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PhilosophicalMethod

So I say that puzzlement about the meaning and rationality of beliefs leads people into philosophy.  But into only philosophy?  After all, doesn’t the same sort of puzzlement lead people into other subjects as well?  Being puzzled about the meaning and rationality of beliefs about physical goings-on might lead me to study physics; or about God might get me into religious studies; or about fellow human beings, into psychology, sociology, or anthropology.  So I can’t say that philosophy is just "the study of the meaning and rationality of beliefs."  Because other subjects study that too, not just philosophy.

But after the examples I’ve given, and just considering your own personal experience with philosophy before this class, you may well feel there is something that distinguishes philosophical questions from purely religious, purely mathematical, and purely scientific questions.  There’s something that sets philosophy apart from these other disciplines, that really makes it special.

If you think this, you’re right.  There is something that makes philosophical questions special: namely, the methods that are used to answer them.  Let me give a definition of "method":

A method of doing some activity is a systematic or patterned way of doing that activity.

And so a method of doing philosophy, or a philosophical method, is a systematic or patterned way of answering philosophical questions.  Now right from the start I want to make it very clear that 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.  It’s only after come to grips with those generalizations that we can really understand what makes philosophical questions unique.  And then we might also be able to understand what makes them particularly fascinating, in a way that questions about science and mathematics often are not.  Which is, of course, not to say that science and math may not be interesting in other ways.  I’m saying that there’s something peculiar about the philosophical questions, that inspires a peculiar philosophical curiosity or interest.

So now I’ll explain some of those general features about all different sorts of philosophical methods.  The first is something we’ve already seen: simple doubts about accepted beliefs.  Philosophy, it has been said, begins in wonder.  We get the initial impulse to philosophize, as I said, 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.

The second step is extremely important: we 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 I really have free will?"  If you state that problem, the problem of freedom and determinism, in such a simple way, you’ll be apt simply to answer, "Well sure I do," and leave it at that.  And then you aren’t doing philosophy.  So what more do you need, in order to formulate the problem well?  You need to state as clearly as you possibly can exactly what the source of your discomfort is.  So in the case of freedom and determinism, you 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.  But suppose next that we have a very keen sense that what we choose, we choose voluntarily; we could have chosen otherwise than we did choose.  In short, we think 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?"

Now that’s the basic problem of freedom and determinism.  It’s an example of the initial statement of a philosophical problem.  It’s enough to let us all see that there really does seem to be a genuine problem that we would like to have solved.  A lot of 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’?"   I think Moore’s sort of tendency, to get very clear on what philosophical problems amount to, is something all philosophers would do well to emulate.

So to take our example of freedom vs. determinism: how could our statement of the problem be clarified?  Well, one thing that I said was that "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, I said "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 "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?

These are not easy questions.  It takes practice to know how to ask and how to deal with them.  But right now I think you can probably agree with me that 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.  So that’s the second step in any philosophical method: formulation of the philosophical problem to be solved.

The third step is to enunciate a theory, or to offer a definition, which constitutes an attempt to solve the 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.

So now let’s change the example.  I’ll give you 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’re right, and if they tend to cause unhappiness they’re 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, you 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 often useful to regard philosophers as offering definitions in this way.  I should add though that this way of thinking about what philosophers do is very controversial.  In fact, some philosophers, especially recently (meaning, in the twentieth century), have concluded that it is impossible to formulate good definitions of philosophical terms.  So instead of "definitions" they speak of "theories," or "accounts," or "analyses."  So one might say, with less controversy, that Mill has a theory or an account of right action.  But I personally will tend to talk of "definitions" of different words or concepts.

Whatever the word, the fact is that 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.  Here what is needed is not, specifically, a definition of "free will" or of "determined action."  No doubt those definitions would really 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, scientific laws.  Or, third, an explanation of why it appears that we have free choices, even though we really don’t.  Any of these three sorts of explanations, if you did them right, would be essential parts of a solution to the problem of freedom and determinism.  So there you have a problem, and its solution is not simply a definition of some basic philosophical concept.  As I said, not all philosophical solutions are definitions.

Here’s another example showing the same thing.  There’s a very difficult problem in philosophy called "the problem of induction."  Induction is a kind of reasoning -- it’s a way we get from reasons to conclusions.  So induction works like this -- to work with an example, we’ll take the sun rising -- we have experience of the sun rising every day.  There’s never been a day in human memory when the sun did not rise.  Therefore, we say, it will rise tomorrow.  Now this is a little argument, a piece of reasoning, and basically we’re arguing like this: 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 you know that the next time you see the thing it won’t be different?  For example, how do you know the sun won’t 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 won’t 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." 

So the basic problem of induction is 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 won’t do the job.  Once again, even if a definition, say, of "induction," would be very important in the explanation, the definition would not be all we needed to solve the problem.

Anyway, that’s the third step in any method of philosophizing: a solution to the problem must be offered; and depending on the problem, the solution can be either a definition or a philosophical explanation.

We’re not done yet.  Alas, we’re far from being done.  Philosophy consists of much more than simply having doubts, formulating problems, and coming up with solutions.  Remember, after all, what gives rise to the philosophical impulse; remember what motivates us to philosophize.  We have doubts about what our beliefs mean, and whether they’re really rational.  Those same doubts are very likely going to visit us again if we simply stop with the first, or easiest, solution that offers itself to us.  For example, suppose you really liked Mill’s greatest happiness principle.  And you say to yourself, "That’s just dandy -- ‘actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness.’  I hadn’t thought about it, but that’s what right actions are.  Boy I feel a lot better now.  Now I know what right action is!"

If that’s how you think, you’re really making a mistake, and you’re not doing philosophy.  The reason is that you have to justify your answer -- you have to say why you think this is what right action is.  And your justification, or reasons, had better be good.  Because if they aren’t, you aren’t any better off than when you started having philosophical doubts in the first place.  Those doubts may, and probably should, be visited upon you again!

[Halfway done]

So here then is the fourth step of any philosophical method worth its salt: arguments must be offered for the definitions or explanations proposed.  What is an argument?  Here’s a definition:

An argument is a set of statements, one of which (the conclusion), it is said or implied, follows from the others (the premises).

So think of arguments as bundles of reasons -- often not just a list, but highly interconnected reasons -- followed by the claim they are reasons for.  The reasons are the premises, the claim they support is the conclusion, and the whole thing together is an argument.

Philosophers are, or at least they should be, really good at giving arguments.  They are constantly demanding and offering arguments for different claims they make.  Now what’s the point of all that?  Here’s the point: it’s 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.  Only good arguments will satisfy our doubts.  If you are willing to be satisfied with an answer without any good arguments, without any good supporting reasons, then (for whatever this is worth), you do not have a philosophical temperament.  You may have the questioning nature and the doubts that lead people to do philosophy, but you do not have the argument-wielding nature that really characterizes the heart of philosophy.

Let me give you an example of an argument.  Say you have some doubts about religious matters, and you ask the question: "Does God really exist?"  Your answer is, we will say, "Yes."  Now how might you argue for your answer?  Here is a very common, popular argument, called the argument from design.  It goes like this.

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’s called "the argument from design."  We will study it again when we study philosophy of religion.  But you can see, I think, that it offers a series of interconnected reasons to believe that there does exist the sort of entity that we call "God."  Now this sort of argument is just exactly what philosophers want from each other.  To deserve our consideration, the argument doesn’t have to be perfect.  It might have some problems.  In fact it might be a really bad argument.  But on the face of it, there should be something rather persuasive about it.  That gives us something to analyze and talk about.  And that’s what philosophers do quite a bit: they talk about each others’ arguments.

So we still aren’t done.  There is an important element of philosophical method, the fifth, that we need to explain.  This is the element of criticism.  And this is where other people come in.  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 is simply philosophical conversation amongst people who do not always agree with each other about everything.

Now you can do this sort of harsh criticism on your own.  You don’t absolutely need other people to tell you what might be wrong with your views, especially if you are 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.

Perhaps this sounds rather obvious to anyone who has gone around the block once arguing about God, morality, free will, and stuff like that.  But this is perhaps the most disconcerting part of philosophy for people just starting to study the subject.  It’s quite different from other subjects that study general aspects of the universe, like natural science and mathematics; in those other disciplines, the experts all agree about the fundamentals.  But in philosophy, which concerns the most fundamental aspects of the universe, the experts all disagree.  And in disagreeing they are following this fifth step of philosophical method, to offer and deal with criticisms of proposed solutions.  Or as I said, to engage in dialectic.

The entire history of philosophy is a long -- millenia-long -- philosophical dialectic.  There is practically no philosophical question which has not been asked; practically every possible solution has been proposed.  And yet philosophers go on arguing with each other.  And it certainly looks like they aren’t going to stop, either.

This is what makes philosophy so disconcerting for beginners, who aren’t used to the alleged experts disagreeing about everything.  If there is no general agreement, then what’s the point in studying the subject?  If there is no truth to be had, why go to the trouble of coming up with solutions and arguments?

This is a very common concern and it needs to be directly addressed at the outset.  Suppose you have this concern -- we’ll put it like this, in the form of an argument:

(1) For almost every problem in philosophy, philosophers throughout history have offered conflicting solutions.

(2) Moreover, there has been no progress toward general agreement.

(3) Moreover, there does not appear to be any progress toward general agreement at present.

(4) Therefore, there is no truth to be found in philosophy; and hence there is no point in studying philosophy.

First of all, notice that during those thousands of years of philosophical conversations, all of those philosophers did not give up simply on grounds that they disagreed with each other.  In fact, historically, disagreement has been a great motivating impetus to philosophical work.  The fact that Descartes said something different from Locke is often looked on by philosophers not as discouraging but as something to be excited about: both men had such great minds, so if one of them was mistaken it must have been a deep, important, interesting mistake.

Second, and more importantly, notice that the conclusion of this argument just doesn’t follow from the premises.  In other words, the premises might all be perfectly true, but the conclusion doesn’t necessarily then have to be true.  An example from another academic discipline might help here.  Suppose Tom, Dick, and Harry are all arguing about the origin of Mars’ moon Deimos.  Tom thinks it is a captured asteroid; Dick thinks it formed out of the primordial cloud of dust that formed Mars; and Harry think it broke off from Mars when Mars was struck by a gigantic asteroid.  Now I personally have no idea of the respective plausibility of each of these views.  But one thing I can say is that the mere fact that Tom, Dick, and Harry disagree does not mean there’s no truth to be found about the subject.  If we went back in time to the right moment in planetary history, we could see that Deimos was formed in one way and not the others.  There’s a fact about the matter even if Tom, Dick, and Harry don’t know it yet.

I want to suggest that the problems of philosophy are like that.  I mean that philosophical problems are, on the one hand, very difficult issues to resolve, and it’s very easy to disagree about them; but, on the other hand, the mere fact that there is disagreement doesn’t, all by itself, mean that there is no philosophical truth to be found.

But admittedly, philosophical problems are extremely difficult to sort out in a clear-headed way.  Unfortunately, we can’t simply make observations and design experiments to test philosophical definitions and explanations.  Observations and experiments are used by scientists to arrive at a consensus; similarly, rigorous proofs based on axioms and definitions are used by mathematicians to arrive at consensus there.  But, except in the philosophical subdiscipline of logic, philosophers do not have any such consensus-building techniques.  All we have are words -- words that express those same, not-very-well-understood concepts that we are confused about.

So there are at least two basic reactions to the phenomenon of philosophical disagreement.  First, you might simply give up before you start.  Or, second, you might try to increase the degree of clarity and rigor with which you think about philosophical questions.  I think I have observed some very important advances in philosophy, and they are almost always due to applying ever-increasing amounts of clarity and rigor to the subject -- they involve exploring every unexplored avenue, thinking about every unconsidered possibility, understanding all the assumptions that lie behind a view, taking apart arguments in very careful detail, and so on.  I think that many philosophers, throughout history, have shown at least that certain solutions that other philosophers have proposed were wrong.  And it took clear thinking to do that.  That much at least is a kind of philosophical progress.

However it is that you ultimately react to the phenomenon of philosophical disagreement, at least do yourself this favor.  For the space of this quarter, assume that there is some philosophical truth to be found.  Keep your mind open to that possibility.  If you shut yourself off from that possibility you will not be able to keep an interest in philosophy, and you won’t be able to get half out of it what you might.  For the space of this quarter, don’t regard an inquiring philosophical nature as naive.  If it helps, remember this: some of the finest, most brilliant minds in the world have not thought that trust in the existence of philosophical truth was naive.

Now we’ve gotten a little off track.  I have talked for the past half hour explaining five very general features of all philosophical methods.  Or you might think of these five steps I’ve given as steps in one general philosophical method.  Here then are those steps again:

Step 1.  Doubt.  Notice doubts that you have about the meaning or justification of some common, everyday belief you have.

Step 2.  Formulate problem.  Formulate those doubts in a philosophical problem, or question.  Explain the problem very clearly and carefully.

Step 3.  Offer solution.  Offer a solution to the problem: either a definition, or a philosophical explanation.

Step 4.  Argument.  Give an argument or several arguments supporting the solution.

Step 5.  Dialectic.  Present your solution and arguments for criticism by other philosophers, and help them judge their own.

Now this little five-step method is, as you might expect, highly simplified and idealized.  No one does, or should, follow these steps in exactly this order.  A lot of times for philosophers it’s not doubt about their own beliefs that gets them thinking; a lot of times it’s doubt about what other people say that does it.  And some philosophers really put the cart before the horse: they examine a solution and arguments for it, and only after doing that, they go back and ask what problem it was they were trying to solve.  And surely there are a lot of people who plunge right into philosophical debates, and by the seat of their dialectical pants figure out what the problem is, what solutions have been offered, and what the arguments on all sides have been.

All that having been said, in many cases it probably is best to proceed as systematically as possible, and not go to the next step until the prior step is completed.  That may be most efficient way, at least.  It might not be the most fun.  But here the words of the great French philosopher Descartes come to mind: "Like a man who walks alone and in the shadows, I resolved to go so slowly and use so much circumspection in all things that, if I never advanced but slightly, I would at least avoid falling." 

Now as I said a while ago, what motivates us to take up philosophy is doubts about the meaning and justification of our beliefs.  But then I said that other disciplines, such as the natural sciences, study that as well.  I asked what it is that distinguishes philosophy from other disciplines; and I said they differ in the methods they use.  So now that I have stated some generalizations about philosophical method, I am ready to say how philosophy can be distinguished from other disciplines.