Reason In Its Use: Part 1 Formative

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The audio recording may be found here.

In my last episode, I spoke about reason in itself as the laws of thought. These laws are non-fallible first principles. They make thought possible. The next few episodes will describe how we use, fail to use, or misuse reason – the laws of thought. While the laws of thought are non-fallible, our application of those laws is highly fallible and is why we need to be educated in the science and art of right thinking.

Education in this area comes first by identifying what thinking is. It is self-evident that we think, and it is self-evident that there are laws of thought. But what counts as thought and what is not thought? We need to identify the nature of thinking and distinguish it from non-thinking, which, you can see, already involves us in the application of the law of identity. The first use of reason is to form concepts, judgments, and arguments, which are the forms of all thought.

Aristotle, in his logical works, describes the three acts of the understanding, what I call the three acts of the mind. The three acts of the understanding, or mind, will be one of four uses of reason that we will describe over the next few episodes.

The first act of the understanding Aristotle calls apprehension. Apprehension is conception, the first unit of thought. Our first use of reason is to form concepts. Concepts grasp the essential nature of a thing and express it with a word, term, or symbol. Concepts are in the mind and are expressed to others with a word. To “grasp” a concept is an activity of the mind whereby we strive to understand what a thing is. We can identify essential features of a thing and accidental features of a thing. Concepts are about being, properties, states, relations, or activities of being. Concepts do not exist outside the mind of a thinker.

Being has a nature, concepts abstract from being its essential features. Concepts identify, words name what we identify. For example, scientists discover aspects of the world that were previously unknown and name them as when Madam Curie discovered a new element and named it “Polonium.” The word used is conventional, she named the element after her homeland. But the reality she discovered is objective and the concept which the word “Polonium” grasps is the element Polonium that exists outside our minds in reality. We can understand the same reality by understanding what Polonium is – by grasping its nature.

We evaluate concepts in terms of meaning. Concepts are either meaningful or, they may lack meaning (for us). That is to say, we can grasp concepts more or less. Our understanding of a thing can always grow. We can continually deepen in understanding a concept.

We have attempted to identify what concepts are. When we identify something, we can also show what it is not. Concepts are logically paired. For example, concept and non-concept is a pair. Being and non-being. Dog and non-dog. God and non-God. Non-Concept would be all that is not a concept. We use the law of identity to identify and distinguish.

Concepts are often confused with other human activities. Concepts are not: percepts, images, feelings, or orderly behavior. Much more could be said about concepts, but perhaps we can leave it for a logic class to pick up?

Once we understand concepts, the most fundamental unit of thought, the second and third acts of the mind make sense. The second act of the understanding Aristotle calls judging. In forming judgments two concepts are joined together by “is” or “is not” (what is called affirmation or negation). For example, “the marker is on the table,” “the argument is sound,” and “the good is knowledge,” are all examples of judgments. Judgments are either true or false because they are making claims about reality. True or false is an application of the law of excluded middle. Something cannot be both true and non-true (false) in the same respect and at the same time. Truth is how the world is, it grasps reality.

What are judgments not? Judgments are not statements about our feelings, sensations, or personal preference, what we might call matters of taste. For example: “Chocolate is better than vanilla” is a matter of taste, it is not a claim that is either true or false. And yet, it looks like a judgment. Even a claim such as “the wall is blue” could be a matter of perception. Perhaps I am color blind. Philosophical claims are judgments about reality, something that all minds could potentially grasp if they wanted to. Often, they are highly contested judgments. Statements such as “matter is eternal” or “God is good” are claims that require further support. This takes us to the third and most complex unit of thought.

The third act of the understanding Aristotle calls demonstration. The third act of the mind is performed through argument. Arguments are meant to give rational justification for our judgments. Where judgments are meant to be truth claims, arguments are meant to deliver knowledge. Knowledge is objective and permanent. Arguments “tie down” a true belief.

Arguments use premises (judgments) to support a conclusion (also a judgment). For example, Premise: All men are mortal; Premise: Socrates is a man; Conclusion: Socrates is mortal. There is a force to arguments. They are compelling, though they may not persuade people. We have to respond to an argument. In addition, if we do not rely upon the force of reason, through argument, then we will resort to using emotion as a force, or we will resort to physical force to get our way. Force is a reality. As rational beings we must consider whether we want to use the force of reason or non-reason. Here is where the ethics of belief come in. As W.K. Clifford has said: “It is wrong always and everywhere for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” The evidence needed is by means of reason.

Arguments are evaluated in terms of validity (which has to do with the form of an argument) and, soundness (which has to do with the form and content of an argument). Logic is the discipline for testing arguments. Since we have been contrasting what something iswith what it is not, we can ask, what isan argument not? Arguments are not mere disagreements with others. Arguments are not verbal battles. Arguments are not about tone of voice.

I have been talking about the formative use of reason, forming concepts, judgments, and arguments, the forms of all thought. This is what thinking is. What is thinking not? Thinking is not the same as intelligence, communication, orderly activity, feelings, or perception. We can say that concepts, judgments, and arguments are activities of a thinker, they are reasoning. Anything other than this is something other than reasoning.

We can reason badly. We can fail to form a concept well and we and use words without understanding fully. To correct this, we can ask one another “you used this word, what do you mean?” You used this word “freedom” what do you mean by “freedom?” And we can strive together to find its essential nature much like what Socrates spent his life doing. We can make false judgments, we can rationalize. To correct this, we can ask one another for evidence or proof for our judgment claims. Perhaps someone says to me “freedom is the highest good.” I can ask them to show me why I should believe this. I am asking for proof through an argument. We can also give each other pseudo-arguments, or informal fallacies. We can give invalid or unsound arguments. The possibility of error stresses our need to learn to identify what thinking is and the science and art of right thinking. We all use reason to form concepts, make judgments, and present arguments. We cannot help but do so. But we do so more or less well. We can become more conscious of how well we are thinking, and more consistent in thinking well.

To conclude: Concepts, judgments, and arguments are one way that we use reason, the laws of thought. There are a few other ways that humans use reason. We will explore the second way: “Reason is used to give meaning” in the next episode.


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