17 January 2010

Syllogistic vs. Elliptical Thinking

A reader asks that for an explanation of the difference between syllogistic and elliptical thinking.

Syllogistic thinking can be described as a style of thought that uses a clear, linear progression from premises to a conclusion.  This style is highly structured and therefore easily outlined.

For example:  "The Catholic theological tradition teaches that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good; yet, evil exists.  We must conclude therefore that one or more of these traditionally attributed characteristics is false.  God does not know about evil.  God is not powerful enough to prevent evil.  Or, He does not care that we suffer from evil.  If one or more of these characteristics is impossible to maintain in the face of the objection from evil, then God as the Catholic tradition understands Him is false."

Extreme forms of syllogistic thinking take on an analytical flavor: Let G be God, which entails qualities Q 1-3.  Let E be evil where E negates by implication one or more Q 1-3.  Therefore, G cannot be God if one or more Q 1-3 is negated.  (This is my poor attempt at analytical language!)  This sort of writing is then further reduced to a symbolic form that looks like calculus.

The goal of syllogistic thinking is precision and clarity of terms and the rigorous logical connection between and among the premises and conclusion.  Scientists, engineers, mathematicians, etc. make full use of syllogistic thinking in their work.

Elliptical thinking can be described as a style of thought that uses non-linear, intentionally ambiguous language to point towards premises and conclusions without drawing hard, logical connections. 

For example:  We all suffer from evil.  And it might seem as though God is powerless in the face of our suffering.  But we must ask ourselves what we can reasonably expect of God in light of our disobedience.  Surely He has the power to prevent our suffering, but at what cost to our freedom?  Surely He knows that we suffer, but does His knowing ordain the very suffering we would hope to avoid? In asking the question, "Where is God in our suffering?" what are we expecting from Him?

While syllogistic thinking assumes the question of God and evil is a question of language and logic, elliptical thinking tackles the problem in a more literary fashion.  I don't mean to suggest here that these two examples are asking precisely the same question.  They aren't.  The comparison to be made here is in the style of writing.  One is highly structured with clearly defined steps that lead to a logical conclusion.  The other is more of a winding path full of starts, stops, falls, and challenges to meditate.   

A good historical example of syllogistic thinking is Thomas Aquinas.  A good example of elliptical thinking is Bernard of Clairvaux.  Keep in mind:  elliptical thinking is not illogical anymore than syllogistic thinking is unliterary.  We're talking about the overall flavor of a writer's style, the dominant note among many.  Thomas' hymns and commentaries on scripture are hardly syllogistic!

Follow HancAquam ------------>

1 comment:

  1. Norah5:23 PM

    Thank you for that father; I shall mull over it today.