Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Review of Campbell's Basics of Verbal Aspect

This is a guest post by Dr. Carl Conrad, one of the moderators on B-Greek, and a Greek professor for many years. I was thinking about doing a review, but Dr. Conrad says essentially the same thing I would, only much better and in greater detail, with more learning to add punch to it.

There has been a great deal of hoopla over the last week surrounding the publication of the new Con Campbell book, Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek: a flurry of reviews (several by students) and a series of blog posts by the author himself, all conveniently listed on the Koinonia site.

I might have felt there was more justification for the hoopla if the book had been titled something like, “Verbal aspect in Biblical Greek: a perspective on the controversy.” But what we are offered appears to be seriously intended as a textbook (with exercises and a key to the exercises) for use in the classroom for intermediate Biblical Greek classes, perhaps supplementing Dan Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. The marketing of such a textbook would seem to imply that the dust has settled on the controversy regarding verbal aspect and that there is now the sort of consensus on the matter making possible what is termed, in the preface of the little book, “an introduction, a textbook, a way in for nonspecialists.”

I really do not believe that the dust has settled on aspect studies sufficiently to say there is much of a scientific or even a more-or-less clear and intelligible doctrine of Greek Verbal Aspect. That is not to say that I don't think some questions regarding verbal aspect have found some resolution and that some pedagogical errors of years gone by (e.g. the "once-for-all-time aorist") have been shown the door. There are some items on which there is general agreement and it is good to have these clearly presented and clarified with the aid of a consistently-applied analogy of how a spectator views a procession as a whole event or as an ongoing process of which only a nearer or more distant perspective is accessible.

My own thinking is that the distinction between Perfective Aspect (Aorist) and Imperfective Aspect (Present, Imperfect) is valid and useful, and I am comfortable with the clarification that "Perfective aspect" means a view of the verbal action or process as a whole and external, while "Imperfective aspect" means a view of the verbal action or process as internal or within the transpiring process. I think that the category termed Aktionsart is indeed useful to characterize particular verbs as "iterative" or "punctiliar" or "progressive"; indeed, I think the category is also useful toward understanding the way voice works in the Greek verb.

Perfect and Pluperfect "tenses" seem to be problematic for a doctrine of verbal aspect: I can see that calling them "Stative" makes sense to some extent, and I can see why some would like to assert that they are really Imperfective. I think, however, that the problem is complicated (1) by the number of instances of οἶδα and ἕστηκα and the pluperfects εἴδειν and εἱστήκειν and their compounds, since they do in fact indicate "knowing" and "standing" as would present and imperfect forms and (2) by the fact that Biblical Greek is a language in flux and that the older perfect and aorist tenses are on their way to merging in the same fashion as they have merged in Latin: the Koine aorist often enough functions like a perfect or a pluperfect tense and there are instances where it would appear that a perfect tense form functions pretty much as does an aorist to indicate completed action. I don't think anything useful is accomplished by attempting to force the perfect-tense forms into the "Imperfective" pigeonhole.

As for the assertion that time is a metaphor and that the best way to understand temporal reference in Greek verbs is in terms of a metaphorical spatial proximity and remoteness, it seems to me an interesting theory, an interesting way of looking at it, but I really believe that ancient Greeks in the Biblical era as well as before and afterwards were thinking pretty much in terms of what we mean by time present, past, and future. What I would like to see explored, however, is some rationale for the fact that present and past counterfactual conditions are conveyed in ancient Greek by the indicative imperfect and aorist tense-forms respectively.

I am still inclined to think that the student learning important Greek verbs would do well to read carefully through the lexical entries for important verbs and note the range of forms in which they most commonly appear as well as the contexts in which their important senses occur. Reading voluminously helps too. The old Latin proverb is discimus agere agendo ("we learn to do by doing") which has corollaries for language-learning: discimus loqui loqendo ("we learn to speak by speaking") and discimus legere legendo ("we learn to read by reading." I think that lots of (Greek) conversation in the classroom -- something apparently unimaginable in the American academic classroom -- and lots of reading Greek in the library will do more for one learning the usage of Greek verbs than doctrines of Greek verbal aspect.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University (Retired)


David McKay said...

Thanks for telling us about this review on b-greek, James.

Stephen C. Carlson said...

I agree with the sentiment.

Con Campbell said...

Thanks Dr Conrad for your thoughts about my book. There are a few points to which I'd like to respond. The first is that while you're concerned that the "dust has not settled" on verbal aspect, you point out that there a number of areas where a good consensus has been reached. These include a definition of verbal aspect, the role of Aktionsart categories, and the fact that aorist, present, and imperfect tense-forms are aspectually perfective and imperfective respectively. Yes, there is still some debate about the perfect and pluperfect, but (while you don't mention this) all the aspect theorists agree that aspect provides a much more robust analysis than the old Aktionsart approach to the perfect, of a past action with present consequences. So even for the perfect there is agreement that aspect offers a better approach.
This leads me to my next observation, which is that the standard grammars that we all use (and, by the way, for which I have great respect) were all based on the new theories of their day. Aspect and Aktionsart studies had not "settled" when Robertson wrote his masterful tome. There was not a consensus at that time, and yet he dared to author an authoritative work, drawing on theories he believed to be best at the time. Nowadays some Greek users are so committed to the "traditional" way of understanding Greek, that they are reluctant to adopt the new theories of our day, even though that's exactly what the earlier grammarians did. The heart of the problem is that waiting for all the answers is not the solution. Curtius didn't have all the answers. Robertson didn't have the answers. Chantraine didn't have all the answers. But they were not claiming perfection; rather they were interested in improvement; in advancing our understanding. And so, in my humble opinion, waiting till "all the dust has settled" is a vain hope, and is expecting more than we've ever had before. We should be interested in advancing our understanding, and there is no doubt whatsoever that verbal aspect offers a genuine advance, even while some issues remain unresolved. My books are not intended to be the last word, neither are Porter's, Fanning's, Olsen's, or Decker's. But we need to listen carefully to each voice as each one offers enhanced understanding, continuing the legacy of the great ones before, who transformed the understanding of their day.

Anonymous said...

In response to Con Campbell's reply to my review, I don't object at all to getting out a clear exposition of what's agreed upon about verbal aspect in the Koine Greek of the NT. I think that the first four chapters of the book would constitute a useful pamphlet setting forth the "basics of verbal aspect" generally accepted. What I object to is putting out a textbook -- complete with exercises and answer key -- that goes so far beyond those agreed-upon "basics."