The Stoics hold that logic is a virtue (Aetius I, Preface 2). This claim has so far not received much attention, and it can appear hard to make sense of. After all, logic seems to be concerned with inference, while it is customary to assess character traits and/or actions in terms of virtue. Justice and moderation count as paradigmatic examples of the virtues. What, then, does the Stoic claim that logic is a virtue mean?
According to the Stoics, logic is a comprehensive field—roughly, the study of reasoning and speech. It includes the logic of inference as well as questions about the workings of the human mind. This paves the way for the Stoic claim that logic is a virtue, but it does not yet illuminate it.
In a short series of mini lectures on YouTube, I work through a range of topics in logic, physics, and ethics relevant to the bigger picture:
Meanwhile, my plan for this post is to proceed by way of example. Logic itself is a “generic” virtue. That is, there are several virtues that count as “logical.” I want to elucidate the Stoic proposal by looking at one of the logical virtues: non-precipitancy, a state of mind related to how one assents to impressions. Non-precipitancy, I argue, is a virtue that should interest us today. It resonates with some of today’s hardest challenges, for example, related to bias, discrimination, and prejudice.
What is non-precipitancy?
Non-precipitancy is defined as systematic knowledge of when one should and should not assent. Literally, non-precipitancy—ἀπροπτωσία—means not rushing forward. Without the virtue of non-precipitancy, the human mind tumbles along, rushing, as it were, into assent (Diogenes Laertius, Book VII, 46-8).
The virtue of non-precipitancy targets what the Stoics take to be a pervasive dimension of human thought: we jump to conclusions all the time. In everyday life, we scold ourselves and others for this. We are annoyed when we realize that we did not think carefully and fell for a scam. We are hurt when others judge us quickly, applying stereotypes. We are concerned when researchers present their views as definitive, and then it turns out that they didn’t conduct relevant studies. And so on. These kinds of complaints are familiar, and yet serious. A virtue that speaks to these concerns deserves our attention.
Today we don’t speak of “logical virtues.” But we use a related notion when we discuss epistemic virtues. A person is epistemically virtuous if she complies with norms of how one should think, form judgments, conduct inquiry, and so on. The epistemic norm that correlates to the virtue of non-precipitancy says, most generally, that assent should be guided by knowledge (cf. video #4).
Non-precipitancy, assent, and opinion
The claim that non-precipitancy is a virtue presupposes a basic premise in Stoic philosophy: impression and assent are movements of the human mind. Assent can take place at different speeds. Precipitate assent is too quick. That is, the virtue of non-precipitancy is concerned with a tendency of the human mind to perform one of its basic operations—assent to impressions—in an overly fast way.
If today we call non-precipitancy an “epistemic” virtue, it may be tempting to think of assent to impressions as belief-formation. But notably, the Stoics do not have a notion that is equivalent to today’s notion of belief. For them, every instance of “holding true” is either an opinion—in Greek, doxa—or a piece of knowledge, and it makes all the difference whether it is one or the other. Doxa is defined as weak and rash assent. The wise person does not have opinions. In other words, we should not have opinions. This norm relates to any number of themes in Stoic epistemology (cf. videos # 4, 5 and 11). For now, I mention it because non-precipitancy can also be described as a virtue of avoiding opinions.
How does the virtue of non-precipitancy relate to concerns we share today?
Cognitive bias and related phenomena involve that we take something or someone to be a certain way before we even explicitly considered it. We find ourselves with assumptions and judgments that on reflection we recognize as flawed. Anyone who is troubled by these tendencies should be interested in whether we can get our minds to slow down. As far as we know, Stoic education in logic includes exercises to this effect.
The Stoics argue that we all need training in logic if we are to counteract rash assent (cf. videos # 2 and 7). Logic, as the Stoics conceive of it, includes extensive study of flawed arguments. Students in logic work through these arguments repeatedly, often in a dialectical setting. Consider the so-called Sorites Paradox as an example. A teacher asks a student “is 2 few?” Here it seems safe to say “yes.” But as the teacher asks a series of questions—“is 3 few?”, “is 4 few?”, and so on—the student may continue to say “yes,” and eventually find herself having assented to an impression where it is far from clear what she should say. The Stoics assume that it is difficult to fall silent at the right moment. The mere fact that there is a sequence (2 is few, 3 is few, etc.) creates a kind of inertia. The mind gathers steam and tumbles toward the next assent without proper consideration (cf. video #11).
Arguably, this kind of exercise mimics a challenge that we encounter in ordinary life. We feel under pressure to respond to the way things seem, or to a question that is posed. We tumble along, saying “yes” or “no,” even though we are in no position to assess things. For the Stoics, the inertia generated by sequential assents is but one example. Our minds are prone to rash assent. Logic elucidates this tendency and its pitfalls. It develops strategies for slowed-down thinking. This is one reason why I propose that Stoic logic—so far largely in the hands of specialists—should be discussed more widely, indeed just as much as Stoic ethics.
Katja Maria Vogt is Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. She specializes in ancient philosophy, ethics, and normative epistemology. She is the author of numerous books and articles, including Desiring the Good (2017), Belief and Truth (2012), Law, Reason, and the Cosmic City (2008), and is currently working on a monograph entitled The Original Stoics.