The Philosophical Method

An outline of the key components of the philosophical method:

1) Its objects are concepts.  The philosophical method’s prime role is conceptual analysis, and so the objects it works with are concepts of things, not necessarily things themselves.

2) It is rationalist, not empiricist.  Since the philosophical method deals with concepts, it grounds its knowledge in reasoning.  You don’t have to ground or test any philosophical theory empirically or in empirical data; the concept can be tested regardless of any details of any instantiation, or even if it actually is instantiated.

3) It is generally abstract.  Again, since concepts exist and can be examined regardless of whether or not they exist, the philosophical method works as well or better with abstract notions than concrete ones.

4) It universalizes across all possible worlds.  The concept has to apply in counter-factual situations.  In order to have a good concept, you have to be able to say what it would do if the world was not like this one, even if that means that it couldn’t be instantiated or would have to work a lot differently.  Thus, concepts formed by the philosophical method don’t  just work in this universe, but work in all possible ones.

5) Possible world examples are as good or better than real world examples.  Again, the philosophical method has to universalize to all possible worlds.  Because of this, examples of the concept from possible worlds or thought experiments are as good data as real world instantiations are, since those examples need to be handled by any properly defined concept.

6) The main drive of specific philosophical tools is to abstract away from real world instantiations as much as possible, to eliminate distractions.  Again, the philosophical method is abstract and has to universalize and generalize across all possible worlds.  The specific details of a specific implementation can detract from this, as you can get caught up in thinking that a specific trait must be a property — and a critical one — of the concept simply because a specific instantiation possesses it.  But, for example, a red colour doesn’t make a house a house even if all the houses you know of are red, and this applies generally to concepts.  Thus, the philosophical method wants to abstract away from specific examples to ensure that it captures the pure concept, and not just the one that we’re most used to seeing.

7) The main philosophical tools are thought experiments, modal logic (possible worlds), and analytical reasoning.

8 ) The philosophical method does not require lab work; it can be done from the armchair by one person examining their own concepts.  The philosophical method doesn’t in and of itself require anything other than someone sitting down and thinking about what they know, and much progress can be made with that method.

9) The philosophical method is validated against the thought experiments, analytical reasoning, and modal logic (possible worlds) of others.  Even though you can do a lot on your own, ultimately everyone has a worldview.  Only by testing your conceptions against other worldviews can you ensure that you’ve covered all the bases and universalized properly.

Huge thanks to Andrew Brook whose attempts to explain what Philosophy can bring to Cognitive Science really drove home the idea that Philosophy’s main focus is conceptual analysis, without which this doesn’t even get off the ground.

Note:  This is a work in progress; changes will be made as I go along and get feedback.

3 Responses to “The Philosophical Method”

  1. The Philosophical Method, the Scientific Method, and Theology « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    [...] http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/the-philosophical-method/ [...]

  2. Truth? What is that? « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    [...] fictional worlds?  What about truths about possible worlds?  Consider that in my comments on the Philosophical Method I comment that since it’s after concepts you have to be able to say things about the concept [...]

  3. Scientism 101: Knowing and Ways of Knowing. « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    [...] philosophy or mathematics does. While we may need to do more work to define what these methods are (see my attempt to clarify the philosophical method on this blog), that they have defined and distinct methods is not that controversial, and so that they are [...]

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