An Investigation of the Laws of Thought

An Investigation of the Laws of Thought

by George Boole


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Classic in symbolic logic, showing that classical logic can be treated algebraically. Timeless introduction.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781724355256
Publisher: CreateSpace Publishing
Publication date: 07/27/2018
Pages: 344
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.72(d)

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An Investigation of the Laws of Thought

On Which are Founded the Mathematical Theories of Logic and Probabilities


Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1958 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-15750-4



1. THE design of the following treatise is to investigate the fundamental laws of those operations of the mind by which reasoning is performed; to give expression to them in the symbolical language of a Calculus, and upon this foundation to establish the science of Logic and construct its method; to make that method itself the basis of a general method for the application of the mathematical doctrine of Probabilities; and, finally, to collect from the various elements of truth brought to view in the course of these. inquiries some probable intimations concerning the nature and constitution of the human mind.

2. That this design is not altogether a novel one it is almost needless to remark, and it is well known that to its two main practical divisions of Logic and Probabilities a very considerable share of the attention of philosophers has been directed. In its ancient and scholastic form, indeed, the subject of Logic stands almost exclusively associated with the great name of Aristotle. As it was presented to ancient Greece in the partly technical, partly metaphysical disquisitions of the Organon, such, with scarcely any essential change, it has continued to the present day. The stream of original inquiry has rather been directed towards questions of general philosophy, which, though they have arisen among the disputes of the logicians, have outgrown their origin, and given to successive ages of speculation their peculiar bent and character. The eras of Porphyry and Proclus, of Anselm and Abelard, of Ramus, and of Descartes, together with the final protests of Bacon and Locke, rise up before the mind as examples of the remoter influences of the study upon the course of human thought, partly in suggesting topics fertile of discussion, partly in provoking remonstrance against its own undue pretensions. The history of the theory of Probabilities, on the other hand, has presented far more of that character of steady growth which belongs to science. In its origin the early genius of Pascal,—in its maturer stages of development the most recondite of all the mathematical speculations of Laplace,—were directed to its improvement; to omit here the mention of other names scarcely less distinguished than these. As the study of Logic has been remarkable for the kindred questions of Metaphysics to which it has given occasion, so that of Probabilities also has been remarkable for the impulse which it has bestowed upon the higher departments of mathematical science. Each of these subjects has, moreover, been justly regarded as having relation to a speculative as well as to a practical end. To enable us to deduce correct inferences from given premises is not the only object of Logic; nor is it the sole claim of the theory of Probabilities that it teaches us how to establish the business of life assurance on a secure basis; and how to condense whatever is valuable in the records of innumerable observations in astronomy, in physics, or in that field of social inquiry which is fast assuming a character of great importance. Both these studies have also an interest of another kind, derived from the light which they shed upon the intellectual powers. They instruct us concerning the mode in which language and number serve as instrumental aids to the processes of reasoning; they reveal to us in some degree the connexion between different powers of our common intellect; they set before us what, in the two domains of demonstrative and of probable knowledge, are the essential standards of truth and correctness,—standards not derived from without, but deeply founded in the constitution of the human faculties. These ends of speculation yield neither in interest nor in dignity, nor yet, it may be added, in importance, to the practical objects, with the pursuit of which they have been historically associated. To unfold the secret laws and relations of those high faculties of thought by which all beyond the merely perceptive knowledge of the world and of ourselves is attained or matured, is an object which does not stand in need of commendation to a rational mind.

3. But although certain parts of the design of this work have been entertained by others, its general conception, its method, and, to a considerable extent, its results, are believed to be original. For this reason I shall offer, in the present chapter, some preparatory statements and explanations, in order that the real aim of this treatise may be understood, and the treatment of its subject facilitated.

It is designed, in the first place, to investigate the fundamental laws of those operations of the mind by which reasoning is performed. It is unnecessary to enter here into any argument to prove that the operations of the mind are in a certain real sense subject to laws, and that a science of the mind is therefore possible. If these are questions which admit of doubt, that doubt is not to be met by an endeavour to settle the point of dispute à priori, but by directing the attention of the objector to the evidence of actual laws, by referring him to an actual science. And thus the solution of that doubt would belong not to the introduction to this treatise, but to the treatise itself. Let the assumption be granted, that a science of the intellectual powers is possible, and let us for a moment consider how the knowledge of it is to be obtained.

4. Like all other sciences, that of the intellectual operations must primarily rest upon observation,—the subject of such observation being the very operations and processes of which we desire to determine the laws. But while the necessity of a foundation in experience is thus a condition common to all sciences, there are some special differences between the modes in which this principle becomes available for the determination of general truths when the subject of inquiry is the mind, and when the subject is external nature. To these it is necessary to direct attention.

The general laws of Nature are not, for the most part, immediate objects of perception. They are either inductive inferences from a large body of facts, the common truth in which they express, or, in their origin at least, physical hypotheses of a causal nature serving to explain phænomena with undeviating precision, and to enable us to predict new combinations of them. They are in all cases, and in the strictest sense of the term, probable conclusions, approaching, indeed, ever and ever nearer to certainty, as they receive more and more of the confirmation of experience. But of the character of probability, in the strict and proper sense of that term, they are never wholly divested. On the other hand, the knowledge of the laws of the mind does not require as its basis any extensive collection of observations. The general truth is seen in the particular instance, and it is not confirmed by the repetition of instances. We may illustrate this position by an obvious example. It may be a question whether that formula of reasoning, which is called the dictum of Aristotle, de omni et nullo, expresses a primary law of human reasoning or not; but it is no question that it expresses a general truth in Logic. Now that truth is made manifest in all its generality by reflection upon a single instance of its application. And this is both an evidence that the particular principle or formula in question is founded upon some general law or laws of the mind, and an illustration of the doctrine that the perception of such general truths is not derived from an induction from many instances, but is involved in the clear apprehension of a single instance. In connexion with this truth is seen the not less important one that our knowledge of the laws upon which the science of the intellectual powers rests, whatever may be its extent or its deficiency, is not probable knowledge. For we not only see in the particular example the general truth, but we see it also as a certain truth,—a truth, our confidence in which will not continue to increase with increasing experience of its practical verifications.

5. But if the general truths of Logic are of such a nature that when presented to the mind they at once command assent, wherein consists the difficulty of constructing the Science of Logic ? Not, it may be answered, in collecting the materials of knowledge, but in discriminating their nature, and determining their mutual place and relation. All sciences consist of general truths, but of those truths some only are primary and fundamental, others are secondary and derived. The laws of elliptic motion, discovered by Kepler, are general truths in astronomy, but they are not its fundamental truths. And it is so also in the purely mathematical sciences. An almost boundless diversity of theorems, which are known, and an infinite possibility of others, as yet unknown, rest together upon the foundation of a few simple axioms; and yet these are all general truths. It may be added, that they are truths which to an intelligence sufficiently refined would shine forth in their own unborrowed light, without the need of those connecting links of thought, those steps of wearisome and often painful deduction, by which the knowledge of them is actually acquired. Let us define as fundamental those laws and principles from which all other general truths of science may be deduced, and into which they may all be again resolved. Shall we then err in regarding that as the true science of Logic which, laying down certain elementary laws, confirmed by the very testimony of the mind, permits us thence to deduce, by uniform processes, the entire chain of its secondary consequences, and furnishes, for its practical applications, methods of perfect generality ? Let it be considered whether in any science, viewed either as a system of truth or as the foundation of a practical art, there can properly be any other test of the completeness and the fundamental character of its laws, than the completeness of its system of derived truths, and the generality of the methods which it serves to establish. Other questions may indeed present themselves. Convenience, prescription, individual preference, may urge their claims and deserve attention. But as respects the question of what constitutes science in its abstract integrity, I apprehend that no other considerations than the above are properly of any value.

6. It is designed, in the next place, to give expression in this treatise to the fundamental laws of reasoning in the symbolical language of a Calculus. Upon this head it will suffice to say, that those laws are such as to suggest this mode of expression, and to give to it a peculiar and exclusive fitness for the ends in view. There is not only a close analogy between the operations of the mind in general reasoning and its operations in the particular science of Algebra, but there is to a considerable extent an exact agreement in the laws by which the two classes of operations are conducted. Of course the laws must in both cases be determined independently; any formal agreement between them can only be established a posteriori by actual comparison. To borrow the notation of the science of Number, and then assume that in its new application the laws by which its use is governed will remain unchanged, would be mere hypothesis. There exist, indeed, certain general principles founded in the very nature of language, by which the use of symbols, which are but the elements of scientific language, is determined. To a certain extent these elements are arbitrary. Their interpretation is purely conventional: we are permitted to employ them in whatever sense we please. But this permission is limited by two indispensable conditions, — first, that from the sense once conventionally established we never, in the same process of reasoning, depart; secondly, that the laws by which the process is conducted be founded exclusively upon the above fixed sense or meaning of the symbols employed. In accordance with these principles, any agreement which may be established between the laws of the symbols of Logic and those of Algebra can but issue in an agreement of processes. The two provinces of interpretation remain apart and independent, each subject to its own laws and conditions.

Now the actual investigations of the following pages exhibit Logic, in its practical aspect, as a system of processes carried on by the aid of symbols having a definite interpretation, and subject to laws founded upon that interpretation alone. But at the same time they exhibit those laws as identical in form with the laws of the general symbols of algebra, with this single addition, viz., that the symbols of Logic are further subject to a special law (Chap. II.), to which the symbols of quantity, as such, are not subject. Upon the nature and the evidence of this law it is not purposed here to dwell. These questions will be fully discussed in a future page. But as constituting the essential ground of difference between those forms of inference with which Logic is conversant, and those which present themselves in the particular science of Number, the law in question is deserving of more than a passing notice. It may be said that it lies at the very foundation of general reasoning,—that it governs those intellectual acts of conception or of imagination which are preliminary to the processes of logical deduction, and that it gives to the processes themselves much of their actual form and expression. It may hence be affirmed that this law constitutes the germ or seminal principle, of which every approximation to a general method in Logic is the more or less perfect development.

7. The principle has already been laid down (5) that the sufficiency and truly fundamental character of any assumed system of laws in the science of Logic must partly be seen in the perfection of the methods to which they conduct us. It remains, then, to consider what the requirements of a general method in Logic are, and how far they are fulfilled in the system of the present work.

Logic is conversant with two kinds of relations,—relations among things, and relations among facts. But as facts are expressed by propositions, the latter species of relation may, at least for the purposes of Logic, be resolved into a relation among propositions. The assertion that the fact or event A is an invariable consequent of the fact or event B may, to this extent at least, be regarded as equivalent to the assertion, that the truth of the proposition affirming the occurrence of the event B always implies the truth of the proposition affirming the occurrence of the event A. Instead, then, of saying that Logic is conversant with relations among things and relations among facts, we are permitted to say that it is concerned with relations among things and relations among propositions. Of the former kind of relations we have an example in the proposition—"All men are mortal;" of the latter kind in the proposition—"If the sun is totally eclipsed, the stars will become visible." The one expresses a relation between "men" and "mortal beings," the other between the elementary propositions—"The sun is totally eclipsed;" "The stars will become visible." Among such relations I suppose to be included those which affirm or deny existence with respect to things, and those which affirm or deny truth with respect to propositions. Now let those things or those propositions among which relation is expressed be termed the elements of the propositions by which such relation is expressed. Proceeding from this definition, we may then say that the premises of any logical argument express given relations among certain elements, and that the conclusion must express an implied relation among those elements, or among a part of them, i. e. a relation implied by or inferentially involved in the premises.


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Table of Contents

Chapter I. Nature and Design of this Work
Chapter II. Signs and their Laws
Chapter III. Derivation of the Laws
Chapter IV. Division of Propositions
Chapter V. Principles of Symbolical Reasoning
Chapter VI. Of Interpretation
Chapter VII. Of Elimination
Chapter VIII. Of Reduction
Chapter IX. Methods of Abbreviation
Chapter X. Conditions of a Perfect Method
Chapter XI. Of Secondary Propositions
Chapter XII. Methods in Secondary Propositions
Chapter XIII. Clarke and Spinoza
Chapter XIV. Examples of Analysis
Chapter XV. Of the Aristotelian Logic
Chapter XVI. Of the Theory of Probabilities
Chapter XVII. General Method in Probabilities
Chapter XVIII. Elementary Illustrations
Chapter XIX. Of Statistical Conditions
Chapter XX. Problems on Causes
Chapter XXI. Probability of Judgments
Chapter XXII. Constitution of the Intellect

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