William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

In Defense Of Peter Kreeft: A Response To Brafford

Peter Kreeft, a philosopher whose surname does not sound like it is spelled, placed in Touchstone the article “Clashing Symbols: The Loss of Aristotelian Logic & the Social, Moral, & Sexual Consequences.” The article was noticed by the thrice-named William Randolph Brafford at First Things, who wrote a short critical piece called “In Defense of Symbolic Logic: A Response to Peter Kreeft” (he also posted a brief follow-up).

None of this would be of much moment, except for the curious viciousness of some First Things readers, who ordinarily are more civil. The anonymous “AMF” called Kreeft a “laughable buffoon”; another anonymity (“HT”) borrowed a phrase from Peter Geach to imply that Kreeft was mired in “Cimmerian Darkness” because of his rejection of modern philosophy. Brafford himself, after admitting his ignorance (I use this word in its technical sense) of the subject Kreeft addressed, let it be known that he found symbolic logic useful in his day job of computer programmer (“symbolic logic will improve your SQL”), and therefore anybody calling for its suppression (as he supposed Kreeft did) must not be firing on all cylinders.

Yet nowhere does Kreeft call for the removal or the neglect of symbolic logic. Instead, he praises it as just the thing—in its place:

[T]he new logic really is superior to the old in efficiency for expressing long and complex arguments, much as Arabic numerals are superior to Roman numerals, or a digital computer to an analog computer, or writing in shorthand to writing in longhand…

A second reason for preferring symbolic logic is its more exact, scientific form. Symbolic logic is mathematical logic.

Kreeft would not deny that those anxious to learn SQL or the most efficient way to tell a machine to “Do X if Y” should brush up on symbolic logic. However, there is more to life, and to philosophy, than dry formulas. Computer programs cannot tell us what is best in life.

Mathematics is a wonderful invention for saving time and empowering science, but it is not very useful in ordinary or philosophical conversations. In fact, the more important the subject matter, the less useful mathematics seems to be.

Formulas are also meaningless (this also applies to probability and statistics). They only become meaningful when they are married to concepts—to words, that is. The argument “All A are B. C is A. Therefore C is B” isn’t of the slightest interest to anybody except to a symbolic logician trying to understand if he has manipulated the symbols properly. It becomes fascinating when tangible words are substituted, words which accord with reality. All human beings are mortal. You, dear reader are a human being. Therefore you will die. Now that is saying something interesting.

Kreeft merely asks that philosophy turn some of its attention away from lifeless calculation back towards meaning. Thinking does not begin and end in computation:

The very nature of reason itself is understood differently by symbolic logic than it was by Aristotelian logic. The ancients used “reason” to mean all that distinguished man from the beasts, including intuition, understanding, wisdom, moral conscience, and aesthetic appreciation, as well as calculation. But beginning with Descartes, it is only the last of these powers that we think of when we think of “reason.”

Kreeft surveys the journey philosophy took away from (metaphysical and epistemological) realism towards skepticism (Hume) and idealism (Kant) and finally to its near exclusive focus on matters which are not of the slightest interest to people other than those employed as philosophers.

Our society no longer thinks about the fundamental metaphysical question, the question of what something is, the question of the “nature” of a thing. Instead, we think about how we feel about things, how we can use them, how they work, how we can change them, how we see them behave, and how we can predict and control their behavior by technology.

His suggestion is to return to the Aristotelian form of logic instruction, to learn about the nature of things and of abstract universals. He does not say “Aristotle or Bust!” as some surmised, and which gave rise to the application of the Geach quote (Geach scolded those who failed to correct obvious errors: this is not Kreeft’s sin).

The old logic was like the old classic movies: strong on substance rather than on sophistication. The new logic is like the typically modern movies: strong on “special effects” but weak on substance, on theme, character, plot, and language; strong on “bells and whistles” but weak on the engine; strong on the technological side, weak on the human side. But logic should be a human instrument. Logic was made for man, not man for logic.

9 Comments

  1. So is this development (or diversion, if you like) from Aristotelian to symbolic logic a natural occurence like progression through the stages in ecological community development? Does one school hold sway because of internal characteristics or have external influences lowered former to favor the rise of the latter? Is there a next stage and what might it be? Might there be synthesis or is oscillation the pattern to expect? And finally, how would the answers be important to people not employed as philosophers?

  2. An excellent book that goes deeply into both the history and the consequences of the deterioration of philosophy in the most recent centuries is The Flight From Reality by the late Dr. Clarence Carson. Also, C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition Of man is highly illuminating on this subject, despite its modest length.

  3. I’ve had the honor of sending an e-mail to Professor Kreeft and having him graciously respond at length about the issues/questions I raised. Based on my correspondence with him, I can say his detractors would do better than to toss mindless epithets in his direction. He is a smart and persuasive philosopher and is quite courageous in standing up for the “classical” philosophic arguments and method which, when used properly, have held us in good stead for many generations. It is only when we, in the last generation, began to abandon those arguments and methods in favor of the newest fad spawned in the spiritually and philosophically bereft cesspool of postmodernism, that we started downhill toward hell in a hand-basket.

  4. Briggs

    22 December 2012 at 6:32 pm

    All,

    This E.D. Hirsch article is tangentially relevant.

    All verbal tests are, at bottom, vocabulary tests. To predict competence most accurately, the U.S. military’s Armed Forces Qualification Test gives twice as much weight to verbal scores as to math scores, and researchers such as Christopher Winship and Anders D. Korneman have shown that these verbally weighted scores are good predictors of income level. Math is an important index to general competence, but on average words are twice as important.

  5. Even Aristotle and Aquinas used symbols from time to time–“A” or “AB”, for instance. What they did not use was Fregean logic, in which syllogisms are reduced to incomprehensible symbols like “Ξ” (this is “if and only if”, if I remember correctly). I agree that being able to say “A is a human iff it is rational” is a lot more convenient than saying “an entity is a human if and only if it is rational”, particularly in an extended debate over complex ideas. However, once you get into the realm of strict equation-logic, you’re just peddling esotericism for its own sake. I’ve never had much patience for the analytic philosophers (they are rare) who bother with it on a regular basis.

    In any case, Prof. Briggs is obviously correct that philosophers have forgotten the important things. It isn’t really their fault, though. Even people like Descartes and Hume were merely reacting to the ontological and metaphysical ideas of their times. The modern ball was set in motion hundreds of years before the modern world even existed, thanks to nominalism in the 14th century. The only possible end results of that system are absurdity and nihilism–and that’s where we are now.

  6. R. Sherman,

    The core values of post-modernism were created by people like Kant and Nietzsche a long, long time ago. They were developed three to four generations ago by people like Heidegger and Sartre. Further, the “classical” arguments were almost all abandoned by the 1700s. Contemporary philosophy is not a recent development. It’s going to take a lot more than backtracking from the actions of last generation to fix the mess we’re in currently. Even many “conservative” values these days (free enterprise and the quasi-libertarian desire for self-governance, for example) are part of the trainwreck that is modernism, and they are as unsupported by classical philosophy as anything spouted by someone like Slavoj Zizek.

  7. Briggs,

    You state “Kreeft surveys the journey philosophy took away from (metaphysical and epistemological) realism towards skepticism (Hume) and idealism (Kant) and finally to its near exclusive focus on matters which are not of the slightest interest to people other than those employed as philosophers.”

    To support this, you quote Kreeft: “Our society no longer thinks about the fundamental metaphysical question, the question of what something is, the question of the “nature” of a thing. Instead, we think about how we feel about things, how we can use them, how they work, how we can change them, how we see them behave, and how we can predict and control their behavior by technology.”

    You have it backwards. It is the metaphysical questions Kreeft would prefer society to think about that are of no interest to those not engaged in the profession of philosophy.

    Except for the issue of how we feel about things the answers to the questions Kreeft derides in this quote can have important consequences for the day to day lives of non-philosophers.

    I think you would be hard pressed to find a similar day to day impact on non-philosophers for the metaphysical questions kreeft would prefer to ponder.

  8. As a mathematician trained in the most abstract kind of mathematics — my fate was decided in my third undergraduate year in physics, when for reasons I can no longer remember, I opened up Mac Lane’s “Categories for the working mathematican”. I could hardly understand most of it, but fell in love with the subject that very instant. And yes, the word “Categories” was purloined from Aristotle — all I can say is, of course Kreeft is right.

    I have not read Kreeft’s essay, but from Briggs’ description I can make an educated guess. Looking at the first paragraph of Brafford’s essay, we have:

    “Now, I’m not a philosopher or a logician, but I do use symbolic logic almost daily to write little bits of computer code.”

    The ignorance is duly noted, but otherwise the point is irrelevant.

    “I also find the story of symbolic logic in the twentieth century entrancing: It’s an intellectual adventure on a level with rocket science or genetics, and you can read about it in Logicomix.”

    It is indeed a fascinating history; but also irrelevant.

    “So at the outset I’d like to say that Kreeft drastically understates the aesthetic value of mathematics (“the more important the subject matter, the less useful mathematics seems to be”) and logic (“a computer can do symbolic logic”).”

    This is a serious misreading, but even if it were true it would also be irrelevant.

    “Symbolic logic and mathematics speak of important things at least in the same manner as the great fugues, or anything else formally elegant.”

    This is either irrelevant, or simply false. The things that mathematics talk about are not important in the *same* way as the thinks a fugue talks about are. Do a simple test. A few years ago, the Russian mathematican solved in the positive Poincare’s conjecture and along the way Thurston’s geometrization conjecture. As a consequence, the universe of 3-manifolds conforms to what the experts intuited it to be. Great. But assume that Perelman instead of solving for the positive had given a negative answer, that is, had provided an exampe of a 3-manifold homotopically equivalent but not homeomorphic to the 3-sphere. The world of 3-manifolds would turn out to be more mysterious and wild than the experts expected but that is all. Life would go on as before — business as usual.

    But the things a fugue talks about (or great literature, or the important metaphysical questions or — you get the point), are about *us* and they impact in a drastic way how we view Ourselves, Life, The Universe and All.

  9. G. Rodrigues,

    “But the things a fugue talks about (or great literature, or the important metaphysical questions or — you get the point), are about *us* and they impact in a drastic way how we view Ourselves, Life, The Universe and All.”

    No they only affect the way professional philosopher’s view Humanity, life the universe and all.

    I very much doubt you can demonstrate any real impact on how non-philosophers view anything.

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