Dr. Anthony P. Andres
Thomas Aquinas College, California
September 11, 2020
St. Vincent de Paul Lecture and Concert Series
My thanks to the Dean and the Lecture Committee for granting to me the privilege of delivering this year’s opening lecture. Before I begin my lecture, I would like to commend all of you students. I’ve seen this in my own classes that you students have brought tremendous spirit and energy to your studies, despite the irksome circumstances that you are dealing with. I am really edified by this, and I know that the other tutors are as well. So I just wanted to thank you for that.
Tonight I will address the question of whether the discipline of logic is a necessary part of a liberal education. Now, from the very beginning of its existence this college has devoted three quarters of the Freshman philosophy tutorial to the study of logic, so it’s clear that our founders answered our question in the affirmative. And in this they followed the older tradition of university education, which included logic among the seven liberal arts.
But for the past century and more the vast majority of colleges and universities have answered that same question in the negative. Almost none of them require the study of logic, and some don’t even offer an elective course on it. Their neglect of this discipline tells us loud and clear that they think a man might be well-educated without having made the least study of logic.
In this lecture I will, perhaps unsurprisingly, defend our college’s practice of requiring every student to study logic, study it extensively and in detail. In this defense I will raise three objections against the inclusion of logic in the curriculum before I make the direct argument for its necessity, and then I will use what we have learned in that argument to answer those objections. But before I begin that defense I would like to remind you of what we are talking about when we say liberal education, and then I would like to clarify what we mean when we use the word ‘logic’ to name an academic discipline.
The word ‘liberal’ comes from the Latin for free, and so it makes sense to say that a liberal education is the education appropriate to the free man. We tend to think about this freedom in a superficial way; we think that a man is free when he is not restricted by rules, not hampered by responsibilities; we think that the free man has lots of free time and can do whatever he pleases. But Aristotle, living in a society in which slavery was just as common as freedom, thought that just the opposite was the case. He saw that slave often had more free time than free men and more opportunity to do as they pleased. Free men were burdened with responsibilities and left with little free time.
So, if free time and a lack of restrictions are not the marks of the free man, what is it that really distinguishes him from the slave? What distinguishes him is that the free man lives for his own sake, not for the sake of another, and the free man directs himself in his important actions. In contrast, the slave lives, not in for his own sake, but for the service of another, and in the important actions of his life he does not direct himself but is ruled by another man. A liberal education, then, is the education that is appropriate to a man who is free in this sense of the term.
Since learning is the point of any education, we need to ask what it is appropriate for a free man to learn in his liberal education. Since the free man directs his own actions, he needs to learn those sciences which teach a man how to live well, and so ethics and politics are necessary parts of a liberal education. But since he lives for his own sake, he also wants to study those sciences which are worth knowing for their own sake, sciences such as mathematics, the philosophy of nature, metaphysics and Sacred Theology. In such sciences he learns the greatest truths about the greatest things, such as the nature of the universe, the immortality of the soul and the existence of God. A liberal education, precisely because it is liberal, leaves aside disciplines such as engineering and agriculture; useful as they are, they are not worth knowing for their own sake, but only for the bridges they build or crops they grow. And so theology, philosophy, both speculative and moral, and mathematics form the chief parts of a liberal education.
You might have noticed that I have not yet mentioned logic. The reason is that logic, while a necessary part of a liberal education, is not one of its chief parts. Logic plays a subordinate role in liberal education as one of the seven liberal arts, handmaids of theology and philosophy. But before we consider the role of logic in liberal education, we should clarify what we mean when we use the word ‘logic’ to name an academic discipline.
Outside the confines of this college and a few other like-minded institutions, people rarely have any clear idea about what the academic discipline of logic is. But, and this is crucial, everyone has some idea of what it means to be logical. We call a man logical because what he says is logical, and we call what he says logical because it’s clear and precise, because one part of it does not conflict with another, and because what he says later seems naturally to follow upon what he said before. In sum, a man is logical because what he says is precise, consistent and orderly.
If that is what it means to be logical, then the academic discipline of logic probably aims at teaching us to be precise, consistent and orderly in our thinking and in our speech. And in teaching us these things, it is in fact teaching us the order in which reason must proceed for the acquisition of knowledge. In other words, logic teaches us how to proceed from what we already know to a knowledge of what is yet unknown. And as St. Thomas puts it, “[Logic] teaches the mode of proceeding in all of the sciences.”
What I have said so far about the academic discipline of logic has been very abstract, so let’s look at logic more concretely: what are the kinds of things that we learn about when we study logic? The sophomores, juniors and seniors probably remember that they spent a lot of time freshman year talking about genus, species and difference, definition and category, affirmation and denial, and syllogisms with their premises and conclusions. What do all these things have in common? They are all logical instruments, tools formed by the mind for the sake of learning. The student of logic studies these tools, learns how they ought to be formed and used, and learns to see the difference between a well-formed logical tool and one that is poorly formed. And in doing so, he learns the way in which he needs to go forward in learning any science.
The syllogism is the most obvious example of this kind of tool. Let’s suppose that I have figured out that the three angles of a triangle added together are equal to the sum of one of the exterior angles of the triangle plus its adjacent angle. And then let’s suppose that I already know that sum of the exterior angle and the adjacent angle is equal to two right angles. A syllogism is what allows me to put those two statements together as premises and to reach a further conclusion:
The sum of the exterior angle and the adjacent angle is two right angles.
But the interior angles of a triangle are equal to that sum.
Therefore, the interior angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles.
The syllogism here is the tool which I use to put an order between two statements whose truth I already know, but in such a way that, through them, I learn the truth of some statement that I didn’t yet know. This is just one example of the kind of tool that we learn to form and to use when we study logic.
Let me try to sum up what I have said so far. At Thomas Aquinas College we are exclusively concerned with providing for our students a Catholic liberal education. That means that the chief objects of our studies are not the useful arts, but rather those kinds of knowledge which are worth studying just for the sake of knowing them. Logic is an academic discipline which studies the tools that the mind forms and uses so that it can proceed from the known to the unknown in all of the sciences. But our main question is still unanswered: Is the formal study of logic a necessary part of a liberal education?
At this point you might think that our answer is obvious, but the practice of most universities tells us that this isn’t necessarily so. So I intend to begin my defense of the formal study of logic by bringing forward three objections, three arguments against that position, three reasons someone might have for thinking that logic should not be part of a liberal education. And our objector might first argue in the following way. Liberal education is exclusively concerned with the study of those disciplines that are worth knowing for their own sake. But, as our patron, St. Thomas Aquinas himself, points out, logic is not a discipline worth knowing for its own sake; we only study it insofar as it is useful for knowing other things. Therefore, logic should not be part of a liberal education.
Now the defender of logic might point out that logic belongs in a liberal education at least insofar as logic is useful for learning the sciences which are a part of a liberal education, but our objector has an answer to that. He contends that the human mind cannot help knowing all of the logic that it needs. He points out that we have extensive experience in our lives of ordinary men, non-logicians, making affirmations and denials, drawing conclusions from premises, and even giving definitions of the terms they use. We ourselves frequently do the same. Our objector grants that we need to use logic, but he contends that there is no more need to go to school to study logic than there is to go to school to learn how to walk. Just as we learn to walk naturally, without formal study, so we learn to be logical naturally, without formal study. And so our objector concludes that logic does not need to be part of any curriculum.
And if the defender of logic insists that logic needs to be taught, our objector insists that, not only does logic not need to be taught, but in fact logic cannot be taught, nor can it be learned through teaching. He grants that the use of logic is necessary for learning any science, but he points out that, if we needed to be taught logic, then we would need to use logic to learn logic. But we cannot use logic unless we already know logic. Therefore, we would already have to know the very thing that we are trying to learn. And that is just absurd. And so our objector concludes that, since it is impossible to teach logic, it must be the case that logic is not part of a liberal education.
The following, then, are the three reasons not to include the discipline of logic in a liberal education. First, logic is not worth knowing for its own sake; second, logic is learned naturally; third, it is impossible to learn logic through teaching. Now, I am going answer these objections, but I want to leave them aside for the moment in order to make the direct case that the discipline of logic must be included in a curriculum of liberal education.
I could make such a case at a very universal and abstract level, but I thought that we would learn more about the necessity of logic by seeing that necessity in a particular example. Moreover, the third objection reminded me of a crucial section of a text that all of us, even the freshmen, have read, Plato’s dialogue, Meno. What I plan to do next, then, instead of making the abstract case for the necessity of logic, is to look at the Meno and see what Socrates’s conversation with Meno tells us about it.
It turns out that it tells us quite a bit. Meno begins the dialogue abruptly by challenging Socrates with this question: “Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue can be taught?” Socrates takes Meno by surprise with his frank admission that he cannot, but surprises him even more with the reason for this inability: “I am so far from knowing whether virtue can be taught or not that I do not even have any knowledge of what virtue itself is.”
And Socrates further explains the relevance of this reason: “If I do not know what something is, how could I know what qualities it possesses?” I want you to notice that this more general statement, when we consider it carefully, is not a statement about virtue or ethics at all; instead, it is the statement of a logical principle. It tells us how the mind proceeds from the known to the unknown. It states that knowledge of what something is is necessarily prior to knowledge of what properties it has. Meno asks whether virtue is teachable, but Socrates responds by teaching Meno a bit of logic.
As we all remember, Meno is astounded that Socrates does not know what virtue is. He claims to possess that knowledge himself and, encouraged by Socrates, gives his own account of virtue. Unsurprisingly, Socrates finds fault with Meno’s account of what virtue is, and not just Meno’s first account, but also all of his subsequent accounts. But what I want us to notice is the kind of fault he finds with those accounts. Socrates does not object to the truth of the statements that Meno makes about virtue; in fact, many of those statements were suggested by Socrates himself; Meno merely agrees to them. What Socrates objects to in Meno’s accounts is that they are not the right kind of answers to the question. The question, “What is virtue?” demands a well-formed definition for its answer, but Meno’s definitions are badly formed. Therefore, in this dialogue Socrates is showing us that Meno’s problem is not so much an ignorance of virtue as it is an ignorance of logic.
Let’s look at three of Meno’s answers to the question “What is virtue?” in a little more detail. When Meno first tries to tell Socrates what virtue is, he makes a short speech in which he describes the kinds of actions appropriate to different kinds of people. “There is a virtue for every action and every age,” Meno concludes. Socrates does not object to the truth of Meno’s descriptions; for instance, he does not deny that the virtuous freeman would know how to administer the state. What he objects to is the form of the answer. He objects that the answer is not one account that applies to every virtue for every condition of life. But a definition needs to be one account that applies to every instance. And in the subsequent passages Socrates takes great pains to teach this to Meno, I’m afraid with only partial success.
Later in the dialogue, Meno defines virtue as “to find joy in beautiful things and to have power.” Socrates again does not disagree with the statement that virtuous men find joy in beautiful things; what he denies is that such a statement constitutes a definition of virtue. He points out that all men desire such things and so this property is not specific enough to virtue to be included in its definition. Implicitly Socrates is teaching Meno the logical principle that the definition must belong only to the thing defined.
Meno then amends his definition to include only the power of attaining beautiful things, but he finds that he needs to add “justly” to this account. Socrates objects to this definition, but again on logical grounds: he points out that justice is a virtue, and so Meno is implicitly including virtue in its own definition. Such a definition is viciously circular and thus violates the requirements of logic. Thus, this third account of what virtue is also fails.
What can we gather from our consideration of Meno’s three failed definitions? It does not seem that the problem is that Meno knows nothing about ethics and virtue; Socrates does not criticize him on that score. The problem is always that Meno has not given the right kind of answer to the question; his answers are not proper definitions, they do not have the proper logical form. In sum, we can conclude that Meno cannot answer the question “What is virtue?” not because he does not understand ethics, but mainly because he does not understand logic.
But it does not seem that Meno himself realizes this. In fact, his initial confidence shaken by Socrates’s refutations, he admits that he cannot say what virtue is, at least right now. But when Socrates challenges him to begin the inquiry again, Meno argues that the quest is hopeless: if we do not already know the definition of virtue, then we won’t recognize it even if we come across it. But Socrates rejects this as a debater’s argument and offers in answer to it his theory that learning is recollection, that our souls knew all things before they entered our bodies, that the process of entering the body caused the soul to forget its knowledge, and that the process of learning is that of recalling forgotten knowledge.
I don’t think that we should accept Socrates’s solution, with all that it implies, such as that the soul exists before the body, but I do think that we can glean something from it. Socrates is telling us that Meno’s quest for knowledge is not hopeless because, even though he might not have a perfect knowledge of what he seeks, he always has some kind of imperfect, confused knowledge of it. And on the basis of that imperfect knowledge he will be able to direct himself toward that more perfect knowledge. Or rather, he would be able to direct himself to it, if he knew how to formulate the right kind of answer to his question. And what all this implies is that Meno needs to study logic.
I do not mean to imply here that, if only Meno were to study logic, he would immediately be able to form the perfect definition of virtue; other causes of knowledge come into play as well. Logic is not sufficient to guarantee learning by itself. But the way in which Meno fails shows us that the ability to direct our minds from the known to the unknown is not a product of nature but has to be acquired by study. That is, we cannot know what something is perfectly unless we can define it, and we cannot define it unless we know what a definition is, and we are not born knowing that, nor do we come to know it automatically. Rather, we have to learn how to formulate a definition and that only happens through the study of the academic discipline which teaches this, the science of logic. Meno’s failure, then, gives us an insight into why logic is a necessary part of a liberal education. Logic supplies the mind with the tools it needs, but does not naturally possess, to acquire knowledge of the highest things, things worth knowing for their own sake.
Our examination of the Meno has not only enabled us to make a direct argument for the necessity of logic, it has also provided us with the principles necessary to answer our three objections. The first objection pointed out that logic is not worth knowing for its own sake. Our answer is that the immediate end of logic is to help the mind come to know things worth knowing in themselves. Without logic, the mind cannot acquire such knowledge, and so without logic liberal education is doomed to failure. Our answer does not imply that logic is one of the chief parts of a liberal education, only that it is a necessary, although subordinate, part.
Our second objection asserted that we come to know logic naturally through our common experience of thinking and learning. Now, although the incidents of the dialogue Meno are perhaps fictional, what they portray is true to life. Meno does not know how to proceed from the known to the unknown and does not know how to formulate a definition. Moreover, he has trouble learning these things despite the pains taken by Socrates to teach him. And Meno is not a newcomer to the intellectual life; he has studied with Gorgias, one of the most famous intellectuals of his time. Meno shows us that we do not learn logic automatically, but that it must be the object of deliberate study.
The third objection argued that it is impossible to learn logic because you could only learn it if you already knew it. You might notice now that this objection is like Meno’s despairing argument against looking for a definition of virtue. In answering Meno we saw that there is a state of mind between complete ignorance of virtue and perfect knowledge of it, a state of imperfect, confused knowledge which can be the basis for a more perfect knowledge of virtue. Such a state of mind is possible, not just for the knowledge of virtue, but also for the knowledge of logic. We all have a lot of experience trying to define terms and argue points, and we have even more experience of others doing the same. From that fund of experience we build up an imperfect understanding of definition and argumentation, and that imperfect understanding is, as St. Albert the Great calls it, a kind of “natural logic” which, in two ways, is the source for a more perfect grasp of the science of logic.
In one way it is the source of a more perfect knowledge of logic because it is the known from which our minds proceed to an understanding of what is yet unknown. Natural logic contains the seeds of the logical discipline that was investigated by Socrates and Plato, but which was brought to completion by Aristotle.
In another way it is the source of a more perfect grasp of the science of logic insofar as it provides some guidance to the mind as it proceeds from the known to the unknown in logic. Our natural logic provides a method of proceeding to use in our study of logic, and the result is a more perfect grasp of the method of proceeding, which can then be used to guide a second investigation into the science of logic. The ultimate result is a complete grasp of the method of proceeding common to every science, that is, a complete grasp of logic. So the vicious circle of the third objection has been replaced by a virtuous circle in which the mind, by reflecting on its own activity, brings that activity to a greater and greater perfection.
In this lecture I hoped to accomplish two things. First, I wanted to answer the three objections which, I think, can in some way explain the neglect of logic in modern higher education. And second, I wanted to give a positive argument for the necessity of logic in liberal education. I want to bring this lecture to an end by briefly considering the way in which we study logic here at Thomas Aquinas College. The way we study logic here is much different from how it is studied almost anywhere else. We study logic here by reading, in close detail, the logical treatises of Aristotle, the first philosopher to hand down a complete doctrine on logic. What we do not do, but what almost every other school does, is study a textbook in logic which distills and simplifies the difficult text of the Philosopher.
Of course, the most obvious reason that we do this is because the reading of original texts, instead of textbooks, is one of the principal methods of the educational program here. We are, in an important sense, a Great Books school. But there is a more particular reason for doing this in the case of logic. To understand this more particular reason, it might help to compare the principal parts of liberal education, the speculative sciences, with the mechanical arts.
Now the speculative sciences, such as abstract mathematics, the philosophy of nature, and first philosophy, are called speculative, not because they consist of guesswork and uncertainty, but because their goal is an act of intellectual looking, the act of seeing the truth. That is, these sciences are worth knowing for their own sake, and so we study them even though our knowledge of them has no other use. They are speculative because they are above being practical. But the mechanical arts, such as carpentry, architecture and engineering, are practical because we learn the truth in order to bring about some result apart from knowing: The carpenter learns to make a chair, the engineer learns to design a strong bridge, the architect a beautiful building.
And this leads to a second distinction. Because the practical arts produce a tangible result in the physical world, we can use that tangible product to judge whether the art was properly learned. For example, if the engineer builds a bridge, and the bridge collapses, we can judge that there was some problem with his grasp of engineering. Similarly, if a doctor treats many sick people, but none of them recover, we conclude that his knowledge of medicine is at fault. But the speculative sciences do not make a product. Therefore, we cannot judge their conclusions by examining their practical results.
So, how do we judge the conclusions of a speculative science? We can only judge them by comparing them with the first principles of the science and seeing whether the conclusions follow necessarily from those first principles. For example, we do not judge Euclid’s proof of the Pythagorean theorem by making and measuring physical triangles. Rather, we judge its truth and validity by seeing how every step of the proof follows from the previous step, and how they all follow ultimately from the first principles of geometry. A practical science can be judged by its results, but a speculative science only by its principles.
What kind of science is logic? Well, on the one hand, it is not in itself a speculative science because its conclusions are not worth knowing for their own sake. It is not worth knowing how to make a definition or a syllogism unless you are going to use that knowledge. But logic is not a practical science either. It does not produce a tangible product in the physical world, but only a method by which the mind can guide itself from the known to the unknown. Because it is the tool of the speculative sciences, St. Thomas places it among the speculative sciences but in a subordinate position. What we should notice, however, is this: like the speculative sciences, the science of logic cannot be judged by the products it produces, but only by the principles from which it proceeds. Its conclusions about the method for guiding the mind from the known to the unknown, for example, about how to make a definition or a syllogism, can only be judged by whether they follow from the self-evident principles of the science.
Now, no logic textbook takes up the study of logic from its principles and proves its conclusions. Logic textbooks instead ask the student to memorize a set of handy rules to remember about reasoning and arguing. For example, they give a set of rules for making syllogisms, but they do not unfold those rules from the self-evident principles of logic. They make the mistake of teaching logic as if their doctrine could be easily judged by looking at its tangible results.
This mistake would not be so bad, except that, when we look at the various textbooks more closely (and there are scores of them), we find that they do not agree with each other. They give different accounts of which rules are most important and what order they should be presented in. Sometimes, they don’t even agree about whether this or that rule is true or false. And since they don’t resolve their teaching to the principles of the science of logic, the student is left powerless to judge whether he can safely use the rules that he has been taught. And as a result most students, even those who go on to get Ph.D.’s in philosophy, end up neglecting the study and use of logic in their own thought.
The textbooks, then, make the mistake of teaching logic as if it were a practical art. But Aristotle, the father of logic, did not. He studied logic from its first, principles, but more importantly for his readers, he teaches logic in the same way. Unlike the textbooks, he shows us that the rules of logic, that necessary discipline which teaches us the method of going from the known to the unknown, flow from the first self-evident principles of that science. And so we find that it is necessary for a liberal education, not just to study logic, but to study it in the way that we do, by reading carefully the logical treatises of Aristotle. Thank you for your attention.
Streaming & downloadable audio
Receive lectures and talks via podcast!