Philosophical Methods

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Philosophers try to know the nature of things by using some of the following techniques. The following is a "starter set" of philosophical skills and methods for you to try to practice in doing philosophy in general. For convenience, these techniques are organized under several general headings: observational skills and methods, basic conceptual skills and work with rationales, meta-theoretical methods, and recent historical traditions with distinctive methodologies.

Observational Skills and Methods

1. General Observation and Self-reflection Skills

General observation and self-reflection skills are useful in philosophy since one is more likely to understand something if it is accurately and carefully observed. Of course, these skills are not unique to philosophy, but they are still important to philosophical inquiry. Accurate and careful observation requires several component skills. For example, it helps to be able to distinguish "observations" from "judgements," and to distinguish how something appears from a first person perspective (how things look and feel uniquely to you and your perspective) and how it appears from a third person perspective (how you assume everyone sees things). Ultimately, observation involves a selective focus (you have to pick out some things to notice and others not to) and that is partly driven by inquiry. So, many theorist would say that you don't simply observe apart from a theoretical or naïve set of assumptions.

2. Quantifying Observations

When we make observations carefully through measurement and precise counting, we are taking some of our ordinary observation skills and using them to collect data than can be analyzed for patterns and eventually contribute to the support or refutation of scientific hypotheses and theories. While we can collect and quantify subjective reports, typically this approach to observation focuses on objective reports.

3. Phenomenological Methods or, Looking carefully at Phenomena

Within philosophy, phenomenologists are philosophers who emphasize a variety of specific methods for getting an accurate and insightful description of phenomena. Phenomenologists generally emphasize methods for noticing the ways in which subjectivity appears to structure or alter perception.
As a philosophical tradition, phenomenology is typically dated from the work of early 20th century philosophers Edmund Husserl. But phenomenological critiques of his and others works have led to numerous distinct philosophical positions in the last hundred years from phenomenologically oriented philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, Jean Paul Sartre, Paul Ricoeur, Hans Georg Gadamer, and many others. Some of these philosophies involved distinctive methods noted below under "Hermeneutics, Geneologies, and Deconstructions."

Basic Conceptual Skills and Working with Rationales

1. Defining terms

You cannot always define your terms precisely at the beginning of an inquiry, but you should always be checking the way you use terms as you start to clarify your views. There are many ways of defining a concept or phenomena. Obviously, if there is a word for it, you can look it up in the dictionary. This gives you the lexcial definition. Or, you could point out the things to which the word applies. This called an ostensive or demonstrative definition. In precise contexts, philosophers sometimes try to identify the necessary and sufficient conditions for using a word or concept. But you should not assume that the reality you are studying has necessary and sufficient conditions.
"Defining" can also be thought of as an ongoing activity of inquiry since we often come to be able to define something well as we come to know it. In this process, "distinguishing senses" can be thought of as part of the activity of defining.

2. Distinguishing senses

Part of a process of definition, we distinguish senses when we notice either that we are using a word in different ways within a rationale (technically, the fallacy of equivocation) or when we notice that some principle or rationale is stronger or weaker depending upon the sense or meaning given to key terms.

3. Fundamental focus on rationales: arguments and explanations

Rationales (justifactory arguments and explanations) are the most basic building blocks of philosophical theories. It is important to understand the premise / conclusion structure of all rationales (both justifactions and explanations) and to be able to assess arguments by questioning the premises and questioning the connection between the premises and the conclusion. Arguments can be deductive or inductive. If you cannot distinguish types of arguments, it is hard to assess them. Explanations typically help us understand how some phenomenon came about or works. Justificatory arguments offer a warrant for believing in the truth of the conclusion argued for.
Being able to state someone's rationales and point of view accurately is basic work in philosophy. Once rationales are articulated, we can become clearer about differences in interpretation of others' rationales and points of view. While it would be an overstatement to say that a philosophical theory or point of view is just a sum of the rationales that support it, it would also not be far from true. Philosophy is distinguished by asking and answering fundamental questions and rationales provide support for accepting any answer.

4. Fundamental focus on justifactory argument

Arguments are rationales in which premises are offered in support of belief in a particular conclusion. The conclusion in an argument is typically in doubt and the premises are intended as a means of justifying belief in the conclusion. Arguments can be evaluated by questioning the truth of their premises, questioning the connection between the premises and the conclusion, or questioning the whole framework for the argument (including, for example, presuppositions).

5. Fundamental focus on explanatory argument

Explanations are rationales in which the conclusion identifies the thing or phenomenon to be explained and the premises are the explanation. If you see someone hit someone in a bar, you may not be in doubt about what you saw, but you might not understand why it happened. Explanations offer causal accounts about how something came about and functional accounts of how something works. Theories can be thought of as bundles of explanatory hypotheses and arguments.

6. Questioning presuppositions

All rationales involve premises which themselves depend upon other claims that are assumed within the rationale. While presuppositions are inevitable, philosophers like to articulate them to make them explicit and then question some of them if they appear unfounded or weak in some way. For example, a presupposition can limit the scope of conclusion. Questioning presuppositions can be thought of as a basic argument skill or a meta-level "move" in inquiry.

7. Fitting principles to cases

Philosophy sometimes involves working from an initial intuition about a principle (e.g. "It is never right to lie.") and then looking at actual cases and deciding whether and how to "tailor" the principle to the cases which it "fits." This adjustment process can involve distinguishing senses, defining terms more precisely or looking for counter examples. Of course, arguments need to be advanced for particular "tailoring" decisions.

8. Discovering Entailments

When two claims are connected in such a way that the truth of the first claim guarantees the truth of the second, you have an entailment relationship. Philosophers look for entailment relationships because they can be fit to a deductive model of reasoning, which carries the possibility of certain demonstration. Even if you do not find a complete or logical entailment, a strong probability of a truth functional connection can lead you in theorizing.

9. Searching for counter-examples or counter-evidence

Since philosophers often try to build theories by articulating hypotheses, making general claims, and articulating general principles, they are particularly sensitive to the need to avoid counter-examples. A counter-example is just a case that contradicts any of these kinds of claims. For example, there have been many philosophical generalizations about what is distinctive about human rationality. If you think that only humans use symbols, then evidence of symbol use in non-humans is a counter-example to the claim.

10. Theorizing from current and new knowledge

Philosophy is deeply shaped by the very same fields of knowledge that it helped develop, such as the sciences, theology, and interpretive inquiry. New work in neuroscience has completely changed the traditional field of "philosophy of mind," for example. Cognitive psychology poses hypotheses that both fuel philosophical theorizing and challenge existing and traditional theories. Postmodern interpretive techniques have been useful to intellectuals trying to understand the last thirty years in many fields of culture. Many philosophers today would agree that philosophical theories have to be reconciled with other scientific knowledge, but also that philosophers are connected to their epoch in important ways.

11. Using thought experiments

Thought experiments are fictional scenarios which highlight a principle or argument in a novel way. By our responses to a thought experiment, we might question or reinforce some intuition or hypothesis we have.

Meta-theoretical Methods

1. Discovering ignorance

We tend to think of inquiry as fruitful only when it produces positive results, but Socrates reminds us that the "discovery of ignorance" is itself a useful result. Often the reasons arguments or theories fail give you insights into a better theory.

2. Discovering limits of knowledge

Every kind and item of knowledge has a domain of applicability. This method, which can also be associated with skepticism, involves a heightened awareness or sensitivity to the limits of specific forms of knowledge.

Recent Historical Traditions with Distinctive Methodologies


Typically philosophers use the term "logic" to refer to the study of the structure of thought, especially thinking involving inferences. But you can also think of phenomena as having a "logic" in the sense that there is a structure that develops necessarily or typically over time with regard to the phenomenon. For example, Marx (as much as Adam Smith) thought that he was understanding the "logic" of capitalism.
Dialectical thought is often associated with Hegel and the dynamic relationships among a thesis, anti-thesis, and synthesis in speculative project that encompasses nothing less than the unfolding of absolute spirit. But you can also think of dialectical relationship as any relationship (conceptual or physical) in which parts change each other through their interaction. Thus, relationships and ecologies might usefully be conceptualize as in a dialectical relationship.

Hermeneutic Methods

Dialectical Materialism

Post Scientific Revolution Faith-based or Theological Interpretation