In §664 of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations we read:
In the use of words one might distinguish “surface grammar” from “depth grammar”. What immediately impresses itself upon us about the use of a word is the way it is used in the construction of the sentence, the part of its use—one might say—that can be taken in by ear.—And now compare the depth grammar, say of the word “to mean”, with what its surface grammar would lead us to suspect. No wonder we find it difficult to know our way about.1
First of all, is the distinction a natural one, that is to say, is it an intrinsic characteristic of a natural language to feature both ‘surface grammar’ and ‘depth grammar’, or is it rather artificial?
Second, granted for the sake of argument that there are both ‘surface grammar’ and ‘depth grammar’, what, exactly, are they, and what do they tell us, perhaps even reveal, about our language, or natural languages in general?
The answer to the first question will also determine, or at least heavily bear upon, the answer to the second one, methinks.
There are certain issues which only arise in the philosophical analysis of language, especially with respect to grammar. This ought to make us suspicious. The analysis usually leads to problems which have made many logicians, linguists, and others seriously deem natural language defective. The situation is similar to that of radical, or global, epistemic scepticism. The latter is an absurd result of the analysis of the concept, the very idea, of knowledge.
If this be true, the misled construal of grammar does not lie in the bounds of ‘surface grammar’ but in the illusory concept, the very idea, of ‘depth grammar’. In this sense, philosophy may well be characterized as a vain endeavour.
It appears to me overall that philosophical analyses mostly lead to absurd results because we attempt to apply instruments to purposes they are not suitable for. Of course, we may get two halfs of a board by using a hammer, but it will be far easier and more to the point to use a saw.
Grammar is a set of more or less loose rules determining the use of words, mostly applying to syntax, that is the formation of sentences, rather than semantics, even though the latter can be and certainly is more often than not influenced by the former. These rules are under constant change, as history proves. Grammatical rules do not determine what is right or wrong in an absolute sense, but only what is currently acceptable, or, as a matter of fact, widely accepted, use of language.
But granted for the sake of argument that there were such a thing as ‘depth grammar’, what, exactly, would it be? If ‘surface grammar’ refers to the use of words catchable by ear, as Wittgenstein has it, ‘depth grammar’, it seems, must refer to a somehow hidden or underlying structure of a language. Are there hidden or underlying structures to natural languages?
They may be hidden in the sense that we are not constantly aware of them, underlying in the sense that we need not constantly remind ourselves of them.
[To be continued.]
1. Wittgenstein, Ludwig: Philosophical Investigations; The German Text With a Revised English Translation; Third Edition; Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe; Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2001; p. 142e.