Searching for a Middle Term

“But nothing, I think, prevents one from in a sense understanding and in a sense being ignorant of what one is learning” (Aristotle, Posterior Analytics; Complete Works revised Oxford edition vol. 1, p. 115). The kind of understanding spoken of here involves awareness “both that the explanation because of which the object is is its explanation, and that it is not possible for this to be otherwise” (ibid). To speak of the “explanation because of which” something is suggests that the concern is with states of affairs being some way, and the “not… otherwise” language further confirms this.

Following this is the famous criterion that demonstrative understanding depends on “things that are true and primitive and immediate and more familiar than and prior to and explanatory of the conclusion…. [T]here will be deduction even without these conditions, but there will not be demonstration, for it will not produce understanding” (ibid). The “more familiar than” part has sometimes been mistranslated as “better known than”, confusing what Aristotle carefully distinguishes as gnosis (personal acquaintance) and episteme (knowledge in a strong sense). I think this phrase is the key to the whole larger clause, giving it a pragmatic rather than foundationalist meaning. (Foundationalist claims only emerged later, with the Stoics and Descartes.) The pedagogical aim of demonstration is to use things that are more familiar to us — which for practical purposes we take to be true and primitive and immediate and prior and explanatory — to showcase reasons for things that are slightly less obvious.

Independent of these criteria for demonstration, the whole point of the syllogistic form is that the conclusion very “obviously” and necessarily follows, by a simple operation of composition on the premises (A => B and B => C, so A=> C). Once we have accepted both premises of a syllogism, the conclusion is already implicit, and that in an especially clear way. We will not reach any novel or unexpected conclusions by syllogism. It is a kind of canonical minimal inferential step, intended not to be profound but to be as simple and clear as possible.

(Contemporary category theory grounds all of mathematics on the notion of composable abstract dependencies, expressing complex dependencies as compositions of simpler ones. Its power depends on the fact that under a few carefully specified conditions expressing the properties of good composition, the composition of higher-order functions with internal conditional logic — and other even more general constructions — works in exactly the same way as composition of simple predications like “A is B“.)

Since a syllogism is designed to be a minimal inferential step, there is never a question of “searching” for the right conclusion. Rather, Aristotle speaks of searching for a “middle term” before an appropriate pair of premises is identified for syllogistic use. A middle term like B in the example above is the key ingredient in a syllogism, appearing both in the syntactically dependent position in one premise, and in the syntactically depended-upon position in the other premise, thus allowing the two to be composed together. This is a very simple example of mediation. Existence of a middle term B is what makes composition of the premises possible, and is therefore what makes pairings of premises appropriate for syllogistic use.

In many contexts, searching for a middle term can be understood as inventing an appropriate intermediate abstraction from available materials. If an existing abstraction is too broad to fit the case, we can add specifications until it does, and then optionally give the result a new name. All Aristotelian terms essentially are implied specifications; the names are just for convenience. Aristotle sometimes uses pure specifications as “nameless terms”.

Named abstractions function as shorthand for the potential inferences that they embody, enabling simple common-sense reasoning in ordinary language. We can become more clear about our thinking by using dialectic to unpack the implications of the abstractions embodied in our use of words.