During the early stages of my liberal arts training, the power of good reasoning has left a strong impression on me. In today’s world of fast-paced decision-making, now more than ever do we need to recognise the value of thoughful reasoning. When my tutor asked me to review the introduction of John Robertson’s ‘Letters on Reasoning’, the guidance to his children embodied the continuous self-development values I believe in: “What I would counsel you to do is to live your lives cordially and joyously, never shunning serious matters because they are serious, but living, much in the sunshine. Partake freely of great music and great art; think about them all you can. Read plenty of poetry and good fiction, taking what guidance you can get from people and writers who seem intelligent, but always trying to judge for yourself what you have read.” – JM Robertson.
This summary is based on the Prolegomena and Letter I contained within the second revised edition of John Mackinnon Robertson’s “Letters on Reasoning”, which was published in 1905. The author presents a lively and personal discourse on the topic of Reasoning. He outlines his thoughts in the form of forward guidance to his children, in the hope they will absorb and adopt a concord with him. The author lays out a heartfelt and personal statement of his beliefs, delivered in prose form. The narrative follows a clear structure: in the Prolegomena he outlines motivation for a second edition, whilst presenting some comparisons to other relevant literary texts in consideration of the reader. Letter I then presents the first direct communication to his children. The article central thesis is based on the promotion of good learning: that as humans we have a duty to follow our moral impulses towards more scientific reasoning, or a logical perception of inconsistency. The author believes that this is not a question of whether we should reason or not, as even ‘irrationality’ is a form of reasoning, but that we must aim at codification, that is the action or process of arranging reasoning laws or rules according to a system or plan.
The author outlines his belief of the challenges to achieve quality reasoning, which emanate from both technical and societal challenges. Regarding the former, Robertson focuses on his belief that scholastic methods have proved unsustainable and inadequate. He targets teaching methods which he believes are too abstract and not relational to the real world. He references peers such as Arnauld who state “experience shows that, of a thousand young men who learn logic, there are not ten who know anything of its six months after they have finished their course”. He believes the underlying root cause to be outdated methods: grammar training and the setting of questions which do not address the inherent difficulties of reasoning. He states “the forms of argument that we learn from our text-books are far too simple for direct application to actual pieces of reasoning.”. This lack of real-world applicability forms a central part of his argument as to the lack of low quality reasoning ability in his contemporary society. He draws parallels to botanists, who must be inducted in experiments and not merely books. Mastery of texts must be post the actual handling: application before theory. The utilisation of empirical methods, that are based on verifiable observation and experience, rather than theory or pure logic. With reference to societal problems, Robertson leads with the careless attitudes of individuals, which he implores his children to be cautious of. He identifies the foundations of these attitudes, which are built on self-serving agendas or even ignorance, both of which inevitably promote inconsistency. Those who disparage logic are either thoughtful but confused and who fall into fallacy (a mistaken belief based on unsound arguments), or people ill-fitted for thinking. In this context, poor reasoning stems from cultivating based on merely aesthetic faculties; “disposing of the deepest problems by purely aesthetic tests”, which begins from wanting to pleasure the imagination and comforts of feelings. For those individuals, this creates the convenience of facile and sophist arguments.
The author redresses these dilemmas’ by articulating his sentiment of good reasoner: “one who does not contradict himself in the course of his argument, and who further takes intelligent account of all the important facts of the case he is dealing with.”. He connects the desire for sound reasoning to the need to present oneself as a respectful member of society, urging his children that “I want you nevertheless to take as much care about your opinions as about your clothes and your bodies and your manners, and so to be fit for the true good society,” that of cultured and thoughtful men and women.’. He promotes good reasoning as an attainable goal for everyone: “Even if a mind is little gifted with quickness or clearness of insight may, through candour and careful exercise, become competent for all the normal tasks of judgment.”. The article references reputable sources as to the solution of ‘Inductive Logic’, such as Professor Bain, John Mill, Professor Minto, and John Bradley, which he believes are “full of instructive thought as well as of gymnastic discipline.”. General principles he recommends are:
- To think consistently.
- to follow or check arguments, with logic to allow recognition & understanding of the nature of all processes of argument;
- to understand the differences in beliefs (emotions), moral planes (prejudices) and correcting inconsistencies (ideals);
- to view logic as the analysis and correct statement of the processes of proof of propositions;
- to utilize syllogism: An instance of a form of reasoning in which a conclusion is drawn from two given or assumed propositions (premises). Deductive reasoning.
Robertson rejects the notion that logic and creativity are mutually exclusive, and identifies examples in his own political system of how sound reasoning can still be served as a basis for unifying individuals around a common cause (and therefore using compromise as a creative instrument). In his view, the development of consistent behaviours is critical to establishing a foundation for good reasoning:
- Cultivation of the eyes, ears, conscience and imagination.
- Habitual and fastidious use of reflective reason.
- Taking guidance from writers and intelligent people, but always judging for oneself.
- Never shunning serious matters, because they are serious.
- Developing a love of culture through the reading of poetry, history, and good fiction.
He concludes his manifesto reiterating his personal mission statement: “Being a good reasoner is a duty only less pressing than that of being a good citizen.”.