First Thoughts on the First Principles

1. As I noted in the immediately previous post, (1) the coming semester will seem me teaching an “Introduction to Philosophy” course and (2) at least some, if not most, of the posts to come as the semester unfolds will focus on the matters suggested by or explicitly coming up in the conduct of the course.

One reason for doing this is that I would like to introduce the students in my classroom to at least some of the philosophical thinking that goes on online. Another is that I would like to offer to those not in my classroom, or even in any classroom who would like to engage in at least some of the philosophical thinking that goes on in a college-level introduction to philosophy course the opportunity to do so. A third is that I would like to engage with other philosophy instructors in some reflection on just how we can best go about introducing college students or their equivalents to philosophy.

2. Central, of course, to the course are its primary texts. The most primary of the three primary texts in the course at hand is:

Plato, Five Dialogues, translated by G. M. Grube and revised by John M. Cooper (2nd edition; Indianapolis, Indiana, 2002)

The course schedule has the reading of the five dialogues in question (the Euthyphro, the Apology, the Crito, the Meno, and the Phaedo, in that order) taking place over the course of the entire semester.

The other two texts are more or less contemporary, that of Peter Kreeft being the more contemporary, and yet the more traditional, and that of Bertrand Russell being the less contemporary, and yet the less traditional.

Peter Kreeft, Socrates Meets Jesus. History’s Greatest Questioner Confronts the Claims of Christ (2nd edition; Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2002 [1987])

Bertrand Russell, Religion and Philosophy, with an introduction by Michael Ruse (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997 [1935])

Should you wish to purchase one, two, or all of the texts, you may do so quite easily by clicking on the images of them to be found at the end of this post.

3. A beginning course in philosophy should, it seems, begin at the beginning. It seems apt then that the first topic that I will be introducing in the current set of reflections is that of the “first principles” of non-contradiction and excluded middle recognized as such by classical philosophical thought, and also, though I’m open to some quibbling about whether they are absolutely first, by yours truly. I will first offer statements and, for those not familiar with them, some illustrations of them, and then point to a passage in Plato’s Apology and a couple of passages in Kreeft’s Socrates Meets Jesus where they make an appearance.

4. First, then, the principle of noncontradiction, the principle that:

No being can both be and not be (in the same respect and at the same time).

That which no being can both be and not be can be anything whatsoever. This will be clear as one thinks one’s way through the following illustrations:

a. I cannot both be in a room and not be in that room, at least in the same respect and at the same time. I can, however, both be in the room and not be in the room, in distinct respects, even though at the same time; for example, my left side can be in the room while my right side is not in the room. And I can both be in the room and not be in the room, in the same respect, but at different times.

b. Donald Trump cannot both be guilty of impeachable offenses and not be guilty of impeachable offenses, in the same respect and at the same time. (The same has been true or will be true, I hasten to add, of any other president of the United States of America.)

c. No being can both be a being of some sort or other and not be a being of that sort. Thus, no being can both be a living organism and not be a living organism. Indeed, no being can both be a being (an existent) and not be a being. For example, no divine being can both be a being (an existent) and not be a being.

5. Next, the principle of excluded middle, the principle that:

All beings must either be or not be (in the same respect and at the same time).

That which all beings must either be or not be can be anything whatsoever. This will be clear as one thinks one’s way through the following illustrations:

a. I must either be in a room or not be in that room, at least in the same respect and at the same time.

b. Donald Trump must either be guilty of impeachable offenses or not be guilty of impeachable offenses, in the same respect and at the same time. (The same has been true or will be true, I hasten to add, of any other president of the United States of America.)

c. Any being must either be a being of some sort or other or not be a being of that sort. Thus, any being must either be a living organism or not be a living organism. And, any being must either be a being (an existent) or not be a being. For example, any divine being must either be a being (an existent) or not be a being.

6. The principle of non-contradiction makes an implicit appearance in Plato’s Apology (p. 31 of the Grube and Cooper text) in the course of Socrates’s defense against the charge of atheism that has been brought against him by one Meletus. Plato has Socrates say:

He [Meletus] is like one who composed a riddle and is trying it out: “Will the wise Socrates realize that I am jesting and contradicting myself, or shall I deceive him and others?” I think he contradicts himself in the avadavat, as if he said, “Socrates is guilty of not believing in gods but believing in gods,” and surely that is the part of a jester!

It is evident that Socrates expects his listeners to understand that:

No person can both be a believer in gods and not be a believer in gods (in the same respect and at the same time).

7. The principle of non-contradiction also, as noted above, appears in some passages in Kreeft’s Socrates Meets Jesus. The background to one of them has Socrates finding himself, much to his astonishment, alive and well and a student at Have It University in Camp Rich, Massachusetts (yes, I know). The following exchange with a student, one Bertha Broadmind, takes place (pp. 17-18).

Bertha: Socrates! Is that really you?
Socrates (surprised and pleased): Why, yes. How do you know me? Were you sent here to meet me? I expected a messenger of the gods, but forgive me, you don’t look the part.
Bertha: Oh, Socrates! You’re so—so Socratic! It is you, isn’t it?
Socrates: Of course I am I, unless the law of noncontradiction has been abolished here.

8. In another, more philosophically loaded passage (p. 70), we find Socrates defending the possibility of miracles in a conversation with a Professor Flatland:

Socrates: Let’s try it another way. You can’t even conceive of an exception of the laws of logic or math, but you can conceive of exceptions to the laws of nature.
Flatland: How’s that? Give an example.
Socrates: All right. You can’t conceive of a man both walking through a wall and not walking through a wall at the same time, can you?
Flatland: No.
Socrates: But you can conceive of a man walking through a wall, can’t you?

In a post to appear in the not too distant future, I will have to take exception to the view that one cannot conceive of an exception to the laws of logic, even as I defend those laws, for there are those who reject the thesis of the universal applicability of the one, the other, or both of the first principles.

9. I think, then, that I know how to reply to the thesis that Kreeft has Socrates express in the texts we are just now leaving. But I don’t know quite what to make of the things he has to say about logic and logical principles in a passage in his “Introduction” to Socrates Meets Jesus (pp. 7-8). The first half of the passage reads:

Socrates had no prophets to guide him except the universal prophet of reason. But Christians know that this is not merely a human power but a beam of light from the Son of God, “the true light that enlightens every man (John 1:9), the Logos, the logic of God. In the beginning was the logic, and the logic was with God, and the logic was God. Socrates has only logic, but logic is not a batch of man-made rules for playing a game with concepts as though they are poker chips; logic is the science of the divine nature.

There is more going on here, of course, than just an identification of logic with a part of theology, for that is possible, if it is at all possible, only with a particular conception of logic. I hope one day to be able to turn my attention to his understanding of logic, which may perhaps be discernible in the logic text that he has written and that I have purchased, but not yet read:

Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic. A Logic Text Using Socratic Method, Platonic Questions, and Aristotelian Principles (Edition 3.1; South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2014 [2004])

That is “one day,” not “now.”

Kreeft continues with the second half (p. 8) of the passage:

The law of identity is founded on the real divine identity and immutability. The law of noncontradiction is founded on the unity of the divine nature, the fact that God never contradicts himself. The law of excluded middle is founded on the fact that all either-ors are based on the one God: either God or not God, truth or falsehood, light or darkness, reality or unreality

Here, I must confess, he has left me behind; evidently I am not being enlightened by the requisite beam of light, because I do not quite get the arguments at work here. The argument that, say,

God never contradicts himself.
Therefore, no being can both be and not be (in the same respect and at the same time).

is at the very least missing one or more premises.

I have sent Dr. Kreeft a note asking that he shed some light on the two chunks of text or point to some place where the argumentation has been set out more fully. I will, if and when I receive any help from him (or anyone else), let you know.

Until then.

Richard

As said above, should you wish to purchase one or more of the texts mentioned in this post, you may do so quite easily by clicking on the appropriate of the following images.

About Rchard E. Hennessey

See above, "About the Author/Editor."
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