Logic for Expression

In recent times, Robert Brandom has pioneered the idea that the role of logic is primarily expressive. In his 2018 essay “From Logical Expressivism to Expressivist Logic”, he says this means its purpose is “to make explicit the inferential relations that articulate the semantic contents of the concepts expressed by the use of ordinary, nonlogical vocabulary” (p. 70).

In my humble opinion, this is what logic was really supposed to be about in Aristotle, but the tradition did not follow Aristotle. Aristotle insisted that logic is a “tool” not a science, but most later authors have assumed the contrary — that logic was the “science” of correct reasoning, or perhaps the science of consequence relations. Several scholars have nonetheless rediscovered the idea that the purpose of logical demonstration in Aristotle is not to prove truths, but to express reasoned arguments as clearly as possible.

Brandom says that “the task of logic is to provide mathematical tools for articulating the structure of reasoning” (p. 71). People were reasoning in ordinary life long before logic was invented, and continue to do so. But the immensely fertile further development of logic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was mostly geared toward the formalization of mathematics. Reasoning in most specialized disciplines — such as the empirical sciences, medicine, and law — actually resembles reasoning in ordinary life more than it does specifically mathematical reasoning.

According to Brandom, “The normative center of reasoning is the practice of assessing reasons for and against conclusions. Reasons for conclusions are normatively governed by relations of consequence or implication. Reasons against conclusions are normatively governed by relations of incompatibility. These relations of implication and incompatibility, which constrain normative assessment of giving reasons for and against claims, amount to the first significant level of structure of the practice of giving reasons for and against claims.”

“These are, in the first instance, what Sellars called ‘material’ relations of implication and incompatibility. That is, they do not depend on the presence of logical vocabulary or concepts, but only on the contents of non- or prelogical concepts. According to semantic inferentialism, these are the relations that articulate the conceptual contents expressed by the prelogical vocabulary that plays an essential role in formulating the premises and conclusions of inferences” (pp. 71-72).

“Material” relations of consequence and incompatibility have a different structure from formal ones. Formal consequence is monotonic, which means that adding new premises does not change the consequences of existing premises. Formal contradiction is “explosive”, in the sense that any contradiction whatsoever makes it possible to “prove” anything whatsoever (both true statements and their negations), thereby invalidating the very applicability of proof. But as Brandom reminds us, “outside of mathematics, almost all our actual reasoning is defeasible” (p. 72). Material consequence is nonmonotonic, which means that adding new premises could change the consequences of existing ones. Material incompatibilities can often be “fixed” by adding new, specialized premises. (As I somewhere heard Aquinas was supposed to have said, “When faced with a contradiction, introduce a distinction”.)

Brandom notes that “Ceteris paribus [“other things being equal”] clauses do not magically turn nonmonotonic implications into monotonic ones. (The proper term for a Latin phrase whose recitation can do that is ‘magic spell’.) The expressive function characteristic of ceteris paribus clauses is rather explicitly to mark and acknowledge the defeasibility, hence nonmonotonicity, of an implication codified in a conditional, not to cure it by fiat” (p. 73).

“There is no good reason to restrict the expressive ambitions with which we introduce logical vocabulary to making explicit the rare material relations of implication and incompatibility that are monotonic. Comfort with such impoverished ambition is a historical artifact of the contingent origins of modern logic in logicist and formalist programs aimed at codifying specifically mathematical reasoning. It is to be explained by appeal to historical causes, not good philosophical reasons” (ibid). On the other hand, making things explicit should be conservative in the sense of not changing existing implications.

“…[W]e should not emulate the drunk who looks for his lost keys under the lamp-post rather than where he actually dropped them, just because the light is better there. We should look to shine light where we need it most” (ibid).

For relations of material consequence, the classical principle of “explosion” should be replaced with the weaker one that “if [something] is not only materially incoherent (in the sense of explicitly containing incompatible premises) but persistently so, that is incurably, indefeasibly
incoherent, in that all of its supersets are also incoherent, then it implies everything” (p. 77).

“The logic of nonmonotonic consequence relations is itself monotonic. Yet it can express, in the logically extended object language, the nonmonotonic relations of implication and incompatibility that structure both the material, prelogical base language, and the logically compound sentences formed from them” (p. 82).

Material consequence relations themselves may or may not be monotonic. Instead of requiring monotonicity globally, it can be declared locally by means of a modal operator. “Logical expressivists want to introduce logical vocabulary that explicitly marks the difference between those implications and incompatibilities that are persistent under the addition of arbitrary auxiliary hypotheses or collateral commitments, and those that are not. Such vocabulary lets us draw explicit boundaries around the islands of monotonicity to be found surrounded by the sea of nonmonotonic material consequences and incompatibilities” (p. 83).

Ranges of subjunctive robustness can also be explicitly declared. “The underlying thought is that the most important information about a material implication is not whether or not it is monotonic — though that is something we indeed might want to know. It is rather under what circumstances it is robust and under what collateral circumstances it would be defeated” (p. 85).

“The space of material implications that articulates the contents of the nonlogical concepts those implications essentially depend upon has an intricate localized structure of subjunctive robustness and defeasibility. That is the structure we want our logical expressive tools to help us characterize. It is obscured by commitment to global structural monotonicity—however appropriate such a commitment might be for purely logical relations of implication and incompatibility” (pp. 85-86).

“Logic does not supply a canon of right reasoning, nor a standard of rationality. Rather, logic takes its place in the context of an already up-and-running rational enterprise of making claims and giving reasons for and against claims. Logic provides a distinctive organ of self-consciousness for such a rational practice. It provides expressive tools for talking and thinking, making claims, about the relations of implication and incompatibility that structure the giving of reasons for and against claims” (p. 87).