Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Monday, August 7, 2017

BOYHOOD MEMORIES

David Auerbach’s amusing summary of a sci-fi story published sixty-three years ago in Galaxy took me on a trip down memory lane.  My second venture into print [the first was a letter to the Harvard Crimson] was a fervent defence of Aristotle, published in Galaxy’s principal competition, Astounding Science Fiction. As a boy, I was an avid reader of science fiction. In the 40’s and 50’s, the leading sci fi publications were two stubby little monthly magazines with nubby pages called Astounding Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction. All the big names appeared there, including L. Ron Hubbard, who announced the birth of his new psychological therapy, Dianetics, in a pair of what were at least supposedly non-fiction articles. (Trouble with the law for practicing medicine without a license led Hubbard to transform Dianetics into the religion of Scientology, protected by the First Amendment.) One of the oddities of the sci fi world in those days was the popularity of something called Non-Aristotelian logic. There was even a famous novel by the great sci fi writer A.E. van Vogt, which, if memory serves, appeared originally as a serial in a predecessor to Astounding Science Fiction. All of this was connected in some mysterious manner with the then fashionable theories of Count Alfred Korzybski, which went by the name “General Semantics.”

By 1953, I was a serious student of Mathematical Logic, and the casual slandering of Aristotle by those entranced by many-valued logics and other arcana offended my deeply conservative soul. The result was this letter to Astounding Science Fiction.


To the Editor:

I am a student of Logic and Philosophy at Harvard University. I have been reading and enjoying science fiction for many years, now, and generally have no complaints or criticisms to make. For some time, however, I have read with increasing annoyance the many editorials, and the like, on so-called “Aristotelian Logic,” and the proposed Null-A logics. Your editorial of April, ‘53, seems to provide as good an opportunity as any to get a few simple facts straight, so that we can dispense with this nonsense about non-Aristotelian logic.

Your editorial, in effect, says that while all human action is governed by, and completely describable in the framework of, an Aristotelian Logic, human thought is capable of “grays and shadings and tones,” which it is even possible to communicate to other human beings. You then go on to make the error, apparently indigenous to science fiction, of asserting that these “grays and shadings” are characterised and governed by a multivalued logic. I do not know just what the fascination of multi-valued logics is to the modern scientist and science-fiction writer, but their misuse and incorrect application is perhaps the most common modern error. Since most of your stories are chemically, physically, and biologically correct wherever possible, I think we ought to set the record straight for logic.

First let me say unequivocally that not one of the conditions mentioned by you in this or any other article, nor any of the conditions ever described or alluded to in your magazine or any other magazine, can be characterised by anything but two-valued Aristotelian Logic! Furthermore, probably 99% of the errors can be traced to one fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and claims of two-valued logic.

Let us consider the old situation of the three buckets of water, filled respectively with hot, lukewarm, and cold water. Now, it is said, this is a situation in which we need three values to describe the situation, for it is not a true-false, on-off, hot-cold set-up, but a yes-maybe-no, hot-medium-cold one. That this point of view is subscribed to by you can be seen from the passage in which you say of Aristotelian logic that it “insisted that everything in the world was either pure white or pure black,” and later, that “his every act must necessarily be on a yes-or-no basis.”

In other words, you seem to think that Aristotle was unaware of greys, or lukewarm water, or of indecision. You also seem to think that he, and Aristotelian logicians, wish to restrict the world to what in ordinary language are called “opposites.” Your view, however, is the result of the most elementary misreading of Aristotle and the logicians. In fact, it is so simple a mistake that I am afraid it will almost come as an anti-climax. To state it as simply as possible, no one ever claimed that water was either hot or cold. They either claimed that it was hot or not-hot. And by not-hot is meant anything but hot, including lukewarm. Similarly, no one has ever claimed that things are either black or white. They have claimed only that they are either black or not-black, where not-black may include any shade of grey, green, chartreuse or purple you like. It may even include those things which are not any colour at all, like sounds or tastes – there, incidentally, would have been a more convincing argument for three-valued logics, although it would have been equally incorrect.

As for your shadings of human thought, the same applies. Just as the existence of thousands of alternative actions in a given situation does not change the fact that any given one of them is either done or not-done, so too the existence of even a continuous shade of feelings and states-of mind does not change the fact that for any given one of them, a person either feels or not-feels it.

Perhaps one of the sources of your error is the failure to notice that the values, truth and falsehood, are applied by logicians to sentences, not to situations. Thus, one may have a description sentence for each of a thousand possible events, each one stating that that event has taken place, but once those sentences have been composed, it is absolutely and unequivocally true that each one is either true or false. The shading comes not in the “values” but in the situations described by those sentences, and Aristotelian logic is as alive to such facts of life as modern science fiction.

In short, the solution to the “problem” stated at the end of your editorial is that it doesn’t exist. Our actions and feelings are equally shaded, and equally characterisable completely within old-fashioned Aristotelian Logic. As for why that fact is so, the best answer I have seen to date can be found in Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason,” but that is another, and vastly more complicated, question – Robert Wolff.

4 comments:

s. wallerstein said...

You were a very adult 20 year old.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

nineteen, but it was a long time ago.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

Educational standards have clearly relaxed immensely since you were 19, Professor! (I speak from personal experience - I am 35 - not in judgement of current 19-year-olds.)

LFC said...

You also seem to think that ... Aristotelian logicians wish to restrict the world to what in ordinary language are called “opposites.” Your view, however, is the result of the most elementary misreading of Aristotle and the logicians. In fact, it is so simple a mistake that I am afraid it will almost come as an anti-climax. To state it as simply as possible, no one ever claimed that water was either hot or cold. They either claimed that it was hot or not-hot. And by not-hot is meant anything but hot, including lukewarm.

Then, much later, the post-structuralists came along and decided that the world -- or rather discourse, which to a large extent (acc. to them at any rate) constructs the world -- was full of opposites albeit (probably) in a looser sense than the opposition 'cold/hot', except they called these "binaries," and proceeded to argue for the destabilization of hegemonic discourses by inverting the values attached to the two poles of certain binaries. (Offhand I can't think of an 'authentic' example from Derrida or whoever, but I suppose "civilized/uncivilized" might work as an example.)

That being at any rate the doubtless somewhat simplistic, Cliffs-Notes-style version that I was exposed to as a grad student, though I spent the smallest possible amount of time on it and went on to things that I found more interesting.