Aug 29, 2013

Elements of Philosophy: What Do Philosophers Do?

 A new academic year has commenced, and I'm currently in process of producing some new lesson content for my Introduction to Philosophy students -- which this semester is themed on "Love, Friendship, and Desire.  Right now, its the very most introductory material for the class that I am writing and posting as lessons in our course management system.  Since I don't use a textbook for the class, but rather supply all the readings, resources, lessons, videos, and other sundries for the class within that course shell, it's critical that I provide these undergraduate, non-major students, many of them first-semester freshmen, with some idea early on just what the class is about -- what kind of approach we are taking, what kinds of activities we are engaged in, what sorts of tools we employ.

So, in addition to a number of other similar lesson sections -- some already (thankfully!) written, some of them still pressing items of my to-do list -- I decided to try my hand at explaining what we philosophers (and those who we're reading and studying) actually do, by way of discussing some of our most common tools -- the "elements," if you like, of philosophical work and works.  After I was finished with it, I thought that others might find it interesting or useful -- or perhaps glimpse better than I any glaring omissions or oversights.  So, if you've got something to add to this, by all means feel free to set it down in a comment, and I may incorporate it in a revised version of the online lesson.

What Are These Philosophers Up To?

If you ask philosophers what precisely they do -- as philosophers, in terms of their profession -- particularly if you pop the question on them without any warning, let alone an opportunity to warm up, you tend to get rather unsatisfactory and unilluminating answers (and I'm myself no exception to this).  You tend to hear fairly general things like "helping people to think critically," "introducing people to great ideas"--  on the one hand -- or highly technical explanations like "I'm engaging in a critique, more Levinasian than Foucauldian, I'd say than anything else, of late modernity. . . " -- on the other.  Or, people might mention what area of Philosophy they specialize in -- "I'm in Philosophy of Religion, working on issues of divine knowability in particular. . . "

None of this is likely, in my experience  -- which includes having provided similarly uninformative responses myself! -- to help a student just beginning in Philosophy to come to the texts and into class sessions with any real idea about what philosophers are up to. I've also come to think that it's not fair or effective to assume that students will just somehow "get it" by hanging out in class for a semester -- even if they are reading, participating, writing, reflecting. . . .

Now, one way to provide students with some solid conception of what we actually do in Philosophy classes-- and what they ought to be looking for and paying attention to in philosophical texts -- is to tell them a bit about some of the common elements (and you can call them "techniques," "motifs", whatever you like, if "elements doesn't do it for you) that they will encounter in their classes.  So, that's exactly what I'm doing here, in hopes that it flattens out the proverbial "learning curve," which does tend to be rather steep in Philosophy.

There's two things that need to be pointed out before I ennumerate and describe these common elements.  The first of these is that this is not meant to be -- at least at this point (and perhaps never) an entirely comprehensive listing.  And, it's quite possible that some other practitioners of this "craft of thinking" will take issue with my descriptions.  That's all right, since they're not intended to be something like ironclad, exceptionless definitions (I haven't got any of those at my disposal!).

The second thing to point out is that these are not unique to Philosophy -- God help us if they were!  There are many other disciplines and activities which employ these elements as well -- ranging from the humanities to the social and natural sciences, the fine arts and the crafts to business and management.  That shouldn't be a surprise, for several reasons, one of them being that many disciplines have been "spin-offs" from Philosophy.  Another is that many of these other professions have been advanced by those who actually had some background (because of having had a classical education) in Philosophy -- there's more to be said about this, but this suffices for the moment

Doctrines, Theses, or Principles:

If you read summaries about various philosophers or texts, you'll see some of their "big ideas" referred to -- ideas or concepts that get used by those philosophers to make sense of matters, to work out their accounts of things, as starting points or as criteria in argument.

For example, it helps when studying Plato to know that he has a particular conception about what things of a given type (e.g. virtue, human being, bed) share in common with others of their class -- this is what we call Form (generally capitalized).  The claim, the point of view, the assumption that this is the case (along with some other notions) is what we can call the "Doctrine of the Forms" in Platonic Philosophy.  Or, to take another example, the notion that things we experience are made up of form which inheres in a material substrate -- an idea worked out by Aristotle -- is his "Doctrine of Hylomorphism" (from Greek hyle, "matter" and morphe, "form).

You can call these by different names -- doctrines, theses, principles, just to name a few.  The key thing to recognize is that philosophers and philosophies do work out and use these sorts of general ideas.  They oftentimes provide us with starting-points or criteria which we can use in the process of philosophical enquiry.

Definitions and Essences:

We're all familiar with definitions, as we well should be, from our previous education. And they can play a role in Philosophy as well, one which is at times similar to the role they play in other contexts -- but also in some respects different as well.  One habit that we tend to import from other contexts into Philosophy -- a habit I'd like to warn you about -- is assuming that we can just go to a dictionary to get definitions that will pave our way to understanding unfamiliar terms in philosophical texts.   Quite often, the meaning of a term as used in a philosophical text or by a particular thinker, may not correspond exactly with those readily available in a dictionary.

One reason for this is that from the time of Socrates on, one important activity in Philosophy has been trying to work out satisfactory definitions for key terms, concepts, realities -- definitions that will hold up under rational scrutiny, that will express the essence of what it is that we are trying to define.  And, an essence, in turn -- you might well wonder what that is?  That too is something that philosophers have been working at throughout the history of the discipline.  For the time being, let's simply say that the essence is what the thing, or kind of thing, is at its core -- what makes that kind of thing the sort of thing it is.

Something that philosophers realized early on -- Aristotle credits this to Plato -- is that sometimes we work from definitions, taking them as starting points that we can rely upon -- while at other times we actually work towards definitions.  We do the latter when we are trying to make sense out of something that as yet is not entirely clear -- which we're not clear about, or which we're having trouble expressing clearly to others (and perhaps also to ourselves).

Analogies and Examples:

If you read through philosophical texts, you'll typically find philosophers using and examining a number of examples and analogies.  These might serve a number of different purposes.  For instance, one way in which examples and analogies are used are to get across to one's interlocutors or audience a principle or even just a claim that one wants to invoke.  We often have an easier time getting our heads around specific, particular instances of something that otherwise would be rather abstract.

For example (notice what I'm doing here, by the way!), if I want to explain what Plato means by a Form, I might use the specific example of beds, and have you think about what all beds share in that makes them into beds.  Thinkers also use analogies to try to get across concepts or positions that are difficult to grasp intellectually -- for example, when Descartes likens the relationship of the human body to the immaterial human soul as similar to that of a pilot (the soul) to the ship he controls (the body).  Notice that if we were to update his analogy, we might appeal instead to the experience we have as drivers (soul) or cars (body).

Another use that philosophers make of examples is as ways for testing whether a doctrine or even an account really makes sense, when we rationally examine it.  We say: "How about this sort of case?  Does the principle actually hold if we use this sort of example?  What would count as what in this sort of example?"  Similarly with analogies, we might say:  "Ok, if you hold this in this sort of case, or as a general principle. . .  then in a different type of situation, this ought to be the case, right?  But is it?"  Sometimes that helps us to discern that we've made some sort of mistake, that we've generalized too much and need to acknowledge some exceptions, that we need to revise our accounts of things.


It's often very helpful, even necessary to make distinctions -- to separate out different types of things, classes, or aspects within the same thing or class.  You'll find philosophers doing this quite often because it is an activity that allows us to see things as different from each other -- as well as how they differ, why they differ, and how much they differ.  This is a way to bring some clarity to matters that are otherwise rather murky.  And, this can be done in different ways (notice that here, we're making a distinction, aren't we?)

We might want to distinguish things that are somehow mixed up with each other, but which we sense to be different kids of things.  For example, Descartes makes a distinction between the body and the soul, and he does so by noting that one of them is extended, bodily substance, while the other is non-extended, incorporeal, spiritual. . . in fact, thought.  Even in the same thing, philosophers may make distinctions.  For another example, Aristotle writes about different "parts" of the human soul.  He takes pains to make sure that we don't assume that these are actually separate things, but rather different aspects (and indeed activities) within the same thing -- the soul.

We might also distinguish different senses of a term from each other.  Often the language we use can trip us up and make us thing that we are talking -- and thinking -- about the same basic thing because we use the same word. Words like "good" or "justice" or "love" can easily seduce us into mistaken lines of reasoning if we don't realize that the different senses or meanings of the word aren't simply exchangable willy-nilly with each other.  And, some people actually play upon these sorts of ambiguities to produce bad or misleading arguments that appear to be solid, reliable arguments.

So, for example, Aristotle distinguishes three main kinds of friendship (one of which is closest to the essence of friendship) -- and he does this by relying on a further distinction, between three different kinds of goods.  Doing this lets us see that not all sorts of "friendship" are the same as each other -- they differ in important ways.  And then, armed with this, we can investigate further and make fuller sense out of the matter we want to understand -- friendship.

Enquiries, Explanations, and Accounts:

Enquiry is what we are engaging in when we are trying to understand, to make sense out of, to provide some sort of rational account of matters that -- at least at the start -- we don't adequately grasp (though we may think, at the start, that we do!) .  Oftentimes, these are matters about which we disagree with other people -- or we see other people disagreeing about.  They can also be matters that we experience having gone wrong about, thinking that we understood and then finding out that we can't really make sense of them.  For example, what is really going on when we "fall in love"?  We may also encounter something -- an idea, an experience -- in which we become intensely interested, which raises questions for us that we feel a need to answer.  For example, Augustine, once he has accepted Christian doctrine, gets puzzled about just how God fits into time -- and what time itself is.

Philosophical enquiry tries to work out explanations of matters that we can find rationally (and often admittedly, also emotionally) satisfying.  Oftentimes this is not the work of the lonely philosopher thinking off all by him- or herself, but is something worked out by discussion with others.  In fact, one reason why you're going to be reading and thinking about philosophical texts is that the great philosophers of the past -- who worked out explanations and communicated them -- is that you thereby get to jump into the great conversation that has been going on down through the ages.

Philosophers -- at least many of them -- also try to work out broader, systematic accounts of things that bring together all of these other elements into an (ideally) full perspective on matters.  This is something that is characteristic of Philosophy as it has been traditionally done and understood -- that in principle it doesn't leave anything out, that it doesn't ignore any important aspect of human life, that it attempts to extend itself to everything.  

That's a rather tall order, and some philosophers and movements in philosophy have deliberately rejected that goal in response, pared Philosophy down to something they consider more manageable.  That's a whole different can of worms, and I'm not going to say more about here -- other than to remark that as a discipline with a history, producing systematic, adequate, intelligible, rationally defensible accounts is at the core of Philosophy.

Argumentation and Arguments:

I've saved this element for last -- but that doesn't mean that it is the least important, an afterthought, something optional.  In fact, argumentation is right at the very heart of philosophical work.  I've used the term "rational" quite a few times in this section, and one of the main instruments of reason or rationality is argumentation. 

At its most generic -- there are a number of different ways in which arguments get made, and there are various theories of argumentation -- argumentation consists in making a claim (or more often claims) and then attempting to provide some basis for those claim(s), some reason(s) why a claim or claims ought to be accepted.  And, while it is possible for a person to argue with him- or herself, when one is engaged in argumentation, one is attempting to provide a basis that would be reasonable for another person to accept, that could convince another person who is not yet already convinced of the claim(s).

Argumentation takes place through arguments -- and while these live in their "native habitat," so to speak, of the texts these can be isolated out, or reconstructed, and examined seperately.  They can be analysed into their parts -- assumptions or premises that we start from, evidence or reasons that are being provided (often as other premises), the inferences that are taking place, and the conclusions that are arrived at as the goal of arguments.

Working out further implications of positions, of claims, of distinctions, and so forth is also part of the process of argumentation.  In fact, a good portion of the time, we are carrying out inferences, in more or less implicit or incomplete manners, that can be rearticulated as arguments if we put in the work and time.  There's much more to be said about arguments, of course, but I reserve that for a subsequent piece. For the time being, it's enough to emphasize that arguments are central to the practice of philosophy.

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