Monday, April 7, 2008

A Clear Vision and Clean Logic

The hallmarks of a quality work of scholarship are clear thinking and solid logic.
Or, at least that is one way to think of quality scholarship; I know there are those for whom complexity of thought is taken as the sine qua non of good academic work.

Anyway, I espouse the first position. If you want to write an incredibly dense and complex work, I may not offer the best advice.

But one reason I espouse clear logic is that it helps one develop an image of the work as a whole. I don't think that clear logic excludes complex thought; complex thought can be handled clearly.

I think a good argument starts with setting out the premises from which we work. This can be tricky, especially as we often take for granted many premises we use in our day to day reasoning, and when it comes time to write down our work, we see that we have been taking something for granted.

But that's how we have to start; if we don't recognize our own premises we're doomed to logic that can slide around with no certain premise. For example, if one is writing a work dealing with cultural differences, and making any recommendations for future practice, one has to recognize the logical/intellectual basis on which the recommendations are being made: are those recommendations, too, not derived from some sort of cultural image? This logical conundrum cannot be eliminated: if we want to argue that different cultures' patterns are all equally worthy of respect and preservation, we must make that argument from a place that does not agree with the opinion of many cultures (as many cultures hold their own values to be pre-eminent--e.g., Christianity, as a cultural force, necessarily holds that there is one proper way of behaving).

So there is a logical slippage zone in which a specific premise--in this case equal acceptance of all cultures--itself is derived from a set of premises. If you, as author, can lay out the specific premises on which you rely, and the intellectual foundations that form the groundwork of your study, then you can properly acknowledge the weak points in your argument, which is about the best we can ever do, anyway.

We can't prove everything, there is a logical infinite regression: to prove a point, we must assert some premises. But these premises, too, require proving. And cannot be proved, except with premises that then call for proving, and so on into the depths of infinity. Bertrand Russell, in "The Philosophy of Logical Atomism" says that we must stop this regression by relying on that which is "undeniable". In this day and age it is difficult to find anything undeniable--but if one sets out the premises from which one starts, one can simply assert that examination and testing of the foundational premises be kept outside the scope of the work at hand. This is not a cop out--it's a necessary principle that all philosophers must deal with; problems with infinite regression invade logic in many different ways (see also Borges's "Avatars of the Tortoise").

So, start by understanding the logic and reasoning of your work. Then you can build from there.

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