Why syllogisms?

I teach philosophy at the university level to undergrads, mostly freshmen. Many of my students are not well trained in thinking. How do I know this? Because they do not know how to take notes. If I am lecturing and developing a thought and do not have a sentence or two projected on the screen, they don’t write anything down. This tells me that they do not know how to follow an argument and appreciate the point being made unless it is given to them ready-made, “on a platter,” so to speak.

Many people on the internet who have an interest in philosophy are the same way. Their inability to think manifests itself differently, however. Their problem is that they can’t understand what someone is saying unless they are presented with a syllogism, with a premised argument in a familiar form, whether it be modus ponens or hypothetical syllogism or whatever. Unless you present them with such a syllogism, they can’t understand the point of what you’re saying. It goes without saying that they don’t appreciate the greater significance of your point for the broader world of ideas.

The truth is that a syllogism doesn’t help very much in the grand scheme of things. True thinking is not dealing with syllogisms, but rather with the things themselves. Here is an example of what I mean.

Suppose I say that the cat has just eaten, so that it must not be hungry. A perverse fellow, tainted by his education in logic-chopping, demands a syllogism to be able to understand what I mean.

The first lesson: It is trivially easy to come up with a syllogism for any point you want to make. Here is one such syllogism: If the cat has just eaten, it must not be hungry; the cat has just eaten; therefore it must not be hungry. Any idea with an implicit “because” can be formulated by means of modus ponens.

The second lesson: My thought has not been made any clearer by putting it in this way. In the first place, my syllogism is unintelligible unless you have an idea in mind of what a cat is, what eating is, what being hungry is, how eating is related to hunger in general and in cats specifically, and so on. In the second place, you cannot get a grasp of these realities with which my syllogism is concerned by means of more syllogisms. You do not learn what a cat is by reasoning from other things. You gain a concept through experience with the thing itself. You learn what a cat is by experiencing cats. Without this and the other relevant concepts, I may as well have used variables like P and Q.

The third lesson: Thinking is a matter of interpreting and understanding things as such, not arguments or syllogisms. And because our contact with things take place in experience, that is to say in consciousness, it follows that thinking is necessarily a matter of hermeneutics and phenomenology, broadly conceived. There is little fruit to be had by considering the logical relations of ideas. If there is any fruit to that, it is because these ideas are taken themselves as realities, or at least as corresponding to realities, which can be experienced and “lived”.

None of this is to say that syllogisms do not help at all. Some persons’ thoughts are so confused and jumbled that it they stand to benefit from being able to clarify the logical relations between their ideas. But not everything worth saying is best said in modus ponens, and a person is greatly impoverished by not being able to think in any other way except by means of logical connections between isolated or isolatable propositions.