Philosophical method

From Academic Kids

Philosophical method (or philosophical methodology) is the study of how to do philosophy. A common view among philosophers is that philosophy is distinguished by the methods that philosophers follow in tackling philosophical questions. There is, however, not just one method that philosophers use to answer philosophical questions.

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.

Doubt and the sense of wonder

Philosophy, it has been said, begins in wonder. It may begin with some simple doubts about accepted beliefs. The initial impulse to philosophize may arise from suspicion, for example that we do not fully understand, and have not fully justified, even our most basic beliefs about the world.

Formulate questions and problems

Another element of philosophical method is to formulate questions to be answered or problems to be solved. The working assumption is that the more clearly the question or problem is stated, the easier it is to identify critical issues.

A relatively small number of major philosophers prefer not to be quick, but to spend more time trying to get extremely clear on what the problem is all about.

Enunciate a solution

Another approach is to enunciate a theory, or to offer a definition or analysis, which constitutes an attempt to solve a philosophical problem. Sometimes a philosophical theory by itself can be stated quite briefly. All the supporting philosophical text is offered by way of hedging, explanation, and argument.

Not all proposed solutions to philosophical problems consist of 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. One can call this a philosophical explanation.

Justify the solution

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.

Philosophical arguments and justifications are another important part of philosophical method. It is rare to find a philosopher, particularly in the Western philosophical tradition, who lacks many arguments. Philosophers are, or at least are expected to be, very good at giving arguments. They constantly demand and offer arguments for different claims they make. This therefore indicates that philosophy is a quest for arguments.

A good argument — a clear, organized, and sound statement of reasons — may ultimately cure the original doubts that motivated us to take up philosophy. If one is willing to be satisfied without any good supporting reasons, then a Western philosophical approach may not be what one actually requires.

Philosophical criticism

In philosophy, which concerns the most fundamental aspects of the universe, the experts all disagree. It follows that 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.

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, if you share important assumptions with the person offering the criticisms. Others people are able to think of criticisms from another perspective.

Some philosophers and ordinary people dive right in and start trying to solve the problem. They immediately start giving arguments, pro and con, on different sides of the issue. Doing philosophy, it is often said is different. It is about questioning assumptions, digging for deeper understanding. Doing philosophy is about the journey, the process, as much as it is about the destination, the conclusion. Its method differs from other disciplines, in which the experts can agree about most of the fundamentals.


After this detailed discussion of method, it is evident that method is philosophy is in some sense rooted in motivation. It seems that only when one understands why people take up philosophy can one properly understand what philosophy is.

We find ourselves believing things that we do not understand. This is perhaps strange to say, but it is true. Stevie Wonder used this to define superstition, in his song of that name.

There are many very basic beliefs we have, about God, ourselves, the natural world, human society, morality and human productions. But all too often, we fail to understand what it is we believe, and we fail to understand why(the reasons) we believe it. We have questions about meaning of our beliefs and questions about the justification (or rationality) of our beliefs. And we--many of us--dislike not understanding.

These questions about are only the tip of the philosophical iceberg. There are many other things about this universe about which we are, most of us, also fundamentally ignorant. Philosophers are in the business of investigating all sorts of those areas of our ignorance.

A bewilderingly huge number of basic concepts are poorly understood. What does it mean to say that one thing causes another? What is rationality? What are space and time? What is beauty, and if it is in the eye of the beholder, then what is it that is being said to be in the eye of the beholder? And so on. The number of these most basic questions is huge.

Those are just the questions about meaning. One might also consider some of the many questions about justification. Our lives are deeply informed by all sorts of basic assumptions. If one made radically different assumptions, one just would not be able to go on thinking and living as one had been.


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