Key Characteristics of Philosophy


Key Characteristics of Philosophy

In this article, we shall discuss some of the features that mark out philosophy as a discipline. The discussion shall be broken into what we have referred to as key basic features, logic and argument, and language of philosophy. 

We have decided to discuss logic and argument, and language of philosophy separately because they represent key features that easily identify philosophy as a discipline. 

For one, the language of philosophy should be able to convey the philosopher’s intended meaning in examining subject-matters; that is, the philosopher’s mastery of language should be such as to reveal the philosophic disposition to addressing issues.

This philosophic disposition, to be sure, is marked by a heuristic attitude whereby the philosopher does not assume a position to be the final statement about such issues. 

Rather, the philosopher presents claims with the understanding that the discovery of more details regarding a particular subject-matter may result in the revision of the claims of the philosopher.

And so, the discussion in this article is meant to introduce you to the key features of philosophy by providing you with an understanding of important features of philosophy.

By the end of this article, you should be able to identify a number of basic features of philosophy and these Key features of philosophy.


Some Basic Features

The basic features to be examined include

(1) Analysis

(2) Clarity

(3) Criticism

(4) Coherence

(5) Conciseness.



By analysis is implied the reduction of complex ideas or explication of human situations into understandable, relational concepts. 

Through analysis, essential concepts are extracted from experience so that they may be more easily understood and debated.

According to A. P. Martinich, analysis is analogous to definition. Definitions are explicitly about giving the meanings of words; analyses are explicitly about giving the necessary and sufficient conditions for concepts. Since words express concepts, definitions are the linguistic counterparts to analyses.

Every analysis, like every definition, consists of two parts, an analysandum and an analysans.

The analysandum is the notion that needs to be explained and clarified, because there is something about it that is not understood. The analysans is the part of the analysis that explains and clarifies the analysandum, either by breaking it down into parts or by specifying its relations to other notions.

An analysis tries to specify in its analysans necessary and sufficient conditions for the concept expressed in the analysandum.

Necessary conditions are those that the analysans must contain in order to avoid being too weak, while sufficient conditions are those that are enough to guarantee that the concept in the analysans is satisfied. Analysis can be defective for some reasons, three of which include: if it is circular, too broad, or too weak. 

An analysis is circular if the analysandum, or its key term occurs in the analysans. It is too broad just in case it is possible to give an example of the notion being analyzed that does not satisfy all the conditions specified in the analysans; conversely, an analysis is too weak just in case it is possible to describe something that satisfies all the conditions set down in the analysans, but is not an instance of the analysandum.

Generally, analysis must fulfill its primary goal of understanding. As such, the idea of analysis presupposes that the object of philosophical analysis is the attainment of the understanding through a simplification of the text in question. When analysis is done without understanding and simplicity, the goal has been defeated.



All too often, we simply take for granted or assume that humans have common experiences that lead to commonly held understandings of what we communicate to each other. 

We are, after all, thrown into the same world with many already established, taken for granted ideas of what is entailed in human experience.

One responsibility the philosopher has is to challenge and ultimately clarify those constructs we use to make sense of the world; constructs often taken for granted rather than clarified and truly understood.39 But ‘clarity’ is itself a complex concept with many dimensions.

However, in philosophy, the dimension that stands out most of all is precision, which involves avoiding ambiguity, vagueness and indeterminacy. A work in philosophy should not be ambiguous, vague or indeterminate if it must be clear.

For a philosophical write-up not to be ambiguous, the specific or particular sense in which words and concepts are used must stand out. A writer should not assume that the audience already knows the meaning or the sense in which he or she uses a concept.

Rather, it is his or her duty to make the sense of a word or concept stand out in the work. To avoid vagueness, an author must express his or her thought clearly and coherently. A poorly expressed thought or one that is not coherent in meaning only blurs clarity. And so, concepts and ideas must be established very firmly to avoid indeterminateness. The ability to do these makes for clarity.



Criticism means making judgments as to value. Philosophers judge the instrumental or practical value of ideas, concepts, theories, precepts and perspectives; and in this critical, interpretive mode, they build new and better conceptual understandings. They ask questions such as whether a particular proposal to deal with a situation works, and if not, how can such proposal be improved on?

Criticism allows a researcher or writer in philosophy to investigate and then mediate experience and thereby formulate solutions to problems; problems of a specific type. It is also clear that in extracting conceptual constructs that drive actual practice (rather than from some imagined practice), philosophy is a very qualitative, experiential method.

Criticism can be destructive or constructive as evident in the history of philosophy. Destructive criticisms are primarily aimed at rubbishing or rendering irrational and untenable a particular theory, idea, belief, thought or knowledge claim.

For instance, the positivists’ attack on metaphysics is more often than not, destructive. Constructive criticism on the other hand seeks to identify problems in a particular theory, idea, belief, thought or knowledge claim, with the primary goal of reconstructing it or making it better.

Constructive criticism is encouraged for better scholarly sportsmanship, as no idea is full proof or without the need for some revision, improvement or correction.



A philosophical assertion or claim or position is coherent if its parts are logically and orderly consistent and related. An integral part of coherence is continuity, that is, the way such philosophical claim or assertion moves from one part to another toward its goal.

A claim that twists and wanders, seemingly not directed to any particular goal, is defective even if each part of such assertion is charged with great rhetorical energy. There are many ways in which coherence is achieved in essays.

Sometimes, one part of an essay coheres with another because they share a subject matter. In addition to sharing a specific subject matter, sentences hang together in other ways. One of these ways is through stock phrases that mark the boundaries of large parts of an assertion.



Conciseness, as a feature of philosophy, combines brevity and content. Being concise means conveying a lot of information in a brief space. Brevity, perhaps, does not call for much comment. It is desirable because it typically makes fewer demands on the reader’s attention and understanding.

Although brevity is a good policy, it admits of exceptions. Sometimes the rhythm of language recommends a wordier sentence. It is sometimes necessary to use more, rather than fewer, words in order to stretch out the content of a sentence and thereby make it more intelligible to your reader.

Further, brevity does not guarantee efficiency; it concerns only how something is said and not at all what is said. In determining the efficiency or economy of a sentence or essay, one must consider content in addition to brevity.

A brief but vacuous sentence does not communicate more efficiently than a prolix but informative one. Thus, it is not in itself desirable to sacrifice content for the sake of brevity, although this might be desirable for some other reason: to vary sentence length or to prepare the reader for some complicated explanation. Thus, brevity and content must be balanced. That is the force of the admonition to be concise.


Logic and Argument

Logic, in its traditional sense, is the study of correct inference. It studies formal structures and non-formal relations which hold between evidence and hypothesis, reasons and belief, or premises and conclusion. It is the study of both conclusive and inconclusive inferences or, as it is also commonly described, the study of both entailments and inductions.

Specifically, logic involves the detailed study of formal systems designed to exhibit such entailments and inductions. More generally, though, it is the study of those conditions under which evidence rightly can be said to justify, entail, imply, support, corroborate, confirm or falsify a conclusion.

Logic is thus the science of reason involved in the business of evaluating arguments by sorting out good ones from bad ones, using sound principles or techniques of good reasoning.

Arguments, as understood in logic, consist of arguing for a position by means of conclusive or highly probable evidence.

Hence, in an argument, there is a conclusion (the position being held or argued for) and premise(s) (the evidence(s) or reason(s) for holding the position). In some arguments, premises provide conclusive or undeniable grounds for accepting the conclusion; these arguments are referred to as deductive arguments. In such arguments, it will be a contradiction to accept the premises and deny the conclusion. 

In some other arguments, the premises provide only sufficient but not conclusive or necessary basis for accepting the conclusion; thus, making the conclusion only highly probable.

In this case, the argument is an inductive one where one does not fall into a contradiction by accepting the premise and denying the conclusion.

The importance of logic as the principles and techniques for good reasoning and well-constructed arguments becomes obvious as a feature of philosophy. This indicates that integral as a feature of philosophy is making sound arguments and analyses, providing good reasons for holding a position or supporting one, and engaging in a logical and coherent assessment of arguments.

Logic, as the science of reasoning, provides the needed training for the philosopher. This is why Logic is a core discipline in any philosophy curriculum.

That logic is very essential for good reasoning in general, accounts for the reason why every student in a tertiary institution in Nigeria is made to be trained, at least, in the elementary aspects of logical tools and techniques, particularly at the first year of study.

This is because the formatters of the country’s education curriculum are well aware that every student needs logic for good reasoning and assessment of arguments in any field of study. Philosophy’s case is not exceptional.

In fact, philosophy students are privileged to excavate deeper into the rich soil of logic over and over again before graduation. The obvious preferential treatment accorded philosophy students in the study of logic stems from the fact that logic is the philosophy student’s most effective tool in carrying out his or her assignment.

In fact, logic is ingrained in the study of philosophy and can never be left out of it at any point in time. For example, the student is trained on the laws of thought, namely the law of identity, the law of non-contradiction, and the law of excluded middle, and how or where they can be applied.

The student is also taught the fallacies that should be avoided when arguing for a position, such as the fallacies of relevance and fallacies of ambiguity. The student is also trained in the techniques and rules of formal logic and how breaking such principles can weaken an argument.

For instance, in a syllogistic argument, one does not use a particular term in two senses. The term ‘ruler’ could mean a measuring tool or a leader of a people. When the term is used in a syllogistic argument, it must be used in just one of the senses to avoid ambiguity or vagueness. If this rule is broken, the writer commits the Fallacy of Equivocation.

Also, the fact that a term is used in more than one sense in the same argument suggests implicitly that the argument contain more than the required number of three terms that a good syllogism should have. The argument also therefore commits the Fallacy of Four Terms.

Consider the following example: A ruler straightens things David is a Ruler Therefore, David should straighten things.

In the argument, the term ‘ruler’ is used in different senses and can be misleading. This makes the argument fallacious. The philosopher is also trained by the use of brain tasking calculations and exercises in formal logic, involving the application of valid rules to arguments such as the rules of inference, the rule of replacement, the rule of conditional proof and the rule of indirect proof. The application of these rules exercises the brain and makes the student to think faster and sharply about issues.

Therefore, the importance of logic and argument as a feature of philosophy cannot be overlooked. Related to the deployment of arguments in philosophy to make a claim, is the question of who bears the burden of proof in an argument.

Roughly, the person who asserts or otherwise relies upon the truth of a proposition for the cogency of his position bears what is usually referred to as the burden of proof. It should however be stated here that it is impossible to prove every proposition.

In every science, some propositions are considered as basic or taken-for-granted assumptions. They are simply assumed without proof. In geometry, these principles are axioms, which traditionally were considered self-evident.

In this vein, there are many propositions, which, although are not self-evident, need not be proven every time they are used, since the evidence for them is very familiar. For example, it need not be proven that the world is round and very old; that humans use languages to communicate, and so on.

On the other hand, in most contexts, you should not simply assume that only one object exists or that non-human animals use languages to communicate. These are controversial views and need support.


Language of Philosophy

In a rather general sense, we communicate through language. In fact, communication is not possible if the speaker and the hearer or the writer and his or her audience do not understand each other’s language of communication.

All we have to say, the points we are making, the analyses we do, or the arguments we put forward are only possible through the tool of language. Hence, a strong mastery of the language by which we communicate and which our audience understand, is very essential as a feature of philosophy.

Olusegun Oladipo identifies two major reasons why language is an essential tool of philosophy.

First is the obvious reason that philosophical ideas and theories are expressed in language, which is why a philosopher ought to have a good mastery of the language he or she communicates in. When the philosopher has such mastery, he or she is able to express him or herself with clarity and precision of thought and without vagueness and ambiguity of speech: a much-desired objective in philosophy.

This also accounts for the pursuit of meaning in philosophy which involves the clarification of concepts and terms employed in a philosophical essay to express our ideas and viewpoints.

Second, mastery of language places the philosopher in an advantageous position over professionals in other disciplines. The philosopher uses language to sort out human experiences, reveal the connection that exist between things and events, create and construct concepts to represent multiplicity of events and experiences and generally become more enlightened about the nature of the world and the place of humankind in it.

John Stuart Mill is thus compelled to compare the role of language in philosophical inquiry to the role of telescopes in astronomical inquiry. He says therefore that: Language is evidently and by the admission of all philosophers, one of the principal instruments or helps of thought and any imperfection in the instrument, or in the mode of employing it, is confessedly liable... For a mind not previously versed in the meaning and right use of the various kinds of words to attempt the study of methods of philosophizing would be as if someone should attempt to become an astronomical observer having never learnt to adjust the focal distance of his optical instrument, so as to see distinctly.

From the foregoing, it is evident that language – in the context of philosophy, the right of words to convey the intended meaning – is indispensable to philosophy and the philosopher. As stated earlier, the philosopher’s mastery and use of language should be such as to aid him or her in addressing issues in the philosophic way.

The philosophic way or disposition, to be sure, is defined by a heuristic attitude whereby the philosopher does not assume a position to be the final statement about such issues. 

Let me state here that the heuristic attitude is an experiential one wherein the philosopher relies on available data to arrive at conclusions.

Such conclusion, however, are tentative, given that the availability of further experiential details that where not earlier known may cause a revision of conclusions that were made before. With this understanding, the philosopher’s language is usually put in ways that presents claims with the understanding that the discovery of more details regarding a particular subject-matter may result in the modification of the claims of the philosopher.


Conclusion on Key Characteristics of Philosophy

Let us conclude here by stating that the features of philosophy described above are integral to any understanding of philosophy.

It is therefore important that the student is conversant with these features as they mark out a work in philosophy, whether a piece of writing or a more extensive work such as a long essay which the student would write at the end of the undergraduate degree programme or other such writing in the course of studying for a degree in philosophy. With this in view, it is pertinent that the student develops these as he or she goes through the training in philosophy.

To be sure, these are not just features; they are also skills to be imbibed or cultivated in the course of a philosophical training, with the intent of distinguishing the individual as a philosopher.

In this article, we examined a number of features of philosophy. Summarily, these features are key to understanding the basics of philosophy, particularly as they are integral to what makes an inquiry philosophical.

As such, philosophical inquiry into questions and issues involves, among other things, applying the method of philosophical criticism and analysis that include coherency, clarity and conciseness.

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