When you begin to study a subject, it is always helpful to know two things: first, what it is you intend to study and, second, why it is important to study it. When it comes to the study of logic, you must have some idea what logic is, and what a study of logic consists of. If you don’t understand what it is, you will not understand why it is important to study. I think we can all agree that it is important to understand the truth of things, but many people—even many classical educators—do not realize that logic is an instrument of truth, and thus they do not understand the importance of studying logic.
Another part of the problem stems from a widespread misunderstanding of logic by educators themselves. Unfortunately, this is equally true of Christian educators―even those involved in the classical education movement. There are at least three respects in which logic is misunderstood by educators. The first has to do with the place of logic in the classical curriculum, the second has to do with the nature of logic itself, and the third concerns the difference between logic and other things that many times fall under that title.
The Place of Logic in the Classical Curriculum
Grammar, the first of the three components of the trivium, is the study of the structure of language and how language is expressed in writing and speech. Rhetoric, the last part of the trivium, is the study of the rules of persuasion, as well as their written and spoken use. Logic fits in between these two, and is the study of the structure of thought and how thought is expressed in words.
Modern logic, on the other hand, is largely mathematical. A course in modern logic (and I have taught it) would begin with the study of arguments as they are used in everyday language, but quickly descend into the study of how to manipulate variable symbols. However, since words are not variable symbols like those studied in modern logic (which can stand for anything), but rather signs that each have a particular signification, modern logic has limited use when it comes to the study of language. It is simply not the kind of logic used in linguistic reasoning.
Traditional logic is studied because traditional logic is an intrinsic part of language study.
What does logic consist of?
The older system of traditional logic recognized two branches of logic: formal logic (like that covered in our Traditional Logic program), and informal or material logic (like that covered in our Material Logic program).
Formal logic focuses on the procedural aspect of reasoning, its mechanics—how we properly get from two premises or assumptions to a conclusion. Material logic focuses on the philosophical or metaphysical aspects of words, statements, and arguments that can affect our ability to arrive at truth.
Even many classical educators are simply not aware that there is any other aspect to logic than the formal aspect. One of the reasons for this lack of awareness is that modern logic, which largely displaced traditional logic in colleges and universities in the twentieth century, only recognizes the formal aspect of logic, since it is based on anti-metaphysical assumptions that conflict with the traditional metaphysics treated in material logic.
The traditional system of logic recognizes that logic is larger than just form, or structure, and that the content can and does affect the process of reasoning from premises to conclusion.
But if this is all true, then what do we do with fallacies, the teaching of which has become so common in classical education circles? We need to recognize, first, that there are both formal and informal fallacies. Formal fallacies are those that result from the violation of the formal rules of reasoning, those studied in formal logic. These are covered in a formal logic course. But informal fallacies are mistakes in reasoning that result from mistakes in the material or content of reasoning and from certain psychological mistakes.
If we were to draw an analogy with a cooking recipe, we would say that several things could go wrong: First, we could make mistakes in the procedural aspect of cooking—mixing the ingredients improperly, or cooking them too long, etc. This is a formal mistake, like putting one of our terms in the wrong place in a statement or putting our statement in the wrong place in our argument.
Or we could have the wrong ingredient, or one that has gone bad. This is an informal material mistake, like including a false premise in our argument.
Or we could have our attention diverted from the process entirely, by getting a phone call in the middle of cooking, or having to deal with a child who skinned his knee. This is an informal psychological mistake, like having our attention diverted from proper reasoning by the latest survey, or news story, or emotional appeal.
Logic vs. Critical Thinking Skills
While many people use the word “logic” in a too‑restricted sense in referring only to formal logic, many others associate it with any kind of abstract thinking. This also is a mistake, although a mistake in the opposite direction. The origin of this error lies in the contemporary emphasis on “critical thinking skills.” Although all logic is a part of critical thinking skills, all critical thinking skills are not a part of logic. The various discrete thinking processes studied in such “critical thinking skills” programs commonly cover spatial and figural skills and mathematical reasoning, as well as reading, writing, and vocabulary skills. Once again, these skills are not without value, but it would be a mistake to confuse them with logic itself. One striking fact about such programs is that they seem comprehensive but include almost nothing that is covered in traditional discussions of either formal or material logic.
These are the three major misunderstandings in the thinking about logic. If we could better understand logic, we would know why it is so important to study.