Philosophical method/Introduction

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A method of doing some activity is a systematic or patterned way of doing that activity. So a method of doing philosophy, or a philosophical method, is a systematic or patterned way of answering philosophical questions.

A common view among philosophers is that philosophy is distinguished by the methods that philosophers follow in tackling philosophical questions.

Of course, there is not just one method that philosophers use to answer philosophical questions. But it is possible to draw some valid generalizations about philosophical methods--as follows.

Generate doubt

Philosophy, it has been said, begins in wonder. Philosophy often begins with some simple doubts about accepted beliefs. We get the initial impulse to philosophize from the suspicion that we do not fully understand, and have not fully justified, even our most basic beliefs about the world. But philosophy absolutely does not end there. In fact, that wonder by itself hardly constitutes doing philosophy at all.

Formulate questions and problems

Another extremely important element of philosophical method is to formulate our doubts in questions to be answered or problems to be solved. The more clearly the question or problem is stated, the easier it will be to make genuine progress in coming to some sort of resolution.

So it is not enough simply to wonder, for example, "Do we really have free will?" If one states that problem, the problem of freedom and determinism, in such a simple way, one might be apt simply to answer, "Well of course," and leave it at that. Then one fails to do philosophy. One needs, in addition, to state as clearly as possible exactly what the source of doubt is. So in the case of freedom and determinism, one might say something like the following:

Suppose that the universe operates according to deterministic causal laws, that is, that for everything that happens, there are some laws which made it necessary that thing, and only that thing happened. So all events are determined. Suppose also that this general principle applies to our choices. Our choices are events in, parts of, the natural world, and so we should fully expect to find a complete causal explanation of those too, explaining why we had to make those choices and no others. So all our choices are, on that accounting, determined or necessary. Nonetheless, most of us have a very keen sense that what we choose, we choose voluntarily; we could have chosen otherwise than we did choose. In short, it seems we have free will. But how is it possible, or is it possible, that our choices might be causally determined and free at the same time?

That is one way of stating the basic problem of free will and determinism. This is an example of the initial statement of a philosophical problem; it is probably enough to let us confront what seems to be a genuine problem that we would like to have solved. Some philosophers and ordinary people are apt, after explaining their puzzlement in this initial way, to dive right in and start trying to solve the problem. They immediately start giving arguments, pro and con, on different sides of the issue.

There is an admirable tendency among a relatively small number of philosophers not to be so quick, but to spend more time trying to get extremely clear on what the problem is all about. An excellent example of such a philosopher is the Englishman G. E. Moore, who lived and worked in the first half of this century. When addressing a question such as, "Is Existence a Predicate?" Moore almost never simply said, "Yes" or "No" and defended his answer. In fact, in an article entitled "Is Existence a Predicate?" Moore begins this way: "I am not at all clear as to the meaning of this question. Mr. Kneale says that existence is not a predicate. But what does he mean by the words 'Existence is not a predicate'?"

Consider our example of freedom vs. determinism: how could the statement of the problem be clarified? According to the statement, "for everything that happens, there are some laws which made it necessary that thing, and only that thing happened." But what exactly is the sense of the word 'necessary' at work here? Or in another place, the statement reads, "We have a very distinct impression that what we choose, we choose voluntarily; we could have chosen otherwise than how we did." But what is the strength of this phrase 'could have'? The idea appears to be that it is in some sense possible for us to choose otherwise; but in what sense of "possible" is it possible?

An enquiry into the problem of freedom and determinism, or any philosophical problem, can only benefit from getting very clear about exactly what the problem is, and what the terms used to formulate the problem mean.

Enunciate a solution

Another essential part of nearly any philosophical method is to enunciate a theory, or to offer a definition or analysis, which constitutes an attempt to solve a philosophical problem. Very often, a philosophical theory by itself can be stated quite briefly, in just a sentence or two; all the surrounding philosophical text is offered by way of hedging, explanation, and argument.

Here is an example of a philosophical theory. This theory is meant to answer the question, "What actions are right?" or perhaps "What principle may we use to tell whether actions are right?" John Stuart Mill, another English philosopher, offered this answer:

The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals utility, or the greatest happiness principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.

So, according to Mill, the rightness or wrongness of actions depends on their consequences; if they tend to cause happiness they are (morally) right, and if they tend to cause unhappiness they are (morally) wrong.

Regardless of whether you agree with that, you can see at least that it answers the question; in that it does answer the question, "What actions are right?" it is the sort of perhaps-enlightening answer that we'd like from philosophers.

One might loosely interpret Mill's "greatest happiness principle" as a definition of "right action." In other words, one might regard it as saying what we really mean, or perhaps what we ought to mean, when we say that something is right. It is sometimes useful to regard philosophers as offering definitions in this way. But this is controversial; some philosophers in the twentieth century have concluded that it is impossible to formulate good definitions (or analyses) of philosophical terms. So one might say, with less controversy, that Mill has a theory or an account of right action.

Whatever the word, philosophers have been and continue to be in the business of making big generalizations about things like right action: saying what all right actions have in common, or saying what characterizes only right actions. But not all solutions to philosophical problems consist of such definitions or generalizations. Sometimes what is called for is a certain sort of explanation--not a causal explanation, but an explanation for example of how two different views, which seem to be contrary to one another, can be held at the same time, consistently. Call this a philosophical explanation.

Take the freedom and determinism problem again. What is needed is not, specifically, a definition of "free will" or of "determined action." No doubt those definitions would help in offering a solution to the problem. But the solution itself would consist of one of the three following. First, an explanation how it is that we might have free will and yet also be determined to choose what we do, in other words an explanation of how freedom and causality are compatible. Or, second, an explanation of how it is that free choices are an exception to deterministic laws. Or, third, an explanation of why it appears that we have free choices, even though we really do not. Any of these three sorts of explanations would be essential parts of a solution to the problem of freedom and determinism.

Another example illustrates the same point. There is a very difficult problem in philosophy called "the problem of induction." Induction is a kind of reasoning: it is a way we get from reasons to conclusions. To work with an example, take the rising of the sun. We have experience of the sun rising every day. There has never been a day in human memory when the sun did not rise. Therefore, we say, it will rise tomorrow. This is a simple piece of reasoning, and basically we are arguing as follows: if something has been observed over and over to be a certain way, then the next time it is observed, it will be that way again. This is called inductive reasoning.

The problem of induction is basically this: how do we know that the next time we see the thing it will not be different? How do we know the sun will not rise tomorrow? The obvious first answer here is: the sun has always risen. But that just begs the next question: how do you know that tomorrow will not be the first exception? Bertrand Russell, yet another English philosopher, tells the story of a chicken who is fed every day for its life. Every day the farmer steps out to the henhouse and scatters chicken feed to the chicken. So the chicken would be very reasonable to believe that tomorrow the farmer will come and feed the chicken. But tomorrow, instead, the farmer goes out to the henhouse and wrings the chicken's neck for dinner. As Russell concludes, "More refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken."

The problem of induction is determining how we can know that the future will resemble the past. Notice that this requires perhaps a very complicated sort of explanation. A mere definition, it seems, will not do the job. Even if a definition of 'induction' would be very important in the explanation (as on the view of P. F. Strawson), the definition would not be all we needed to solve the problem.

Justify the solution

Philosophical justifications, or arguments, are another important part of philosophical method. It is rare to find a philosopher, particularly in the Western philosophical tradition, who lacks many arguments. An argument is a set of statements, one of which (the conclusion), it is said or implied, follows from the others (the premises).

One might think of arguments as bundles of reasons--often not just a list, but logically interconnected statements--followed by the claim they are reasons for. The reasons are the premises, the claim they support is the conclusion; together they make an argument.

Philosophers are, or at least they should be, very good at giving arguments. They are constantly demanding and offering arguments for different claims they make. The reason for this is that it is only a good argument--a clear, organized, and sound statement of reasons to believe something--that will ultimately cure us of the original doubts that motivated us to take up philosophy. If one is willing to be satisfied with an answer without any good arguments, without any good supporting reasons, then--for whatever this is worth--one lacks a Western philosophical temperament. One might have the questioning nature and the doubts that lead people to do philosophy, but one does not have the argument-wielding nature that really characterizes the heart of most Western philosophy.

Here is an example of an argument. Say Rita has some doubts about religious matters, and she asks the question: "Does God really exist?" Rita's answer is, we will say, "Yes." How might Rita argue for her answer? Here is a very common, popular argument, called the argument from design:

The universe is made up of a huge variety of things, inanimate and living, natural and artificial--from the hills and the oceans, to the houses and ships on them, from the stars and planets, to the cities and highways. All of this huge variety of things is, as scientists well know, operating in a splendid order or harmony, much like a very complicated machine, only much more complicated and well-planned than anything that we humans have ever invented. Like a machine, this order or harmony could not have just sprung into existence all on its own; like a machine, it must have had a designer. Moreover, since the universe is so complicated and well-planned, this designer must be incredibly intelligent; and since everything is so well-made for the habitation of humans (generally speaking), this designer must be very benevolent. And of course, as the creator and planner of the entire universe, this designer must be extremely powerful. So the universe must have had a designer which is incredibly intelligent, very benevolent, and extremely powerful; and this designer is what we call God. Therefore, God exists.

That is called "the argument from design" or "the teleological argument" and is studied the philosophy of religion. It offers a series of interconnected reasons to believe that there does exist the sort of entity that in various religions is called "God." This sort of argument is just exactly what philosophers want from each other. To deserve our consideration, the argument does not have to be perfect. It might have some problems. In fact, it might be a very bad argument. But on the face of it, there should be something rather persuasive about it. That gives us something to analyze and learn from. So philosophers do talk quite a bit about each others' arguments.

Philosophical criticism

Another element of philosophical method, common in the work of nearly all philosophers, is philosophical criticism. It is this that makes much philosophizing a social endeavor, and usefully so.

We offer definitions and explanations in solution to problems; we argue for those solutions; and then other people come along and, often, devastate those solutions, throw us into doubt again, and force us to come up with better solutions. This exchange and resulting revision of views is called dialectic. Dialectic (in one sense of this history-laden word) is simply philosophical conversation amongst people who do not always agree with each other about everything.

One can do this sort of harsh criticism on one's own. One does not absolutely need other people to tell one what might be wrong with one's views, especially if one is a very self-critical sort of person. But others can help greatly, especially if you share many important assumptions with the person offering the criticisms. It seems that other people are always able to think of criticisms that one has not been able to discover oneself.

This will sound obvious to anyone who has engaged in much dialectic about any subject. But this is perhaps the most disconcerting part of philosophy for young people just starting to study the subject. It is, or can be, quite different from other subjects that study general aspects of the universe, like natural science and mathematics; in those other disciplines, the experts agree about most of the fundamentals. But in philosophy, which concerns the most fundamental aspects of the universe, the experts all disagree.


Some common features of the methods that philosophers follow (and discuss when discussing philosophical method) include:

  • Doubt. Notice doubts that one has about the meaning or justification of some common, everyday belief one has.
  • Formulate a problem. Formulate the doubts in a philosophical problem, or question. Explain the problem very clearly and carefully.
  • Offer a solution. Offer a solution to the problem: either something like a philosophical analysis or a philosophical explanation.
  • Argument. Give an argument or several arguments supporting the solution.
  • Dialectic. Present the solution and arguments for criticism by other philosophers, and help them judge their own.