First Principles and Contexts

  • James A. W. Rembert


The premises of a dialectician regarded qua dialectition are generally not as important as the nexus of his arguments and the speed and acumen with which he overthrows the arguments of his opponent. If the dialectician is regarded qua both arguer and author, however, some account must be taken of the principles from which he argues, if for no other reason than that an author is usually a committed person and we need to know what principles in his commitment he defends and what contrary principles he attacks. In literature, if not in logic, substance cannot be separated from style. The simplicity and obviousness of Swift’s principles have dismayed some commentators, who point out the poverty of his commitment, his unphilosophic mind, even his lack of intelligence.1 In this instance, however, what is loss for the philosopher is gain for the dialectician,2 if the criticisers of Swift’s intelligence3 are correct, because a proper dialectician can argue either side of a question with success, his strength lying in wit and style and not necessarily in insight and commitment. That is one view of dialectic. But nowhere is it mandated that the truth must be dull and unconvincing. There is little one can say in reply to a charge that Swift is not a great or profound thinker but only a brilliant stylist with intense feelings; one may hold up the ‘Voyage to the Houyhnhnms’ and the ‘Digression on Madness’ and suggest that they are piercing, philosophic commentaries on human nature, society and the mind, but as yet there is no consensus on that view.


Sense Perception Deductive Inference Analogical Inference Intense Feeling Wrong Opinion 
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  1. 1.
    D. Donoghue, Jonathan Swift: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 1969) p. 172Google Scholar
  2. I. Ehrenpreis, Dr Swift (London: Methuen, 1967), vol. II of Swift: The Man, His Works, and the Age, pp. 50–3.Google Scholar
  3. On Swift’s lack of intelligence see F. R. Leavis, ‘The Irony of Swift’, Scrutiny, 2 (1934) 378.Google Scholar
  4. On his lack of commitment to helping the poor Irish see Nokes’s discussion of the Irish pamphlets in Jonathan Swift: A Hypocrite Reversed (Oxford University Press, 1985).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    K. Williams, Jonathan Swift and the Age of Compromise (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1958) p. 137.Google Scholar
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    On 14 August 1775 Swift wrote to Ford, ‘I have finished my Travels …; they are admirable Things, and will wonderfully mend the World’: Letters of Jonathan Swift to Charles Ford, ed. D. Nichol Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935) p. 101.Google Scholar
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    For an account of the disputation, see W. T. Costello, The Scholastic Curriculum at Early Seventeenth-Century Cambridge (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958) pp. 24–6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    R. S. Crane in his essay, ‘The Houyhnhnms, the Yahoos, and the History of Ideas’, The Idea of the Humanities and Other Essays (University of Chicago Press, 1967) II pp. 261–82, discusses seventeenth-century logical definitions of man and animal as rational and irrational, but not the question of the ability of animals to reason.Google Scholar
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    II 19, an obscure chapter which has drawn much commentary. For an excellent discussion of the problems raised in it see R. Adamson, A Short History of Logic, ed. W. R. Sorley (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1911), upon which I draw in this paragraph.Google Scholar
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    Charles Wesley, A Guide to Syllogism, or, A Manual of Logic; Comprehending an Account of the Manner of Disputation Now Practiced in the Schools at Cambridge (Cambridge, 1832) p. 58 n. The italics are his.Google Scholar
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    This quality has been called in question. See e.g. F. C. S. Schiller, ‘Aristotle’s Refutation of “Aristotelian” Logic’, Mind, 23 (1914) esp. 3, 8, 14 & 16.Google Scholar
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    Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (1912; London: Oxford University Press, 1959) p. 1.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., ch. 1, ‘Appearance and Reality’; ch. 2, ‘The Existence of Matter’. On ‘the general fraudulence of the senses’ see G. Ryle, Dilemmas (Cambridge University Press, 1954) ch. 7, ‘Perception’.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    J. R. Moore, ‘Swift as Historian’, Studies in Philology, 49 (1952) 583–604.Google Scholar
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    The influence of the disputation upon literature in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries has been noted in passing in several places, among them, ‘Not a few writers of this period delight to import into the productions of the closet, the smartness, bluster, and quibblings of a regular disputation’: J. B. Mullinger, Cambridge Characteristics in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 1867) p. 71Google Scholar
  18. V. H. H. Green, British Institutions: The Universities (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969) p. 194Google Scholar
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  21. G. P. Mayhew, ‘Swift and the Tripos Tradition’, Philological Quarterly, 45 (1966) 90: influence of the tripos tradition on Nahum Tate, Southerne, Farquhar, Congreve andGoogle Scholar
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    Anthony Collins, A Discourse concerning Ridicule and Irony in Writing (London, 1729) p. 5.Google Scholar

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© James A. W. Rembert 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • James A. W. Rembert
    • 1
  1. 1.The CitadelCharlestonUSA

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