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The Laws of Thought

by Grant Bartley

Philosophy is the pursuit of basic understanding through reason. But what is reason? In loose general terms, ‘reasoning’ means ‘thinking using language’. This is probably the sense that Aristotle had in mind when he said that human beings are ‘reasoning animals’. However, philosophy employs reason in a stricter, more demanding way. The type of reason we’re interested in is ruled by logic.

The word rational comes from the Latin ratio, a type of relationship between quantities. Its use in Latin translations of Greek texts reflect the fact that the ancient Greek desire for reason was connected to their love of harmony, since harmony involves pleasing relationships between things – in music, architecture, sculpture or mathematics, for examples. Similarly, for an educated ancient Greek, rationality was a search for harmony among ideas. For us too, reason is an enquiry into relationships between ideas, but whereas the Greeks wanted harmony, we’re primarily interested in reason as our best hope for discovering hidden truths.

Logic (from the Greek logos meaning principle or word) is concerned with what is justifiably thinkable through language – whether one idea follows from another, or is contradicted by it, or is at least allowed by it. Yet by exploring what is coherently thinkable, logic defines limits to what can be meaningfully expressed. To paraphrase Immanuel Kant, rational human minds can only make sense of logical consistency. Strict contradictions such as “There is a dog here and there is not a dog here (simultaneously, using the same senses of ‘dog’ and ‘here’)” can have no meaning to us; nor could we ever rationally believe that any strictly illogical statement could be meaningful. And if you’re not saying something meaningful, you’re not saying anything that could be true. So reason draws the borders of meaningful thought. Anything illogical is strictly meaningless. Kant conceded that although we could never rationally believe that reality could contain contradictions, or even imagine how it could be so, our inability to accommodate the illogical could be a limitation of our rational minds, not of the world beyond our minds. Being reasonable ourselves, we can never get beyond reason to see how things independently are. Using reason also yields the best way of arriving at meaningful thought. So we can say that ‘reason’ is the answer to the question, ‘How can I best form opinions and judgements?’ In many ways, we’re reasonably bound by reason.

This issue’s theme of ‘How to Think’ explores the boundaries of meaningful thought. To really find out what it means to reason well, we must strip thought down to see the skeleton of the laws by which we generate coherent, meaningful ideas. So three articles describe the limits of reason by showing different laws of thought, and one shows how reasoning should be unlimited, in the sense that there ought to be no limits to the use of intelligence to understand problem situations.

In our opening article Marianne Talbot explains the basics of reasoning: what makes an argument, how to spot one and how to make a good one. She also distinguishes the two basic types of logical argument. Induction is generalising from experiences and observations to discover patterns in nature. Scientists are among its practitioners. Deduction, by contrast, does not depend on events and places and other contingent details of the world, but rather on the logical relationships between ideas. We can possibly get away with calling deduction pure reason. It is practiced by good philosophers, logicians, and mathematicians.

Two further articles explore problems at the boundaries of meaningful thought. The first is Noson Yanofsky’s guide to how to resolve paradoxes. Paradoxes such as ‘this statement is false’ are troublesome puzzles that sometimes arise when using language to refer to ideas expressed in language – as reason often does – since doing so can result in referential knots. In the second, Arnold Zuboff exposes the shaky foundations of a whole class of philosophical positions that turn out to be self-refuting, including the claim that nothing in philosophy can ever be definitely proved; the claim that we shouldn’t make moral judgments; and relativism (the idea that truths are true only in the context of a particular time or culture, or for a particular person or conceptual scheme). So if you are a relativist, read Zuboff’s article and see if you can still find any way to maintain that view.

In her article, Maria daVenza Tillmanns blows the roof off that shrine to modern technological ingenuity many of us have somewhere in our minds, by expanding our perspective on reason, arguing that the best thinking doesn’t tackle problems in isolation, but rather takes fully into account all the circumstances in which a problem is found. That sounds obvious when expressed so plainly, but Dr Tillmanns argues that the human race has yet to grow into this way of thinking.

Finally, Dale DeBakcsy personalises this exploration of the realm of reason by relating how under the spell of his teacher Richard Rorty, he temporarily abandoned scientific positivism to see the history of ideas as a series of linguistic ploys.

I hope that the articles in our ‘How To Think’ section will offer you some new insights into the laws of thought, and also make you better armed to reason well in the long battle for further understanding.


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