Dialectic: The Second Art of the Trivium

Introduction: What is dialectic? What is logic?

The second liberal art is logic or dialectic. Dialectic typically refers to the practice of precise discussion, using a question and answer format with facts or apparent facts, to explain or get at the truth. It has another, less academic, use I’ll explain later. Logic is a more narrow term, referring to the form of correct argument rather than the whole process. In classical school literature, you’ll see the two words used interchangeably (I will as well), this has classical precedent. For instance, the stoics tended to use the word logic to refer to argument, monologue, persuasion, theory, and several other domains. The best definition for logic/dialectic is the art of reasoning for the purpose of discovering or demonstrating the truth. And so logic involves the study of the forms of argument as well as specific arguments. But why study dialectic? Isn’t it easier to just go with gut feelings or go a long to get along?

Dialectic Protects Us From Pathological Thinking

An alarming trend in education today is the reinforcement of pathological thinking patterns by professors who will not expose students to material that is challenging to their worldview (if the worldview is of a certain sort, anyhow). Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff explain this ugly trend:

There’s a saying common in education circles: Don’t teach students what to think; teach them how to think. The idea goes back at least as far as Socrates. Today, what we call the Socratic method is a way of teaching that fosters critical thinking, in part by encouraging students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them. Such questioning sometimes leads to discomfort, and even to anger, on the way to understanding.

 

But vindictive protectiveness teaches students to think in a very different way. It prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong. The harm may be more immediate, too. A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.

Notice the claim in bold. Our dominate institutions of knowledge and reasoning are training young people to be threatened by claims which contradict their beliefs. Put more simply, people are learning to be offended by disagreement. One of the primary reasons to learn logic is that it can train us to distance ourselves from our beliefs and the claims of others and to ask whether or not they are supported by evidence or at least coherent with one another.

Logic Trains Us in Virtue

Another reason to learn logic is that logic is training in virtue. Dallas Willard explains that:

[Logic] requires the will to be logical, and then certain personal qualities that make it possible and actual: qualities such as freedom from distraction, focused attention on the meanings or ideas involved in talk and thought, devotion to truth, and willingness to follow the truth wherever it leads via logical relations. All of this in turn makes significant demands upon moral character. Not just on points such as resoluteness and courage, though those are required. A practicing hypocrite, for example, will not find a friend in logic, nor will liars, thieves, murderers and adulterers. They will be constantly alert to appearances and inferences that may logically implicate them in their wrong actions. Thus the literary and cinematic genre of mysteries is unthinkable without play on logical relations.

 

Those devoted to defending certain pet assumptions or practices come what may will also have to protect themselves from logic. All of this i, I believe, commonly recognized by thoughtful people. Less well understood is the fact that one can be logical only if one is committed to being logical as a fundamental value. One is not logical by chance, any more than one just happens to be moral. And, indeed, logical consistency is a significant factor in moral character. That is part of the reason why in an age that attacks morality, as ours does, the logical will also be demoted or set aside–as it now is.

Again, note the bold. Willard claims that since being logical requires that one be devoted to truth, free from distraction, and concerned with meaning, that those who only want to defend pet ideas will find no friend in logic. And we live in a world wherein people seem to have no plan to examine their lives as Socrates recommended. I’ve known Christians, atheists, democrats, republicans, logic professors, men, women, adults, and children who approach life in this unexamined way.

Of course, I’m not quite making an argument here. But I will:

  1. True beliefs are good and false beliefs are bad.
  2. Logic helps us reject false beliefs are discover true ones.
  3. Therefore, logic helps us discover what is good.

The steps in the argument above would be readily accepted by most.

Further Reflections

In short, logic or dialectic is the skill of thinking things through. There are several varieties. Logic can be taught in a symbolic or mathematical form or a propositional (sentence based) form. Similarly, logical reasoning can be divided up in terms of the form taken in the reasoning. One can utilize deductive reasoning or inductive reasoning. These can simplified in this way:

  1. Deductive reasoning is reasoning such that true statements are arranged in such a way as to yield a necessarily (this means it cannot be any other way) true conclusion.
  2. Inductive reasoning is based on probabilities or what may or is likely or unlikely to be the case.

Either of these logical forms requires that you have three things in order to have a complete syllogism (a series of statements leading to a conclusion):

  1. Premises – these are the starting facts of a syllogism.
  2. Inferences – these are statements moving beyond any of the individual premises by relating them to one another or moving beyond them in a way which follows the rules of thought (to be discussed later).
  3. Conclusion – this is the final inference in the series.

An example might look something like this:

  1. The sum of the angle measurements in a triangle is 180 degrees. (Premise: Statement)
  2. Therefore, the sum of the angle measurements of two triangles is 360 degrees. (Premise: Inference from point 1)
  3. All quadrilaterals can be divided into exactly two triangles.
  4. Therefore, the sum of the angles in a quadrilateral is 360 degree. (Conclusion: inference from statements 1, 2, and 3).

Though a comprehensive overview of logical reasoning is not possible in a blog post, I do want to mention arguing by analogy. Argument by analogy is looking at a known relationship, such as that between water and its constituent elements: hydrogen and oxygen and generalizing a principle from this relationship and using it to make a provisional inference concerning an unknown relationship:

  1. Water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. (Original Case)
  2. Other liquids, like alcohol, are similar to water. (Similar Case)
  3. Therefore, they are may be made up of still more simple elements. (Provisional Inference)

Argument by analogy is most commonly used to form conjectures in mathematics and hypothesis in science. It is a very common form of argument in the human sciences and in courtrooms. It is especially handy in automotive repair and medical experiments (mice respond this way, therefore human beings may as well). A good example of religious and philosophical argument by analogy is The Analogy of Religion by Joseph Butler.

Therapeutic Dialectic

I mentioned earlier that dialectic has explicit uses for monologue, namely arguing with emotions, impulses, and impressions so that your intellect can aim your will toward what is good or healthy. Martha Nussbaum quotes Epicurus making this point:

Empty is that philosopher’s argument by which no human suffering is therapeutically treated. For just as there is no use in a medical art that does not cast out the sicknesses of bodies, so too there is no use in philosophy, unless it casts out the suffering of the soul (Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics, 13).

Argument/dialectic was considered to be the primary tool to be used in moral development across the philosophical school of the ancient world. Pierre Hadot saw dialectic and rhetoric as method of discussion and controlling your self-talk:

The means employed are the rhetorical and dialectical techniques of persuasion, the attempts at mastering one’s inner dialogue, and mental concentration. In all philosophical schools, the goal pursued in these exercises is self-realization and improve­ment. (Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucalt, 102-103)

Logic/dialectic is a tool for pursuing moral and personal excellence. It allows you to see which impulses contradict your goals, which controlling thoughts are actually false, and which choices more appropriately set you on the path to goodness, truth, and beauty. 

Summarizing the Benefits of Learning Logic/Dialectic

  1. Logic trains us to have mental resilience.
  2. Learning logic trains us to find the truth in any discipline. It functions as the foundation of everything from jurisprudence and forensic science to chemistry and mathematics.
  3. Learning logic helps us to question authority. This is crucially important in our era, when truth is essentially equated with “what authorities say.”
  4. Logic enables temperance (the virtue of responding rightly to our passions/feelings).
  5. Learning logic can help you to discover small hypocrisies in your life wherein your actions do not match up with the apparent truths you accept.
  6. Learning logic can help you to deal with difficult people.
  7. Learning logic can help you become a more effective writer by helping you to avoid contradiction and to write paragraphs in a sequence which flows from premise to conclusion or from assumptions to application and so-on.

Resources for Learning Logic:

  1. Online Tools:
    1. Lander Logic Page
      Here you’ll find example and exercises to practice.
    2. Khan Academy
      There are free exercises and videos in the critical thinking section to which I’ve linked.
    3. Any number of old logic text books available at books.google.com for free.
  2. Books
    1. Socratic Logic by Peter Kreeft
    2. The Logic of Real Arguments by Alec Fischer
      I’ve used excerpts from this in my logic class. It mostly inspired me to have my students get out of logic textbooks and into actual arguments on subjects of human interest..

 

Grammar: The First Art of the Trivium

Introduction

The first of the liberal arts is grammar.

The Trivium

Trivium is shorthand for three skills:  grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Together with arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music they make up the liberal arts. In the current year, a liberal arts degree is simply a degree in reading texts and critical theory.

What is Grammar?

Grammar is primarily the study of understandable language.

Grammar goes beyond simple language, though. C.S Lewis reminds us that ancient grammar instruction included syntax, etymology, prose, the explanation of allusions, history, and eventually scholarship in general. Lewis even remarks that “everything we should now call criticism belonged to either grammar or rhetoric” (The Discarded Image 186-187 and 190).

Why Grammar?

While you may find it boring, here are four reasons you should study it:

  1. Grammar is the art of clear use of language. With grammar, we explain our thoughts precisely.
  2. Grammar forces us to study language at the technical level, making it more useful to us.
  3. Understanding grammar and usage allows us to deviate from it for rhetorical effect (more on rhetoric later).
  4. Grammar, learned after the language itself is acquired, reminds us that minute learning is almost always the key to advancing our knowledge.

Tips for Improving/Teaching Grammar

  1. Use actual grammar exercises like those available here or here.
  2. Do not drill grammar into children who do not have love language. This serves to make them dislike reading and writing, which means that the mechanics of grammar will be useless to them.
  3. Read frequently and broadly. If you’re a teacher or home school parent, have your children read old books, new books, poetry, fiction, articles, and fun books. Pro-tip for teaching children to read: use old comic books like the original Fantastic Four.
  4. Write often. Also, practice writing. It’s likely that in this very blog post, I have made grammar errors.
  5. Think of grammar as an aspect of pedagogy. Every subject has constituent parts (like grammar rules). Without them, the subject is meaningless. For more on this, read Dorothy Sayers’ essay: The Lost Tools of Learning.

Trivium 3: Rhetoric

The third art of a true liberal arts education is rhetoric. I’ve written about grammar and logic already. I’ve also written about rhetoric in the ancient world. Obviously, this post is about rhetoric.

Whereas the purpose of grammar is clarity of communication and the emphasis of logic is the discovery of truth and probability through clarity of thought, the purpose of rhetoric is the discovery and use of what is persuasive.

Rhetoric, as a skill set, can be seen from the perspectives of speaking/writing, listening/reading, and debating:

  1. Speaking/Writing
    Rhetoric, in this sense, is related to the forethought given to discovering what could potentially persuade an audience, what they need to be persuaded of, and the actual delivery of the speech or writing of the paper/article.
  2. Listening/Reading
    Listening involves discerning the intent of the speaker or author as well as the intended audience. Are they trying to get you to act, to believe a proposition, or to support a cause? In knowing the author’s cause and audience, one can determine what methods they are employing to persuade and whether or not they are convincing. At this stage, one will want to use logic to determine whether or not the author contradicts accepted principles without good evidence or contradicts other statements made in the discourse.
  3. Debating
    In debating, rhetoric becomes very important because being able to demonstrate or discover the truth is not always helpful in a person-to-person encounter whose outcome can largely be determined by the emotions of the audience. So rhetoric is especially important in debate. Logic is still one’s friend, especially for discrediting an opponent’s claims, but rhetoric is important for defending oneself from claims on incredibility or incompetence. Rhetoric is also important for framing the debate. It is not uncommon in debate for side issues to become the focus due to ideologically driven participants or people unconcerned about civility. Learning to maintain one’s state of mind and the emotional and cognitive frame of the debate for the audience is difficult, but crucial in a debate.

The Modes of Persuasion
Aristotle identified logos, ethos, and pathos as the three phases of persuasion.

  1. Logos
    Logos is the appeal to facts and evidence. But in a speech, this is not always the same thing as careful and accurate argument. That is necessary for research and writing to advance the field of knowledge. It is not always best for persuading people to act. Logos, with respect to rhetoric appealing to the facts that the audience would find convincing. This is not always different from careful and painstaking accuracy, but it is not always the same thing. Learning to use the common topics carefully will be very important here because they represent the types of evidence available to a researcher, speaker, and writer. Also, I recommend that no matter what type of logical argument you rely on in a speech, you have a tighter more carefully documented version of the argument elsewhere in case questions are asked.
  2. Ethos
    Ethos is appeal to personal credibility. To bolster your ethos, you must associate yourself with the good (morals, principles, groups, and individuals), take the moral high ground (appeal to the audience’s sense of virtue and morality), and when possible use sources credible to the audience. When thinking of rhetoric in terms of debate, ethos becomes very important. Many debate opponents are comfortable discrediting the other by means of attacking their ethos rather than their arguments. Learning to deal with this and take an acceptable risk of punching back in the same manner (because that is the nature of the game) or taking the moral high ground of non-response is a difficult decision to make. In my opinion, this depends on whether or not the debate is about action or fact. If the debate is over an academic topic, then the high ground of seeking truth must be taken, even if this leads to a perceived “loss” on the part of the more accurate and careful participant. In the case of debates about the proper course of action, the one becomes morally obligated to fight back hard in defense of the audience when attacks are made. This is because, in fact, we are easily persuaded to enjoy ruthless winners over kind losers. In the Bible, Jesus does both, which illustrates how difficult a line it is to walk.
  3. Pathos
    Pathos is the appeal to the passions or deeper emotions of the audience. This includes using techniques such as exaggeration, sarcasm, language of shame/honor, flattery, legitimate compliments, and so-on. Pathos is greatly aided by florid language or simple language. Academic language is almost always a passion killer, although if it is accompanied by strong ethos, academic language can ignite the passion for knowledge. Pathos is appealed to, not simply by florid or simple language, but also by emotional style. An enthusiastic speaker is easier to listen to than somebody who sounds like the topic is boring to them.

When you think of writing a speech, I recommend thinking of these aspects like a group of investment accounts. You need to invest enough in the right one depending upon the audience. For instance, your personal credibility might be very high due to your virtue and research capabilities, but that does not mean that an audience of people who don’t believe in virtue will care. So in that case it might be better to appeal to emotions and logic. Similarly, emotional appeal will not help you in a speech about statistical methods to a group of mathematicians. Similarly, an audience might need a strong emotional hook before they are ready for logic and facts. In other cases, logic and facts must come first, but a rousing fiery call to action can come at the end. These things are to be determined on a case by case basis.

Concluding Thoughts and Extra Tools
I really think that the study of rhetoric, as a skill is crucial to the development of your mind and social skills. People who are naturally good at it often say things like, “Just get it without trying to learn it.” That’s literally stupid. Studying rhetoric can help you learn to defend yourself against charming evil-doers and appealing falsehoods, to win debates, to see through cheesy sales tactics, and even to flirt.

Helpful tools for becoming rhetorically minded include:

  1. Grammar and Logic (of course)
    Without clarity of expression and thought, rhetoric is pointless.
  2. Eloquence
    Eloquence is the art of speaking beautifully. It is context dependent. A good tool for gaining eloquence is having a digital copia and listening to the compelling speeches of others.
  3. The Common Topics (Or the destroyers of writer’s block)
    I’ve written about these here. In coming weeks, I will write about each topic and add a few more to the list. Knowing the common topics is incredibly useful for research, finding the truth, writing, and personal mindset (because debating your inner monolog is best done using evidence that you find convincing).
  4. Learn the Five Canons of Rhetoric (invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery)
    These are the five things one ought to think about in order to improve at public speaking. I will write about these soon, but for now I recommend the articles at AoM here.
  5. And, to keep you from being an charming evil-doer, learn wisdom and virtue
    Rhetoric treated as a mere skill without reference to truth, goodness, and beauty leads to speeches which work like fruit eaten off of a forbidden tree. They sound good, but they are poison to the mind and soul.

Overcome Writer’s Block: The Common Topics

Writer’s Block
You’ve had it, I’ve had it. It’s not pleasant.

As far as I can tell, there four reasons for writer’s block:

  1. Trying to sound profound (This is part of the game in fiction and poetry.)
  2. Poor research
  3. An inability to make an argument
  4. Nothing to actually say
  5. Bonus Reason Five: You’re just procrastinating.

I have very little to say to help poets and fiction authors to overcome writer’s block. What I will say is this: Write about something else. Literally just write a narrative or a poem about something entirely unrelated to the project that has left you stumped. Write a narrative about your trip to the bank or a rhyme about your wait in the grocery line. That helps me come up with sermon illustrations and illustrations for speeches on engineering topics as well.

The big question is this. What can people who are writing term papers, essays, sermons, and persuasive speeches do to overcome writer’s block?

I introduce to you: The Common Methods of Argumentation

The traditional term for this typology of argumentation is “The Common Topics.” They received this name because they represented the forms of argument that could be utilized in any form of persuasion whereas some arguments (like mathematical proofs) are only specific to their field. But it’s important to note that the list below includes argument forms that function on the level of persuasion as well as on the level of discovering the truth. I pulled most of it from Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student (Corbett and Connors), but some of it is from more modern rhetorical experts, and the list itself is based on Aristotle’s work. Here are the common forms of argument (common topics):

  1. Definition – Arguments are frequently as effective as the definitions of terms allow. And so to define a term is to control the conversation, or at least to narrow it.

    • Genus – To define an item by its genus is to describe what is essential to its nature. “Computers are devices that can be programmed to perform human inputted calculations at inhumanly fast speeds.”
    • Speciation – This is to define something by how it differs from others in its class. “A laptop is a portable computer that sits in your lap.”
    • Division – This is defining something by describing its parts or by explaining what fits within it. “A computer refers to a calculator, a smart phone, a desk top, a main frame, etc.” Or “A computer consists of a cpu, input, output, a power supply, and software.” 
    • The Reframe –
  2. Comparison
    • Similarity
    • Difference
    • Degree
  3. Relationship
    • Cause and effect
    • Antecedent and Consequent
    • Contraries
    • Subcontraries
    • Contradictories
    • Implication
  4. Circumstance
    • Possible and Impossible
    • Past Fact and Future Fact
  5. Testimony
    • Authority
    • Testimonial
    • Statistics
    • Maxims
    • Laws
    • Precedents
  6. Personal
    • Reciprocity
    • Halo Effect
    • The Neg
    • Social Proof
    • Scarcity
    • Charisma

Uses of the Common Topics:

  1. Research Tools:
    When you’re doing research look for these types of support in relationship to your thesis statement, topic sentence, or rhetorical purpose. Find definitions that frame the paper in the direction you want it to go. Look for research that determines relationships, find testimonials and statistics about your topic, look for old quotes that seem to carry handed down truths, and try to determine logical relationships (possible/impossible). If you find enough evidence to establish deductive certainty or a high probability that a position is correct, then you are not only closer to that elusive truth you wish to grasp, but you are also ready to write a paper!
  2. Persuasive Tools:
    If you know your audience, then you can determine which types of arguments will most convince them. For instance, personal testimonials work really well for people who want to experience personal transformation, whereas statistics and maxims do not seem to work very well. In a courtroom testimony, by way of example, is a very common form of argument. One tactic that I’ve witnessed work on a jury is utilizing audience sympathy for a party who, on the evidence presented, did not seem guilty. But when admissible evidence remained scarce, an appeal to pity worked very well.
  3. Reading Tools:
    When you read a book and wonder, “How is the author actually making this point?” The common topics give you the tools. If the author makes the point without using them, then the point is not being made well or you’re not reading carefully enough.
  4. Mindset Tools:
    The common topics give you mindset tools that help you be confident and humble when giving a speech and answering questions. You can say things because you have good evidence and feel confident and courageous in the process. But, because you know why you accept an idea, you can also be humble because other people might have good reasons for rejecting the idea. Knowing the common topics and how to use them can arm you for more confident and humble conversation. Knowing the common topics can also guard you against smooth operators who make claims with no support or spouts profundities with no apparent meaning.

Conclusion
The Common Topics are quintessential for any liberal arts education. Really, they matter for engineers and scientists. One has to consider whether or not the evidence in favor of a proposition of any type is compelling and which lines of it are most convincing to a particular audience.

AppendixThe Specific Topics

  1. Deliberative (speeches meant to call people to action)
    1. Inherent Worth
    2. Utility
  2. Forensic (speeches meant to convince people of the truth of a proposition concerning past fact)
    1. Evidence (whether something happened)
    2. Definition (what is the nature of the thing)
    3. Motives/Causes (qualities and circumstances)
  3. Ceremonial (speeches celebrating people, virtues, institutions, and so-on)
    1. Virtues and Vices
    2. Personal Assets and Achievements

Works Cited

Corbett, Edward P.J, and Robert J Connors. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.