ARISTOTLE: The Foundation of Logic

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter II, Section 3 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.


III. The Foundation of Logic 

The first great distinction of Aristotle is that almost without predecessors, almost entirely by his own hard thinking, he created a new science—Logic. Renan speaks of “the ill training of every mind that has not, directly or indirectly, come under Greek discipline”; but in truth the Greek intellect itself was undisciplined and chaotic till the ruthless formulas of Aristotle provided a ready method for the test and correction of thought. Even Plato (if a lover may so far presume) was an unruly and irregular soul, caught up too frequently in a cloud of myth, and letting beauty too richly veil the face of truth. Aristotle himself, as we shall see, violated his own canons plentifully; but then he was the product of his past, and not of that future which his thought would build. The political and economic decay of Greece brought a weakening of the Hellenic mind and character after Aristotle; but when a new race, after a millennium of barbaric darkness, found again the leisure and ability for speculation, it was Aristotle’s “Organon” of logic, translated by Boethius (470-525 A. D.), that became the very mould of medieval thought, the strict mother of that scholastic philosophy which, though rendered sterile by encircling dogmas, nevertheless trained the intellect of adolescent Europe to reasoning and subtlety, constructed the terminology of modern science, and laid the bases of that same maturity of mind which was to outgrow and overthrow the very system and methods which had given it birth and sustenance. 

The ruthless formulas of Aristotle provided a ready method for the test and correction of thought.

Logic means, simply, the art and method of correct thinking. It is the logy or method of every science, of every discipline and every art; and even music harbors it. It is a science, because to a considerable extent the processes of correct thinking can be reduced to rules like physics and geometry, and taught to any normal mind; it is an art because by practice it gives to thought, at last, that unconscious and immediate accuracy which guides the fingers of the pianist over his instrument to effortless harmonies. Nothing is so dull as logic, and nothing is so important. 

Logic is the art and method of correct thinking. 

There was a hint of this new science in Socrates’ maddening insistence on definitions, and in Plato’s constant refining of every concept. Aristotle’s little treatise on Definitions shows how his logic found nourishment at this source. “If you wish to converse with me,” said Voltaire, “define your terms.” How many a debate would have been deflated into a paragraph if the disputants had dared to define their terms! This is the alpha and omega of logic, the heart, and soul of it, that every important term in serious discourse shall be subjected to strictest scrutiny and definition. It is difficult, and ruthlessly tests the mind; but once done it is half of any task. 

The heart and soul of logic are the definitions that are consistent with the context.

How shall we proceed to define an object or a term? Aristotle answers that every good definition has two parts, stands on two solid feet: first, it assigns the object in question to a class or group whose general characteristics are also its own—so man is, first of all, an animal; and secondly, it indicates wherein the object differs from all the other members in its class—so man, in the Aristotelian system, is a rational animal, his “specific difference” is that unlike all other animals he is rational (here is the origin of a pretty legend). Aristotle drops an object into the ocean of its class, then takes it out all dripping with generic meaning, with the marks of its kind and group; while its individuality and difference shine out all the more clearly for this juxtaposition with other objects that resemble it so much and are so different. 

A definition must have a context. It is easy to differentiate a man from an animal. But to differentiate a man from another man requires closer inspection. So, a context may require simple “black and white definition” for an object, but another context may require a “definition with many shades” for the same object.

Passing out from this rear line of logic we come into the great battle-field on which Aristotle fought out with Plato the dread question of “universals”; it was the first conflict in a war which was to last till our own day, and make all medieval Europe ring with the clash of “realists” and “nominalists.”* A universal, to Aristotle, is any common noun, any name capable of universal application to the members of a class: so animal, man, book, tree, are universals. But these universals are subjective notions, not tangibly objective realities; they are nomina (names), not res (things); all that exists outside us is a world of individual and specific objects, not of generic and universal things; men exist, and trees, and animals; but man-in-general, or the universal man, does not exist, except in thought; he is a handy mental abstraction, not an external presence or re-ality. 

*[It was In reference to this debate that Friedrich Schlegel said, ”Every man is born either a Platonist or an Aristotelian” (in Benn, i, 291).] 

The “universals” can be treated as objective notions in proper context. Subjectivity enters the picture when the object and its context do not match.

Now Aristotle understands Plato to have held that universals have objective existence; and indeed Plato had said that the universal is incomparably more lasting and important and substantial than the individual,—the latter being but a little wavelet in a ceaseless surf; men come and go, but man goes on forever. Aristotle’s is a matter-of-fact mind; as William James would say, a tough, not a tender, mind; he sees the root of endless mysticism and scholarly nonsense in this Platonic “realism”; and he attacks it with all the vigor of a first polemic. As Brutus loved not Cresar less but Rome more, so Aristotle says, Amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas—“Dear is Plato, but dearer still is truth.”

Plato is correct in regarding the universal “man” as having objective existence in the context he is considering. An object does not necessarily have to be something concrete. The definition of “object” may exist on a scale of concrete to abstract depending on how concrete or abstract, narrow or broad the context is.

A hostile commentator might remark that Aristotle (like Nietzsche) criticizes Plato so keenly because he is conscious of having borrowed from him generously; no man is a hero to his debtors. But Aristotle has a healthy attitude, nevertheless; he is a realist almost in the modern sense; he is resolved to concern himself with the objective present, while Plato is absorbed in a subjective future. There was, in the Socratic-Platonic demand for definitions, a tendency away from things and facts to theories and ideas, from particulars to generalities, from science to scholasticism; at last Plato became so devoted to generalities that they began to determine his particulars, so devoted to ideas that they began to define or select his facts. Aristotle preaches a return to things, to the “unwithered face of nature” and reality; he had a lusty preference for the concrete particular, for the flesh and blood individual. But Plato so loved the general and universal that in the Republic he destroyed the individual to make a perfect state. 

The whole scale from concrete to abstract, from things to theories, from facts to ideas, or  from particulars to generalities can exist in the present. It is a matter of perspective or viewpoint that determines the context. Problem occurs when one is not consistent in one’s viewpoint and mixes narrow and broad contexts together.

Yet, as is the usual humor of history, the young warrior takes over many of the qualities of the old master whom he assails. We have always goodly stock in us of that which we condemn: as only similars can be profitably contrasted, so only similar people quarrel, and the bitterest wars are over the slightest variations of purpose or belief. The knightly Crusaders found in Saladin a gentleman with whom they could quarrel amicably; but when the Christians of Europe broke into hostile camps there was no quarter for even the courtliest foe. Aristotle is so ruthless with Plato because there is so much of Plato in him; he too remains a lover of abstractions and generalities, repeatedly betraying the simple fact for some speciously bedizened theory, and compelled to a continuous struggle to conquer his philosophic passion for exploring the empyrean. 

Where a disharmony exists there also exists, out of view, some discontinuity or inconsistency, which is yet to be found.

There is a heavy trace of this in the most characteristic and original of Aristotle’s contributions to philosophy—the doctrine of the syllogism. A syllogism is a trio of propositions of which the third (the conclusion) follows from the conceded truth of the other two (the “major” and “minor” premisses). E. g., man is a rational animal; but Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is a rational animal. The mathematical reader will see at once that the structure of the syllogism resembles the proposition that two things equal to the same thing are equal to each other; if A is B, and C is A, then C is B. As in the mathematical case the conclusion is reached by canceling from both premisses their common term, A; so. in our syllogism the conclusion is reached by canceling from both premisses their common term “man,” and combining what remains. The difficulty, as logicians have pointed out from the days of Pyrrho to those of Stuart Mill, lies in this, that the major premiss of the syllogism takes for granted precisely the point to be proved; for if Socrates is not rational (and no one questions that he is a man) it is not universally true that man is a rational animal. Aristotle would reply, no doubt, that where an individual is found to have a large number of qualities characteristic of a class (“Socrates is a man”), a strong presumption is established that the individual has the other qualities characteristic of the class (“rationality”). But apparently the syllogism is not a mechanism for the discovery of truth so much as for the clarification of exposition and thought. 

The trouble with the syllogism in the above example is that two different viewpoints are being mixed. The major premise is comparing man to other animals in deciding that man is rational. If Socrates is a man then he is definitely rational compared to other animals. Trouble arises when the rationality of Socrates is compared with the rationality of other men.

All this, like the many other items of the Organon, has its value: “Aristotle has discovered and formulated every canon of theoretical consistency, and every artifice of dialectical debate, with an industry and acuteness which cannot be too highly extolled; and his labors in this direction have perhaps contributed more than any other single writer to the intellectual stimulation of after ages.” But no man ever lived who could lift logic to a lofty strain: a guide to correct reasoning is as elevating as a manual of etiquette; we may use it, but it hardly spurs us to nobility. Not even the bravest philosopher would sing to a book of logic underneath the bough. One always feels towards logic as Virgil bade Dante feel towards those who had been damned because of their colorless neutrality: Non agionam di lor, maguarda e passa—“Let us think no more about them, but look once and pass on.” 

Aristotle’s logic assumes but does not explicitly insist on maintaining the consistency of the viewpoint or context.


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