Monday, April 17, 2017

Evening Note for Monday, April 17

Thought for the Evening: Developing a Treasury of Ideas

Isaac Watts is best known for his hymns, and rightly so, but he also wrote a textbook on logic, which was a bestseller for years. He himself did not see any sharp division running through his hymnody, theological writings, and logical writings; the full title of his book on logic, for instance, is Logic, or The Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry After Truth With a Variety of Rules to Guard Against Error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life. The book, published in 1724, follows a Port Royal model, dividing the field among the four intellectual operations of (1) perception/conception/apprehension, (2) judgment, (3) argumentation/reasoning, and (4) disposition.

I tend to be unimpressed with early modern logic texts, for the good reason that they tend not to be very impressive, but Watts's book is actually fairly good, and definitely deserved its twenty or so editions. I've noted before, for instance, that Watts's explanation of ad verecundiam in terms of a topos, and thus a way of classifying middle terms, is far superior to almost every other discussion of it afterward (most of which were just following Whately's less careful account of the subject). Other parts of the book, like his discussions of equivocal words, are both clear and show a serious and thoughtful consideration of the subject.

In discussing each of the operations, he gives general guidelines to help with success in each, which he calls general directives, and then also gives special rules for actually attaining that success. The general directives for conception are:

(1) Furnish yourself with a rich variety of ideas.
(2) Use the most proper methods to retain that treasure of ideas which you have acquired.
(3) As you proceed both in learning and in life, make a wise observation what are the ideas, what the discourses and the parts of knowledge, that have been more or less useful to yourself or others.
(4) Learn to acquire a government over your ideas and your thoughts, that they may come when they are called, and depart when they are bidden.

He gives three benefits for the first directive: (1) it helps with the operations that follow on conception; (2) it will help guarantee that your views are not continually shocked and upended due to your ignorance; and (3) it will make you more cautious, since you will have come across uncommon things. He also tells us how to build up this treasury of ideas:

The way of attaining such an extensive treasure of ideas, is with diligence to apply yourself to read the best books; converse with the most knowing and wisest of men; and endeavour to improve by every person in whose company you are; suffer no hour to pass away in lazy idleness, an impertinent chattering, or useless trifles : Visit other cities and countries when you have seen your own, under the care of one who can teach you to profit by travelling, and to make wise observations; indulge a just curiosity in seeing the wonders of art and nature; search into things yourselves, as well as learn them from others; be acquainted with men as well as books; learn all things as much as you can at first hand; and let as many of your ideas as possible the representations of things, and not merely the representation of other men's ideas : Thus your soul, like some noble building, shall be richly furnished with original paintings, and not with mere copies.

He also gives helps on the second directive, noting that we have to take pains to remember the important ideas. (It is in this context that he gives his famous image of some people's minds as looking-glasses, receiving images of all objects, but retaining none.) We should spend some time every day recollecting the things we have learned, talk them over with suitable people (a practice that will also help you to articulate your ideas), and commit the best and most important to writing (as in Locke's idea, influential throughout this period, of a commonplace book) and to review it at regular intervals in order to assess your progress.

The third is obviously about focusing on the genuinely advantageous. He recommends that we follow the fourth directive by having a book or a set of notes to keep us on track, but mostly just force ourselves to stick to the essential points and steps (but he also recommends that we not hold ourselves too strictly to this, lest we tire ourselves out, and keep in mind that some times are just better for thinking things through than others).

All of this is salutary advice, of course, and an excellent reminder that good reasoning is, at its root, not a technical formula or a method but an intellectual way of life.

Various Links of Note

* Daniel Kaufman shares notes on G. E. M. Anscombe's "Modern Moral Philosophy".

* Mark DelCogliano, The Christ of Analytic Theology: A Review Essay, on Tim Pawl's Conciliar Christology.

* Christopher Tollefsen, What Is Legalism?, and Ian Speir, The Calvinist Roots of American Social Order: Calvin, Witherspoon, and Madison, at "Public Discourse".

* William Briggs, Why Decision Analysis Isn't Straightforward

Currently Reading

Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility
Donald Ainslie, Hume's True Scepticism
Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World
Michael Flynn, Eifelheim

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