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.