Harrison Middleton University

BOOK REVIEW: Logic by Isaac Watts

BOOK REVIEW: Logic by Isaac Watts

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.

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May 3, 2024

Thanks to John M. Wiley, a 2024 Fellow in Ideas, for today’s book review.

We often hear about whether someone is “left-brained” or “right-brained” to distinguish between one’s predisposition to either logical thinking or creativity. Perhaps many (if not most) people tend to favor one side, but the case of Isaac Watts shows a man who excelled in both sides of his brain. Watts was most often known for his work as the “father of English hymnody,” showing his brilliance as a wordsmith with hymns such as “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” and “Joy to the World.” At the same time, Watts also penned a prolific textbook with the simple title of Logic. Renowned universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, and Harvard incorporated Watts’s text into their curriculum for almost two centuries.* His intricate and practical perspectives for seeking truth are worth evaluating even in the twenty-first century, particularly for those discontent with confinement to one side of the brain.

According to Watts, logic is “the art of using reason well in our enquiries [sic] after truth, and the communication of it to others” (313). Watts was also contemporaneous with the pivotal era of the Enlightenment. While he was somewhat sparse in his citations of other philosophers, John Locke was among the most frequent—at times critiquing the English thinker and other times praising the “late ingenious Mr. Locke” (pg. 509). But what set Watts apart from many other Enlightenment writers was his epistemology rooted in the belief that “reason and scripture ought to be our final rules of determination in matters that relate to this world, and that which is to come” (442). If anything, reason was a servant to guide people towards biblical revelation. Throughout Logic, Watts heavily appealed to his Protestant faith, while also warning readers of excessive sectarianism. Still, to Watts, the use of reason was a gift from God to know truth—whether in secular callings or in religious undertakings.

Just as Watts’s hymns were diligently structured for religious affections, Logic was also meticulously crafted to persuade his audience. Watts walks his readers through rather detailed discussions of ideas, discerning the truthfulness of propositions, syllogisms, and methods for employing logic. His work is replete with examples that would have been contextually relevant for his audience. Occasionally, Watts would interact with the thinkers of history, such as Aristotle, René Descartes, and Protestant Reformers like John Calvin and Martin Luther. But he was often careful to follow many of the tested laws of logic with rigidity.

Nevertheless, what made Watts’s textbook particularly fascinating was his periodic advice for the practical use of critical thinking. For example, he urged the following: “Furnish yourselves with a rich variety of ideas; acquaint yourselves with things ancient and modern; things natural, civil and religious; things domestic and national: things of your native land, and of foreign countries; things present, past, and future, and above all, be well acquainted with God and yourselves; learn animal nature, and the workings of your own spirits” (354).

Perhaps if Watts were alive today, he would add another admonition to the quotation above: use your “left brain” and your “right brain.” Especially for those who work in the field of humanities, Watts’s Logic is a unique contribution that still offers valuable insights for a modern world pursuing both truth and beauty.

* Historical information taken from https://heritagebooks.org/products/logic-the-right-use-of-reason-in-the-inquiry-after-truth-watts.html (accessed March 23, 2024).

Photo credit: Shutterstock/Bibleboxone

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