What Is Philosophy’s Main Method?

Week 3, lecture 1

We’ve just outlined what I will argue are the most important branches of Philosophy for our class.

To this point we’ve been discussing How Philosophy Differs from Science and also How Philosophy Differs from Religion. In each of these lectures I’ve tried to demonstrate that these three pursuits are complimentary to one another.

If we appreciate the methodological differences between these pursuits, then we see that each of these domains of knowledge are concerned for similar aspects of human existence, but they are doing different kinds of work. Because they are doing different kinds of work, they are generating different kinds of knowledge.

If we become lax and don’t pay attention to these differences, we risk doing ourselves and these disciplines a disservice when we speak on their behalf.

But what is Philosophy’s main method?

Philosophy is a discipline that is concerned with understanding something, just like science and religion are also trying to understand something. Science adheres to its process of verification and demonstrable reliability, religion requires faith despite what the evidence suggests, and philosophy pursues reason by tracing its residue found in arguments.

Our main method is the study and use of arguments to better understand what reason dictates.

We will spend the rest of the semester evaluating and analyzing arguments and here I will briefly introduce the structure of an argument.

An argument, in this class, is not a fight or spat. In our context an argument is defined as a presentation of someone’s thinking that includes their statements of logical support for why they have said what they’ve said.

“Logical support” here refers to statements made by someone that provide reasons to believe that the statement is true or trustworthy. The statement being given this support is called the conclusion of an argument. The reasons given to support a conclusion are called premises.

Conclusions are like hypotheses in that they assert or predict what has or will happen. In the scientific method the hypothesis is supported by the evidence revealed through experimentation, in a religious context one may draw a conclusion or prophesy from personal revelation. With philosophy a conclusion asserts or predicts based on the strength of the premises (or reasons) that are presented as evidence.

“To make an argument, then, is to offer reasons to believe a particular conclusion. There are many styles and forms of argument, as we’ll see, some of them very good, some of them fairly good, and some of them downright awful. What we aim for in making a good argument is that it should be valid, meaning that the conclusion in fact logically follows from the premises. And what that means, in turn, is this: that if the premises of the argument are true, the conclusions must be true. An invalid argument would be one where the premises may well be true and yet the conclusion turns out to be false.” (Pessin & Engel, The Study of Philosophy, 9)

It’s easy to make invalid arguments. For example, we look outside and see that the sidewalk is wet (this is our premise), we conclude from our premise (that the sidewalk is wet) that it must have rained. Why is this an invalid argument?

In our next class we will discuss how to evaluate arguments.