Logical Thoughtby@johndewey
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Logical Thought

by John DeweyOctober 3rd, 2022
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The man in the street, when asked what he thinks about a certain matter, often replies that he does not think at all; he knows. The suggestion is that thinking is a case of active uncertainty set over against conviction or unquestioning assurance. When he adds that he does not have to think, but knows, the further implication is that thinking, when needed, leads to knowledge; that its purpose or object is to secure stable equilibrium. It is the purpose of this paper to show some of the main stages through which thinking, understood in this way, actually passes in its attempt to reach its most effective working; that is, the maximum of reasonable certainty. I wish to show how a variety of modes of thinking, easily recognizable in the progress of both the race and the individual, may be identified and arranged as successive species of the relationship which doubting bears to assurance; as various ratios, so to speak, which the vigor of doubting bears to mere acquiescence. The presumption is that the function of questioning is one which has continually grown in intensity and range, that doubt is continually chased back, and, being cornered, fights more desperately, and thus clears the ground more thoroughly. Its[184] successive stations or arrests constitute stages of thinking. Or to change the metaphor, just in the degree that what has been accepted as fact—the object of assurance—loses stable equilibrium, the tension involved in the questioning attitude increases, until a readjustment gives a new and less easily shaken equilibrium.
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Essays in Experimental Logic, by John Dewey is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. Chapter VI: Some Stages of Logical Thought


The man in the street, when asked what he thinks about a certain matter, often replies that he does not think at all; he knows. The suggestion is that thinking is a case of active uncertainty set over against conviction or unquestioning assurance. When he adds that he does not have to think, but knows, the further implication is that thinking, when needed, leads to knowledge; that its purpose or object is to secure stable equilibrium. It is the purpose of this paper to show some of the main stages through which thinking, understood in this way, actually passes in its attempt to reach its most effective working; that is, the maximum of reasonable certainty.

I wish to show how a variety of modes of thinking, easily recognizable in the progress of both the race and the individual, may be identified and arranged as successive species of the relationship which doubting bears to assurance; as various ratios, so to speak, which the vigor of doubting bears to mere acquiescence. The presumption is that the function of questioning is one which has continually grown in intensity and range, that doubt is continually chased back, and, being cornered, fights more desperately, and thus clears the ground more thoroughly. Its[184] successive stations or arrests constitute stages of thinking. Or to change the metaphor, just in the degree that what has been accepted as fact—the object of assurance—loses stable equilibrium, the tension involved in the questioning attitude increases, until a readjustment gives a new and less easily shaken equilibrium.

The natural tendency of man is not to press home a doubt, but to cut inquiry as short as possible. The practical man's impatience with theory has become a proverb; it expresses just the feeling that, since the thinking process is of use only in substituting certainty for doubt, any apparent prolongation of it is useless speculation, wasting time and diverting the mind from important issues. To follow the line of least resistance is to cut short the stay in the sphere of doubts and suggestions, and to make the speediest return into the world where one can act. The result, of course, is that difficulties are evaded or surmounted rather than really disposed of. Hence, in spite of the opposition of the would-be practical man, the needs of practice, of economy, and of efficiency have themselves compelled a continual deepening of doubt and widening of the area of investigation.

It is within this evolution that we have to find our stages of thinking. The initial stage is where the doubt is hardly endured but not entertained; it is no welcome guest but an intruder, to be got rid of as speedily as possible. Development of alternative[185] and competitive suggestions, the forming of suppositions (of ideas), goes but a little way. The mind seizes upon the nearest or most convenient instrument of dismissing doubt and reattaining security. At the other end is the definitive and conscious search for problems, and the development of elaborate and systematized methods of investigation—the industry and technique of science. Between these limits come processes which have started out upon the path of doubt and inquiry, and then halted by the way.

In the first stage of the journey, beliefs are treated as something fixed and static. To those who are using them they are simply another kind of fact. They are used to settle doubts, but the doubts are treated as arising quite outside the ideas themselves. Nothing is further from recognition than that ideas themselves are open to doubt, or need criticism and revision. Indeed, the one who uses static meanings is not even aware that they originated and have been elaborated for the sake of dealing with conflicts and problems. The ideas are just "there," and they may be used like any providential dispensation to help men out of the troubles into which they have fallen.

Words are generally held responsible for this fixation of the idea, for this substantiation of it into a kind of thing. A long line of critics has made us familiar with the invincible habit "of supposing that wherever there is a name there is some reality[186] corresponding to it"; of supposing that general and abstract words have their equivalent objects somewhere in rerum natura, as have also singular and proper names. We know with what simplicity of self-confidence the English empirical school has accounted for the ontological speculation of Plato. Words tend to fix intellectual contents, and give them a certain air of independence and individuality. That some truth is here expressed there can be no question. Indeed, the attitude of mind of which we are speaking is well illustrated in the person who goes to the dictionary in order to settle some problem in morals, politics, or science; who would end some discussion regarding a material point by learning what meaning is attached to terms by the dictionary as authority. The question is taken as lying outside of the sphere of science or intellectual inquiry, since the meaning of the word—the idea—is unquestionable and fixed.

But this petrifying influence of words is after all only a superficial explanation. There must be some meaning present or the word could not fix it; there must be something which accounts for the disposition to use names as a medium of fossilization. There is, in truth, a certain real fact—an existent reality—behind both the word and the meaning it stands for. This reality is social usage. The person who consults a dictionary is getting an established fact when he turns there for the definition of a term. He finds the sense in which the word is currently used. Social[187] customs are no less real than physical events. It is not possible to dispose of this fact of common usage by reference to mere convention, or any other arbitrary device. A form of social usage is no more an express invention than any other social institution. It embodies the permanent attitude, the habit taken toward certain recurring difficulties or problems in experience. Ideas, or meanings fixed in terms, show the scheme of values which the community uses in appraising matters that need consideration and which are indeterminate or unassured. They are held up as standards for all its members to follow. Here is the solution of the paradox. The fixed or static idea is a fact expressing an established social attitude, a custom. It is not merely verbal, because it denotes a force which operates, as all customs do, in controlling particular cases. But since it marks a mode of interpretation, a scheme for assigning values, a way of dealing with doubtful cases, it falls within the sphere of ideas. Or, coming to the life of the individual, the fixed meaning represents, not a state of consciousness fixed by a name, but a recognition of a habitual way of belief: a habit of understanding.

We find an apt illustration of fixed ideas in the rules prevalent in primitive communities, rules which minutely determine all acts in which the community as a whole is felt to have an interest. These rules are facts because they express customs, and carry with them certain sanctions. Their meaning does[188] not cease with judicial utterance. They are made valid at once in a practical way against anyone who departs from them. Yet as rules they are ideas, for they express general ways of defining doubtful matters in experience and of re-establishing certainty. An individual may fail in acknowledgment of them and explicit reference is then necessary. For one who has lost himself in the notion that ideas are psychical and subjective, I know of no better way to appreciate the significance of an idea than to consider that a social rule of judgment is nothing but a certain way of viewing or interpreting facts; as such it is an idea.

The point that is of special interest to us here, however, is that these ideas are taken as fixed and unquestionable, and that the cases to which they are to apply are regarded as in themselves equally fixed. So far as concerns the attitude of those who employ this sort of ideas, the doubt is simply as to what idea should be in a particular case. Even the Athenian Greeks, for instance, long kept up the form of indicting and trying a tree or implement through which some individual had been killed. There was a rule—a fixed idea—for dealing with all who offended against the community by destroying one of its citizens. The fact that an inanimate object, a thing without intention or volition, offended was not a material circumstance. It made no difference in the case; that is, there was no doubt as to the nature of the fact. It was as fixed as was the rule.[189]

With advance in the complexity of life, however, rules accumulate, and discrimination—that is, a certain degree of inquiring and critical attitude—enters in. Inquiry takes effect, however, in seeking among a collection of fixed ideas just the one to be used, rather than in directing suspicion against any rule or idea as such, or in an attempt to discover or constitute a new one. It is hardly necessary to refer to the development of casuistry, or to the multiplication of distinctions within dogmas, or to the growth of ceremonial law in cumbrous detail, to indicate what the outcome of this logical stage is likely to be. The essential thing is that doubt and inquiry are directed neither at the nature of the intrinsic fact itself, nor at the value of the idea as such, but simply at the manner in which one is attached to the other. Thinking falls outside both fact and idea, and into the sphere of their external connection. It is still a fiction of judicial procedure that there is already in existence some custom or law under which every possible dispute—that is, every doubtful or unassured case—falls, and that the judge only declares which law is applicable in the particular case. This point of view has tremendously affected the theory of logic in its historic development.

One of the chief, perhaps the most important, instrumentalities in developing and maintaining fixed ideas is the need of instruction and the way in which it is given. If ideas were called into play only[190] when doubtful cases actually arise, they could not help retaining a certain amount of vitality and flexibility; but the community always instructs its new members as to its way of disposing of these cases before they present themselves. Ideas are proffered, in other words, separated from present doubt and remote from application, in order to escape future difficulties and the need of any thinking. In primitive communities this is the main purport of instruction, and it remains such to a very considerable degree. There is a prejudgment rather than judgment proper. When the community uses its resources to fix certain ideas in the mind—that is, certain ways of interpreting and regarding experience—ideas are necessarily formulated so as to assume a rigid and independent form. They are doubly removed from the sphere of doubt. The attitude is uncritical and dogmatic in the extreme—so much so that one might question whether it is to be properly designated as a stage of thinking.

In this form ideas become the chief instruments of social conservation. Judicial decision and penal correction are restricted and ineffective methods of maintaining social institutions unchanged, compared with instilling in advance uniform ideas—fixed modes of appraising all social questions and issues. These set ideas thus become the embodiment of the values which any group has realized and intends to perpetuate. The fixation supports them against dissipation through attrition of circumstance, and[191] against destruction through hostile attack. It would be interesting to follow out the ways in which such values are put under the protection of the gods and of religious rites, or themselves erected into quasi-divinities—as among the Romans. This, however, would hardly add anything to the logic of the discussion, although it would indicate the importance attached to the fixation of ideas, and the thoroughgoing character of the means used to secure immobilization.

The conserving value of the dogmatic attitude, the point of view which takes ideas as fixed, is not to be ignored. When society has no methods of science for protecting and perpetuating its achieved values, there is practically no other resort than such crystallization. Moreover, with any possible scientific progress, some equivalent of the fixed idea must remain. The nearer we get to the needs of action the greater absoluteness must attach to ideas. The necessities of action do not await our convenience. Emergencies continually present themselves where the fixity required for successful activity cannot be attained through the medium of investigation. The alternative to vacillation, confusion, and futility of action is importation to ideas of a positive and secured character, not in strict logic belonging to them. It is this sort of determination that Hegel seems to have in mind in what he terms Verstand—the understanding. "Apart from Verstand," he says, "there[192] is no fixity or accuracy in the region either of theory or practice"; and, again, "Verstand sticks to fixity of characters and their distinctions from one another; it treats every meaning as having a subsistence of its own." In technical terminology, also, this is what is meant by "positing" ideas—hardening meanings.

In recognizing, however, that fixation of intellectual content is a precondition of effective action, we must not overlook the modification that comes with the advance of thinking into more critical forms. At the outset fixity is taken as the rightful possession of the ideas themselves; it belongs to them and is their "essence." As the scientific spirit develops, we see that it is we who lend fixity to the ideas, and that this loan is for a purpose to which the meaning of the ideas is accommodated. Fixity ceases to be a matter of intrinsic structure of ideas, and becomes an affair of security in using them. Hence the important thing is the way in which we fix the idea—the manner of the inquiry which results in definition. We take the idea as if it were fixed, in order to secure the necessary stability of action. The crisis past, the idea drops its borrowed investiture, and reappears as surmise.

When we substitute for ideas as uniform rules by which to decide doubtful cases that making over of ideas which is requisite to make them fit, the quality of thought alters. We may fairly say that we have[193] come into another stage. The idea is now regarded as essentially subject to change, as a manufactured article needing to be made ready for use. To determine the conditions of this transition lies beyond my purpose, since I have in mind only a descriptive setting forth of the periods through which, as a matter of fact, thought has passed in the development of the inquiry function, without raising the problem of its "why" and "how." At this point we shall not do more than note that, as the scheduled stock of fixed ideas grows larger, their application to specific questions becomes more difficult, prolonged, and roundabout. There has to be a definite hunting for the specific idea which is appropriate; there has to be comparison of it with other ideas. This comes to involve a certain amount of mutual compromise and modification before selection is possible. The idea thus gets somewhat shaken. It has to be made over so that it may harmonize with other ideas possessing equal worth. Often the very accumulation of fixed ideas commands this reconstruction. The dead weight of the material becomes so great that it cannot sustain itself without a readjustment of the center of gravity. Simplification and systematization are required, and these call for reflection. Critical cases come up in which the fiction of an idea or rule already in existence cannot be maintained. It is impossible to conceal that old ideas have to be radically modified before the situation can be dealt with. The friction[194] of circumstance melts away their congealed fixity. Judgment becomes legislative.

Seeking illustrations at large, we find this change typified in Hebrew history in the growing importance of the prophet over the judge, in the transition from a justification of conduct through bringing particular cases into conformity with existent laws, into that effected by personal right-mindedness enabling the individual to see the law in each case for himself. Profoundly as this changed conception of the relation between law and particular case affected moral life, it did not, among Semites, directly influence the logical sphere. With the Greeks, however, we find a continuous and marked departure from positive declaration of custom. We have assemblies meeting to discuss and dispute, and finally, upon the basis of the considerations thus brought to view, to decide. The man of counsel is set side by side with the man of deed. Odysseus was much experienced, not only because he knew the customs and ways of old, but even more because from the richness of his experience he could make the pregnant suggestion to meet the new crisis. It is hardly too much to say that it was the emphasis put by the Greek mind upon discussion—at first as preliminary to decision, and afterward to legislation—which generated logical theory.

Discussion is thus an apt name for this attitude of thought. It is bringing various beliefs together; shaking one against another and tearing down their[195] rigidity. It is conversation of thoughts; it is dialogue—the mother of dialectic in more than the etymological sense. No process is more recurrent in history than the transfer of operations carried on between different persons into the arena of the individual's own consciousness. The discussion which at first took place by bringing ideas from different persons into contact, by introducing them into the forum of competition, and by subjecting them to critical comparison and selective decision, finally became a habit of the individual with himself. He became a miniature social assemblage, in which pros and cons were brought into play struggling for the mastery—for final conclusion. In some such way we conceive reflection to be born.

It is evident that discussion, the agitation of ideas, if judged from the standpoint of the older fixed ideas, is a destructive process. Ideas are not only shaken together and apart, they are so shaken in themselves that their whole validity becomes doubtful. Mind, and not merely beliefs, becomes uncertain. The attempt to harmonize different ideas means that in themselves they are discrepant. The search for a conclusion means that accepted ideas are only points of view, and hence personal affairs. Needless to say it was the Sophists who emphasized and generalized this negative aspect—this presupposition of loss of assurance, of inconsistency, of "subjectivity." They took it as applying not only to this, that, and[196] the other idea, but to ideas as ideas. Since ideas are no longer fixed contents, they are just expressions of an individual's way of thinking. Lacking inherent value, they merely express the interests that induce the individual to look this way rather than that. They are made by the individual's point of view, and hence will be unmade if he can be led to change his point of view. Where all was fixity, now all is instability: where all was certitude, nothing now exists save opinion based on prejudice, interest, or arbitrary choice.

The modern point of view, while condemning sophistry, yet often agrees with it in limiting the reflective attitude as such to self-involution and self-conceit. From Bacon down, the appeal is to observation, to attention to facts, to concern with the external world. The sole genuine guaranty of truth is taken to be appeal to facts, and thinking as such is something different. If reflection is not considered to be merely variable matter, it is considered to be at least an endless mulling over of things. It is the futile attempt to spin truth out of inner consciousness. It is introspection, and theorizing, and mere speculation.

Such wholesale depreciation ignores the value inherent even in the most subjective reflection, for it takes the settled estate which is proof that thought is not needed, or that it has done its work, as if it supplied the standard for the occasions in which[197] problems are hard upon us, and doubt is rife. It takes the conditions which come about after and because we have thought to measure the conditions which call out thinking. Whenever we really need to reflect, we cannot appeal directly to the "fact," for the adequate reason that the stimulus to thinking arises just because "facts" have slipped away from us. The fallacy is neatly committed by Mill in his discussion of Whewell's account of the need of mental conception or hypothesis in "colligating" facts. He insists that the conception is "obtained" from the "facts" in which "it exists," is "impressed upon us from without," and also that it is the "darkness and confusion" of the facts that make us want the conception in order to create "light and order."[46]

Reflection involves running over various ideas, sorting them out, comparing one with another, trying to get one which will unite in itself the strength of two, searching for new points of view, developing new suggestions; guessing, suggesting, selecting, and rejecting. The greater the problem, and the greater the shock of doubt and resultant confusion and uncertainty, the more prolonged and more necessary is the process of "mere thinking." It is a more obvious phase of biology than of physics, of sociology than of chemistry; but it persists in established sciences. If we take even a mathematical proposition, not after it has been demonstrated—and is thus capable [198]of statement in adequate logical form—but while in process of discovery and proof, the operation of this subjective phase is manifest, so much so, indeed, that a distinguished modern mathematician has said that the paths which the mathematical inquirer traverses in any new field are more akin to those of the experimentalist, and even to those of the poet and artist, than to those of the Euclidean geometer.

What makes the essential difference between modern research and the reflection of, say, the Greeks, is not the absence of "mere thinking," but the presence of conditions for testing its results; the elaborate system of checks and balances found in the technique of modern experimentation. The thinking process does not now go on endlessly in terms of itself, but seeks outlet through reference to particular experiences. It is tested by this reference; not, however, as if a theory could be tested by directly comparing it with facts—an obvious impossibility—but through use in facilitating commerce with facts. It is tested as glasses are tested; things are looked at through the medium of specific meanings to see if thereby they assume a more orderly and clearer aspect, if they are less blurred and obscure.

The reaction of the Socratic school against the Sophistic may serve to illustrate the third stage of thinking. This movement was not interested in the de facto shaking of received ideas and a discrediting of all thinking. It was concerned rather with the[199] virtual appeal to a common denominator involved in bringing different ideas into relation with one another. In their comparison and mutual modification it saw evidence of the operation of a standard permanent meaning passing judgment upon their conflict, and revealing a common principle and standard of reference. It dealt not with the shaking and dissolution, but with a comprehensive permanent Idea finally to emerge. Controversy and discussion among different individuals may result in extending doubt, manifesting the incoherency of accepted ideas, and so throwing an individual into an attitude of distrust. But it also involves an appeal to a single thought to be accepted by both parties, thus putting an end to the dispute. This appeal to a higher court, this possibility of attaining a total and abiding intellectual object, which should bring into relief the agreeing elements in contending thoughts, and banish the incompatible factors, animated the Socratic search for the concept, the elaboration of the Platonic hierarchy of Ideas in which the higher substantiate the lower, and the Aristotelian exposition of the systematized methods by which general truths may be employed to prove propositions otherwise doubtful. At least, this historic development will serve to illustrate what is involved in the transition from the second to the third stage; the transformation of discussion into reasoning, of subjective reflection into method of proof.[200]

Discussion, whether with ourselves or others, goes on by suggestion of clues, as the uppermost object of interest opens a way here or there. It is discursive and haphazard. This gives it the devious tendency indicated in Plato's remark that it needs to be tied to the post of reason. It needs, that is, to have the ground or basis of its various component statements brought to consciousness in such a way as to define the exact value of each. The Socratic contention is the need of compelling the common denominator, the common subject, underlying the diversity of views to exhibit itself. It alone gives a sure standard by which the claims of all assertions may be measured. Until this need is met, discussion is a self-deceiving play with unjudged, unexamined matters, which, confused and shifting, impose themselves upon us.

We are familiar enough with the theory that the Socratic universal, the Platonic idea, was generated by an ignorant transformation of psychological abstractions into self-existent entities. To insist upon this as the key to the Socratic logic is mere caricature. The objectivity of the universal stood for the sense of something decisive and controlling in all reflection, which otherwise is just manipulation of personal prejudices. This sense is as active in modern science as it was in the Platonic dialectic. What Socrates felt was the opinionated, conceited quality of the terms used in the moral and political discussion of his day, as that contrasted with the[201] subject-matter, which, if rightly grasped, would put an end to mere views and argumentations.

By Aristotle's time the interest was not so much in the existence of standards of decision in cases of doubt and dispute as in the technique of their use. The judge was firmly seated on the bench. The parties in controversy recognized his jurisdiction, and their respective claims were submitted for adjudicature. The need was for rules of procedure by which the judge might, in an obvious and impartial way, bring the recognized universal or decisive law to bear upon particular matters. Hence the elaboration of those rules of evidence, those canons of demonstrative force, which are the backbone of the Aristotelian logic. There was a code by which to decide upon the admissibility and value of proffered testimony—the rules of the syllogism. The figures and terms of the syllogism provided a scheme for deciding upon the exact bearing of every statement propounded. The plan of arrangement of major and minor premises, of major, minor, and middle terms, furnished a manifesto of the exact procedure to be followed in determining the probative force of each element in reasoning. The judge knew what testimony to permit, when and how it should be introduced, how it could be impeached or have its competence lessened, and how the evidence was to be arranged so that a summary would also be an exhibit of its value in establishing a conclusion.[202]

This means that there now is a distinctive type of thinking marked off from mere discussion and reflection. It may be called either reasoning or proof. It is reasoning when we think of the regularity of the method for getting at and employing the unquestioned grounds which give validity to other statements. It is proof as regards the degree of logical desert thereby measured out to such propositions. Proof is the acceptance or rejection justified through the reasoning. To quote from Mill: "To give credence to a proposition as a conclusion from something else is to reason in the most extensive sense of the term. We say of a fact or statement, it is proved, when we believe its truth by reason of some other fact or statement from which it is said to follow."[47] Reasoning is marshaling a series of terms and propositions until we can bind some doubtful fact firmly to an unquestioned, although remote, truth; it is the regular way in which a certain proposition is brought to bear on a precarious one, clothing the latter with something of the peremptory quality of the former. So far as we reach this result, and so far as we can exhibit each step in the nexus and be sure it has been rightly performed, we have proof.

But questions still face us. How about that truth upon which we fall back as guaranteeing the credibility of other statements—how about our major premise? [203]Whence does it derive its guaranty? Quis custodes custodiet?

We may, of course, in turn subsume it under some further major premise, but an infinite regress is impossible, and on this track we are finally left hanging in the air. For practical purposes the unquestioned principle may be taken as signifying mutual concession or agreement—it denotes that as a matter of fact its truth is not called in question by the parties concerned. This does admirably for settling arguments and controversies. It is a good way of amicably arranging matters among those already friends and fellow-citizens. But scientifically the widespread acceptance of an idea seems to testify to custom rather than to truth; prejudice is strengthened in influence, but hardly in value, by the number who share it; conceit is none the less self-conceit because it turns the heads of many.

Great interest was indeed afterward taken in the range of persons who hold truths in common. The quod semper ubique omnibus became of great importance. This, however, was not, in theory at least, because common agreement was supposed to constitute the major premise, but because it afforded confirmatory evidence of its self-evident and universal character.

Hence the Aristotelian logic necessarily assumes certain first or fundamental truths unquestioned and unquestionable, self-evident and self-evidencing,[204] neither established nor modified by thought, but standing firm in their own right. This assumption was not, as modern dealers in formal logic would sometimes have it, an external psychological or metaphysical attachment to the theory of reasoning, to be omitted at will from logic as such. It was an essential factor of knowledge that there should be necessary propositions directly apprehended by reason and particular ones directly apprehended by sense. Reasoning could then join them. Without the truths we have only the play of subjective, arbitrary, futile opinion. Judgment has not taken place, and assertion is without warrant. Hence the scheduling of first truths is an organic part of any reasoning which is occupied with securing demonstration, surety of assent, or valid conviction. To deny the necessary place of ultimate truths in the logical system of Aristotle and his followers is to make them players in a game of social convention. It is to overlook, to invert, the fact that they were sincerely concerned with the question of attaining the grounds and process of assurance. Hence they were obliged to assume primary intuitions, metaphysical, physical, moral, and mathematical axioms, in order to get the pegs of certainty to which to tie the bundles of otherwise contingent propositions.

It would be going too far to claim that the regard for the authority of the church, of the fathers, of the Scriptures, of ancient writers, of Aristotle himself, so[205] characteristic of the Middle Ages, was the direct outcome of this presupposition of truths fixed and unquestionable in themselves. But the logical connection is sure. The supply of absolute premises that Aristotle was able to proffer was scant. In his own generation and situation this paucity made comparatively little difference; for to the mass of men the great bulk of values was still carried by custom, by religious belief, and social institution. It was only in the comparatively small sphere of persons who had come under the philosophic influence that need for the logical mode of confirmation was felt. In the mediaeval period, however, all important beliefs required to be concentrated by some fixed principle giving them stay and power, for they were contrary to obvious common-sense and natural tradition. The situation was exactly such as to call into active use the Aristotelian scheme of thought. Authority supplemented the meagerness of the store of universals known by direct intuition, the Aristotelian plan of reasoning afforded the precise instrumentality through which the vague and chaotic details of life could be reduced to order by subjecting them to authoritative rules.

It is not enough, however, to account for the ultimate major premises, for the unconditioned grounds upon which credibility is assigned. We have also to report where the other side comes from: matters so uncertain in themselves as to require that they have their[206] grounds supplied from outside. The answer in the Aristotelian scheme is an obvious one. It is the very nature of sense, of ordinary experience, to supply us with matters which in themselves are only contingent. There is a certain portion of the intellectual sphere, that derived from experience, which is infected throughout by its unworthy origin. It stands forever condemned to be merely empirical—particular, more or less accidental, inherently irrational. You cannot make gold from dross, and the best that can be done for and with material of this sort is to bring it under the protection of truth which has warrant and weight in itself.

We may now characterize this stage of thinking with reference to our original remark that different stages denote various degrees in the evolution of the doubt-inquiry function. As compared with the period of fixed ideas, doubt is awake, and inquiry is active, but in itself it is rigidly limited. On one side it is bounded by fixed ultimate truths, whose very nature is that they cannot be doubted, which are not products or functions in inquiry, but bases that investigation fortunately rests upon. In the other direction all "matters of fact," all "empirical truths" belong to a particular sphere or kind of existence, and one intrinsically open to suspicion. The region is condemned in a wholesale way. In itself it exhales doubt; it cannot be reformed; it is to be shunned, or, if this is not possible, to be escaped from by climbing[207] up a ladder of intermediate terms until we lay hold on the universal. The very way in which doubt is objectified, taken all in a piece, marks its lack of vitality. It is arrested and cooped up in a particular place. As with any doubtful character, the less of its company the better. Uncertainty is not realized as a necessary instrument in compelling experienced matters to reveal their meaning and inherent order.

This limitation upon inquiry settles the interpretation to be given thought at this stage—it is of necessity merely connective, merely mediating. It goes between the first principles—themselves, as to their validity, outside the province of thought—and the particulars of sense—also, as to their status and worth, beyond the dominion of thought. Thinking is subsumption—just placing a particular proposition under its universal. It is inclusion, finding a place for some questioned matter within a region taken as more certain. It is use of general truths to afford support to things otherwise shaky—an application that improves their standing, while leaving their content unchanged. This means that thought has only a formal value. It is of service in exhibiting and arranging grounds upon which any particular proposition may be acquitted or condemned, upon which anything already current may be assented to, or upon which belief may reasonably be withheld.

The metaphor of the law court is apt. There is assumed some matter to be either proved or[208] disproved. As matter, as content, it is furnished. It is not to be found out. In the law court it is not a question of discovering what a man specifically is, but simply of finding reasons for regarding him as guilty or innocent. There is no all-around play of thought directed to the institution of something as fact, but a question of whether grounds can be adduced justifying acceptance of some proposition already set forth. The significance of such an attitude comes into relief when we contrast it with what is done in the laboratory. In the laboratory there is no question of proving that things are just thus and so, or that we must accept or reject a given statement; there is simply an interest in finding out what sort of things we are dealing with. Any quality or change that presents itself may be an object of investigation, or may suggest a conclusion; for it is judged, not by reference to pre-existent truths, but by its suggestiveness, by what it may lead to. The mind is open to inquiry in any direction. Or we may illustrate by the difference between the auditor and an actuary in an insurance company. One simply passes and rejects, issues vouchers, compares and balances statements already made out. The other investigates any one of the items of expense or receipt; inquires how it comes to be what it is, what facts, as regards, say, length of life, condition of money market, activity of agents, are involved, and what further researches and activities are indicated.[209]

The illustrations of the laboratory and the expert remind us of another attitude of thought in which investigation attacks matters hitherto reserved. The growth, for example, of freedom of thought during the Renaissance was a revelation of the intrinsic momentum of the thought-process itself. It was not a mere reaction from and against mediaeval scholasticism. It was the continued operation of the machinery which the scholastics had set a-going. Doubt and inquiry were extended into the region of particulars, of matters of fact, with the view of reconstituting them through discovery of their own structure, no longer with the intention of leaving that unchanged while transforming their claim to credence by connecting them with some authoritative principles. Thought no longer found satisfaction in appraising them in a scale of values according to their nearness to, or remoteness from, fixed truths. Such work had been done to a nicety, and it was futile to repeat it. Thinking must find a new outlet. It was out of employment, and set to discover new lands. Galileo and Copernicus were travelers—as much so as the crusader, Marco Polo, and Columbus.

Hence the fourth stage—covering what is popularly known as inductive and empirical science. Thought takes the form of inference instead of proof. Proof, as we have already seen, is accepting or rejecting a given proposition on the ground of its connection or lack of connection with some other[210] proposition conceded or established. But inference does not terminate in any given proposition; it is after precisely those not given. It wants more facts, different facts. Thinking in the mode of inference insists upon terminating in an intellectual advance, in a consciousness of truths hitherto escaping us. Our thinking must not now "pass" certain propositions after challenging them, must not admit them because they exhibit certain credentials, showing a right to be received into the upper circle of intellectual society. Thinking endeavors to compel things as they present themselves, to yield up something hitherto obscure or concealed. This advance and extension of knowledge through thinking seems to be well designated by the term "inference." It does not certify what is otherwise doubtful, but "goes from the known to the unknown." It aims at pushing out the frontiers of knowledge, not at marking those already attained with signposts. Its technique is not a scheme for assigning status to beliefs already possessed, but is a method for making friends with facts and ideas hitherto alien. Inference reaches out, fills in gaps. Its work is measured not by the patents of standing it issues, but by the material increments of knowledge it yields. Inventio is more important than judicium, discovery than "proof."

With the development of empirical research, uncertainty or contingency is no longer regarded as infecting in a wholesale way an entire region, discrediting it[211] save as it can be brought under the protecting aegis of universal truths as major premises. Uncertainty is now a matter of detail. It is the question whether the particular fact is really what it has been taken to be. It involves contrast, not of a fact as a fixed particular over against some fixed universal, but of the existing mode of apprehension with another possible better apprehension.

From the standpoint of reasoning and proof the intellectual field is absolutely measured out in advance. Certainty is located in one part, intellectual indeterminateness or uncertainty in another. But when thinking becomes research, when the doubt-inquiry function comes to its own, the problem is just: What is the fact?

Hence the extreme interest in details as such; in observing, collecting, and comparing particular causes, in analysis of structure down to its constituent elements, interest in atoms, cells, and in all matters of arrangement in space and time. The microscope, telescope, and spectroscope, the scalpel and microtome, the kymograph and the camera are not mere material appendages to thinking; they are as integral parts of investigative thought as were Barbara, Celarent, etc., of the logic of reasoning. Facts must be discovered, and to accomplish this, apparent "facts" must be resolved into their elements. Things must be readjusted in order to be held free from intrusion of impertinent circumstance and misleading[212] suggestion. Instrumentalities of extending and rectifying research are, therefore, of themselves organs of thinking. The specialization of the sciences, the almost daily birth of a new science, is a logical necessity—not a mere historical episode. Every phase of experience must be investigated, and each characteristic aspect presents its own peculiar problems which demand, therefore, their own technique of investigation. The discovery of difficulties, the substitution of doubt for quiescent acceptance, are more important than the sanctioning of belief through proof. Hence the importance of noting apparent exceptions, negative instances, extreme cases, anomalies. The interest is in the discrepant because that stimulates inquiry, not in the fixed universal which would terminate it once for all. Hence the roaming over the earth and through the skies for new facts which may be incompatible with old theories, and which may suggest new points of view.

To illustrate these matters in detail would be to write the history of every modern science. The interest in multiplying phenomena, in increasing the area of facts, in developing new distinctions of quantity, structure, and form, is obviously characteristic of modern science. But we do not always heed its logical significance—that it makes thinking to consist in the extension and control of contact with new material so as to lead regularly to the development of new experience.[213]

The elevation of the region of facts—the formerly condemned region of the inherently contingent and variable—to something that invites and rewards inquiry, defines the import, therefore, of the larger aspects of modern science. This spirit prides itself upon being positivistic—it deals with the observed and the observable. It will have naught to do with ideas that cannot verify themselves by showing themselves in propria persona. It is not enough to present credentials from more sovereign truths. These are hardly acceptable even as letters of introduction. Refutation of Newton's claim, that he did not make hypotheses, by pointing out that no one was busier in this direction than he, and that scientific power is generally in direct ratio to ability to imagine possibilities, is as easy as it is irrelevant. The hypotheses, the thoughts, that Newton employed were of and about fact; they were for the sake of exacting and extending what can be apprehended. Instead of being sacrosanct truths affording a redemption by grace to facts otherwise ambiguous, they were the articulating of ordinary facts. Hence the notion of law changes. It is no longer something governing things and events from on high; it is the statement of their own order.

Thus the exiling of occult forces and qualities is not so much a specific achievement as it is a demand of the changed attitude. When thinking consists in the detection and determination of observable detail,[214] forces, forms, qualities at large, are thrown out of employment. They are not so much proved non-existent as rendered nugatory. Disuse breeds their degeneration. When the universal is but the order of the facts themselves, the mediating machinery disappears along with the essences. There is substituted for the hierarchical world in which each degree in the scale has its righteousness imputed from above a world homogeneous in structure and in the scheme of its parts; the same in heaven, earth, and the uttermost parts of the sea. The ladder of values from the sublunary world with its irregular, extravagant, imperfect motion up to the stellar universe, with its self-returning perfect order, corresponded to the middle terms of the older logic. The steps were graduated, ascending from the indeterminate, unassured matter of sense up to the eternal, unquestionable truths of rational perception. But when interest is occupied in finding out what anything and everything is, any fact is just as good as its fellow. The observable world is a democracy. The difference which makes a fact what it is is not an exclusive distinction, but a matter of position and quantity, an affair of locality and aggregation, traits which place all facts upon the same level, since all other observable facts also possess them and are, indeed, conjointly responsible for them. Laws are not edicts of a sovereign binding a world of subjects otherwise lawless; they are the agreements, the compacts of facts themselves, or, in the familiar[215] language of Mill, the common attributes, the resemblances.

The emphasis of modern science upon control flows from the same source. Interest is in the new, in extension, in discovery. Inference is the advance into the unknown, the use of the established to win new worlds from the void. This requires and employs regulation—that is, method—in procedure. There cannot be a blind attack. A plan of campaign is needed. Hence the so-called practical applications of science, the Baconian "knowledge is power," the Comteian "science is prevision," are not extra-logical addenda or supererogatory benefits. They are intrinsic to the logical method itself, which is just the orderly way of approaching new experiences so as to grasp and hold them.

The attitude of research is necessarily toward the future. The application of science to the practical affairs of life, as in the stationary engine, or telephone, does not differ in principle from the determination of wave-lengths of light through the experimental control of the laboratory. Science lives only in arranging for new contacts, new insights. The school of Kant agrees with that of Mill in asserting that judgment must, in order to be judgment, be synthetic or instructive; it must extend, inform, and purvey. When we recognize that this service of judgment in effecting growth of experience is not accidental, but that judgment means exactly the devising and using[216] of suitable instrumentalities for this end, we remark that the so-called practical uses of science are only the further and freer play of the intrinsic movement of discovery itself.

We began with the assumption that thought is to be interpreted as a doubt-inquiry function, conducted for the purpose of arriving at that mental equilibrium known as assurance or knowledge. We assumed that various stages of thinking could be marked out according to the amount of play which they give to doubt, and the consequent sincerity with which thinking is identified with free inquiry. Modern scientific procedure, as just set forth, seems to define the ideal or limit of this process. It is inquiry emancipated, universalized, whose sole aim and criterion is discovery, and hence it marks the terminus of our description. It is idle to conceal from ourselves, however, that scientific procedure as a practical undertaking, has not as yet reflected itself into any coherent and generally accepted theory of thinking, into any accepted doctrine of logic which is comparable to the Aristotelian. Kant's conviction that logic is a "complete and settled" science, which with absolutely "certain boundaries has gained nothing and lost nothing since Aristotle," is startlingly contradicted by the existing state of discussion of logical doctrine. The simple fact of the case is that there are at least three rival theories on[217] the ground, each claiming to furnish the sole proper interpretation of the actual procedure of thought.

The Aristotelian logic is far from having withdrawn its claim. It still offers its framework as that into which the merely "empirical" results of observation and experimental inquiry must be fitted if they are to be regarded as really "proved." Another school of logicians, starting professedly from modern psychology, discredits the whole traditional industry and reverses the Aristotelian theory of validity; it holds that only particular facts are self-supporting, and that the authority allowed to general principles is derivative and second hand. A third school of philosophy claims, by analysis of science and experience, to justify the conclusion that the universe itself is a construction of thought, giving evidence throughout of the pervasive and constitutive action of reason, and holds, consequently, that our logical processes are simply the reading off or coming to consciousness of the inherently rational structure already possessed by the universe in virtue of the presence within it of this pervasive and constitutive action of thought. It thus denies both the claim of the traditional logic, that matters of experienced fact are mere particulars having their rationality in an external ground, and the claim of the empirical logic, that thought is just a gymnastic by which we vault from one presented fact to another remote in space and time.[218]

Which of the three doctrines is to be regarded as the legitimate exponent of the procedure of thought manifested in modern science? While the Aristotelian logic is willing to waive a claim to be regarded as expounder of the actual procedure, it still insists upon its right to be regarded as the sole ultimate umpire of the validity or proved character of the results reached. But the empirical and transcendental logics stand face to face as rivals, each asserting that it alone tells the story of what science does and how it does it.

With the consciousness of this conflict my discussion in its present, or descriptive, phase must cease. Its close, however, suggests a further question. In so far as we adopt the conception that thinking is itself a doubt-inquiry process, must we not deny the claims of all of the three doctrines to be the articulate voicing of the methods of experimental science? Do they not all agree in setting up something fixed outside inquiry, supplying both its material and its limit? That the first principle and the empirical matters of fact of the Aristotelian logic fall outside the thinking process, and condemn the latter to a purely external and go-between agency, has been already sufficiently descanted upon. But it is also true that the fixed particulars, given facts, or sensations—whatever the empirical logician starts from—are material given ready-made to the thought-process, and externally limiting inquiry, instead of being distinctions arising[219] within and because of search for truth. Nor, as regards this point, is the transcendental in any position to throw stones at the empirical logic. Thought "in itself" is so far from a process of inquiry that it is taken to be the eternal, fixed structure of the universe; our thinking, involving doubt and investigation, is due wholly to our "finite," imperfect character, which condemns us to the task of merely imitating and reinstating "thought" in itself, once and forever complete, ready-made, fixed.

The practical procedure and practical assumptions of modern experimental science, since they make thinking essentially and not merely accidentally a process of discovery, seem irreconcilable with both the empirical and transcendental interpretations. At all events there is here sufficient discrepancy to give occasion for further search: Does not an account of thinking, basing itself on modern scientific procedure, demand a statement in which all the distinctions and terms of thought—judgment, concept, inference, subject, predicate, and copula of judgment, etc., ad infinitum—shall be interpreted simply and entirely as distinctive functions or divisions of labor within the doubt-inquiry process?

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Dewey, John. 2012. Essays in Experimental Logic. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved May 2022 from

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