Supertext:The textbook that changed my life

November 27, 1998

It is perhaps an indication of what a sad, empty life I have led that I have in my time memorised, word for word, two textbooks. The first was a history textbook that I used at school, the title, and, for that matter, the contents, of which have long since been erased from my mind. The second has made a much deeper and long-lasting impression. It is Irving M. Copi's Introduction to Logic , which was the set text for a first-year logic course I had to take as part of my philosophy degree at York University. I bought it in my first week at York, but first looked at it about six months later, when I discovered that I had exactly two weeks to prepare for the exam. As I had not attended a single logic lecture, my only hope of getting through the exam seemed to lie in mastering the text. I therefore set myself the task of memorising 25 pages a day for the 14 days I had left. I approached the task as an arid and (outside the purpose of passing the exam) more or less pointless exercise in committing things to memory, an activity for which in those days I had an inexplicable passion.

Within a few days, however, my attitude changed. For two weeks I lived and breathed logic, absorbing Copi's examples and exercises, not only because I had to, but because I found them - and the whole book - extraordinarily fascinating. Getting through the exam was now no longer the point; logic itself had become one of my greatest enthusiasms. My enthusiasm waned somewhat in my third year, when I took an advanced logic course based on a book by Geoffrey Hunter called Metalogic , a text I somehow managed to master without ever really understanding (I could reproduce the proofs, but never quite understood the point of them). But the impact of Copi's book remained, and, I think, remains to this day.

The formal parts of Copi's book cover the traditional categorical syllogisms, the truth tables of propositional logic and some elementary quantificational logic, all of which I enjoyed in much the same spirit that one might enjoy a crossword puzzle. What really excited me, however, were the early, informal parts of the book, which are rich in "real life" examples and which seemed to offer the hope of assessing the validity of all sorts of arguments, whether from politicians, newspapers or philosophers, on the basis of a very easily learned technique. I no longer believe that either life or logic is as simple as it seemed in the first flush of my enthusiasm for Copi's book, but I am very grateful for what Copi taught me and I passionately believe that if the rudiments of logic that he teaches so well were generally understood throughout the humanities, much of the sloppy thinking that routinely passes as "theory" would be treated by undergraduates with the disdain it deserves.

Ray Monk is senior lecturer in philosophy, University of Southampton.

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