Monday, 14 May 2012

The 'logic-as-umpire' view of logic: a Kantian relic

(Cross-posted at NewAPPS)

As widely circulated on the internet, Tim Williamson has a recent The Stone post, on the purported ‘neutrality’ of logic. He writes:
Here’s an idea many philosophers and logicians have about the function of logic in our cognitive life, our inquiries and debates. It isn’t a player. Rather, it’s an umpire, a neutral arbitrator between opposing theories, imposing some basic rules on all sides in a dispute. The picture is that logic has no substantive content, for otherwise the correctness of that content could itself be debated, which would impugn the neutrality of logic. One way to develop this idea is by saying that logic supplies no information of its own, because the point of information is to rule out possibilities, whereas logic only rules out inconsistencies, which are not genuine possibilities. On this view, logic in itself is totally uninformative, although it may help us extract and handle non-logical information from other sources. 
The idea that logic is uninformative strikes me as deeply mistaken, and I’m going to explain why. […]
He then goes on to argue against this Tractarian account of logic as uninformative, and against the view that there can be no rational debates about logical principles. Now, the information gain afforded by a piece of deductive reasoning is a topic that has received quite some attention recently, in particular by philosophers of information such as Luciano Floridi and my colleague and friend Sebastian Sequoiah-Grayson. Similarly, the idea of rational debates about logical rules and principles dates back at least to the Putnam-Dummett debate, and is alive and well in recent discussions about logical revision (Hartry Field, among others, has written on it). On the face of it, Williamson is not saying anything strikingly new, but because the view he is criticizing remains utterly pervasive (and is utterly wrong!), such critiques remain important.

What could one do to convince the proponent of the ‘neutrality-umpire’ view of logic that she is wrong? One approach that I’ve defended on several occasions (such as here) is what I call ‘conceptual archeology’: why would anyone have thought that this is a compelling account of the nature of logic in the first place? What were the reasons/arguments for this view to establish itself as widely endorsed, in fact almost as a truism about logic? (This exercise of ‘conceptual archeology’ and ‘deconstruction’ is part of a larger project to argue for a dialogical reconceptualization of logic.) As I’ve argued elsewhere (for example, in a BBS commentary), the view of logic as an ontologically neutral umpire, as having no substantive content, is essentially a Kantian view, at the heart of the project of transcendental idealism.

As shown by B. Longuenesse in her Kant and the Capacity to Judge (1998), Kant takes as his starting point the transcendental question, “what are the a priori conditions for the representations of objects in general?”, and reconfigures the logic of his time so as to render it useful for his transcendental project. In particular, he selectively absorbs the notions of “judgment,” “form,” and “categories” as found in the logical textbooks of the time, and puts them to use so as to describe the very conditions of possibility of our thinking and perceiving. In particular, Kant insisted on the normative import of the rules of thought as described by logic. According to him, (general) logic deals with “absolutely necessary rules of thought without which there can be no employment whatsoever of the understanding.” (KrV A52/B76)

For Kant, general logic has no substantive content because it pertains to the forms of thought as such, with no connection to objects whatsoever (not even the a priori conditions for the relation of the understanding to objects, which is the domain of transcendental logic). Similarly, since the laws of logic determine the very conditions of thought as such, no rational debate can be had about them, as they are presupposed in any rational debate.

I used to think that this conception of logic was entirely new with Kant, but now my PhD student Leon Geerdink (a walking encyclopedia of the history of philosophy) tells me that much of it can already be found in Kant’s predecessors, Wolff in particular. At any rate, what is clear is that it is the historical influence of Kantianism in the 19th and 20th centuries which saw to it that the view criticized by Williamson established itself as the received view on the nature of logic. However, once you start asking yourself which reasons you might have to endorse it, beyond the weight of tradition, it quickly becomes apparent that one would be hard pressed to find such reasons. They make good sense against the background of transcendental idealism (something also argued by MacFarlane in his PhD dissertation), but if you are not prepared to buy into the whole framework, which other reasons would you have to endorse the ‘logic-as-umpire’ and ‘logic-as-ontologically-neutral’ view? So far, I’ve never come across any truly convincing argument, and as argued by Williamson and others, there seems to be a wealth of reasons why one should not endorse this view. And yet, it seems to be alive and well. How long will we still remain under this Kantian spell?

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