Book 3. In Defense of Aristotle’s Laws of Thought
Chapter 2. The primacy of the laws of thought
Aristotle’s laws of thought cannot be understood with a few clichés, but require much study to be fathomed. The laws of thought can be briefly expressed as:
1. A thing is what it is (the law of identity).
2. A thing cannot at once be and not-be (the law of non-contradiction).
3. A thing cannot neither be nor not-be (the law of the excluded middle).
These three principles imply that whatever is, is something – whatever that happens to be. It is not something other than what it is. It is not nothing whatsoever. It is not just anything. If something exists, it has certain features. It cannot rightly be said to have features other than just those, or no features at all, or to both have and lack features.
A thing is what it is, whether we know what it is or not, and whether we like what it is or not. It is not our beliefs or preferences that make a thing what it is. It is what it is independently of them. Our beliefs can be in error, and often are. How do we know that? By means of later beliefs, based on better information and/or arguments.
However, a thing can have conflicting features in different parts or aspects of its being. Notably, a thing can change over time. So long as these differences are separated in respect of place, time, or other relations to other things, such as a causal relation – the contradiction is not impossible. But if we refer to the exact same thing, at the same place and time, and the same in all other respects, contradiction is logically unacceptable – it is indicative of an error of thought.
Also, we may well have no idea or no certainty what some (indeed, many or most) features of a thing are. Such problematic situations are indicative of our ignorance, and should not be taken to imply that the thing in question necessarily lacks the unknown features, or neither has nor lacks certain features, or both has and lacks them.
All these logical insights are evident in our ordinary thoughts and in scientific thinking. If we look upon our discourse clearly and honestly, we see that our conviction in every case depends upon these criteria. Occasionally, people try to make statements contrary to these criteria; but upon further analysis, they can always be convincingly shown to be erring.
These general logical principles, and certain others (notably the principle of induction, to name one), help us regulate our thinking, ensuring that it sticks as close as possible to the way things are and that we do not get cognitively lost in a complex maze of fantastical nonsense.
They do not force us to be truthful, or guarantee the success of our knowledge endeavors, but they provide us with crucial standards by which can test our progress at all times. (More will be said about these principles in this volume, in addition to what has already been said in the past.)
If the crucial epistemological and ontological roles of Aristotle’s three laws of thought in human knowledge are not sought out and carefully studied, there is little hope that these little jewels of human understanding will be treasured. It takes a lifetime of reflection on logical and philosophical issues to fully realize their impact and importance.
I marvel at people who think they can show reason to be unreasonable. Leaning on hip, postmodern sophists, like Wittgenstein or Heidegger, or on more ancient ones, like Nagarjuna, they argue confidently that the foundations of rationality are either arbitrary, or involve circularity or infinite regression. They do not realize that their intellectual forebears were in fact either ignorant of logic or intentionally illogical.
Many critics of the laws of thought simply do not understand them; no wonder then that they are critical. They have very narrow, shallow views about the laws of thought; they have not studied them in any breadth or depth. For instance, to some people, brought up under “modern” symbolic logic, the laws of thought are simply X=X, ~(X+~X) and ~(~X+~~X). Given such simplistic, superficial statements, no wonder the laws seem arbitrary and expendable to them.
The laws are not a prejudice about the world, as some critics try to suggest. The law of identity does not tell us about some particular identity, but only tells us to be aware of how and what things are or even just appear to be. The law of non-contradiction does not favor the thesis that something is X, or the thesis that it is not X; it allows for us sometimes facing dilemmas, only forbidding us to settle on the implied contradictions as final. The law of the excluded middle does not deny the possibility of uncertainty, but only enjoins us to keep searching for solutions to problems.
If nothing were known, or even knowable, as some claim, this would not constitute a good reason to dump the laws of thought – for these laws make no claims about the specific content of the world of matter, mind or spirit. They make no a priori demand regarding this or that thesis. They only serve to regulate our cognitive relation to the world, however it happens to be or seem. They show us how to avoid and eliminate errors of reasoning.
These laws can for a start teach us that to claim “nothing is known or knowable” is self-contradictory, and thus illogical and untenable.
Such a claim, about the nonexistence or impossibility of knowledge as such, must be admitted to itself be an allegation of knowledge (such admission being a requirement of the law of identity). Therefore, it is unthinkable that any Subject might attain such alleged knowledge of its total ignorance (because such attainment would be against the law of non-contradiction). We could not even adopt a negative posture of denying both knowledge and knowledge of ignorance (in an attempted bypass of the law of the excluded middle), for that too is an assertion, a claim to established fact, a claim to knowledge.
All these rational insights are not open to debate.
Antagonism to the laws of thought is sure and incontrovertible proof that one is erring in one’s thinking. How might such antagonism be systematically justified without appeal to those very laws? One couldn’t claim to be generalizing or adducing it from experience, for this would appeal to the law of generalization or the principle of adduction, which are themselves based on the laws of thought. One couldn’t claim to be drawing some sort of syllogistic or other deductive conclusion, for the same reason. Such antagonism can only be based on arbitrary assertion, without any conceivable rational support.
Arguments like this in favor of the laws of thought are claimed by their opponents to be ‘circular’ or ‘infinitely regressive’ – i.e. arbitrary. But to point to the fallacy of circularity or infinite regress is to appeal to the need to ground one’s beliefs in experience or reasoning – which is precisely the message of the laws of thought. Therefore, those who accuse us of circularity or infinity are doing worse than being circular or infinite: they are appealing to what they seek to oppose; they are being self-contradictory, as well as arbitrary!
It is our faculty of logical insight or rationality that teaches us to beware of arbitrary propositions, which are sometimes given an illusion of proof through circular or infinite arguments. One cannot deny this very faculty of logical insight by claiming that it can only be proven by circular or infinite arguments. This would turn it against itself, using it to justify its own denial. It would constitute another fallacy – that of “concept stealing”.
The proposition “if P, then P” is not circular or infinite – it is true of all propositions. Such a proposition does not “prove” the truth of P, but merely acknowledges P as a claim that may turn out to be true or false. If one proposes “if P, then P” as a proof of P, one is then of course engaged in circularity or infinite regression; but otherwise no logical sin is involved in affirming it. On the other hand, the paradoxical proposition “if P, then not P” does imply P to be false. To affirm P as true in such case is a logical sin, for P is definitely implied false by it.
The laws of thought are not circular or infinite – they are just consistent with themselves. It is their opponents who are engaged in fallacy – the failure to think reflexively, and realize the implications of what they are saying on what they are saying. To deny all claims to knowledge is to deny that very claim too – it is to be self-inconsistent. One logically must look back and check out whether one is self-consistent; that is not circularity, but wise reflection.
The laws of thought are not based on any particular argument, but are the very basis of all reasoning processes, including all argumentation. This is not an arbitrary starting point; it is an insight based on observation of all reasoning acts, an admission of what evidently carries conviction for us all. These laws cannot be disregarded or discarded, simply because they are so universal. That these laws do not lead to any paradox adds to their force of conviction; but that too is just an application of their universality. They encapsulate what we naturally find convincing in practice, provided we are not dishonestly seeking to pretend otherwise in theory.
The laws of thought may be viewed as specific laws of nature: they express the nature of rational thought, i.e. of logical discourse. By logic is here meant simply a mass of experiences – namely, all the ‘events having the form expressed by the laws of thought’. That is, logic refers to the concrete occurrences underlying the abstractions that we name ‘laws of thought’. This is a primary given for which no further reason is necessary. It is not arbitrary, for it is the source of all conviction. To ask for a further reason is to ask for a source of conviction other than the only natural source of conviction! It is to demand the impossible, without reason and against all reason. It is stupid and unfair.
If one examines the motives of critics of the laws of thought, one often finds an immature and irrational yearning for absolutes. They seek a shortcut to omniscience, a magic formula of some sort, and think the laws of thought are obstacles to this pipedream, and so they abandon these laws and seek truth by less restrictive means.
Our ordinary knowledge is very pedestrian: it progresses step by step; it advances painstakingly by trial and error; it is rarely quite sure, and certainly never total and final. This relativity of common knowledge unsettles and displeases some people. To them, such inductive efforts are worthless – knowledge that is not omniscient is not good enough; it is as bad as no knowledge at all. Thus, they reject reason. This is an unhealthy attitude, a failure of ‘realism’.
Let’s face it squarely: our knowledge as a whole has no finality till everything about everything is known. And how, by what sign, would we know we know everything? Ask yourself that. There is no conceivable such sign. Our knowledge is necessarily contextual; it depends on how much we have experienced and how well we have processed the data. There is no end to it.
Even so, at any given stage of the proceedings, one body of knowledge can conceivably be considered better than another, given experience and reasoning so far. To be better does not necessarily mean to be the best – but it is still better than to be worse or equal. That is a realistic posture, and a source of sufficient security and satisfaction.
A phenomenological approach to the problem of knowledge is necessary, to avoid erroneous views. It starts with mere appearance, whether of seemingly material or mental phenomena (bodies and ideas), or of spiritual intuitions (of self, and its cognitions, volitions and valuations). The contents of one’s consciousness are, ab initio, appearances; this is a neutral characterization of what we are conscious of, the raw data and starting point of knowledge. Our first cognitive task is to acknowledge these appearances, as apparent and just as they appear, coolly observing them without interference or comment before any further ado.
It is equally naïve to assume as primary given(s) matter, or mind, or spirit; what is certainly given in experience is the appearance of these things. Much logical work is required before we can, ad terminatio, establish with reasonable certainty the final status of these appearances as matter, mind or spirit. We may indeed to begin with assume all such appearances to be real; but in some specific cases, due to the discovery of contradictions between appearances or to insufficiencies in our theories about them, we will have to admit we were wrong, and that certain appearances are illusory.
There is an order of things in the development of knowledge that must be respected. Everything beyond appearances is ‘theory’ – which does not mean that it is necessarily false, only that it must be considered more critically. Theory involves the rational faculty in one way or another. What is theory needs to be sorted out, organized, kept consistent, made as complete as possible. This is where the laws of thought are essential. But these laws cannot make miracles; they can only help us (with the aid of our intelligence and imaginative faculty) formulate and select the best theory in the present context of knowledge.
Human knowledge is thus essentially inductive and probabilistic, depending on the scope and quality of experience, and then on successive generalizations and particularizations, or on competing larger hypotheses requiring ongoing comparative confirmation or refutation. The laws of thought are involved at all stages of this process, regulating our judgments to minimize its chances of error.
 These are of course simple statements, which have to be elaborated on. Note that when I speak of a ‘thing’ here, I mean to include not only terms (percepts and concepts, or the objects they refer to), but also propositions (which relate percepts and/or concepts).
 Note well that I do not posit perception itself as the starting point of knowledge, as some do. Perception is a relational concept – it is perception of something by someone. Before we become aware of our perceptual ability, we have to exercise it – i.e. we perceive something (other than the perceiving itself). The empirical basis of our concept of perception is our common experience of sensory and mental phenomenal content. When you and I were young children, we were perceiving such phenomena – only later when we became older did we form a concept of perception. Therefore perception as such cannot be taken as a primary in the order of things.
 Note well: the laws of thought cannot by themselves immediately tell you whether what you have apparently perceived is true or false – but what they can tell you is that you should notice well what you did perceive (its configuration, the phenomenal modalities, i.e. the sights, sounds, etc., apparent times, places, and so forth). Similarly for introspective data of intuition. The question of truth and falsehood for any single item of experience can only be solved progressively, by holistic consideration of all other experiential items, as well as by logical considerations (including consistency and completeness). This is the inductive process.