How To Do Philosophy

Punch magazine "Wise Warning"
Caricature from the London satire magazine Punch (1890) on the relationship between Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm II

Week 1, Lecture 1

Previously we discussed how to define the term “philosophy” and there we were introduced to Pythagoras, who coined the term.

We also discussed why one ought to study Philosophy, here.

But what does it mean to do the work of Philosophy? What is it that philosophers do?

I like how John Chaffee puts it, “Philosophy is a dynamic process. This definition probes the dynamic nature of philosophical thinking, a process that is dialectical in the sense that ideas are continually analyzed in terms of their opposites, with the ultimate goal of creating a more enlightened synthesis.” (The Philosopher’s Way, 7)

Just as there is a scientific method, there are also methods for doing philosophy, among the chief of these methods is the Socratic Method. The Socratic Method is “characterized by relentless questioning, clear definitions, dialectical analysis, and critical evaluation.” (Chaffee, The Philosopher’s Way, 7)

It’s necessary for us to distinguish between “having a philosophy” and “doing philosophy.” Just about everyone will likely say that they have a philosophy of life and by this they mean that they live by a set of beliefs or codes that help them decide how to act. We typically develop these beliefs early in our lives as we seek models for how to comport ourselves in the world. Sometimes we have great models, other times we don’t. It is often the case that we are unaware of our beliefs—we may even say that we don’t have a philosophy of life, even though we nonetheless structure our lives with these beliefs. For example, we may unconsciously help an elder across the street, perhaps without thinking about what this decision reflects about us.

There are plenty of examples of irrational, or incoherent beliefs that we carry with us or that people in our networks espouse. The media and the banks are controlled by a cabal of liberal Jews, fluoride is inserted into our drinking water to make us more susceptible to propaganda, Bush did 9/11, etc. Often our biases and beliefs are unexamined or unknown to ourselves, as the neuroscience of implicit bias has helped us to better articulate.

To “do philosophy” requires us to think philosophically and this means engaging our thoughts, beliefs, and actions critically. Typical questions for critical engagement would include:

    • What is the factual evidence or reasons for my beliefs?
    • Do I have a compelling rationale for saying I know something to be true?
    • Where did these ideas I have come from, who told me that?
    • Who benefits from me thinking and acting in these ways?

Doing philosophy requires a range of advanced thinking techniques and methods that we will be discussing in this class over the course of the semester. I am going to stress and emphasize to you that doing philosophy, like any other skill or technique you cultivate, is a matter of habit. This course has been designed to promote and encourage your philosophy habits.

What is wisdom in the context of our class?

From Andrew Pessin and S. Morris Engel, The Study of Philosophy: A Text with Readings, seventh edition. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015):
“Wisdom is not something achieved merely by discovering some new fact. In this respect philosophy is unlike science. The failure to solve a scientific problem lies, generally, in our inability to get at some missing piece of information. But this is not the reason that many philosophical problems have continued to elude us. It is not for the lack of some fact that philosophical problems escape solution. In many cases the trouble is that we already have too many facts. It is like working at a massive jigsaw puzzle. Our difficulty assembling the puzzle does not normally lie in the fact that certain pieces are missing, but in the fact that we don’r see how the (say) thousand little pieces we have all fit together.” (3)

The discipline is characterized well by the English philosopher, John Wisdom, philosophy is not “knowledge of new fact” but rather “new knowledge of fact” which Pessin and Engel describe as “a deeper understanding of the facts we already have.” (4) We come to this “new knowledge of facts” through a process of disciplined perspective-making.

Philosophy is similar to science and religion in so far as each of these disciplines seeks to answer fundamental questions about the universe and our place in it. These three disciplines also each share a common source: they each begin with wonderment. They are similar in these regards but they differ, greatly, in how they go about their examinations and seek to arrive at very different outcomes.