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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 ways that philosophers follow in addressing philosophical questions. There is not just one method that philosophers use to answer philosophical questions.
Systematic philosophy attempts to provide a framework in reason that can explain all questions and problems related to human life. Examples of systematic philosophers include Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, and Hegel. In many ways, any attempts to formulate a philosophical method that provides the ultimate constituents of reality, a metaphysics, can be considered systematic philosophy. In modern philosophy the reaction to systematic philosophy began with Kierkegaard and continued in various forms through analytic philosophy, existentialism, hermeneutics, and deconstructionism.
Some common features of the methods that philosophers follow (and discuss when discussing philosophical method) include:
- Methodic doubt - a systematic process of being skeptical about (or doubting) the truth of one's beliefs.
- Argument - provide 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
Plato said that "philosophy begins in wonder", a view which is echoed by Aristotle: "It was their wonder, astonishment, that first led men to philosophize and still leads them." Philosophizing 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 a 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 the 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.
In philosophy concerning 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.
Philosophers offer definitions and explanations in solution to problems; they argue for those solutions; and then other philosophers provide counter arguments, expecting to eventually 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, but others can help greatly, if important assumptions are shared with the person offering the criticisms. Others 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 is different from this. 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.
Method in philosophy is in some sense rooted in motivation, only by understanding why people take up philosophy can one properly understand what philosophy is. People often find themselves believing things that they do not understand. For example, about God, themselves, the natural world, human society, morality and human productions. Often, people fail to understand what it is they believe, and fail to understand the reasons they believe in what they do. Some people have questions about the meaning of their beliefs and questions about the justification (or rationality) of their beliefs. A lack of these things shows a lack of understanding, and some dislike not having this understanding.
These questions are only the tip of the philosophical iceberg. There are many other things about this universe about which people are also fundamentally ignorant. Philosophers are in the business of investigating all sorts of those areas of ignorance.
A bewilderingly huge number of basic concepts are poorly understood. For example:
- 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?
One might also consider some of the many questions about justification. Human lives are deeply informed with many basic assumptions. Different assumptions would lead to different ways of living.
- Scholarly method
- Scientific method
- Socratic method
- Historical method
- List of cognitive biases
- Philosophical methodology at PhilPapers
- Philosophical Method and Galileo's Paradox of Infinity, Matthew W. Parker, in the PhilSci Archive