Invigilant et al.
Property Terms I
Property Terms II
Property Terms III
Shining Words I
Shining Words II
Rhetorical Devices I
Rhetorical Devices II
Rhetorical Devices III
Rhetorical Devices IV
Maxims of Equity I
Maxims of Equity II
Maxims of Equity III
Bill Long 10/18/04
The Death of Logic
If there is any term that convinces me that one of the biggest wastes of time for someone is to undertake the formal study of logic, it is the word epicheirema. Epicheirema is mentioned by all the classical logicians/orators, beginning with Aristotle, but no one is sure what it means. Actually, the confusion surrounding its meaning is helpful to me, because it confirms for me that I was right all along never to engage in the formal study of logic.
Putting Things in Perspective
Well, anyone who has spent some time in academia is familiar with the first rule of logic: that it is divided into two kinds of arguments, inductive and deductive. Such a distinction is usually made to a sea of filiopietistic freshmen as they sit at the feet of a stern-faced or semi-serious professor who intones the difference. S/he will tell the dutiful students that inductive reasoning is reasoning from particulars to a general conclusion, whereas deductive reasoning is arguing from a general premise to specific conclusions. Examples of each will follow, and students are expected to fix this distinction firmly in mind. Only thing is, the basic principle of logic, as exemplified in these words, makes no sense. We all begin our reasoning process, no matter how "inductive," with certain principles from which we "deduce" meaning. Even the most "inductive" reasoner leaps to conclusions like a panicked person from a burning building.
I must confess, however, that I have long been troubled by my seeming lack of interest in logic, as if it bespoke a mental deficiency in me. I won mathematics awards in high school and even majored in math at Brown until I was "saved" by the study of religion in my sophomore/junior years. Yet, logic, for some unspecified reason, always left me cold. It was not until I became a litigation attorney in 2000 that I realized that what was at stake in argumentation was not "logic" per se but the various strategies one might use to persuade a jury/public. These strategies involved making appeals to a person's mind and emotions, to be sure, and there were "techniques" one could use to make one's case more persuasive, but the rhetoric of persuasion did not operate as much by supposed "rules of logic" as by diligent attention to history. That is, what is convincing in one age is not necessarily convincing 30 years later. One has to be attentive to the things people find persuasive at any one time before fashioning an argument. The study of logic, I saw, was the denial or ignorance of the historical shaping of persuasive appeals.
Moving to Epicheirema
These ruminations, which for years made me feel guilty for not having "mastered" logic, now come to fruition in the study of today's word: epicheirema. We note that the OED definition actually begins with an explanation: "Aristotle used the word to denote 'an attempted proof, such as is used in Dialectic, being something short of a demonstrated conclusion....'; the use below is due to a misunderstanding of his meaning." This, indeed, is interesting, because the OED is confessing that the only examples of the phenomenon that it quotes are those that got it wrong!
Is there any way we can sort out what this "attempted proof" is? My suspicion is that the existence of words like syllogism and enthymeme and sorites and epicheirema, all of which are used to describe types of arguments, is a result of a weakness in philosophy: that is, the ultimately unsuccessful and unsatisfactory attempt to make argument as certain as a mathematical demonstration (if, indeed, the latter is so "certain"). Well, it is in this context that epicheirema appears. Literally meaning "an attempt" or "an undertaking," epicheirema had a more practical life as an "attack" or "attempt" to accomplish something before Aristotle took it over in the 4th century to describe an "attempted" proof. Like the enthymeme, which he defined as the "rhetorical syllogism," the epicheirema was also an attempt, short of actual demonstration, to prove something.
But more modern dictionaries have had no trouble defining the term. For example it is variously defined as "an argument where one or both of the premises is supplied by a reason." It "simply means that the explained premise is the result of a prior syllogism." One dictionary gives an example. "All sin is dangerous. Covetousness is a sin (for it is a transgression of the law); therefore, covetousness is dangerous." The whole syllogism would be defined as an epicheirema, I guess, because a reason is appended. Thus, the best we can do in our day is to define it as a "syllogism with reason attached."
But what really does that mean, and how is it useful to define it in this way? I have no idea, but the definition is no doubt artificial and not really supported historically. For example, the classic textbook of oratory from ancient Rome, Quintilian's The Orator's Education, takes up species of arguments, including enthymeme and epicheirema, in Book V. The distinguished translator of Quintilian, Professor Donald Russell, notes that the former for Aristotle was a "rhetorical argument corresponding to the syllogism" while the latter "came to cover this type of argument, but was more commonly used for a five-stage argument, in which each of the premisses had to be proved before one proceded to a conclusion (although this sounds a lot like sorites)." But then he goes on to say, "Quintilian knows other uses of these terms, and the terminology was clearly unstable."
This is not the place to show all of the various suggestions for the meaning of epicheirema which Quintilian sets forth in V.10, though the first definition, "attack" (Latin is aggressio/adgressio) seems to comport with the etymology of the word. Thus, the epicheirema would simply be an argument that attacks the other side (This is not so worthless as it might at first appear). But the contorted way that Quintilian, usually a master of clarity, tries to explain the term means that it has convinced no one of its utility by the first century of our era.
If you think about it for more than two seconds even the basic "syllogism" used to define the nature of syllogism for undergraduates is problematic. "All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal." You have proved nothing buy simply deduced it from the first statement. Your conclusions are already in your premises. What ultimately are logicians trying to do if not to get at what makes sentences meaningful or arguments "air tight"--i.e., persuasive? But the study of one term from logic, epicheirema, shows the relative bankruptness of the process. I will become a logician when someone clearly tells me not only what an epicheirema is but why I should care.*
[*Cicero seemed to suggest that an epicheirema was an attempted syllogism with both of the premises being supported by reasons, but the question that remains for me is whether epicheirema is thus more of a rhetorical or grammatical or logical term. Thus, I close this essay with no assurance as to which sphere of human activity it is most at home as well as no clarity on its definition. Not bad for 1200 words].
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long