What is the longest argument you’ve ever made? What is the longest argument you’ve ever read?
By an “argument” I mean: collect together some information nuggets, show how they are related, and then draw a logical conclusion from them.
Most of the (engineering) books I read are oriented toward providing information and techniques, not toward forming arguments.
Recently, however, I have been reading two outstanding books:
— Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
— Introduction to Mathematics by Alfred Whitehead
And through careful reading I have become aware of the arguments being made in these books. I say “careful reading” because their arguments aren’t immediately obvious, at least not to me.
After reading a page I pause and reflect on the ideas presented. Slowly I am seeing how the arguments are being constructed.
In Smith’s book the arguments are well contained; at the end of each chapter he ties together the various parts of the argument. Whitehead’s arguments are more complex and subtle; they can span multiple chapters.
Whitehead’s book is on mathematics. It occurred to me, “Why are there arguments in a book on mathematics? Shouldn’t it just contain information and techniques, like my engineering books?” I’ve been puzzling over why I like Whitehead’s book so very much, particularly since I am not especially interested in mathematics. Now I think I know why: because it contains both information and arguments.
The realization that I have come to is that I like books which contain both interesting information as well as arguments.
Whitehead was both a mathematician and a philosopher. Smith was both an economist and a philosopher.
A philosopher is a master of arguments.
I think great books are those that contain interesting information and are also philosophical (i.e. contain arguments).
In our sound bite society we don’t see many long, elaborate, elegant arguments. That’s a shame.