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The role of logic in philosophy: A Q&A with Elijah Millgram

Elijah Millgram, author of The Great Endarkenment, sits down with Svantje Guinebert, of the University of Bremen, to answer her questions and discuss the role of logic in philosophy.

Svantje Guinebert: Elijah, on occasion, you’ve said that logic, at least the logic that most philosophers are taught, is stale science, and that it’s getting in the way of philosophers learning about newer developments. But surely logic is important for philosophers. Would you like to speak to the role of logic in philosophy?

Elijah Millgram: For analytic philosophy, logic has become the name for a branch of mathematics whose introductory courses are conventionally taught in philosophy departments. And maybe it still pays to have our undergraduates take these classes; Stanley Cavell once said that it’s a sociological fact about analytic philosophy that there is one course that you know every analytic philosopher has taken, and that’s the Introduction to Deductive Logic. It’s the one piece of shared culture; they all know how to read a backwards E.

But, yes, I think it’s stale science and I’m not sure how much further we philosophers want to invest in this.

However, there is an older sense of logic which maybe corresponds to our notion of philosophy of logic. In this older sense of logic, the question is “what counts as a good argument? What counts as a good inference?” And sometimes it answers the question of how to think. Logic in that sense, which is not necessarily the same as the branch of mathematics, seems to me… well, let me say this with an analogy. Ethics is to applied ethics as logic in this sense, or philosophy of logic, is to all the rest of philosophy. All the rest of philosophy is applied logic.

Svantje Guinebert: What do you mean by “applied logic,” and how does it turn out to be philosophy?

Elijah Millgram: You actually see this in the history of different philosophical traditions. Each philosophical tradition evolves a view of what a successful argument is. And that view of argumentation shapes the content of that tradition. This is one of the reasons I’m interested in the theory of rationality; the deepest changes arise out of changes in your views about logic, so construed. You get enormous leverage. When you change your philosophical views about argument, all the other philosophy follows suit: moral philosophy, metaphysics, epistemology; it’s all just applied logic. But not logic in the sense of what is taught in these math classes; it’s applied philosophical logic.

Svantje Guinebert: If much of philosophy is, as you’re putting it, applied logic, what do you want to say about the content of philosophy? For instance, why is ethics a part of philosophy?

Elijah Millgram: If you think about some of the questions that philosophers traditionally address themselves to—such as, How should I live? What is it like to be an upstanding, ethically responsible citizen?—these questions predate philosophy, and in our own past and in other cultures they are subjects of wisdom literatures. And every culture has a wisdom literature. For example, in the Old Testament, you find books like Ecclesiastes and Job; I suppose that the ancient Greeks produced this sort of wisdom literature also—maybe some of the authors were sophists. What makes philosophy different from that? Not the subject matter it covers.

Svantje Guinebert: So philosophy shares its ideas with other intellectual enterprises?

Elijah Millgram: Certainly there’s overlap. But philosophy starts when Socrates comes to people who have these views, and maybe very wise people have these views, and he says: “That’s fine, but give me an argument.” If you had to characterize philosophy not in terms of its subject matter, well, remember that Aristotle says there are four causes for a substance: there is the formal cause, the efficient cause, the final cause and the material cause. In the toy example that we serve up in our classes, at the beginning—okay, it’s a little bit misleading, but don’t worry about that now—if you’re thinking about a sculpture, the formal cause will be the design of the sculpture, the efficient cause will be the sculptor, and the final cause will be his commission, or perhaps that the sculpture will be put in a temple. And then there is the material cause, which is the bronze or the wood or the marble of which the sculpture is made.

Philosophy is characterized by this: the material cause of philosophy is argument. Argument is the clay you work in — that’s the skill you’re trying to teach your students. What matters is the ideas, but the ideas have to be executed in this medium. And they‘re learning to produce arguments such that, when you put them in a kiln, they won’t crack. That requires a throughgoing—and hard—mastery or command of the medium.

Svantje Guinebert: And so logic is first philosophy because…

Elijah Millgram: Yes, because when you change the medium, the ideas are executed differently, in about the way that the still life comes out differently in oils and charcoal. But also because the possibilities of the new medium give you new ideas.

Featured image credit: Chichen Itza Yucatan Pyramids, by darvinsantos. Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. William Godwin

    Beautifully put.
    Just for fun… Every printer knows that it’s an upside down ‘E’ — not a backwards ‘E’!

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