Sunday, September 15, 2013

Macaulay on Scholastic logic

“Mr. Mill is exactly the writer to please people of this description. His arguments are stated with the utmost affectation of precision; his divisions are awfully formal; and his style is generally as dry as that of Euclid’s Elements. Whether this be a merit, we must be permitted to doubt. Thus much is certain: that the ages in which the true principles of philosophy were least understood were those in which the ceremonial of logic was most strictly observed, and that the time from which we date the rapid progress of the experimental sciences was also the time at which a less exact and formal way of writing came into use.

“The style which the Utilitarians admire suits only those subjects on which it is possible to reason a priori. It grew up with the verbal sophistry which flourished during the dark ages. With that sophistry it fell before the Baconian philosophy in the day of the great deliverance of the human mind. The inductive method not only endured but required greater freedom of diction. It was impossible to reason from phenomena up to principles, to mark slight shades of difference in quality, or to estimate the comparative effect of two opposite considerations between which there was no common measure, by means of the naked and meagre jargon of the schoolmen. Of those schoolmen Mr. Mill has inherited both the spirit and the style. He is an Aristotelian of the fifteenth century, born out of due season. We have here an elaborate treatise on Government, from which, but for two or three passing allusions, it would not appear that the author was aware that any governments actually existed among men. Certain propensities of human nature are assumed; and from these premises the whole science of politics is synthetically deduced! We can scarcely persuade ourselves that we are not reading a book written before the time of Bacon and Galileo,—a book written in those days in which physicians reasoned from the nature of heat to the treatment of fever, and astronomers proved syllogistically that the planets could have no independent motion,—because the heavens were incorruptible, and nature abhorred a vacuum!” [Edinburgh Review, March 1829]

Discuss.

1 comment:

Alex Leibowitz said...

Aristotelian or no, I prefer what Aristotle said when he wrote we ought to suit the level of precision to our subject.

But where things do admit of precise treatment, I think it is useful to recognize what can be thought precisely nonetheless admits of a multitude of representations, and that an increase in the number of representations can sometimes lead to an increase in understanding.

So if something can be represented using a particular logical formalism, one also ought to try how well he can represent it using ordinary language -- and the reverse. The comparison of the two is fruitful, and it helps a reader immensely to compare constantly an idiom which he understands intuitively with a kind of writing which is meant to unearth its analysis. Each can serve as a gloss on the latter -- and each can also suggest areas in which the other is mistaken.

You see the same mistake in mathematical writers, who set out to formally define or prove something before they have motivated their definition or explained the intuition which the proof attempts to capture. Philosophy should certainly not imitate this style, because the philosopher must first of all not ape precision in dealing with a concept, until he has made it clear to himself and the reader what concept he is dealing with.

The only complaint one can make against this way of proceeding -- of giving many representations of the same thing -- is that it makes a work less concise and so increases the amount of time required for the reader to attain an overview of it (as Kant remarks at the beginning of his critique). But this complaint is to a certain extent specious, because it mistakes something external to a thought -- the form in which it is published and the order in which it is apprehended -- for its proper understanding, which, once attained, exists entire "in" the mind of the one who has attained it. One could very well have produced several editions of the Critique and sent them side by side. The only real complaint against this procedure, which Kant also gives (and it is a good one), is that the writer did not have time. But certainly if anything has been expounded formally, and its exposition is correct, someone else should be able to take the trouble of providing a more colloquial exposition (and vice versa).