In the history of philosophy many attempts have been made to define the ultimate laws of thought and the fundamental rules of reason. This pursuit has led to philosophical controversies over the centuries that have often been self-defeating. These failures have induced many to despair at the task of defining reason or attempting to discover the basic rules of correct thinking.

            The fault has been in going too deep too fast. Philosophers have attempted to resolve elusive and profound difficulties without first establishing easier, more obvious, ground rules. The basic rules of reason, like the beginnings of arithmetic, are simple. They should be learned first. Once they are learned and become habits of thought, a scaffold is laid for working on more challenging problems later. Attempting to resolve vexing, paradoxical difficulties without a basic foundation leads to the hopelessness often experienced by philosophers and characteristic of the modern mood of despair and gloom.

            It is the thesis of this book that the fundamental idea of reason is simple and can be understood by ordinary people; that there is a distinction between right and wrong reason; that this distinction can be stated in uncomplicated rules; that these rules are universal for all people and all arguments; and that they can be reduced to four generalizations that fall under the topics of Semantics, Definition, Logic, and Truth. These rules are basic in that they are the grounds for all cooperative, mutually beneficial discussion. The unique element in the original American Experiment was an idea of reason that assumed the vitality and importance of all four of these rules as a set and was often referred to as “common sense”. The conviction that it is virtuous to follow these rules of right reason established an ethic of fair play. Common sense and fair play, thus understood, were the definitive elements of the original American Experiment.

            Much of the new philosophy becoming dominant in the United States rejects one or more of these fundamental rules. In so doing the logic of common sense is frustrated and the ethic of fair play is undermined. Those who encourage this dialectical development, whether they desire the consequences or not, promote a Machiavellian state where leaders convince themselves, by one excuse or another, that the end justifies the means. This is a radically different state of affairs than that conceived by the Founding Fathers and stems from a radically different idea of reason. Insofar as those of the “New” reason and the “New” culture reject any one of these basic rules of common sense, they are indeed revolutionary, promoting not a return to the original experiment of common sense and fair play, but a different kind of experiment based on an entirely different kind of “reason”. In such an atmosphere, the worthwhile goals that the new philosophers sincerely covet, such as love, peace, and deeper awareness, are bound to be thwarted in the contentious climate that results from the inability to resolve conflicts through reason or to trust people who no longer play fair.

            It doesn’t have to be this way. If the excellent and high-minded goals of the new philosophers are to be obtained, then, instead of rejecting the basic rules of reason and fair play, these rules could be wholeheartedly accepted as a means to their end. Instead of dismantling the experiment begun by Benjamin Franklin and his friends, it could be reinstated and we could rediscover the purpose of our nation which originally was to demonstrate that societies of men under God are capable of establishing good government from reflection and choice and that we need not despair, as Franklin once feared, of forever being subjected to chance and to war and to conquest.

            This is a worthwhile objective but it cannot be obtained without effort. If the rules of fair play are to be restored, they must be better understood. An uneducated common sense does not have enough strength to stand against the subtleties of modern dialectic and the complexity of modern problems. Both those of the “Old” reason and those of the “New” have distorted the problem by failing to understand the nature of the assumptions involved. A clear statement of rules that are fundamental to right reason will bring the problem into focus.

 

SEMANTICS and IDEAS

 

            Semantics, in the modern sense of the term, is the study of the relationship of words to meanings. It is the science that aims to discover how language correlates with knowledge. Theoretically it takes over where epistemology, the science of the methods and grounds of knowledge, leaves off. However, since epistemology is no longer fashionable, semantics is more and more becoming its substitute. Semantics now includes studies of both the grounds of knowledge and the use of words.

            Semantics was not studied as such by the Founding Fathers. They seem to have picked up their understandings of the interrelation of words and meanings from the assumptions of the educated community in America and England. Although they did not expound in depth on their theories, they did have definite opinions on the relation of words to meaning, the subject of semantics, as can be discovered from their writings.

            These opinions were deeply influenced by the English philosopher, John Locke, who maintained that words were symbols of ideas and that, therefore, words were used correctly when they clearly and distinctly communicated the idea intended. To appreciate the depth of Locke’s semantics, it is adivisable to read or reread Book III, Of Words, from his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. He discusses, among other things, words and language, general ideas, and imperfection of words, the abuse of words, and some remedies for the foregoing imperfections and abuses. Throughout this section Locke emphasizes the importance of ideas and the significance of the relation of ideas to language. He says, “But when having passed over the Original and Composition of our Ideas [his emphasis], I began to examine the Extent and Certainty of our Knowledge, I found it had so near a Connection with Words, that unless their Force and Manner of Signification were first well observed, there could be very little said clearly and pertinently concerning Knowledge.” (1)

            Locke best summed up his philosophy at the beginning of Chapter 2, Book III, when he said, “Thus we may conceive how Words, which were by Nature so well adapted to that purpose, come to be made Use of by Men as the Signs of their Ideas; not by any natural Connection, that there is between particular articulate Sounds and certain Ideas, for then there would be but one Language amongst all Men; but by a voluntary Imposition, whereby such a Word is made arbitrarily the Mark of such and Idea. The use the of Words, is to be sensible Marks of Ideas, and the Ideas they stand for, are their proper and immediate Signification.” (2)

            The men who sowed the seeds of our Republic were deeply interested in ideas. Evenings, when possible, were spent in conversation. Sermons were debated at length. Hours were spent explaining and understanding the new scientific knowledge. Newton was the topic of much conversation. Political speeches were considered seriously, and many a dinner was the scene of earnest discussion of various philosophical concepts. Discussing and sharing ideas was an occupation that was both challenging and entertaining.

            Ideas were considered important. John Adams said in his diary, “Our minds are capable of receiving an infinite Variety of Ideas,…we can gain distinct Ideas of almost everything upon the Earth,…and after our minds are furnished with this simple Store of Ideas, far from feeling burdened or overloaded, our thoughts are more free and active and clear than before, and we are capable of diffusing our Acquaintance with things much further. We are not satisfied with Knowledge, our Curiosity is only improved, and increased, Our Thoughts rove beyond the visible diurnal sphere, they range through the Heavens and loose themselves amidst a Labyrinth of Worlds, and not contented with what is, they turn forward into futurity and search for new Employment there.” (3)

            John Adams was probably influenced by Locke when he expressed his admiration for the ideas of mathematicians. He said in his diary, “The reasoning of Mathematicians is founded on certain and infallible Principles. Every Word they Use, convey a determinate Idea, and by accurate Definitions they excite the same Ideas in the mind of the Reader that were in the mind of the Writer. When they have defined the Terms they intend to make use of, they premise a few Axioms, or Self evident Principles, that every man must assent to as soon as proposed…and from these plain simple Principles, they have raised most astonishing Speculations, and proved the Extent of the human mind to be more spacious and capable than any other Science.” (4)

            Benjamin Franklin, in musing about his childhood, mentions converstaions at his family’s table were so filled with interesting discussion that they often failed to notice what was served for dinner. (5) His father made a habit of inviting a friend or noted person to share their meals and “took care to start some ingenious or useful topic for discourse.” (6) Later, as a young man, Benjamin Franklin formed a club for mutual improvement called the “Junto” to discuss ideas on Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy. Their debates were conducted “…in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute, or desire of victory.” (7) These habits undoubtedly contributed to his later ability to examine affairs of state from all points of view and to avoid hasty over-generalizations. When confronted with grave decisions, he believed that it then “…becomes a matter of great importance that clear ideas should be formed on solid principles.” (8)

            The writings of the men of those times often had mounds capitalized to emphasize the idea intended. This was done in an attempt to correct the “…vague and insignificant Forms of Speech and Abuse of Language” (9) so deplored by John Locke. It was probably also from Locke that they learned to admire simple and unassuming language. (10) They felt, as did Thomas Jefferson, the “Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them.” (11)

            There have been many changes since those days. Now, those who wish to revise our language carefully avoid the word “idea”. They speak of a “neuro-semantic reaction”, or a “cerebral itch”, or a “neurological process”, and tell us that, because they have no observable referent, ideas such as Truth, Freedom, Virtue, Integrity, that so inspired the men of older days, are noises without meaning. Stuart Chase in The Tyranny of Words says, “Lables as names for things may be roughly divided into three classes on an ascending scale.” (12) The first two, he explains, are common objects and collections of things. The third class is “Labels for essences and qualities, such as ‘the sublime’, ‘individualism’, ‘truth’. For such terms, there are no discoverable referents in the outside world, and by mistaking them for substantial entities somewhere at large in the environment, we create a fantastic wonderland. This zone is the especial domain of philosophy, politics, and economics.” (13)

            What was formerly considered an “idea” and was admired as evidence of intellectual development is now labeled a “wool-gathering abstraction”, a “myth-maker”, a “verbal prison”, a “squirrel cage”. It is a “queer creature created by personifying abstractions in America.” (14)

            Joan Reeves explains in Thinking About Thinking that the word “idea” began to go out of fashion in psychology and sociology between 1910 and 1920. “Experimental psychologists regard this view (an approach to language as an exchange of ideas) with misgiving, feeling that a mind-body problem lurks below its surface and that the theory is untestable.” (15)

            The belief that words symbolize ideas conceived by the intellect is now treated as a form of intellectual immaturity by those who study the inner depth of the psyche life. The intimacy and concreteness of personal feeling preclude, as those of the “new reason” tend to proclaim, all philosophies that deal in intellectual abstractions. William Barrett, a leading American existentialist, states in Irrational Man that “Philosophers can no longer attempt, as the British empiricists Locke and Hume attempted, to construct human experience out of simple ideas and sensations. The psyche life of man is not a mosaic of such mental atoms, and philosophers were able to cling to this belief so long only because they had put their own abstractions in place of concrete experience.” (16)

            It is now popular to measure language, not by the comprehension of ideas symbolized by the words said, but by the effectiveness of the words used. This can be observed and measured. S. I. Hayakawa (perhaps the leading Semanticist in the world today) says in Language In Action, “Now it is obvious that if directive language is going to direct, it cannot be dull or uninteresting. If it is to influence our conduct, it must make use of every affective element in language; dramatic variation in tone of voice, rhyme and rhythm, purring and snarling words with strong affective connotations, endless repetition. If meaningless noises will move the audience, meaningless noises must be made; if facts move them facts must be given; if noble ideals move them we must make our proposals appear noble; if they will respond only to fear, we must scare them stiff.” (17) “Unless directive language has affective power of some kind, it is useless.” (18) Even “facts” are not as objective as they might first appear because, as Hayakawa explains in developing his theme, “A skillful writer is often, therefore, one who is particularly expert at selecting the facts that are sure to move his readers in the desired ways.” (19)

            This approach to language, although it is definitely not new, is a different attitude than that held by Benjamin Franklin, who Donovan, in the Benjamin Franklin Papers, named as the personification of the Age of Reason. (20) Franklin’s most endearing quality was his forthright honesty and integrity. His great flattery consisted of treating other persons as reasonable beings, partners in mankind’s endeavor to discover truth, rather than cajoling and manipulating others with insincere adulation and scare tactics. A French contemporary wrote of Franklin, “In a word, his politics were those of a man who believed in the power of reason and virtue.” (21) A German writer said, “reason and virtue, made possible through reason alone, consequently again reason and nothing but reason, is the magic with which Benjamin Franklin conquered heaven and earth.” (22) Franklin, the personification of the Age of Reason, had an idea of reason that was the direct opposite of Hayakawa’s. Franklin advocated clear ideas, solid principles, and a sincere spirit of “…inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory.” (23) This fresh honesty endeared him to the European intellectuals who were sick of centuries of the “affectiveness” of directive language.

            The “new semantics” is not as new as its advocates like to think. According to Plato, Socrates lost his life by choosing to seek the truth rather than telling his accusers what they wanted to hear.  He quotes Socrates as saying, “But I had not the boldness or impudence or inclination to address you as you would have liked me to do, weeping and wailing and lamenting, and saying and doing many things which you have been accustomed to hear from others, and which I maintain are unworthy of me…I would rather die having spoken after my manner, than speak in your manner and live.” (24)

            Combined with modern communication technology, an effective “affective” directive approach to language, as advocated by Hayakawa, amounts to mind conditioning. People, handled with this technique, are beginning to recognize something is seriously wrong and a cynical skepticism of the media, popularly dubbed the credibility gap, is causing more and more distrust in the reliability of public information. Who wants facts “carefully selected” to move their opinion in “desired ways”? Failure to recognize the source of the problem, however, causes those of the media, who are as anxious as anyone to close the credibility gap, to look for guidance from experts in the matter. Desiring to do their job well, people of the media look to the latest theories for instruction. All they get is advice to continue in the same course that caused the problem in the first place.

            Although the Founding Fathers emphasized ideas as distinct from sensations, they were not opposed to the art of rhetoric. On the contrary, those who expressed themselves on the subject appeared to thoroughly admire harmony and excellence of expression and admitted to diligent efforts towards the improvement of their own individualistic style. However, they developed their art of rhetoric in order to become more clear in expressing their ideas, not less. Believing that words were symbols of ideas, terms were chosen to emphasize the idea under discussion and failure to stick to the point, by slipping into sensationalism, was considered gibberish. In this manner, emphasis on meaning was encouraged. An intensional approach to language and rhetoric that was primarily intellectual formed the basic semantics of the Founding Fathers.

            These different attitudes toward language, one primarily intensional and the other primarily extensional, lend support to two different opinions regarding the use of words. The first is an intellectual appeal that values meaning and measures itself by truth, reason, virtue, integrity, and honor. The emphasis is on ideas. The second is an extensional approach that stresses the individual rather than the abstract. It accentuates that which can be imagined, felt, seen, or touched and is suspicious of intellectual ideas and arguments. In this second approach, if the words used produce the desired effect, then the words are considered good. Morality of rhetoric in this view revolves around a pragmatic effectiveness.

            Many of the extensional methods of using words that often are quite effective involve procedures that, by intellectual standards, are offensive. Aristotle, whose treatment of language was primarily intensional, identified man of these practices used effectively by modern semanticists as fallacies extra dictionem. Such fallacies have been traditionally described under Latin names such as secundum quid, ad hominen, ad populum, ad misericordiam, ad baculum, ad ignorantian, ad verecundiam, petitio principii, and so forth. Each of these semantical devices was considered by Aristotle to be a fallacy because it emphasized the emotional effect of the words used and dodged what intentional thinkers consider to be the main idea or the real issue.  Ad hominem, for example, refutes a person’s argument by attacking his character. Ad misericordium diverts the mind away from the question at hand by arousing sympathy.

            Aristotle believed that fallacies extra dictionem were foul fighting. The Founding Fathers were even more exacting and described such tactics as slander, calumny, detraction, and even went so far as to refer to such behavior as criminal. Whether effective or not, they believed such a semantical approach was wrong. It would be better to lose than to win by such methods. Thomas Jefferson said, in 1814, in a letter to Dr. D. W. Jones, “I deplore…the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed, and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write them…These ordures are rapidly depraving the public press.” (25) Alexander Hamilton said in 1804, “I consider this spirit of abuse and calumny as the pest of society…Though it pleased God to bless us with the first of characters…I say that falsehood eternally repeated would have affected even his name. Drops of water, in long and continued succession, will wear out adamant.” (26) The men who had the original idea of the Constitution were distressed by this “effective” approach to semantics. Benjamin Franklin explained his philosophy for the conduct of a newspaper as follows:

 

“In the conduct  of my newspaper, I carefully excluded all libeling and personal abuse, which is of late years become so disgraceful to our country. Whenever I was solicited to insert any thing of that kind, and the writers pleaded, as they generally did, the liberty of the press, and that a newspaper was like stage-coach, in which any one who would pay had a right to a place, my answer was, that I would print the piece separately if desired, and the author might have as many copies as he pleased to distribute himself, , but that I would not take upon me to spread his detraction; and that, having contracted with my subscribers to furnish them with what might be either useful or entertaining, I could not fill their papers with private altercation, in which they had no concern, without doing them manifest injustice. Now, many of our printers make no scruple of gratifying the malice of individuals by false accusations of the fairest characters among ourselves, augmenting animosity even to the producing of duels; and are, moreover, so indiscreet as to print scurrilous reflections on the government of neighboring states, and even on the conduct of our best national allies, which may be attended with the most pernicious consequences. These things I mention as a caution to young printers, and that they may be encouraged not to pollute their presses and disgrace their profession by such infamous practices, but refuse steadily, as they may see by my example that such a course of conduct will not, on the whole, be injurious to their interests.” (27)