From about the age of twelve, I entered into another and more advanced stage in my course of instruction; in which the main object was no longer the aids and appliances of thought, but the thoughts themselves. This commenced with Logic, in which I began at once with the Organon, and read it to the Analytics inclusive, but profited little by the Posterior Analytics, which belong to a branch of speculation I was not yet ripe for. Contemporaneously with the Organon, my father made me read the whole or parts of several of the Latin treatises on the scholastic logic; giving each day to him, in our walks, a minute account of what I had read, and answering his numerous and searching questions. After this, I went in a similar manner, through the “Computatio sive Logica” of Hobbes, a work of a much higher order of thought than the books of the school logicians, and which he estimated very highly; in my own opinion beyond its merits, great as these are. It was his invariable practice, whatever studies he exacted from me, to make me as far as possible understand and feel the utility of them: and this he deemed peculiarly fitting in the case of the syllogistic logic, the usefulness of which had been impugned by so many writers of authority. I well remember how, and in what particular walk, in the neighbourhood of Bagshot Heath (where we were on a visit to his old friend Mr. Wallace, then one of the Mathematical Professors at Sandhurst) he first attempted by questions to make me think on the subject, and frame some conception of what constituted the utility of the syllogistic logic, and when I had failed in this, to make me understand it by explanations. The explanations did not make the matter at all clear to me at the time; but they were not therefore useless; they remained as a nucleus for my observations and reflections to crystallize upon; the import of his general remarks being interpreted to me, by the particular instances which came under my notice afterwards. My own consciousness and experience ultimately led me to appreciate quite as highly as he did, the value of an early practical familiarity with the school logic. I know nothing, in my education, to which I think myself more indebted for whatever capacity of thinking I have attained. The first intellectual operation in which I arrived at any proficiency, was dissecting a bad argument, and finding in what part the fallacy lay: and though whatever capacity of this sort I attained was due to the fact that it was an intellectual exercise in which I was most perseveringly drilled by my father, yet it is also true that the school logic, and the mental habits acquired in studying it, were among the principal instruments of this drilling. I am persuaded that nothing, in modern education, tends so much, when properly used, to form exact thinkers, who attach a precise meaning to words and propositions, and are not imposed on by vague, loose, or ambiguous terms. The boasted influence of mathematical studies is nothing to it; for in mathematical processes, none of the real difficulties of correct ratiocination occur. It is also a study peculiarly adapted to an early stage in the education of philosophical students, since it does not presuppose the slow process of acquiring, by experience and reflection, valuable thoughts of their own. They may become capable of disentangling the intricacies of confused and self-contradictory thought, before their own thinking faculties are much advanced; a power which, for want of some such discipline, many otherwise able men altogether lack; and when they have to answer opponents, only endeavour, by such arguments as they can command, to support the opposite conclusion, scarcely even attempting to confute the reasonings of their antagonists; and, therefore, at the utmost, leaving the question, as far as it depends on argument, a balanced one.
Note from KBJ: I agree with Mill about the value of syllogistic logic. I just finished teaching it in my Logic course. Gottfried Leibniz wrote: “I consider the invention of the form of syllogisms one of the most beautiful, and also one of the most important, made by the human mind.” Mill’s final point deserves comment. Suppose subject S argues for proposition p. A critic should do two things: first, show that S’s argument for p is unsound; second, construct a sound argument for not-p. In other words, show both (1) that the reasons given for the truth of p are not good ones and (2) that there are good reasons to believe that p is false. What Mill is saying is that many “otherwise able men” do (or try to do) only the second of these things. This leaves two arguments: one for p and one for not-p. If you don’t want to leave the question “balanced,” you must do both things, not just one of them. For example, suppose S argues that the invasion of Iraq was unjustified. A critic should show not only that there is a good argument for the opposite conclusion (to wit: that the invasion of Iraq was justified) but that S’s argument is bad. See the difference? If it helps, you can think of the first task as offensive in nature (wielding a sword) and the second as defensive (wielding a shield). Mill is saying that many people go into battle with only a sword. They’re fools.
Note 2 from KBJ: I love the part about James Mill’s explanations making sense to John only later. Have you experienced this? Perhaps one of your parents said something to you as a child that didn’t make sense at the time, but did later, when you gained experience. Children have good memories. Their minds should be packed full of useful advice, even if it’s not yet comprehensible to them. Later in their lives, they will be grateful to you.
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