying are taken from the properties of things which are the modes of being.” (6) Must be explained and upheld. The analogy to Aristotle is particularly reasonable because when Martin of Denmark proposes that it is “fitting that when we direct ourselves to grammar, we know it’s essential principles which are the modes of signifying.” He mirrors Aristotle’s words, who begins his Physics: “When the objects of an inquiry, in any department, have principles, conditions or elements, it is through acquaintance with these that knowledge, that is to say scientific knowledge, is attained.” (Aristotle physics book 1 chapter 1.) Therefore, it is fitting to show that the modes of signifying are the principles of grammar by showing a relationship to grammar similar to that which Aristotle showed of the modes of being to the categories; “For we do not think that we know a thing until we are acquainted with its primary conditions or first principles, and have carried our analysis as far as its simplest elements.” (Aristotle physics book 1 chapter 1)
The relationship begins with the premise: “the mode of signifying is the form of the part of speech.” (12) This is because it is through these modes, as properties, that each part of speech is distinguished from every other. Martin claims this saying: “every part of speech is a part through its own general essential mode of signifying.”(14) He continues, “further, the modes of signifying are in the thing signified as in a subject.”(9) Just as the properties of things are in their substance, as color is in wood, so are the modes of signifying in their parts of speech. In this way, the modes of signifying are to the parts of speech as cause of knowing, “just as a thing is distinguished through its properties, so are the parts of speech through their modes of signifying.”(12)
He further says that the modes of being, understanding, and signifying are essentially the same; they differ in location however. Martin uses this proof: “just as the thing holds itself beyond [the intellect], understood, and signified, in the same way the modes of being, understanding, and signifying hold themselves.” Further, these are all the same thing. That is, just as the properties of things are distinct and in the thing, separate from our idea in some way. So also are the same principles in the thing separated from our word. So the properties of things are distinct, and the holding of these separate from substance is equal when it is either in the mind, or in words. Thus, “the modes of being, the modes of understanding, and the modes of signifying are the same, albeit differing accidentally, namely pertaining to diversity of place.” And this is important to hold against the objection that the mode of signifying is only in relation to the mode of understanding, as if the words did not relate to the thing itself in the same way an idea did, but rather the idea to the thing and the words to the idea. This Martin refutes saying “As wine signified by the hoop is not the sign of wine in the cellar but the substance of the hoop is, in the same way the mode of signifying is not the sign of the mode of understanding and the mode of being, since nothing is able to be the sign of its very self, wherefore they are essentially the same, and thus one will not be the sign of the other, but their sign is the voice, because the voice signifies the thing and consignifies the properties of a thing. ” So the modes of signification relate to things, as the modes of being and the modes of understanding -- not in a remote way, as if through these other modes -- in the same way.
It is right then to say that the modes of signifying are the principles of the art of grammar. As has been said, the modes of signifying are to the parts of speech in the same way as the modes of being are to the categories of thought which mirror the actuality of things to their existence. The truth of this is vital to the validity of Martin of Denmark’s exposition of grammar.
“Thus knowledge is present in the human mind as it is predicable of grammar.”