Why do Illiterates do so Badly in Logic?

Part of the Argumentation Library book series (ARGA, volume 2)


My title is a complex question. Any attempt at answering it presumes a ‘yes’ answer to the question, Do illiterates do badly in logic? Illiterates certainly do not give the answers to very simple exercises in formal logic that you or I would give, and I am going to explain why. However, my explanation does not account for why illiterates do badly because I do not think that there is anything wrong with their answers. My title intentionally makes use of a misleading question in order to focus attention on the presumption behind the question.


Actual Discourse Specialized Discourse Simple Exercise Story Problem House Owner 
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  1. 1.
    Verbal logic problems were first used to investigate the influence of literacy on reasoning in 1931–2 by Luria (1976). The experiments he conducted were with peasants in remote regions in Uzbekistan. Some subjects were asked to solve a simple exercise in deduction; some were asked only to repeat it. Cole, Gay, Glick, Sharp (1971) conducted similar studies in Liberia with the Kpelle and Vai, as did Sharp and Cole (1975) with Mayan and Spanish-speaking villagers in the Yucatan. Scribner (1997) conducted recall studies with Kpelle and Vai subjects, which she first reported in 1975. Hamill (1990)conducted similar studies with Navajos (and others). He was more interested in the interpretation of cross-cultural experimental results than the effects of literacy on logical reasoning. Consequently only a few of his subjects happened to be illiterate.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Although the reference to bias implies a criticism of the subject, Scribner does not conclude that the subject is being illogical. Her willingness to see things from the subject’s perspective may be due to her history. As Cole (1992) explains in her obituary, she had a long career in the labor movement before becoming a graduate student. Although her postdoctoral research was on the effects of literacy on social development, her last years were spent on research that challenges the distinction between manual and intellectual labor.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    After this essay was published in Philosophical Investigations,Arthur Cody convinced me that my confidence about what Abdurakhm was doing in responding to Luria was misplaced, and that I was as guilty of reading into Abdurakhm’s responses what I wanted to find there as those whom I criticize. This same criticism applies to my readings of the behavior of the other experimental subjects that I discuss. Rather, than presume to know what these subjects are doing when they answer as they do, which is what I did, what 1 should have done instead is suggested that there are other explanations of their behavior than are given by the cognitive psychologists. My argument does not depend on my knowing why Abdurakhm (or any of the others) answered as he did. My interest is in how the psychologists know what is supposed to be the right answer, because their theorizing is directed to explaining why Abdurakhm does not give the right answer.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Henle would concede not that Abdurakhm was illogical, but only that he failed to “accept the logical task,” and so his refusal to answer does not provide any basis for concluding anything about his ability to reason.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Wason (1968) is one of the first of his many discussions of the Selection Task. For a more detailed discussion of the significance of the results researchers have gotten on the failures of subjects to perform the Wason Selection Task, see the first section of the next essay in this collection.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Cohen (1981) also is sceptical about conclusions about how people reason that are based on experiments where subjects are given problems to solve. Perhaps the most significant difference between us is revealed in a later essay (1986), where he makes clear that he agrees with a diagnosis like Scribner’s diagnosis (p. 153), and so accepts as normative what formal logic has to say about the solutions to the problems the illiterate subjects are asked to solve, even though he rejects as normative what Bayesian probability has to say about the solutions to certain statistical problems. Also significant is that he argues that formal logic must be wrong about the argument forms-most notably those involving the conditional-it counts as valid when our intuition tells us otherwise. By contrast, I am prepared to accept what formal logic has to say about these argument forms, because I believe that anything that instantiates them must be understood in terms of what I have been calling the “specialized discourse” of formal logic, and because I distrust intuitions such as his which are not based on trying to imagine when someone would actually say or think what he is citing as a counterexample.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    As I remarked in an earlier footnote, when this essay was published I did not realize how presumptuous I was in supposing that I could see things from the point of view of the unschooled subjects of these experiments. I would like to believe that that presumption does not affect the argument of this essay because my real concern is with showing that the answers the experimenters count as correct are only correct when the questions are understood as exercises in classroom logic. However, I do regret that I did not do enough to resist the impulse to think that I knew, what the cognitive psychologists did not know, what the experimental subjects were doing when they answered as they did.Google Scholar
  8. I am indebted to Moira Gutteridge for her helpful criticisms both as a commentator when I read an earlier version of this essay at the 1993 Northwest Conference on Philosophy, and as a critic when I sent her a later version of it.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of OregonEugeneUSA

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