The League of Amateur Rationalizers

Lenten discipline note: I'll be getting to Maundy Thursday momentarily. Yes, I know, it is actually Maundy Thursday today.

Every blessed one of us is a logician. Everyone, that is to say, rationalizes -- and over time has come up with some system of how to rationalize. And generally semi-consciously! Navigating the world is a process of learning practical systems of identifying truth and falsehood, and implementing them -- that is, learning for yourself what is true and false, and when to tell which to whom. And yes, that's to say that logic is inseparable from ethics.

Most of us, however, are bad at logic. Which is to say, objectively bad at making sound and valid factual inferences. We are poor users of vetted systems of formal logic. Why is that?

My logic prof in college belonged to a school of thought in which formal logic was "how to think" -- by which standard most people walked around not actually thinking. The goal of teaching Logic as a course in deductive reasoning was, therefore, to teach people how to think. And Aristotle knew how to think!

I'm too Heideggerian for that approach -- not to mention that I don't believe in elitism as a workable approach to electives. Logic isn't about "how to think"; logic is about (dis)proof and (in)validation. It's a way to refine your ability to rationalize your conclusions about the world. Logic is the key to ethics in any general sense.

And it is this because of two concepts that I regularly and shamelessly steal from brother Martin: presence-at-hand and readiness-to-hand. Native logic is all about readiness-to-hand. Which is to say (and I'll take responsibility for this, but I beg you to prove otherwise) that we really do treat the world as equipment. That we really do approach the world in categories of use and utility. As Levi-Strauss tells us, this is how we structure the world linguistically. We name useful things more often than useless things. More to the point, we name usefulness. We use language better and more often to talk about what works, and we natively talk about what works as true, and what does not as false.

What works, in Heidegger's terms, is "to-hand," meaning that I find whatever it is in such a state that I don't have to think about it to use it. My coffee mug is like this, and as a culturally conditioned person, I simply wake up in the morning and pour my coffee into a mug and drink it while thinking about other things. It simply works. Which is to say that the "coffee mug" is equipment inscribed in a narrative that fits into my narrative seamlessly. My coffee mug is a truism. It is self-evident. I have received its meaning without ever having to question it, even if I occasionally abstract from that meaning in order to drink tea. (We don't have teacups in my house -- the narrative of the teacup is not part of my narrative, and I have no use for it as specialized equipment. Teacups are certainly also true -- but I am not motivated to believe them.) I have, in other words, a native logic of the coffee mug. "There are many like it, but this one is mine."

As a logician, I am not interested in destroying this native logic of use. As a teacher, it isn't my job to tell students that that isn't actually a coffee mug -- that would be silly. Magritte's pipe is another lesson altogether -- he is using a pipe to talk about pictures, not a picture to talk about pipes! His image is not only not ready-to-hand as a pipe, it isn't even present-at-hand as a pipe. It is only present as an image that reminds us of a pipe. The picture calls up a narrative about pipes that it can't fulfill. No real pipe has this problem, any more than my coffee mug does. The coffee mug is certainly a coffee mug, and fills its narrative role admirably.

And yet Heidegger and Derrida do talk about destroying these native logics of use. What do they mean? Derrida calls it "deconstruction," Heidegger simply destruction, and at bottom these are a reminder to the student that this seamlessly self-evident story that lets them use something is in fact a construction -- it has a structure, and it has been manufactured. Logic is an invitation to "peer behind the curtain" at how things work, which is at rock bottom an invitation to investigate their stories.

Think of deconstruction like looking at a piece of Ikea furniture in terms of its parts-and-installation guide, and the functional specs of the finished piece. Everything can be taken apart. And this is Husserl and Brentano's point -- even thoughts and ideas can be taken apart. The user is also equipment. But in logic, I'm not interested in anything like the slogan "To the things themselves!" The logician doesn't care about the real under the rationalization, except as a tool that gives us leverage on the rationalization itself.

So let's talk a bit about the other term: presence-at-hand. For Heidegger, "at-hand-ness" is the spot where we insert the lever and pry the rationalization open. Let's think of your boyfriend or girlfriend as ready-to-hand. Not that you necessarily take them for granted, but that your relationship (while it does) just works. It is dependable. There is a narrative of your life into which they fit. In the best relationships, this is mutually true, and both parties shape their stories around one another as time goes by. Now, let's think of break-ups. The relationship proved false. Why? Marty gives us three categories, and they fit this scenario nicely. Wherever we apportion blame, us or them, we say a few different kinds of thing.

We call "brokenness" -- the simple fact that the person or relationship doesn't work. Usually in ways that might be reparable, if only ideally. A pencil can be sharpened; a man is harder to fix. But we do talk about trying to "mend" the relationship, trying to "make it work," and we also talk about "fixing" flaws in the other person, or ourselves.

We say that "something was missing" -- that the person or relationship could have worked, if only it had ... whatever it was it didn't have.

And we say that the relationship or the other person was "in the way" of whatever we rationalize as our proper goal. Or that we were getting in the way of their goals. "He chose his career instead of me." "I wanted more out of life than that."

Malfunctions, missing functions, and conflicting functions. And what happens? We step back and -- as though for the first time -- take a really good look behind the curtain at what we were leaning on, because it failed. Because it stopped being ready-to-hand, and it is now only present-at-hand. The thing -- whether person or relationship -- stopped living up to the story about it. And Heidegger is right -- that kind of failure is one of the precious few moments in life when we really start to do logic, to think about our rationalizations and their fit to the world. To think about whether what happens to work for us generally does work, whether it should, and whether we need a new story or just a new object. Whether the story is true, and this particular object is faulty; or whether the object is right, and our rationalization is wrong. If the logic checks out, we look for a new coffee mug, or build a better mousetrap. We look for an object that is more true to the story. But when the logic is faulty, we need to find or make a logic that lives up to reality. We need to tell a better story.

And so we are poor users of formal logics because life makes us profoundly good users -- native users, in fact -- of informal logics. We take what works and we discard what doesn't. It is much harder, it takes much more energy, to use formal logic. Deductive reasoning is expensive! It requires that you think about what doesn't work, and why. It's not normal. Useful, but not normal. The Vulcans in the Star Trek universe are a kind of monastic, ascetic people, disciplined from childhood in deeply formal and artificial structures of thought. And that advantage comes at a cost, in a basically irrational universe. No real culture ever chooses to entirely pay that cost. The overwhelming majority of cultures only pay that cost when something breaks down -- just as most people only take their car to the mechanic when it isn't working correctly, or themselves to the doctor likewise.

And so it is my job, when I teach logic, to help turn native rationalizers into amateurs at the sport. It's too expensive for most to become professional rationalizers -- how much money, after all, is there in being a logician, let alone a philosopher in any sense? But if they can grow some love for the sport of rationalization, and for playing it well as an amateur, I can teach them tools for broken thoughts. And whatever they do "go pro" at, God willing, they will be better at spotting and navigating failure.