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08 Oct

Defending Logic

Monument in the west aisle of the south transept dedicated to Richard Whately, Archbishop of Dublin.

Those who have spoken of Induction or of Example, as a distinct kind of Argument in a Logical point of view, have fallen into the common error of confounding Logical with Rhetorical distinctions, and have wandered from their subject as much as a writer on the orders of Architecture would do who should introduce the distinction between buildings of brick and of marble

In 1826 Richard Whately, future Archbishop of Dublin, published his Elements of Logic. Soon after its publication, the great wave of 19th century logical works began, from writers such as George Boole, Augustus De Morgan, Charles Sanders Peirce and Bernard Bolzano. While Whately’s work contained none of the innovations of these later works, it paved the way for them1

In the Middle Ages, logic had been thought of as dealing with such things as forms of argument, semantic problems and paradoxes. Humanist arguments for returning to the elegant language of Cicero and against the torturing of Latin resulted in a turning away from this view. Logic was instead seen in the late 16th century as “an art that teaches one to dispute well”. Even when some authors wrote of the syllogism as being of central importance, they often failed to explain it adequately. Many logic texts spent little time on what we consider logic, instead concentrating on topics such as speech or the mind. (The description of the Logic course Francis Hutcheson studied in Killyleagh gives an Irish example of such teaching. The Port Royal logic studied in Glasgow was not much better, giving only a brief description of the syllogism.)2

Some of these works praised logic as the font of all knowledge, raising expectations that would not be satisfied. At the same time, critics put forward their own methods of attaining knowledge. Locke argued that reasoning existed before Aristotle’s systematisation of logic. Bacon and Descartes pointed out that all that could come from syllogism is what went in as premises. The 18th century saw writing in the tradition of Aristotlean logic continue, along with works aimed at replacing logic with epistemology3.

by Henry Meyer, after Charles Grey, stipple engraving, 1830s-1840s © National Portrait Gallery, London

by Henry Meyer, after Charles Grey, stipple engraving, 1830s-1840s
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Richard Whatley was born in England in 1787 and educated in Oxford. At the time he was there, logic was becoming more widely taught, a step criticised by some for promoting a useless art. In 1819 Whatley published Historical Doubts Relative to Napoleon Bonaparte, which cast doubt on Hume’s arguments against miracles by employing them against belief in the existence of Napoleon. He returned to Oxford as principal of St Alban Hall in 1825 and was Professor of Political Economy from 1829 until 1831 when he became Archbishop of Dublin4.

Whatley’s conception of logic depended on two principles. The first was that logic was (or should be) a science, based on clear theoretical principles. The lack of theory explained logic’s lack of progress and left it open to criticism. The second was that logic was about language, not thought. This meant that criticisms such as Locke’s were beside the point. The syllogism is not a particular form of argument but a formal device for the expression of any argument. Diderot had said logic was like dissecting a leg to lean how to walk; for Whately it was like chemical analysis of a compound to determine what it was made of5.

Unlike previous works, one fifth of Whatley’s Elements is concerned with the syllogism. What is also notable is what Whatley left out. His discussion of the syllogism is restricted to reasoning and argumentation, and only as they occur in language. As can be seen in the opening quote, he insists that rhetoric and logic must be treated separately (Whatley later wrote Elements of Rhetoric). Logic is also separate from the theory of reasoning as such and questions of how reasoning is used. The proper focus of logic was abstract: argument forms containing variables, separated from real-life content of any kind. 6

Logic is not an art, and those who judge it by its effects are mistaken. To blame logic for human bad thinking was “as if one should object to the science of optics for not giving sight to the blind”7.

Reviews of Whatley’s Elements of Logic found his treatment of logic to be too narrow. Yet the work was influential, recommended as the best treatment of logic by Boole, praised as restoring logical study by De Morgan and Peirce’s first introduction to logic. It was also widely used, going to nine editions. It can also be argued that by providing a clear exposition of logic, with a theoretical underpinning and shorn of extraneous subject matter, Richard Whately “cast logic in a form more congenial to the formal developments soon to come”8

As well as the Elements of Logic and Elements of Rhetoric (1828), Whately’s economics lectures were published in 1831 as Introductory Lectures on Political Economy, being part of a course delivered in Easter term 1831 (1831), which included the rudiments of a subjective theory of value. (This has interesting echoes in the idea of his predecessor Archbishop King that value is not intrinsic in objects.) He supported Catholic Emancipation and granting of civil rights to Jews. In Ireland he founded the commission for national education, was involved with the commission for the Poor Law and set up the Whately Chair in Political Economy at Trinity College, Dublin. He died in Dublin on 8th October, 18639.

Monument in the west aisle of the south transept dedicated to Richard Whately, Archbishop of Dublin.Featured Image: Monument in the west aisle of the south transept dedicated to Richard Whately, Archbishop of Dublin. Sculpted by Sir Thomas Farrell (1827–1900) in Dublin. Crop of original image from Andreas F. Borchert/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)


  1. James Van Evra (2008) “Richard Whaterly Logical Theory” in Dov M. Gabbay, John Woods (eds) British Logic in the Nineteenth Century, Elsevier, pp. 75-92. See p. 75.
  2. Van Evra (2008), pp. 78-80
  3. Van Evra (2008) pp. 80-82
  4. Van Evra (2008), p. 76
  5. Van Evra (2008), pp. 83-85, p. 84
  6. Van Evra (2008), pp. 85-87
  7. Richard Whately (1831) Elements of Logic Fourth edition, p. 13 (online)
  8. Van Evra (2008), pp. 75.
  9. “Richard Whately, 1787-1863” in History of Economic Thought
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