FORMAL OR SUBSTANTIVE?
Traditionally it is believed that those systems count as
logics which are applicable to reasoning irrespective of its
subject-matter, which are concerned with the form of arguments
rather than with their content. The whole idea of
topic-independence (also called "topic-neutrality") and the related
distinction between form and content is quite vague, however.
This need not be objectionable --it has been argued-- as logic
has probably no 'precise specifiable essential character' anyhow.
For example, why would a proposition about beliefs be a
matter of form and one about numbers a matter of content? But
while the distinction between the formal and the substantive is
already vague, when trying to exactly demarcate truth-functional
logic, it certainly is too vague to demarcate that part of
reasoning which depends on the concept of relevancy as well. In
philosophy of language the 'relevancy-conditional' aspect of
reasoning belongs to pragmatics, yet this in itself does not
make it less formal or more substantive. Much depends on our
present state of knowledge or conceptualization in which the
informal arguments of today may be formalized tomorrow. The
essential point is that we do somehow distinguish the
truth-functional from the relevancy-conditional or -dependent.
When the first article on relevancy was written, it was
argued that 'relevance is never a matter of form', and that the
notion of relevancy had been cut dead by formal logic. Nonetheless
it might be maintained that goal-dependent relevancy is a
purely formal concept, because its content is a goal, and this
focus of relevancy is not given by the notion itself. But
even granted that we could choose any focus of relevancy
whatsoever, this still would not make relevancy automatically
a formal concept, if formal is defined in purely
truth-functional terms. It may be true or it may be false that a
distinction is made, but whether or not a distinction is made,
it can still be either relevant or irrelevant. If the 'formal'
were confined to the truth-functional and the 'substantive' to
the directional matter (the focus of relevancy), the notion of
relevancy itself would be neither. It would have a separate
status between the formal and the substantive.
As soon as we postulate that focuses of relevancy must
fulfil some minimum requirements we do in fact in a very general
way determine the content of these focuses
(altho we shall
not lay down specific goals here, or even not ends as diffuse as
freedom and equality). In
the next division we will see that
certain minimum requirements are indeed needed for a focus
to be genuine, and that without such criterions a principle of
discriminational relevance would
fail to be effective at all.
From this standpoint relevancy is substantive in a very
We have now considered three possible positions relevancy
could have: formal, intermediate or substantive. The intermediate
status seems to be the most sensible one, but the choice
itself is merely a question of definition. If one defines
formal in a way that it is purely truth-functional, and all
the rest as substantive, then relevancy is simply
substantive. If one prefers to define formal in a way that it
includes the relevancy-conditional (possibly in future formalizations),
then it is simply formal. To fight over this issue
without first having defined exactly what one formal and
substantive takes to be, is an exercise in futility. After
all, the lines between matter and form and between
form and content were drawn long before relevancy
was recognized as a key-notion in people's thoughts and actions.
Finally, the difference between substantive and formal
is, unfortunately, easily confused with the difference between
what is and what is not of normative significance. Truth may
be an entirely formal notion, and yet this does not mean that a
principle of truth --you should not utter sentences which
certainly or probably are false at the time and place of
utterance-- is not of normative significance. It is but too
obvious that the morality of thou shalt not lie does not
depend on the subject-matter of the lie.