A System of Logic, by John Stuart Mill

Chapter IV.

Of Propositions.

§ 1. In treating of Propositions, as already in treating of Names, some considerations of a comparatively elementary nature respecting their form and varieties must be premised, before entering upon that analysis of the import conveyed by them, which is the real subject and purpose of this preliminary book.

A proposition, we have before said, is a portion of discourse in which a predicate is affirmed or denied of a subject. A predicate and a subject are all that is necessarily required to make up a proposition: but as we can not conclude from merely seeing two names put together, that they are a predicate and a subject, that is, that one of them is intended to be affirmed or denied of the other, it is necessary that there should be some mode or form of indicating that such is the intention; some sign to distinguish a predication from any other kind of discourse. This is sometimes done by a slight alteration of one of the words, called an inflection; as when we say, Fire burns; the change of the second word from burn to burns showing that we mean to affirm the predicate burn of the subject fire. But this function is more commonly fulfilled by the word is, when an affirmation is intended, is not, when a negation; or by some other part of the verb to be. The word which thus serves the purpose of a sign of predication is called, as we formerly observed, the copula. It is important that there should be no indistinctness in our conception of the nature and office of the copula; for confused notions respecting it are among the causes which have spread mysticism over the field of logic, and perverted its speculations into logomachies.

It is apt to be supposed that the copula is something more than a mere sign of predication; that it also signifies existence. In the proposition, Socrates is just, it may seem to be implied not only that the quality just can be affirmed of Socrates, but moreover that Socrates is, that is to say, exists. This, however, only shows that there is an ambiguity in the word is; a word which not only performs the function of the copula in affirmations, but has also a meaning of its own, in virtue of which it may itself be made the predicate of a proposition. That the employment of it as a copula does not necessarily include the affirmation of existence, appears from such a proposition as this, A centaur is a fiction of the poets; where it can not possibly be implied that a centaur exists, since the proposition itself expressly asserts that the thing has no real existence.

Many volumes might be filled with the frivolous speculations concerning the nature of Being (το ὄν, οὐσία, Ens, Entitas, Essentia, and the like), which have arisen from overlooking this double meaning of the word to be; from supposing that when it signifies to exist, and when it signifies to be some specified thing, as to be a man, to be Socrates, to be seen or spoken of, to be a phantom, even to be a nonentity, it must still, at bottom, answer to the same idea; and that a meaning must be found for it which shall suit all these cases. The fog which rose from this narrow spot diffused itself at an early period over the whole surface of metaphysics. Yet it becomes us not to triumph over the great intellects of Plato and Aristotle because we are now able to preserve ourselves from many errors into which they, perhaps inevitably, fell. The fire-teazer of a modern steam-engine produces by his exertions far greater effects than Milo of Crotona could, but he is not therefore a stronger man. The Greeks seldom knew any language but their own. This rendered it far more difficult for them than it is for us, to acquire a readiness in detecting ambiguities. One of the advantages of having accurately studied a plurality of languages, especially of those languages which eminent thinkers have used as the vehicle of their thoughts, is the practical lesson we learn respecting the ambiguities of words, by finding that the same word in one language corresponds, on different occasions, to different words in another. When not thus exercised, even the strongest understandings find it difficult to believe that things which have a common name, have not in some respect or other a common nature; and often expend much labor very unprofitably (as was frequently done by the two philosophers just mentioned) in vain attempts to discover in what this common nature consists. But, the habit once formed, intellects much inferior are capable of detecting even ambiguities which are common to many languages: and it is surprising that the one now under consideration, though it exists in the modern languages as well as in the ancient, should have been overlooked by almost all authors. The quantity of futile speculation which had been caused by a misapprehension of the nature of the copula, was hinted at by Hobbes; but Mr. James Mill25 was, I believe, the first who distinctly characterized the ambiguity, and pointed out how many errors in the received systems of philosophy it has had to answer for. It has, indeed, misled the moderns scarcely less than the ancients, though their mistakes, because our understandings are not yet so completely emancipated from their influence, do not appear equally irrational.

We shall now briefly review the principal distinctions which exist among propositions, and the technical terms most commonly in use to express those distinctions.

§ 2. A proposition being a portion of discourse in which something is affirmed or denied of something, the first division of propositions is into affirmative and negative. An affirmative proposition is that in which the predicate is affirmed of the subject; as, Cæsar is dead. A negative proposition is that in which the predicate is denied of the subject; as, Cæsar is not dead. The copula, in this last species of proposition, consists of the words is not, which are the sign of negation; is being the sign of affirmation.

Some logicians, among whom may be mentioned Hobbes, state this distinction differently; they recognize only one form of copula, is, and attach the negative sign to the predicate. “Cæsar is dead,” and “Cæsar is not dead,” according to these writers, are propositions agreeing not in the subject and predicate, but in the subject only. They do not consider “dead,” but “not dead,” to be the predicate of the second proposition, and they accordingly define a negative proposition to be one in which the predicate is a negative name. The point, though not of much practical moment, deserves notice as an example (not unfrequent in logic) where by means of an apparent simplification, but which is merely verbal, matters are made more complex than before. The notion of these writers was, that they could get rid of the distinction between affirming and denying, by treating every case of denying as the affirming of a negative name. But what is meant by a negative name? A name expressive of the absence of an attribute. So that when we affirm a negative name, what we are really predicating is absence and not presence; we are asserting not that any thing is, but that something is not; to express which operation no word seems so proper as the word denying. The fundamental distinction is between a fact and the non-existence of that fact; between seeing something and not seeing it, between Cæsar’s being dead and his not being dead; and if this were a merely verbal distinction, the generalization which brings both within the same form of assertion would be a real simplification: the distinction, however, being real, and in the facts, it is the generalization confounding the distinction that is merely verbal; and tends to obscure the subject, by treating the difference between two kinds of truths as if it were only a difference between two kinds of words. To put things together, and to put them or keep them asunder, will remain different operations, whatever tricks we may play with language.

A remark of a similar nature may be applied to most of those distinctions among propositions which are said to have reference to their modality; as, difference of tense or time; the sun did rise, the sun is rising, the sun will rise. These differences, like that between affirmation and negation, might be glossed over by considering the incident of time as a mere modification of the predicate: thus, The sun is an object having risen, The sun is an object now rising, The sun is an object to rise hereafter. But the simplification would be merely verbal. Past, present, and future, do not constitute so many different kinds of rising; they are designations belonging to the event asserted, to the sun’s rising to-day. They affect, not the predicate, but the applicability of the predicate to the particular subject. That which we affirm to be past, present, or future, is not what the subject signifies, nor what the predicate signifies, but specifically and expressly what the predication signifies; what is expressed only by the proposition as such, and not by either or both of the terms. Therefore the circumstance of time is properly considered as attaching to the copula, which is the sign of predication, and not to the predicate. If the same can not be said of such modifications as these, Cæsar may be dead; Cæsar is perhaps dead; it is possible that Cæsar is dead; it is only because these fall altogether under another head, being properly assertions not of any thing relating to the fact itself, but of the state of our own mind in regard to it; namely, our absence of disbelief of it. Thus “Cæsar may be dead” means “I am not sure that Cæsar is alive.”

§ 3. The next division of propositions is into Simple and Complex; more aptly (by Professor Bain26) termed Compound. A simple proposition is that in which one predicate is affirmed or denied of one subject. A compound proposition is that in which there is more than one predicate, or more than one subject, or both.

At first sight this division has the air of an absurdity; a solemn distinction of things into one and more than one; as if we were to divide horses into single horses and teams of horses. And it is true that what is called a complex (or compound) proposition is often not a proposition at all, but several propositions, held together by a conjunction. Such, for example, is this: Cæsar is dead, and Brutus is alive: or even this, Cæsar is dead, but Brutus is alive. There are here two distinct assertions; and we might as well call a street a complex house, as these two propositions a complex proposition. It is true that the syncategorematic words and and but have a meaning; but that meaning is so far from making the two propositions one, that it adds a third proposition to them. All particles are abbreviations, and generally abbreviations of propositions; a kind of short-hand, whereby something which, to be expressed fully, would have required a proposition or a series of propositions, is suggested to the mind at once. Thus the words, Cæsar is dead and Brutus is alive, are equivalent to these: Cæsar is dead; Brutus is alive; it is desired that the two preceding propositions should be thought of together. If the words were, Cæsar is dead, but Brutus is alive, the sense would be equivalent to the same three propositions together with a fourth; “between the two preceding propositions there exists a contrast:” viz., either between the two facts themselves, or between the feelings with which it is desired that they should be regarded.

In the instances cited the two propositions are kept visibly distinct, each subject having its separate predicate, and each predicate its separate subject. For brevity, however, and to avoid repetition, the propositions are often blended together: as in this, “Peter and James preached at Jerusalem and in Galilee,” which contains four propositions: Peter preached at Jerusalem, Peter preached in Galilee, James preached at Jerusalem, James preached in Galilee.

We have seen that when the two or more propositions comprised in what is called a complex proposition are stated absolutely, and not under any condition or proviso, it is not a proposition at all, but a plurality of propositions; since what it expresses is not a single assertion, but several assertions, which, if true when joined, are true also when separated. But there is a kind of proposition which, though it contains a plurality of subjects and of predicates, and may be said in one sense of the word to consist of several propositions, contains but one assertion; and its truth does not at all imply that of the simple propositions which compose it. An example of this is, when the simple propositions are connected by the particle or; as, either A is B or C is D; or by the particle if; as, A is B if C is D. In the former case, the proposition is called disjunctive, in the latter, conditional: the name hypothetical was originally common to both.

As has been well remarked by Archbishop Whately and others, the disjunctive form is resolvable into the conditional; every disjunctive proposition being equivalent to two or more conditional ones. “Either A is B or C is D,” means, “if A is not B, C is D; and if C is not D, A is B.” All hypothetical propositions, therefore, though disjunctive in form, are conditional in meaning; and the words hypothetical and conditional may be, as indeed they generally are, used synonymously. Propositions in which the assertion is not dependent on a condition, are said, in the language of logicians, to be categorical.

A hypothetical proposition is not, like the pretended complex propositions which we previously considered, a mere aggregation of simple propositions. The simple propositions which form part of the words in which it is couched, form no part of the assertion which it conveys. When we say, If the Koran comes from God, Mohammed is the prophet of God, we do not intend to affirm either that the Koran does come from God, or that Mohammed is really his prophet. Neither of these simple propositions may be true, and yet the truth of the hypothetical proposition may be indisputable. What is asserted is not the truth of either of the propositions, but the inferribility of the one from the other. What, then, is the subject, and what the predicate of the hypothetical proposition? “The Koran” is not the subject of it, nor is “Mohammed:” for nothing is affirmed or denied either of the Koran or of Mohammed. The real subject of the predication is the entire proposition, “Mohammed is the prophet of God;” and the affirmation is, that this is a legitimate inference from the proposition, “The Koran comes from God.” The subject and predicate, therefore, of a hypothetical proposition are names of propositions. The subject is some one proposition. The predicate is a general relative name applicable to propositions; of this form — “an inference from so and so.” A fresh instance is here afforded of the remark, that particles are abbreviations; since “If A is B, C is D,” is found to be an abbreviation of the following: “The proposition C is D, is a legitimate inference from the proposition A is B.”

The distinction, therefore, between hypothetical and categorical propositions is not so great as it at first appears. In the conditional, as well as in the categorical form, one predicate is affirmed of one subject, and no more: but a conditional proposition is a proposition concerning a proposition; the subject of the assertion is itself an assertion. Nor is this a property peculiar to hypothetical propositions. There are other classes of assertions concerning propositions. Like other things, a proposition has attributes which may be predicated of it. The attribute predicated of it in a hypothetical proposition, is that of being an inference from a certain other proposition. But this is only one of many attributes that might be predicated. We may say, That the whole is greater than its part, is an axiom in mathematics: That the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father alone, is a tenet of the Greek Church: The doctrine of the divine right of kings was renounced by Parliament at the Revolution: The infallibility of the Pope has no countenance from Scripture. In all these cases the subject of the predication is an entire proposition. That which these different predicates are affirmed of, is the proposition, “the whole is greater than its part;” the proposition, “the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father alone;” the proposition, “kings have a divine right;” the proposition, “the Pope is infallible.”

Seeing, then, that there is much less difference between hypothetical propositions and any others, than one might be led to imagine from their form, we should be at a loss to account for the conspicuous position which they have been selected to fill in treatises on logic, if we did not remember that what they predicate of a proposition, namely, its being an inference from something else, is precisely that one of its attributes with which most of all a logician is concerned.

§ 4. The next of the common divisions of Propositions is into Universal, Particular, Indefinite, and Singular: a distinction founded on the degree of generality in which the name, which is the subject of the proposition, is to be understood. The following are examples:

All men are mortal — Universal. Some men are mortal — Particular. Man is mortal — Indefinite. Julius Cæsar is mortal — Singular.

The proposition is Singular, when the subject is an individual name. The individual name needs not be a proper name. “The Founder of Christianity was crucified,” is as much a singular proposition as “Christ was crucified.”

When the name which is the subject of the proposition is a general name, we may intend to affirm or deny the predicate, either of all the things that the subject denotes, or only of some. When the predicate is affirmed or denied of all and each of the things denoted by the subject, the proposition is universal; when of some undefined portion of them only, it is particular. Thus, All men are mortal; Every man is mortal; are universal propositions. No man is immortal, is also a universal proposition, since the predicate, immortal, is denied of each and every individual denoted by the term man; the negative proposition being exactly equivalent to the following, Every man is not-immortal. But “some men are wise,” “some men are not wise,” are particular propositions; the predicate wise being in the one case affirmed and in the other denied not of each and every individual denoted by the term man, but only of each and every one of some portion of those individuals, without specifying what portion; for if this were specified, the proposition would be changed either into a singular proposition, or into a universal proposition with a different subject; as, for instance, “all properly instructed men are wise.” There are other forms of particular propositions; as, “Most men are imperfectly educated:” it being immaterial how large a portion of the subject the predicate is asserted of, as long as it is left uncertain how that portion is to be distinguished from the rest.27

When the form of the expression does not clearly show whether the general name which is the subject of the proposition is meant to stand for all the individuals denoted by it, or only for some of them, the proposition is, by some logicians, called Indefinite; but this, as Archbishop Whately observes, is a solecism, of the same nature as that committed by some grammarians when in their list of genders they enumerate the doubtful gender. The speaker must mean to assert the proposition either as a universal or as a particular proposition, though he has failed to declare which: and it often happens that though the words do not show which of the two he intends, the context, or the custom of speech, supplies the deficiency. Thus, when it is affirmed that “Man is mortal,” nobody doubts that the assertion is intended of all human beings; and the word indicative of universality is commonly omitted, only because the meaning is evident without it. In the proposition, “Wine is good,” it is understood with equal readiness, though for somewhat different reasons, that the assertion is not intended to be universal, but particular.28 As is observed by Professor Bain,29 the chief examples of Indefinite propositions occur “with names of material, which are the subjects sometimes of universal, and at other times of particular predication. ‘Food is chemically constituted by carbon, oxygen, etc.,’ is a proposition of universal quantity; the meaning is all food — all kinds of food. ‘Food is necessary to animal life’ is a case of particular quantity; the meaning is some sort of food, not necessarily all sorts. ‘Metal is requisite in order to strength’ does not mean all kinds of metal. ‘Gold will make a way,’ means a portion of gold.”

When a general name stands for each and every individual which it is a name of, or in other words, which it denotes, it is said by logicians to be distributed, or taken distributively. Thus, in the proposition, All men are mortal, the subject, Man, is distributed, because mortality is affirmed of each and every man. The predicate, Mortal, is not distributed, because the only mortals who are spoken of in the proposition are those who happen to be men; while the word may, for aught that appears, and in fact does, comprehend within it an indefinite number of objects besides men. In the proposition, Some men are mortal, both the predicate and the subject are undistributed. In the following, No men have wings, both the predicate and the subject are distributed. Not only is the attribute of having wings denied of the entire class Man, but that class is severed and cast out from the whole of the class Winged, and not merely from some part of that class.

This phraseology, which is of great service in stating and demonstrating the rules of the syllogism, enables us to express very concisely the definitions of a universal and a particular proposition. A universal proposition is that of which the subject is distributed; a particular proposition is that of which the subject is undistributed.

There are many more distinctions among propositions than those we have here stated, some of them of considerable importance. But, for explaining and illustrating these, more suitable opportunities will occur in the sequel.

25 Analysis of the Human Mind, i., 126 et seq.

26 Logic, i., 85.

27 Instead of Universal and Particular as applied to propositions, Professor Bain proposes (Logic, i., 81) the terms Total and Partial; reserving the former pair of terms for their inductive meaning, “the contrast between a general proposition and the particulars or individuals that we derive it from.” This change in nomenclature would be attended with the further advantage, that Singular propositions, which in the Syllogism follow the same rules as Universal, would be included along with them in the same class, that of Total predications. It is not the Subject’s denoting many things or only one, that is of importance in reasoning, it is that the assertion is made of the whole or a part only of what the Subject denotes. The words Universal and Particular, however, are so familiar and so well understood in both the senses mentioned by Mr. Bain, that the double meaning does not produce any material inconvenience.

28 It may, however, be considered as equivalent to a universal proposition with a different predicate, viz.: “All wine is good quâ wine,” or “is good in respect of the qualities which constitute it wine.”

29 Logic, i., 82.


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