The Place of Logic and the Place of Philosophy

My pocket Aristotle includes these words in the introduction by Justin Kaplan:

[Aristotle] devoted his life to codifying and rationalizing what was then the sum of human knowledge.

Kaplan goes on to list some of Aristotle’s accomplishments and the obstacles he had to overcome to achieve them. Then this:

And underlying all these achievements was this: he was a logician of subtlety and strength, and a searcher after the knowledge that transcends and exists independent of all other knowledge. He called this knowledge “first philosophy” or “wisdom.”

May I draw your attention to two words in the quotations above? First, quotation one: the word “rationalization.” Then in quotation two, the word “and.”

I hope the word rationalization continues to maintain the meaning it expresses in Kaplan’s sentence in the days to come, because it is a hint to an ancient meaning that is more authentic than the modern meaning. To “rationalize the sum of… human knowledge,” is an impressive goal, but it does actually mean something.

Aristotle was attempting to bring all the knowledge he had access to into a harmony, a whole in which every part had its place and in which the place of every part served for the flourishing of every other part. His vision of reality was musical. Discord argued for error. How different from what we think of as “cold rationalism” today.

Aristotle saw truth as flames of fire enlightening the soul.

Thus my highlighting the word “and” in the second quotation. I was afraid, when I read the first clause, that it would be followed by a period, that Kaplan would suggest that the underlying force of Aristotle’s thought was his logical power.

And indeed, Aristotle was a logical genius of the first rank. His development of the syllogism (which Kaplan argues “now has little real function”) and his Organon make up the earliest sustainable handbooks for thinking the world ever saw. They remain unmatched in their breadth and depth.

But Aristotle was not a mere logician. He was a seeker after wisdom, a philosopher. The difference is significant.

Here is how I would seek to express the difference between a logician and a philosopher:

The philosopher seeks to PERCEIVE the essence of things, to know them according to their natures, and to treat them appropriately. He seeks, in the words of Thomas Aquinas, to rightly order and to appropriately judge. For the philosopher everything turns on what Plotinus, at least, and I think Plato and Aristotle as well, called “intelligible form.”

The form of a thing is its essence, the fishness of fish, the redness of red, the justice of justice, etc.. “Intelligible” means understandable, but much more than that in Aristotle. It means that the form or essence of the thing is perceivable by what came to be called “the mind’s eye.”

But the logician, inasmuch as he is a logician and not a philosopher, only has the tools of logic to work with. These tools support philosophy and assist the philosopher, but logic is not philosophy and can only deal with what it is given. Logic, in this sense, is not the same as reason either.

Logic looks for consistency in the statements or propositions with which it is dealing. It is valuable only insofar as the statements carry truth. Logic seeks validity in an argument, not truth itself.

In a way, logic is like a game. Or maybe it would be better to say, logic is the rules of the game. But then, a game is defined by its rules, so to say it is a game, is to say it is the rules of the game. Even so, baseball is a game defined by its rules.

But logic is not about perception. Sensory perception (what we see with our eyes, touch with our hands, etc.) is a starting point for logic, but by no means all it has to work with. Intellectual perception can also provide material to the logician, but this comes from an experience higher than the rules of the game of logic.

In short, logic is not the highest authority on reality, just a tool to help us think about it consistently.

That is why I can constuct logical nonsense, such as:

All Puddleglums are blue things
All blue things are foxtrots
Therefore all puddleglums are fox trots

Logical, yes, but meaningless except as the form itself carries meaning.

So while the philosopher’s foundational concept is intelligible form, for the logician that foundational concept is the universal.

While the form is perceived by the mind’s eye, the universal is more like a chess piece or a counter in a game. “All Puddleglums” is merely a thought. So is “all Rhinoscopes.” In fact, you could even say that “all foxes” is merely a concept in the head of the thinker.

But this is precisely where the great historical argument between the philosopher and the logician breaks out. The philosopher says, “Yes, all foxes may be merely a concept in the head of the thinker, but foxness itself is not. “Fox” is the form of every fox and is what makes the fox a fox.”

The logician, since as logician he cannot perceive forms or essences of things, says, “No, there is no essence of fox. Fox is a name we give to all the things that share the same characteristics because it is convenient and helpful for us to do so.”

This argument is often described as the argument over universals. I would suggest that that is a misnomer, almost certainly coined by someone who takes the side of the logician. It isn’t the argument over universals, but over form vs. logic.

And it only becomes an argument when logic attempts to do more than it is able to do, that is, to do philosophy or theology. Logic is a vice-regent with vast power. But it cannot be the emperor for the simple reason that it cannot see far enough.

Ironic things arise from the uprising of logic (which took place in the middle ages, especially under Peter Abelard and William of Ockham (Occam if you prefer)) including the rise of nominalism, the obsession with the particular that gave rise to empiricism and the scientific revolt, the breakdown of thought into disparate specialized subjects, and the neglect of philosophy and theology.

It’s strange, because the philosopher is a formalist who believes in a knowable reality within which men can be free and powers can be limited, but the logician rapidly bows to the empiricist or the rationalist who always ends up believing that reality is not knowable, there is no law above the state, and freedom is an illusion that they are unable to see.

This distinction between philosophy and logic is very difficult and precise, but very important. Had the logician never exalted himself so far, we wouldn’t have to climb up to remind him of his place. We could rejoice in the ability of the common man to see truth (the essence of things) because his soul is attuned to it (he usually calls it common sense) and he knows what freedom and justice are before his teacher comes and clouds his perceptions.

Teach logic and teach it well. Enable your students to learn its powers and its limitations. Just remember that it doesn’t see forms, it analyzes universals. It may well be the child who sees forms the best, so the philosopher is always trying to become like a little child.

What do assumptions make of you?

Or what do you make of assumptions? Are assumptions good or bad?

We hear the cliche all too much about what assumptions make of you and me, but have you ever thought about how much that cliche assumes? Next time somebody says something like that to you, make a simple little request. Ask, “How can I avoid making assumptions in the future?”

Whatever answer they give you will be both wrong and laden with assumptions.

But the funny thing is, there really is a great way to find your assumptions. All you have to do is take a normal every day argument and complete it.

The point is, we usually put our arguments before the public or our opponent in a form that is far from complete. For example, I got a kick out of Matt Damon’s terror over Sarah Palin. You can see the video easily enough since Americans widely assume that movie stars know a lot about politics.

What he said was something like this: I need to know if she believes that dinosaurs lived on earth 4000 years ago. I need to know that because she’s going to have the nuclear code.

Damon clearly has a flair for the dramatic, and if the dramatic doesn’t take advantage of indirection then I’m in Rio De Janeiro right now. Let’s try to see if he actually has an argument here by trying to complete it.

Sarah Palin may believe that dinosaurs lived on earth 4000 years ago.
Sarah Palin will have access to the codes for nuclear bombs.

Clearly he is implying that she is dangerous, so let’s just add that.

Sarah Palin will be dangerous.

So why will she be dangerous? Because she may believe that dinosaurs roamed the earth 4000 years ago.

So what is the link between the conclusion and the premise? That link is the assumption we are looking for. In this case, the general principle on which Damon’s argument rests is that everybody who believes that dinosaurs roamed the earth 4000 years ago is dangerous or at least that enough of them are that Sarah can’t be trusted.

Well, OK. Now we’re a step closer to an actual argument and we have identified the assumption behind it.

Now we can examine the assumptions behind the assumption. We can seek evidence. We can unfold the logic beneath it (i.e. find more assumptions). We can listen to what the authorities (like, I guess, Matt Damon) have to say about the issue. And then we can determine whether we actually agree.

Of course, what seems to happen most often is that somebody who has fallen in love with Matt Damon because he is so great in the Bourne Identity and therefore must be an authority on international relations will be soul-shaken by the frightening idea so powerfully expressed and that will be the end of logical reasoning, which, after all, is just a masculine control mechanism anyway. Oh wait, that line went out in the late nineties.

You can go through this process rather easily with many arguments. For example, here’s one from Mother Goose:

A little cock sparrow sat on a green tree,
And he chirruped, he chirruped, so merry was he

The argument could go like this: The little cock sparrow chirruped because he was so merry.

But there’s a rather pleasant assumption buried in this argument. What is it? By the way, we know there is an assumption because I could add the word because.

Premise: The little cock sparrow chirruped.
Conclusion: The little cock sparrow was so merry.

What’s the assumption? We need to connect the cock sparrow’s merryness with his chirruping. Ah, there it is! Either when you are merry you chirrup, or when you chirrup you are merry.

Now we have two premises:

The little cock sparrow chirruped
When you chirrup you are “so merry”
The little cock sparrow was “so merry”

Does it work? Maybe not enough to satisfy a strict logician, but I think we’d readily agree that most chirruping indicates merriness. But then again, maybe there’s something going on that we don’t know about…

The first argument, as it is presented in the text, is what Aristotle called an enthymeme. The second one is, loosely, a syllogism. The way we can find the assumptions behind an argument and thus examine where we stand in relation to it is as simple as converting an enthymeme into a syllogism.

When we share the same assumptions with others, it is pretty easy to have a long conversation with lots of enthymemes. But if at some point we start to feel uneasy about something somebody is saying, it is probably time to convert it to a syllogism (which is why he’ll get on to the next point as fast as possible!).

Here’s how to make the conversion:

Identify the argument you are questioning. Reduce it to its simplest terms, removing the evidence and appeals to authority. Both evidence and authority are valid and necessary, but they aren’t the logic of the argument.

In what you have left, look for logical cues and use them to structure the premises:

If X…
Since Y…
…, therefore
…, so
X, for …
X, hence …
… because

Use these cues to help you write out the enthymeme in logical form, with one premise and one conclusion.

Connect the conclusion to the premise by adding another premise. You can add the new premise by identifying the term that is in the conclusion but not in the premise and linking it to the term that is in the premise but not in the conclusion. Now you have a bridge from the first premise to the conclusion.

First premise: The little cock sparrow chirruped
Conclusion: The little cock sparrow was so merry

Term from first premise: chirruped
Term from conclusion: so merry

New premise: When one chirrups he is “so merry”

You may be helped as you try to practice this concept if you can remember these little watchwords: 

  • A syllogism is a formally complete argument 
  • An enthymeme hides an assumption or principle
  • Most or at least many common statements hide the logical cues that help us develop the syllogism
  • The hardest arguments to follow are those that hide both the assumption and the logical cues
  • The closer you get to the syllogism, the more easily you can follow the argument

Well, it’s time for me to go home, so I think I shall go chirrup. Keep your eyes open because this blog arose from a discussion with the LTW apprentices for a lesson we’re developing in Lost Tools of Writing Level II. Understanding this can help you read better, write better, think better, communicate better, and make better decisions all while getting along better with others.

The Simplified Curriculum

When we think of curricula, we tend to think of classes or subjects and materials to read or study in those subjects. That’s a very fine thing to do and we should keep doing it. I want to suggest that there might be more to think about and it’s one of those “mores” that make things over all “less” – that is, less confusing, less work, less anxious.

The more that I’m referring to is logic.

But wait! Don’t go so fast. Let me explain myself.


Look at it this way. A lot of subjects, especially in the sciences, end with “logy.” Why is that? Because “logy” comes from logos, which means word, or reason, or idea (or quite a few other things). If the Greek word logos has a core meaning (and I’m not sure it does), it would be something like “a unifying principle or reason.” Thus, the unifying principle of “biology” is “bios” or life. The unifying principle of physiology is “physio” but I’m not sure what that is. It’s obviously got something to do with the physical body.

In other words, each subject has a unifying principle that makes it the subject that it is. Strictly speaking, classical educators used to call these subjects “sciences,” which meant, to them, a domain of knowledge or inquiry. To us, science usually refers only to what they called the natural sciences or even natural philosophy. So, with your permission, I am going to use the old language, and refer to subjects that are ordered around a unifying principle “sciences” instead of subjects. You’ll see why in just a moment.

The main point I’ve made so far is that each science has a unifying principle or idea that makes it what it is. (life for biology, God for theology, etc.)

I should point out that this is true even for those sciences that don’t end in logy. For example, some subjects end with “nomy,” such as “economy,” “astronomy,” etc. In this case, the ending comes from “nomos” which means laws or customs, the main point being that something happens regularly. “Economy” comes from a funny Greek word: oikonomos, and I would argue that it literally means “household customs.”

You can see how words can lose their attachment to their heritage! Astronomy is already a Greek word. It means the laws of the stars. Some sciences are very precise, like astronomy, which strictly follows the laws of physics. Others are much less precise, like economics, which strictly follow only one law: “If momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!”

At this point, you may have noticed something very interesting. Given all these “logies” and “nomies” and other endingies (the accent goes on the second syllable in that very subtle AGreek word), and given that some are known more precisely than others, it seems that each of them needs to be studied differently! I will not study the customs of the household the same way I study the movement of the stars. I will not study literature and history the same way I study chemistry and physics. Each science asks a different set of questions. Each gets answers to its questions in a different way. Each has its own logic.

Bang! That’s it! I told you it would be worth it if you stayed.

At the beginning I pointed out that when we think about the curriculum, we need to think about the subjects we study and the materials we use to study them. Now I hope we can see that we also need to think about the logic of the subject (or science) that we are studying. Until we get the logic of a science we don’t get the science, no matter how well we know the content of the science. That’s why when you teach, no matter what you are teaching, you always want to teach your students how to think in the given science you are teaching.

Now here’s where it gets especially exciting. I said above that this “more” would make things “less” confusing, less work, and less anxiety. But at this point you might be thinking, “What!? Now I have to teach logic too!? Augghh!!!!”

Be still, oh restless heart!

Above I pointed out that the “logy” ending comes from logos, and that logos, at least in that context, means a unifying principle or what we can now call “the logic of a science.”

Think about this: what would you have if you dropped all the particular sciences and started studying the “logies” themselves? That’s right, you’d have logic. As every particular science has its own logic, so all the logics combined make up Logic itself. In the same way, as every particular science has its own unifying principle, so every science combined has one common unifying principle or Logos. And that is Christ. He truly is the one in whom all things are held together, not only physically but in their very essence.

There are a number of ways we can apply these facts to our thinking, teaching, and curriculum development, most of which I haven’t thought of. If you have any ideas, I’d love to hear them, either here or in the CiRCE forum.

Here are some thoughts on relating this to our curriculum, and this is where I’ll keep my promise up above, when I assured you that you would see why I call subjects “sciences” in this essay. Subjects has become a bit of a lazy word. We throw everything we study into that category. So art is a subject, music is a subject, gymn is a subject, as are math, science, literature, history, etc. By calling everything a subject, we are enabled to not think about important distinctions between types of subjects.

That doesn’t mean we should never call anything a subject, it just means we also need to learn ways to distinguish types of subjects. And the way we distinguish them is by, one, their purpose, and two, the logic each employs.

To bring this into the classroom, the classical theorists distinguished first of all between arts and sciences. An art is a way of doing something. A science is a domain of knowing. This is an amazingly important distinction if only for this somewhat obvious reason: to know something you have to do something: you have to study it. May I add that you have to study it correctly, according to its nature, using the sort of logic that is native to that subject.

So if I’m going to learn physics, I first need to learn math. If I’m going to learn biology, I need to become skilled at inductive logic. If I’m going to learn literature, I need to learn grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

In this sense, math and the trivium are not merely subjects; they are arts. They are the arts that enable us to gain the knowledge that makes up the science. Historically, they have been recognized as the arts that are universally necessary for study of every science, for leadership, and for human excellence. They have been called the humanities (Cicero’s term) and the liberal arts. They are the necessary foundation for civilized society and culture.

The fulness of this idea can be seen when we look at it at its highest level of abstraction and its most immediate level of concrete application. At the highest level of abstraction, we see that every object of study (every science) is united by a common unifying principle that we call the logos and that the scriptures and experience identify as Christ. At the most immediate level, we can see that the foundation of all learning is mastery of the tools of thinking. These can be divided into the seven liberal arts. I would suggest that those seven are then bound together by the central art of the trivium and the art that links the trivium with the quadrivium, then binds the seven into a unified package, and, in turn, bridges learning with experience and with the development of the soul. That unifying art is, just as the unifying science is, logos, which in its concrete unifying activity, we call logic.

Perhaps you can see that the only way to really integrate a curriculum is through the trivium, understood not only as psychological stages, but also as the tools of learning that Dorothy Sayers wanted us to restore. The arts of the trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

Every subject has its object, the thing you are thinking about when you study it. Every subject also has its logic, the way you think about the subject. And the object of every study and the logic of every study is contained in the unifying study of logic itself.

If I’m able to, I will describe how logic needs to be taught if this potential is to be fulfilled. Let me add that it is an awesome, transforming potential.