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How to Be a Philosopher

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Montage of folk asking philosophical questions

Philosophy, as many people have pointed out, is not a subject but an activity. You don't study it, you do it. To be a philosopher, therefore, one need not be an academic, or an expert on the history of the practice of philosophy, but merely think and argue in a particular way. You might already be a philosopher without knowing it - many people are.

The word 'philosophy' comes from Ancient Greek and is usually translated as 'love of wisdom, and the earliest philosophers among the Ancient Greeks were also mathematicians and scientists. These were people who had the inclination and also, crucially, the time to seek knowledge, because they had slaves to do all of the work. Cynics have suggested that the wheel has come full circle, and that these days most people are happy to do menial work, provided that someone else does the thinking for them.

Broadly speaking, there are two tasks of philosophy. The first is said to be a search for truth, but many philosophers say they don't know what the word 'truth' means, while other philosophers don't think it exists at all. The search for the ultimate question is, alas, not the central concern of most academic philosophers, but that doesn't mean everyone else shouldn't have a go.

The second task is about the application of logical thinking to everyday questions, concepts, and ideas that are often taken for granted. This kind of conceptual analysis serves (in theory) to clarify debate. There's no point arguing about justice/knowledge/perception/human nature unless we have some idea about what kind of things these terms might mean.

Willard van Orman Quine famously observed that all the major areas of philosophy are questions asked by the average four year old child, namely1:

  1. What is there? (ontology - philosophy of being)
  2. How do you know? (epistemology - philosophy of knowledge)
  3. Why should I? (ethics)

Other areas include: political philosophy, metaphysics, philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, philosophy of religion, philosophy of law, philosophy of mathematics, logic, and so on.

Most subjects that people study at school and at college are in many respects philosophical. If you think about any subject hard enough you will discover underpinning all topics are certain basic assumptions and fundamental ideas. Uncovering those and subjecting them to scrutiny is just one application of philosophy. Indeed such questions are bound up in the very nature of the things concerned and are often described as 'The Philosophy of' that subject.

For example, the development of the philosophy of science is to be welcomed for two reasons. Firstly, it's a fascinating area which needs closer examination, and secondly it has the virtue of annoying scientists who have become too smug. What is science? Is there such a thing as the scientific method, and, if so, what ought it to be? What is proof? Is there such a thing as 'proof'? What has to happen for a theory to be proved wrong? When should one theory be replaced by another theory? Is the task of science to reflect what is really there, or is it enough to be able to successfully predict what will happen?

A related area concerns ethical questions to do with the application of science. Should we clone endangered species? Should we clone people? If so, why? And if not, why not? Attempting to understand those sorts of questions is a task for philosophical thought, not for scientific thought; though there is no reason why scientists can't think philosophically, or why philosophers can't think scientifically.

This entry can be seen as an attempt to construct a view for a philosophical method, which is itself, of course, a subject for debate. It is one of the curious things about pursuing philosophy that definitive right answers are always very elusive. As soon as you get close enough to make a dive at it, it has a horrible habit of squirming away under a hedgerow of complications. Even if you think you are right, there is bound to be somebody who disagrees with you. To understand how to be a philosopher is to learn about the nature of argument and how best to state your case and to respond to that of your opponent.

How Not to Be a Philosopher

Philosophy is often mistaken for dogmatism, which is the unquestioning belief in a particular ideology or set of beliefs, while it is in fact its exact opposite. This mistake is mostly made by those who are, in fact, dogmatic. Having a particular set of strong beliefs on a particularly important or fundamental subject is far from being the same thing as being a philosopher. Having a 'philosophy' does not make one a philosopher.

A quick trawl of many philosophy sites on the Internet will show that dogmatists are, in the online world, in a majority. Newsgroups are regularly peppered with rather unenlightening shouting matches between the religious and the atheist, or between proponents of more or less barmy, lunatic, and downright dangerous political views. The principal idea here seems not to be to exchange and critically examine ideas, arguments, and conclusions and to work towards agreement, but to shout each other down, fail utterly to engage with the arguments of opponents, and finally resort in frustration to personal abuse. A proper philosopher will attack an argument, but never attack its proponent. Life, many philosophers hold, is far too short for this kind of thing.

It's not that philosophers don't believe in anything - they usually do. It's just that their interest is not in merely asserting what they believe, but in being to articulate and explain why they believe what they do, and the reasons and arguments that can be put forward for the contrary point of view. Once these underlying arguments are exposed, meaningful debate can take place. A proper philosopher will take considerable pride in constructing the most powerful argument possible for a view contrary to theirs, before gleefully destroying it. Philosophers may like arguments, but they still like being right. Being right at a deeper level of understanding is infinitely more satisfying.

Philosophy and Religion

A word about religion. Philosophy is not, as it is often erroneously portrayed, intrinsically opposed to religion, but opposed to dogma. The philosophy of religion is a particularly interesting area, in which philosophers pose all manner of impertinent questions and store up trouble for themselves in the future. Let us look at the proposition that God is omnipotent

  • Can God create a stone he can't lift?
  • Either he can create the stone, or he cannot.
  • If he can, he's not omnipotent, because he can't lift it.
  • If he can't he's not omnipotent, because he can't.
  • Therefore God cannot be omnipotent.

Of course, all this is just humans trying to be clever, and we all know what unfortunate consequences can result from this type of thing2. If someone asserts that their religion is a matter of faith, then that's no business of philosophers, as philosophy is not about faith but about arguments. Now, if someone attempts to logically prove or disprove the existence of God (and many have tried), that's a lot more interesting....

How to Be a Philosopher

Philosophers are on the whole more interested in arguments for or against particular conclusions or beliefs than the conclusions or beliefs themselves. Non-philosophers will seize on any argument - valid or not, relevant or not, coherent with their other beliefs or not - in order to support their particular view. Philosophers, on the other hand, regularly reject arguments which appear at first sight to back their own views if those arguments are not coherent, relevant, valid and so on.

When presented with an argument for a particular point of view, a philosopher tries to analyse the argument, asking a number of questions.

1. What assumptions are being made? Assumptions can be factual or ideological. David Hume once noted that it is impossible to derive an 'ought' from an 'is'. For example, consider these arguments:

a. 'It is raining, so you ought to put up an umbrella.

b. 'Your friend is unhappy, so you ought to cheer her up.

The first assumes that you want to stay dry, and that there is no other way to stay dry, that no hazards (like strong wind, lightning, or crowded streets) make the use of an umbrella a bad idea. The second assumes that you have a duty to your friend, that you have no more pressing duties or tasks (you haven't, say, left the iron on, or been entrusted to guard a psychopathic killer), that your friend deserves to be cheered up, that you are capable of the task, and so, and so on, and so on.

Here are some other questions to consider.

2. How plausible are these assumptions? Are factual propositions true?

3. Do these assumptions rest on other assumptions? How plausible are they?

4. Do these assumptions fit with other assumptions that are needed for the argument? Contradiction is never a good sign.

5. What else follows from these assumptions? Might the acceptance of certain assumptions lead to far stronger conclusions than are wanted?

6. Are these assumptions properly worked out, or are they in a general, vague form which actually means very little? And if so, be suspicious.

Many of these are basically the systematic application of logic. Put simply, it's better to be logical than not to be. And if you're not, it's always best not to be caught out.

An Illustration

The problem with trying to illustrate philosophical method is that the method becomes lost in the subject matter. It's a case of not being about to see the principles of forestry management for the trees. Another problem is that, as has been observed, there is no 'shallow end' to philosophy.

So rather than using real philosophy to demonstrate philosophical argument, perhaps the best method is to demonstrate it using a non-philosophical example. This will also serve as a salient warning that philosophy is not applicable to every situation in life, and can be a sure-fire way of losing friends, for which winning arguments is a scant consolation indeed.

Without Philosophy

Daughter: Can I go to Anna's party tonight?

Mother: No, not on a school night.

D: But everyone else's mum lets them go!

M: You're not going, and that's final.

D: That's so unfair!

With Philosophy

D: But everyone else's mum lets them go!

M: There are two assumptions there. The first is that everyone's mum does in fact allow them go, which, in the absence of detailed evidence, I am inclined to doubt. Secondly, you assume that because I am in a minority, I am incorrect. Yet there are many examples of holders of a minority view being correct. Surely you do not mean to claim that simply being in a majority confers truth?

D: I don't wish to claim that. But why do you think allowing me to go the party would be an incorrect decision?

M: Because you have school tomorrow.

D: You make the assumption that a late night would have an adverse affect my schoolwork. This I would deny; but we can assume that it is true for the moment. There is, however, a more serious assumption that you make. You assume that any disadvantages from my being a little tired from being up late will not be outweighed by the advantages that could be gained by my being at the party, such as increased self-esteem, social skills, and life experience. I dispute the primary importance you appear to attach to education and knowledge, and argue that these are only two virtues among many others, which are equally important for my personal development.

M: This may be so, but it doesn't show that the virtues of self-esteem and social skills should, on this occasion, outweigh education. And the less said about life experience, the better, young lady. If, as you say, the virtues of self-esteem and social skills and education are just three among many others, then the choice between them is simply a matter of judgment. You will concede that I am older and wiser than you are, and I am therefore better placed to make this judgment. Therefore, I conclude, I have the right - and, as your mother, the duty - to use this judgment in your best interests, which on this occasion is not to let you go the party.

D: But why?

M: You're not going, and that's final.

D: That's so unfair!

Whether this is an improvement or not, is, of course, a question of judgment.

Recommended Further Reading

Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder is a mixture of narrative and simplified account of the ideas of most major philosophers (or at least the interesting ones), as explained to a 12-year-old. Gaarder is a professional philosopher, but Sophie's World divides critics. It has been criticised by some for over-simplifying or distorting the work of a number of key thinkers, but defenders argue that simplification is sometimes necessary for accessibility. Opinion is also divided over the narrative sections - some readers find them hackneyed and rather obvious, whereas others enjoy the way that they frame the philosophy, and serve to illustrate some of the arguments.

The Bluffer's Guide to Philosophy by Jim Hankinson possesses the twin virtues of being cheap and of being short. Usually found in the 'humour' sections of bookshops, this short book actually provides a good overview of different areas of philosophy under the guise of equipping the reader with enough knowledge to bluff his or her way through. Witty and informative, this is a must for any philosophy student.

Thinking from A to Z by Nigel Warburton is an excellent reference book with entries in alphabetical order on fallacies, errors of logic, and techniques and features of argument. It covers classical errors such as post hoc ergo propter hoc as well as more modern expressions such as Catch-22 and red herring. Discussions of each entry are clear, accessible, lively, and with plenty of examples.

The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers (Unwin paperback) edited by JO Urmson and Jonathan Rée is not as quick or as witty as the Bluffer's Guide, but it delightfully balances the requirements to be at once short, clear, complete and authoritative.

1 Along similar lines, Jostein Gaarder, author of the highly-accessible Sophie's World, claims that children are the only true philosophers; a curious conclusion, which is not shared by many contemporary educationalists.2The jury is very much still out on this particular argument: does being omnipotent entail being able to do the logically impossible, as this argument seems to imply?

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