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January 15, 2009


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Trust the force--of logic. Use the basic course to acquaint students with the two forms of inference, the basic difference of formal structure of deduction and the open structure of induction, and empahsize the pragmatic need of the latter over the former. Use examples till they get it. (I used to use Sherlock and Columbo as the respective examples of induction and deduction--but nobody gets that now from lack of literacy both historical and recently cultural.) Use sudoko--it does work to get them used to deduction. Flip coins and emphasize the gambling fallacy. Introduce the distinction between frequency and subjective probability. By all means get them to first-order translation and at least indicate the nature of modal reasoning. It can be done in the introduction course. It ain't easy but most can get some of it. And titrate your expectations with reading blogs and watching the news--doses of reality can help neutralize grandiose visions of infusing reason into society in transforming ways.

A basic, non-innovative logic class was the most helpful course I took in college. It made me a far clearer writer - before my essays were sprinkled with fallacies (which crop-up everywhere, both in undergraduate papers and in e.g. Sandra Day O'Connor's decision in New York v. United States) and ignored obvious objections, afterward not so. It also, I think, upped my objectivity, insofar as I was able to regard sentences as just symbols and content myself with exploring their implications, regardless how monstrous they (qua sentences that expressed ideas) seemed to me.

For me, the key was getting good at deduction and recognizing validity, which is best taught by going over the rules. Once I had the feel for how to run a good deduction, I began to enjoy formalizing arguments for the sake of formalizing them; when it finally came time to evaluate them I'd have a valid, sympathetic reconstruction (along with a sense of what it implied) with which I'd have to deal.

Another reason I find it helpful to schematize arguments (even in first-order logic) is that doing so gives me a "master-plan" to refer to as I raise objections (and this is so not just in philosophy, but wherever there's an argument to be had). It thus aids my essays' organization. (And here I'm not alone. I see first order schematizations, or pseudo-schematizations, crop up in academic writing all the time -- off the top of my head Richard Joyce, David Brink, Michael Huemer, and Lynne Rudder Baker have all made good use of them.)

Finally, fwiw, I find (what I think is called) the "truth-tree" method (e.g. the one James Garson uses in Modal Logic for Philosophers) easier to grasp and retain than (e.g.) Goldfarb's approach.

So that's some anecdotal evidence that might support teaching logic in a roughly conventional way. I suppose a good inductive reasoner would all but discount everything I've said.


I agree with you that a course in formal logic doesn't do much to make people better reasoners. Perhaps such a course gives them a good model of rigorous, abstract thinking, but I think it's main purpose is just to teach students a very specific skill: formal logic. This skill is useful to various kinds of student in various ways (philosophy majors, pre-law students, mathematicians, computer programmers, etc.), but not because it makes them better reasoners in general.

It sounds to me like the "big rethink" you suggest just involves adding an informal logic/critical thinking course to the UNCW curriculum, in addition to the existing intro to logic. As I see it, an informal logic course does aim to make students better reasoners in general. (Whether such courses often succeed in that aim is a different story.)

I've been thinking about this quite a bit lately. I'm on the fence about whether formal logic makes people better reasoners. I think it may help, for people who are mathematical-logical type reasoners to begin with, to see a formalization of argumentation that may be generally more difficult for them to deal with. But I agree that for most analysis, one is going to need more sophisticated logic than what we get in introductory logic courses.

I agree with David that you seem to be leaning towards the kind of thing you could provide with an informal logic/critical thinking course. I still think formal logic is crucial to an undergraduate education on Philosophy.

Here's my anecdotal evidence that teaching formal logic in a somewhat "conventional" fashion is helpful to students-- The first logic course I took was what made me fall in love with Philosophy. And I think this is the case for many students who feel some sort of affinity towards various subjects (math, literature, physics, etc...) but never really "fit in" in any of them. There is this moment where, if you are one of these people, you realize that some people's brains really do work like yours, and that it is possible to get an education and pursue a career that is geared toward people who think like you. Even though I had taken a few Philosophy courses prior to logic, it wasn't until logic that I encountered that feeling, and it was because my course was taught in a rigorous, demanding, formal, and ultimately extremely rewarding fashion.

What about getting students used to reasoning abstractly, getting them used to applying strict definitions, introducing them to the notion of a valid argument etc...

I don't think all the things they learn by doing a formal logic course will necessarily depend on the choice of syllabus. Some of the most important skills could be acquired by doing any of a wide variety technical courses.

Obviously it makes sense to start with the propositional and predicate calculi, since that would be required background for any further study in logic.

(Re point 3 - knowing some first order logic can be very useful for distinguishing ambiguities, such as scope ambiguities, or stating truth conditions, without necessarily needing to reflect the underlying logical forms.)

Also, what about just teaching them logic for its own sake? Philosophical logic is a discipline in its own right; you could equally well call into question the purpose of teaching them metaphysics, or epistemology or...

My department has been (unofficially) experimenting with our logic curriculum, due to differences in faculty. (There can be a huge difference between a faculty member with research interests in logic, and faculty that aim to teach a service course adequately.) What's happened is that we have a logic course taught by a particular instructor in which he's implemented one of the reforms you suggest--teach modal logic upfront. The trajectory of his course leads to paraconsistent logics and dialetheism. Other sections of logic are "traditional" and include sections on informal logic to start.

From what I've seen, students in general are pretty happy with the course. The instructor is a good teacher with an irreplaceably wonderful teaching style, so it's likely that he could be teaching *anything* and get good results (demonstrated in student evaluations). The interesting thing has to do with our majors that take his course. From this smaller sample, I've seen many more of these students become seriously interested in logic (as an area for advanced study), and majors and minors sensitive to interesting issues in philosophy (actually excited about Aristotle's Sea Battle argument in a course on Aristotle, for instance, and very engaged in debating Modal Realism in a metaphysics course). There is hardly any "fear of logic" in our department (although every student will admit it is very hard). Logic is the "cool" thing to do. I like this result a whole lot, but I can't say that my whole department does.

The main objection is that this approach doesn't focus sufficiently on Classical Logic. Students are "jumping ahead too soon." There's also worry that leaving out informal logic leaves out something quite useful to non-philosophy majors taking the course. Since the instructor in question has a lot of issues with Classical Logic, and our logic course, while being a "service course," has no general education classification, he's not terribly moved by these objections. He gears his curriculum towards contemporary research without apology, much in the way scientists do. It's his call, and that is respected.

I've taken his side on the matter because I haven't seen students coming out of the more conventional logic sections being *that much* better off than those coming out of his (writing better papers, faring better on the GRE's...). I wish I could know whether or not the thing at stake in this instance isn't simply that a good teacher with the ability to communicate excitement about a subject area "wins" hands down over any competitor without commitment and passion. I can't suggest from my anecdotal evidence that reforming logic curriculum would be the right thing to do. It doesn't seem downright wrong, though. It may very well be controversial no matter what reforms one makes. I'd suggest that if one were to implement reforms, it would be worth identifying and tracking the results. I wish that my department had been more objective about this and had begun tracking students' work in some manner a long time ago, from the start, even.

Hi, Heath,

Responding to your great questions -- especially numbers 1 and 2, about empirical evidence -- I suggest that you might have a look at a 2007 Master's Philosophy thesis written by Claudia Alvarez at the University of Melbourne, entitled, "Does Philosophy Improve Critical Thinking Skills?". She conducted a meta-analysis of the studies to date (including those that focus specifically on the effects of teaching logic courses). It won't necessarily answer your questions, but it might at least give you another perspective on them, especially if you're advocating a fundamental rethinking of why and what kind(s) of logic courses we teach. You should be able to find it online through your favorite Internet search engine!

Thanks for the pointer to Alvarez's thesis, Vance. It looks very interesting. It seems to me that the Australians are ahead of us Americans on teaching critical thinking (and on evaluating the impact of critical thinking courses).

You can download Alvarez's thesis from

I side with Andrew Bacon. Logic is intrinsically interesting. Barwise and Etchemendy note in _Language, Proof and Logic_ that the _Encyclopedia Brittanica_ "lists logic as one of the seven main branches of knowledge". Even if you're crazy and don't think it's intrinsically interesting, that it's one of the "seven main branches of knowledge" is enough reason to teach it! =) And the point about metaphysics (if not epistemology) is right on. Why teach that? Not because it helps students reason, presumably.

If one attempts to justify teaching logic in the "standard" ways, such as those that appear above, one will fail to justify teaching anything more than the first few weeks of a baby logic course. But since what is taught in the last few weeks of logic courses is justifiably taught... Therefore, etc...

On the humorous side, see here for one undergraduate's opinion of metaphysics:

You may be interested in some educational software I have developed to teach formal logic. Visit my website for more information and FREE download at

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