On Ambiguities

“But I add farther, that though a word entirely new, introduced into a language, may be affixed to what idea you please, yet an old word ought never to be affixed to an unaccustomed idea, without just and evident necessity, or without present and previous notice, lest we introduce thereby a license for all manner of pernicious equivocations and falsehoods: as, for instance, when an idle boy, who has not seen his book all the morning, shall tell his master that he has learned his lesson, he can never excuse himself by saying, that by the word lesson he meant his breakfast, and by the word learn he meant eating; surely this would be construed as a downright lie, and his fancied wit would hardly procure his pardon” (Isaac Watts, Logic, pp. 94-95).

I do not endorse the theological views of Mr. Watts (1674-1748), but several years ago when I was looking for books on the subject of logic, it was recommended.  Though, as Nathaniel Bluedorn points out about the book, it is more about the history of logic than anything else.  Bluedorn writes:

I have mixed feelings about Issac Watts’ logic book. On the one hand, he writes in a fine 18th Century English style, on the other hand, the content of his book is often more philosophy than logic. In the first half of his book, Watts teaches his methods for organizing perceptions, ideas, words and thoughts into hierarchies. This would seem to my mind to be more of an introduction to 18th Century empirical philosophy and psychology than a study of logic. Next, Watts turns his attention to rules for making judgments, which includes a small part on syllogisms.

Watts’ book gave me some idea of the development of logic and how logic in his day was mixed with extraneous subjects. Unfortunately, this severely dates Watts’ book. It would not be considered a modern treatment of the subject. For instance, syllogisms can be tested today with ease by the use of Venn diagrams, but that method wasn’t developed until a hundred years after Watts’ time. Watts also failed to clearly distinguish between inductive and deductive reasoning. The practical aspects of logic, such as logical fallacies, were not taught by Watts. I would only recommend Watts’ Logic for adults who wanted to understand the history of logic.

Publisher: Soli Deo Gloria
Subjects Covered: Psychology of thought, classification, definition, categorical syllogisms
Self-teaching: * Difficult language, abstract explanations with gaps, no exercises
Suggested Ages: 18-adult
Thoroughness: Not thorough
Best Features: Watts’ fine 1700’s literary style
Worst Features: Not a modern treatment of logic

Of course it is not a modern treatment since it was written a long time ago.  Bluedorn’s suggested ages is “18-Adult.”  Watts’ Logic was a textbook for about 200 years, written originally for children he tutored.  Here’s a brief excerpt of a couple of Amazon reviewers about this:

“It is hard to believe that this was the standard textbook used in primary schools. Have we really become that ‘dumbed’ down that this book seems more appropriate for a university level course?” (B. Langdon)

“John2’s” (excerpted) reply:

“The answer to your opening question is yes, we do in the university what our betters used to do with 4th graders.  As a professor in a modern university, I am embarrassed to admit this. But it is true. As Rev. Watts instructs us, we must start with the truth.  Just so you know, in Rev. Watts’ day the 4th graders were incomparably better than ours. Many of our 4th graders can barely read” (John2).

Interesting historically, if nothing else.