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Again, your lordship [Stillingfleet] charges me, that I do not place certainty in syllogism; I crave leave to ask again, and does your lordship? … And if you do, I know nothing so requisite, as that you should advise all people, women and all, to betake themselves immediately to the universities, and to the learning of logic, to put themselves out of the dangerous state of scepticism: for there young lads, by being taught syllogism, arrive at certainty; whereas, without mode and figure, the world is in perfect ignorance and uncertainty, and is sure of nothing. The merchant cannot be certain that his account is right cast up, nor the lady that her coach is not a wheelbarrow, nor her dairymaid that one and one pound of butter are two pounds of butter, and two and two four; and all for want of mode and figure; nay, according to this rule, whoever lived before Aristotle, or him, whoever it was, that first introduced syllogism, could not be certain of any thing; no, not that there was a God, which will be the present state of the far greatest part of mankind (to pass by whole nations of the East, as China and Indostan, &c.) even in the Christian world, who to this day have not the syllogistical methods of demonstration, and so cannot be certain of any thing.

John Locke, Mr. Locke’s Reply to the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Worcester’s Answer to his Second Letter: Wherein, besides other incident Matters, what his Lordship has said concerning Certainty by Reason, Certainty by Ideas, and Certainty by Faith; the Resurrection of the Body; the Immateriality of the Soul; the Inconsistency of Mr. Locke’s Notions with the Articles of the Christian Faith, and their Tendency to Scepticism; is examined (1699), vol. 4, pp. 386-387 in the 1823 edition of Locke’s Works.

To post-Fregean ears, it is perhaps strange to hear that Locke’s Essay was, in the decades following its publication, regarded as a logic manual. Not only does the Essay (obviously) lack any treatment of symbolic logic, it doesn’t even give much attention to the question of validity or proper syllogistic form. At this time, however, logic was understood (as the subtitle of the Port-Royal Logic has it) as “the art of thinking.” Logic in this sense was something more like what philosophers today call normative or regulative epistemology: it was the study of how to use our cognitive faculties in such a way as to gain knowledge, or at least (perhaps especially, in Locke’s case) a degree of belief that is appropriately proportioned to the evidence.

Stillingfleet clearly reads Locke this way, for he is forever speaking of Locke’s method or way of certainty by ideas. He presents Locke as claiming to have discovered a new method of employing our cognitive faculties to gain knowledge (certainty), in a fashion that is inconsistent with what people had been doing before.

Locke, however, strenuously objects to this characterization in many places (including the quotation above). Locke repeatedly insists that, although the modern use of the word ‘idea’ may be due to Descartes and so (relatively) new, there is nothing new about the path to certainty he describes in the Essay. Back in his reply to Stillingfleet’s first answer, Locke insists that “if [the account given in the Essay] be new, it is but a new history of an old thing. For I think it will not be doubted, that men always performed the actions of thinking, reasoning, believing, and knowing, just after the same manner that they do now; though whether the same account has heretofore been given of the way how they performed these actions, or wherein they consisted, I do not know” (p. 135). This ‘history’, Locke says, is a description of the actions of his own mind, and his justification for publishing it lies in the assumption that other minds perform similar actions to his (pp. 138-9 and 143-5).

However, Locke’s own description of the Essay as a work of (natural) history—i.e., a mere description—is not inconsistent with its status as a logic—i.e., a work aimed at improving our thinking. The model for taking these things together is the Port-Royal Logic (1662), a work whose influence on Locke is well-documented. In the Preface to that work, the authors (Arnauld and Nicole) give the following account of the aims of logic:

… this art [of thinking, i.e. logic] does not consist in finding the means to perform [mental] operations, since nature alone furnishes them in giving us reason, but in reflecting on what nature makes us do, which serves three purposes.

The first is to assure us that we are using reason well, since thinking about the rule makes us pay new attention to it.

The second is to reveal and explain more easily the errors or defects that can occur in mental operations. For we frequently discover by the natural light of reason alone that some reasoning is fallacious without, however, knowing why it is so…

The third purpose is to make us better acquainted with the nature of the mind by reflecting on its actions (p. 23 of Buroker’s translation).

Arnauld and Nicole hold, as Locke does, that logic is in the first place descriptive because the ability to perform various cognitive operations is part of our natural endowment. The procedure, then, is to examine the functioning of human minds in order to understand the errors to which they are liable and, ultimately, to improve cognitive performance. To use an analogy, studying logic is more like athletic training than it is like learning to cook. It’s not a matter of learning to follow a new set of recipes, algorithms, or procedures, it’s a matter of practicing and training to hone a set of abilities naturally possessed by human beings.

To this end, Locke claims (still following Port-Royal, and both of them following Descartes), syllogisms and logical axioms are almost totally useless. As Arnauld and Nicole suggest, “those who could not recognize a fallacy by the light of reason alone would usually not be able to understand the rules behind it, much less to apply them” (Buroker, p. 135), and (as we saw in my last post) Locke makes basically the same case regarding maxims/axioms.

There is, however, a further line of argument, which is quite explicit in the quote at the top of this post, and is my reason for using the word ‘populist’ in the title: ordinary people, who haven’t been given a ‘Scholastic’ education and have never heard of Aristotelian syllogisms or maxims/axioms are perfectly capable of reasoning and gaining knowledge. It follows from that explicit awareness and employment of this method is not the primary or only basis for reasoning or knowledge. Of course, particular self-evident truths fall under universal maxims, and particular instances of good reasoning fall under syllogistic rules. But these are descriptive generalizations drawn by the philosopher trying to understand the human mind; they are not (or at least not ordinarily) tools employed in reasoning. This can be seen as a kind of externalism, holding that one can follow a rule of reasoning without having knowledge of the rule (see “How Berkeley’s Gardener Knows his Cherry Tree”). This kind of externalism has a populist basis: it is supported (in part) by Locke’s insistence that the dairymaid needs no help from Aristotle in order to be capable of reasoning and knowledge.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)

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According to the Port-Royal Logic, “words are distinct and articulated sounds that people have made into signs to indicate what takes place in the mind” (Buroker 74). Similarly, according to Locke, the use of language requires that one “be able to use [articulate] Sounds, as Signs of internal Conceptions; and to make them stand as marks for the Ideas within his own Mind, whereby they might be made known to others, and the Thoughts of Men’s Minds be conveyed from one to another” (EHU 3.1.2). Passages like these support Berkeley’s interpretation of his predecessors as holding that, in the proper use of words, the speaker “design[s] them for marks of ideas in his own, which he would have them raise in the mind of the hearer” (PHK, Intro 20). This in turn implies that “significant names, every time they are used, excite in the understanding the ideas they are made to stand for” (PHK, Intro 19). In other words, Berkeley understands his opponents to hold that “communication of ideas,” which his opponents take to be “the chief and only end of language” (PHK, Intro 20), requires that the hearer ends up having the same mental state as the speaker.

One problem with this, to which Berkeley does not call attention in his critique, is what happens when one hears and understands a sentence. Although this is disputed by Walter Ott, the standard view, which I take to be well-supported by the texts, is that for both the Port-Royalists and Locke, the mental proposition (i.e., the mental state signified by a complete sentence) carries assertive force. In the mental propositions signified by simple declarative sentences that aren’t negated, the subject idea and the predicate idea are joined by an act of affirmation. To have the mental state signified by ‘Melampus is an animal’ (Berkeley’s example in the Manuscript Introduction) just is to believe (occurrently) that Melampus is an animal. But this apparently implies that one cannot understand that sentence without believing it, and that’s absurd.

In a recent paper, Jennifer Smalligan Marušić proposes an interesting and plausible solution to this problem (see ppp. 273-277). Marušić’s suggestion is that, when communication succeeds, the hearer may form an idea of the speaker’s mental state, rather than having that mental state herself. Since the Port-Royalists explicitly distinguish between the act of affirming and the idea of that act, and say that you can have one without the other (Buroker 79), this allows us to understand sentences without affirming them. Since Locke also has ideas of reflection, it seems that he can make a similar move.

A nice feature of this approach, which Marušić does not mention, is that it helps to reconcile the Port-Royalists’ claim that “for an uttered or written sound to signify is nothing other than to prompt an idea connected to this sound in the mind by striking our ears or eyes” (Buroker 66) with their claim that the verb signifies the act of affirmation, and not the idea of that act. On this reading, the verb signifies the speaker’s act of affirmation by prompting the idea of that act in the hearer. What it doesn’t signify is that the speaker has (occurrently) an idea of affirmation.

If this is right, then the Port-Royalists may not hold quite the view of language Berkeley has in mind in his critique in the Introduction to the Principles. I don’t think, though, that this has far-reaching consequences for Berkeley’s critique. For one thing, Berkeley is arguing against the very existence of the mental states (abstract ideas) the words are thought to signify; to say that only speakers need to have these ideas, while hearers may have only ideas of ideas is not a way of escape. Furthermore, the attribution of the view that understanding involves ideas of speakers’ mental states to the Port-Royalists is better supported than its attribution to Locke. Now, I do think we need to take very seriously all the things that Berkeley says indicating the breadth of his targets (using phrases like ‘received opinion’, ‘common opinion of the philosophers’, etc.). I also think it’s pretty likely that Berkeley had read the Port-Royal Logic, simply on grounds that the book was extremely widely read in the period. However, we don’t have evidence that Berkeley gave to Port-Royal the kind of sustained attention we know he gave to Descartes, Malebranche, and Locke. So the Port-Royal Logic‘s direct impact on Berkeley’s conception of the ‘received opinion’ was probably modest at best. (The Logic‘s indirect impact, via Locke, was enormous.)

In sum, if our project is understanding Port-Royal or Locke on their own terms, Berkeley’s presentation may be misleading, because he may well be wrong to think that understanding involves simulating what goes on in the mind of the speaker, rather than just conceiving of what goes on in the mind of the speaker. On the other hand, from Berkeley’s own perspective, this is an irrelevant, hair-splitting distinction. Since abstract ideas are impossible, and we can’t conceive of impossibilities, we can’t have ideas of abstract ideas. So regardless of which interpretation we take, Locke and Port-Royal have both speakers and hearers doing things that are (according to Berkeley) impossible.

Let me conclude with some controversial assertions about the relationship between Locke’s Essay and the Port-Royal Logic. (After all, what are blogs for?) Much of Locke’s Essay can be read as an empiricist, radical Protestant rewrite of the (Cartesian, Catholic) Port-Royal Logic. (Compare, for instance, the subtle differences in the two works’ accounts of faith and the practical upshots derived from them – Buroker 260-272; EHU 4.18-19.) But Locke does not always seem to be aware of the ways in which his own anti-Cartesian polemics undermine the Port-Royal theory of mind and language. This fact is responsible for many of Locke’s well-known inconsistencies and unclarities, as for instance on the topic of whether (and in what sense) all ideas are images.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)

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Locke famously defines judgment, knowledge, etc., in terms of the joining or separating of ideas. It is quite probable that Locke’s source for this is the Port-Royal Logic. There are two well-known problems with this view. First, according to this view in order to think that Peter is not living I must mentally separate the idea of Peter from the idea of living, but if I do that then its not clear how this judgment, that Peter is not living, can be a unit which can be, for instance, embedded in complex sentences. Locke makes matters worse by talking about the joining and separating of verbal signs. Taken literally, this ought to have the consequence that ‘Peter ………………………………….. living’ means ‘Peter is not living,’ since the signs are so far apart. Obviously he can’t mean anything so ridiculous as that, but he doesn’t really tell us what he does mean.

The second problem is that it seems, on this view, that the proposition is the same as the act of judging (affirming or denying) and so one cannot entertain a proposition without either affirming or denying it. This is especially a problem given the theory of language in Locke and the Port-Royalists: a sentence is conceived as a sort of recipe for constructing a certain complex mental state. In successful communication, the speaker translates her mental state into words according to the linguistic conventions, and the hearer then ‘decodes’ the words and reconstructs the mental state. But it seems to follow that you can’t understand someone without believing him, and that’s surely wrong.

I want to suggest, briefly, that the Port-Royalists can answer these objections. The first problem is actually quite simple, and here Locke may simply be less than explicit because most of his audience had read the Logic. In their treatment of judgment, the Port-Royalists sound most like Locke when they write, “After conceiving things by our ideas, we compare these ideas and, finding that some belong together and others do not, we unite or separate them. This is called affirming or denying, and in general judging” (Buroker, p. 82). However, when they first introduce judging as one of “four principal operations of the mind,” they define it as “the action in which the mind, bringing together different ideas, affirms of one that it is the other, or denies of one that it is the other. This occurs when, for example, having the idea of the earth and the idea of round, I affirm or deny that the earth is round’ (Buroker, p. 23). Here it is said that in both affirmation and denial the subject idea and the predicate idea are ‘brought together.’ Also, affirmation and denial are clearly not being explained or analyzed in terms of uniting or separating. In fact, the Port-Royalists take these ‘principal operations’ as primitive and known by introspection. What we should really understand them as claiming is that affirming involves thinking of the ideas as united (or: as going together), and denying involves thinking of the ideas as separated (or: as not going together). Thus the mental act, thinking of the idea of Peter and the idea of living as not going together does form a unit that can be embedded in larger complexes, although the idea of Peter and the idea of living are in some sense ‘separated in thought’ by the act. They are separated in thought only in the sense of being thought of as separated.

In the case of this first problem, I think this is probably what Locke intended as well. However, it’s not clear to me that Locke is even aware of the second problem or has any inkling of an answer. The answer is found mostly in the Port-Royal Grammar, which Locke may never have read, rather than the Logic which he seems to have studied carefully. The long and short of it is that affirmation and denial are not the only mental operations for putting ideas together. In particular, according to the Grammar, there are different mental operations which can be signified by different moods of the verb, or by specialized particles, depending on the language. So, for instance, the Grammar mentions the Latin particle ‘utinam’, the French idiom ‘plut a Dieu’ and the Greek optative mood as signifying wishing, and imperatives and so forth as signifying various stronger dispositions of the will toward the connection of the ideas (Rieux and Rollins, pp. 137-138). The subjunctive is treated as signifying ‘modified affirmations,’ such as those that occur in conditionals (Rieux and Rollins, p. 136). Now the Port-Royalists treat the antecedent of a conditional as a sort of supposition from which we reason (Buroker, pp. 99-101), and the fact that the antecedent is merely supposed is what is (sometimes, in some languages) being explicitly flagged by the subjunctive mood of the verb. Sometimes the subjunctive can play the same role standing alone, as in the Greek deliberative subjunctive (the Port-Royalists don’t mention this example).

In other words, the long and short of it is, I think, that for the Port-Royalists thinking of two ideas as perhaps going together, is a different mental operation upon them than either affirmation or denial, and this is what goes on when we merely entertain a proposition. Indeed, just such a thing also happens, according to the Port-Royalists, in certain subordinate clauses. For instance, they say that in the sentence ‘people who are pious are charitable,’ “the mind judges that the idea ‘pious’ is not incompatible with the idea ‘people,’ and so we can consider them as joined together and then examine what belongs to them as unified” (Buroker, p. 90). In other words, we first have a modified affirmation, something like, ‘perhaps some people are pious,’ and then we affirm (simply) of those (hypothetical) people that they are (would be) charitable.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)

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