Philosophy Isn’t All about Arguments

One of the most obvious questions one can ask about philosophical methodology is “Well, what is the method of philosophy?” If you’ve got an answer to that question in your pocket, it will help you to judge whether something is a bit of philosophy or not, and whether a bit of philosophy is a good one or a bad one. By comparison, one might suggest at a first pass that the method of science is essentially empirical: you have a question about what the world is like, and then you go check the world with a controlled experiment and find out. (That’s a potentially dangerous simplification, but it is a common thought and dealing with it is a topic for another day.) A similar caricature of the philosophical method is that a philosopher, ideally an old white dude with a long beard, sits in an overstuffed armchair stroking his facial hair. He takes his ‘intuitions’ about cases as data, and tries to make them systematic (perhaps through some kind of reflective equilibrium). That might describe the method certain patches of philosophy (except, not the part where the philosopher has to be white or male or bearded, or the part where it’s done alone). But intuitions (e.g. about what is just, or what is moral, or what counts as knowledge) don’t play the same role in all of philosophy, particularly not in philosophy of science. Consider a famous, big question in philosophy of science: realism vs. anti-realism about science. Roughly, that dispute is about whether we should believe that things like electrons and the strong force are real, or whether they’re just useful fictions that we use for predicting observations and building bridges. Arguments about scientific realism do not usually turn on accounting for our intuitions about what is real and making them systematic and discovering whether electrons belong inside or outside; they usually rely on claims about how evidence and explanation work, and how they apply to the interpretation of scientific theories and models.

So what can we say about the philosophical method? As in so many things, you can’t go too wrong starting with Plato. Plato has Socrates say somewhere that “Philosophy begins in wonder.” A lot of people seem to like that expression, and it might be true. But—my weird and enduring love for Plato notwithstanding—it doesn’t do much for me. A more articulate suggestion in Plato is that philosophy (sometimes ‘dialectic’) is the ‘examination’ part of the examined life. It is the investigation of your reasons for thinking what you think and for doing what you do, and the policy of offering those reasons up for criticism by others. I like this a little more, and it’s the kind of story I tend to take into the classroom when I teach. Generally speaking, I think Plato’s dialogues are full of great lessons about philosophical methodology. But this Platonic story is very personal. It’s about how philosophy fits into an individual life. If that were what philosophy as an academic discipline were about, it would mean that philosophers are ipso facto stupendously self-involved, or nosy, or both. Now, an enterprise whereby the participants investigate their reasons and those of their peers sounds like an interesting club, but it’s not a story about a respectable academic discipline. An academic discipline should do something for people other than those who participate in it.

A nearby suggestion, though, is that philosophy is about evaluating reasons as such. I once heard a story from Professor James Shaw that he sometimes tells his undergraduate classes. I like this story. Shaw says that the method of philosophy is described by something called the “science of argumentation,” which is presumably a generic variation on formal logic. (“Argument” here, as in most philosophical contexts, means a reasoned defense of a claim, not a verbal fight.) On Shaw’s suggestion as I understand it, philosophical training involves acquiring special knowledge of the forms of argumentation, with a focus on which ones are conducive to preserving truth, and expertise in clarifying and evaluating arguments as such. That’s the method. The content of philosophy is what he calls “leftovers.” On this view philosophy is about whatever is left unclaimed by the other disciplines (this can’t be all that philosophy is and Shaw knows that perfectly well, but it’s still a cute thought). “Leftovers” sound unsavory at first but they’re not, because there are a lot of interesting topics that can’t be adequately treated by the methods of other disciplines—Shaw’s examples were the mind-body problem, the problem of free will, the problem of personal identity, and whether death is harmful. The reason philosophy gets all the leftovers is that if you don’t have more specialized ways to discover knowledge on a topic, the science of argumentation is all you’ve got left!

I really like Shaw’s story, although I have two worries about it: philosophy isn’t just about leftovers, and its method isn’t just the science of argumentation. (But don’t tell my students I said that.) Philosophy can’t be leftovers because a lot of philosophy covers topics that are well covered by other disciplines: philosophers study language (especially semantics), but that’s now the turf of linguists as well. Philosophers butt heads with neuroscientists and social scientists about the will, responsibility, politics, epistemology, memory, concepts, and other topics. Philosophers get to keep the mind-body problem, probably, but frankly the computer scientists think that they do a better job and the philosophers have dropped the ball on that topic and let it languish since the 1970s. Moreover, there are the subdisciplines of philosophy called the philosophies of the sciences: subdisciplines like philosophy of physics, philosophy of biology, philosophy of nanoscience and, of course, philosophy of cognitive science. In all of these subdisciplines, philosophy takes on subject matter that is precisely the subject matter of other disciplines.

Concerning the method of philosophy, I’m pretty sure that it’s something like the standard line in analytic philosophy (the tradition in which I’m trained) that the method consists in attention to argument. Speculation without argument shouldn’t be dignified with the name ‘philosophy.’ In contrast to the standard line, there seems to be a view among the layfolk that philosophy consists in unconstrained speculation about abstract questions. On this view, the general form of a philosophical discussion is something like this:

JONES: “Hey, dude, what about if X?”
SMITH: “Sure man. But wait, what about if Y though?”

The thought is that philosophy consists in producing random suggestions, and philosophical expertise involves knowing what all those suggestions have been. Maybe this is why, when you tell someone at a party or on an airplane that you study philosophy, you quickly get the question “Which philosopher do you follow?” When it comes to teaching, I try to make a little show of insisting on the standard line, and disabusing my students of this layfolk cartoon. I think that this policy pushes my undergrads the right way. But I also think that the standard line goes too far, and that there is something right about the cartoon picture.

Even in analytic philosophy, good work does a lot of things apart from describing argument. For example, good work sometimes describes the range of possible ways of thinking about a topic. As we sometimes say, it maps out the “logical space.” This involves making distinctions, which is a crucial piece of philosophical technology. The standard line would hold that making distinctions is useful only insofar as it cleans up your definitions, and thereby improves an argument that features those definitions. It is, after all, implausible that argumentation is all there is to philosophy; there are at least other things one must do in order to argue effectively. For example, understanding arguments in texts, defining one’s terms, and anticipating counterarguments. What the standard line holds is not that argumentation is all there is to philosophy, but that argumentation is fundamental. All other activities belong to philosophy insofar as they help with the activity of articulating good arguments. But I’ve often walked away from philosophical discussions or from reading a paper with a distinction that was more memorable than the argument. Now, distinctions are wonderful pieces of philosophical technology. After all, the ability to make the right distinctions is a conceptual skill that you can take into new puzzles and new situations. Distinctions and other tools for navigating “logical space” without getting lost or overwhelmed are often more widely applicable than a grasp of particular arguments and counterarguments. For example, one set of distinctions familiar to most who have taken introductory philosophy is the standard tree for categorizing views about free will (below). That tree gives you a way of beginning to carve up the space of views about free will, and allows you to distinguish between two very different kinds of view that allow for free will (libertarianism and compatibilism). I would guess that most students remember that tree better than they remember, say, the consequence argument.

standard views about free will

Another activity of philosophers, and one that is harnessed by the folk picture, is the articulation of possibilities that have not been thought of or put clearly before. In particular, I mean identifying unnoticed assumptions and discarding them. There are complications here… at some level of generality, there is probably nothing new under the sun anymore (sorry, undergrad essay writers, I just about promise you didn’t think of it first). And novelty is not interesting for its own sake, anyway. But I’ve heard a few people say that one of the most important activities of the humanities and social sciences in general is to “unmask ideologies,” which I think is a way of talking about identifying and often discarding tacit assumptions. According to Robert Brandom, this is more or less the basic shape of Hegel’s method and the form of most of John McDowell’s discussions. McDowell can probably be accommodated straightforwardly by the standard line, since his writing is structured around arguments, but the writing of Hegel and of many continental thinkers is a tougher case. If one insists that everything in philosophy must be in the service of an argument, then those writers will be considered egregiously inarticulate (that may be a just criticism of Hegel, but not of e.g. Nietzsche). And it’s petulant and problematic to simply insist that they are not true philosophers.

This exploratory side of philosophical activity is easy to miss in the analytic tradition because most papers are organized around arguments, even when they include other kinds of intellectual work. However, that’s not universally true even in the analytic tradition. For example, it is possible to find arguments in Wittgenstein, but it’s difficult in most of the Tractatus, and many of the most memorable parts of his later work are not well-described as arguments. Wittgenstein’s fans in philosophy often quote him like scripture: “The world is the totality of facts, not of things”; “Nothing is hidden”; “Light dawns gradually over the whole.” This tendency infuriates some of Wittgenstein’s critics, who see him as a crackpot guru and not a philosopher (“Where are the arguments?”). I would venture that a lot of the power of Wittgenstein’s work comes from his ability to get you to think about things a certain way. Perhaps the same can be said of many of the famous thinkers in the continental tradition. I might say that Plato has a similar effect, even though his dialogues are full of arguments (after all, many of them are unconvincing on their face). A lot of the most compelling bits in Plato are the myths and stories he tells—the cave in Republic, the chariot in Phaedrus, or Aristophanes’ myth of the origin of love in Symposium. But the truth is that even though Wittgenstein and Plato have plenty of fans in the analytic tradition, analytic philosophers often avoid admitting that they are compelled by anything but sound argumentation.

So what is the method of philosophy? My opinion is that the method of philosophy just is the method of inquiry, but explaining that claim and arguing for it would require more space than I want to take up today. I’ll stop for now with a negative conclusion: attention to argument is extremely important in philosophy, but I don’t think that argumentation is the foundational activity of philosophy.

7 thoughts on “Philosophy Isn’t All about Arguments

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