5 Method in Philosophy


5 Method in Philosophy

In this article, we will examine the nature of the method of philosophy, which is distinct from that of science. An attempt will be made to elaborate on a number of methods employed in philosophy, with a view to getting the beginner in philosophy to become conversant with the various methods of philosophizing.

This is because if he or she is familiar with the different methods that are usually employed in philosophy, such beginner will be able to grasp faster the nature of arguments in philosophy. He or she can also choose a suitable method when carrying out a particular research. 

There are a number of methods that have been used by philosophers down the history of philosophy in engaging in philosophical inquiry.

They include but are surely not limited to the Socratic Method, the Speculative Method or the Method of Abstraction, the Cartesian Method or Method of Doubt, the Dialectical Method, and the Phenomenological Method.

By the end of this post, you should be able to describe the nature of philosophical method, identify particular methods in philosophy and explain some methods used in philosophy.

The content of this article will be examined under two headings method in philosophy contra method in science and methods of philosophizing. In examining the method of philosophy, we shall contrast it with the method employed in science. 

The 5 method of philosophy admits of a number of other methods which includes, but not limited to the Socratic Method, the Dialectical Method, the Cartesian Method, the Phenomenological Method and the Speculative Method.

Our discussion of these methods in the second subsection of this unit will familiarize the beginner with the various methods employed in philosophy.


Method in Philosophy contra Method in Science

Science as an academic discipline studies natural objects and events in the universe in order to discover regularities and laws governing them. Scientific research or writing does not create the natural world. Rather, it proceeds by experimentation and records what has been observed by description.

Science is thus primarily a descriptive discipline, although every now and then, theoretical constructs in science bears elements of normativity that quickly turns them to philosophical issues, particularly in epistemology and the philosophy of science.

To say that science is descriptive is to say that science describes the natural objects and events in the universe as they are. It does not focus on painting a normative picture of the world or providing a normative understanding of the universe. Its approach to the universe is ideally experimental and descriptive.

Philosophical inquiry, on the other hand, is primarily normative or prescriptive; it is concerned with how things ought to be viewed rather than how they are viewed or understood. 

Its inquiry into the nature of reality, knowledge and values does not require the observation of particular things or events or the gathering of particular data but a prescriptive interpretation and analysis of already available data, generalizations and information about the universe.

Put differently, questions such as: what is real?

Is there an ultimate reality?

How do we know what we claim to know?

What makes an action moral?

What is the best form of human society and the state?

Cannot be resolved by merely describing things and events in the universe. Rather they are best resolved through a rational prescriptive inquiry into the nature of things. This does not in any way imply that philosophical inquiry does not need the services of science or vice versa.

While philosophers may, from time to time, make use of scientific generalizations or results, they generally avoid the scientist’s specialized business of collecting and arguing about empirical data.

Sometimes, empirical evidence from psychology, physics or other fields of inquiry can be put to good use in philosophical arguments. But a research in philosophy must be ready to explain exactly why such empirical evidence is relevant and exactly what normative principles one can draw from it.

Apart from this, philosophers still find a lot to argue about even when they put empirical questions aside. For one thing, the question of: What sort of empirical evidence would be needed to decide the answer to a question? Might itself be a non-empirical question that philosophers discuss.

For another, philosophers spend a lot of time discussing how different claims (which may be empirical) relate logically to each other.

For example, a common philosophical project is to show how two or more views cannot be held consistently with each other, or to show that although two views are consistent with one another, they together entail an implausible third claim.

Therefore, an important distinction between inquiry in science and in philosophy is the famous is/ought distinction or the descriptive/prescriptive distinction. While science provides us with a description of the world, philosophy offers a normative analysis of the world and of human existence.

Flowing from the descriptive/prescriptive distinction, the object of study in scientific and philosophical researches varies.

 In general, when we research or write, it is always about something or someone. Research always has an object in focus. But the kind of object varies based on the nature of the discipline.

Science as basically a descriptive discipline describes objects and events in the physical universe. Its sub-disciplines in the natural, social and applied sciences are specialized in the study of a particular object or sphere of the material universe.

Biology studies and describes the nature and contents of biological components and organisms of the universe.

Chemistry has the chemical constituents of the material universe as its object of study. Psychology is the scientific study of human brain processes and mental states.

Hence, every specialized scientific discipline has a specialized and identifiable object of study. But it is difficult to identify or specify the subject-matter or object of study of philosophy the way we can specify the concerns of scientific disciplines such as economics, biology, chemistry, physics, and psychology.

It is thus not surprising for new students in philosophy to ask their tutor after some lectures, what exactly they are studying.

The difficulty of identifying the object of study of philosophy does not imply that philosophical inquiry, research or writing is not intended toward something. 

It is however the case that unlike scientific disciplines which studies specific objects in the universe, reveal specific information about them by gathering particular individuated facts or data about their objects of study, the subject-matter of philosophy is general in nature.

Philosophical questions are not intended toward a specific object in the universe nor are they meant to reveal specific information about their nature through the individual data collected. Rather, philosophical questions are general in nature. This is because dealing with such research questions in philosophy does not require the gathering of specific data or the accumulation of particular facts.

It rather involves how best to explain and analyses the already available facts to make sense of them in the search for answers for the ultimate questions of reality, knowledge and value. 

Philosophical research and writing are identified not only by the general nature of the subject-matter they address but also by their fundamental nature. Not every scientific research interests each one of us in our everyday lives.

The study of planetary bodies and how life can survive there, or the accumulation of information of the psychology of a lion may not immediately interest us even if there are reasons to believe that in the long run, such information may be useful for mankind.

However, every philosophical question that drives research in philosophy should interest any rational human being because the questions are essentially concerned with human existence and survival and the answers given them, and the answers we accept about them directly affect how we behave.

Thus, questions about reality, knowledge, morality, or the ideal state are not trivial but fundamental. Thus, while scientific research has specific subject-matter, philosophical inquiry deals with general and fundamental questions about reality, knowledge and value.

To engage in scientific inquiry is to describe, to experiment and to draw conclusions. To engage in philosophical inquiry is to theories, to analyses, to critique, to raise questions, and to pose as problematic, that which we investigate.

From the foregoing, science has a popular method of studying the natural universe, which has become so popular and infamous it is being imposed on other disciplines or forms of life as ‘the’ model rather than ‘a’ model of research. This method is referred to as the scientific method.

The scientific method is generally regarded as the procedure employed in carrying out research in the sciences or, put differently, it is concerned with principles of evaluation of statements in the empirical sciences.

As R. S. Rudner explains, “…the methodology of a scientific discipline is not a matter of its transient techniques but of its logic of justification.

The method of science is, indeed, the rationale on which it bases its acceptance or rejection of hypothesis or theories.” Thus, when people talk of the scientific method, they are simply referring to the general properties and consideration that are used in the confirmation or refutation of a hypothesis in the various sciences; that is, the common way in which hypotheses are assessed or researches are carried out in the sciences.

 As a method of research, the scientific method is said to be identified with a number of procedural stages, phases or steps. Scholars are generally not unanimous about the exact number of the research stages in the scientific method.

According to H. Siegel, that there is no consensus on the exact number of stages in the method does not imply that the scientific method cannot be characterized generally as consisting in, for example, a concern for explanatory adequacy, however that adequacy is conceived, an insistence on testing, however testing is thought to be best done, and a commitment to inductive support. Kwasi Wiredu provides a characterization of the scientific method. 

According to him, the method of science involves hypothesis, experiment and observation.

Scientific method has in practice attained a high degree of complexity, but, in bare essentials, it is characterized as follows: The mind is challenged by a problem for a solution; such that, however plausible the solution may be, it is not immediately asserted as true.

It is merely entertained as a hypothesis, a tentative proposal, to be put to the test. But before that, its significance has to be explored; that is, its logical implications have to be unraveled in conjunction with other known facts. This is the stage of the elaboration of the hypothesis, which often requires techniques of deduction.

The result, however, is always of the logical form of an implication: “if the hypothesis is true, then, such and such other things should be the case. The stage is then set for empirical confirmation and disconfirmation.”

Straightforward observation or very technical experimentation may be called for in this stage of confirmation or disconfirmation. If results turn out not to be in agreement with the implications of the hypothesis, it is said to be falsified.

It is, accordingly, either abandoned or modified. On the other hand, if results prove to conform to the elaborated hypothesis, it is said to be confirmed. It is the confirmed hypotheses that are regarded as laws and constitute the main corpus of scientific knowledge.

According to Siegel, what is striking about the method of science is its commitment to evidence and to the form of reasoning as described above, which is what ensures the objectivity and rationality of science. In other words, science is rational to the extent that it proceeds in accordance with such a commitment to evidence or form of reasoning.

This is what gives the scientific method its popularity. But philosophical inquiry cannot be associated with any such particular method of study due to the general nature of its inquiry.

Thus, although philosophy is a rational inquiry, there is no one single method of carrying out its inquiry, as is the scientific method.

Rather, there are varieties of methods based on the philosophical school of thought. To be sure, every rational inquiry, such as philosophy, begins with doubt and ends with the establishment of belief which also becomes a source of further inquiries.

However, in philosophy, there is no singular and generally accepted process of arriving at established beliefs or theories as we may find in science. There are varying methods.


5 Methods of Philosophizing

The history of philosophical inquiry brings to our attention such philosophical methods as the Socratic Method, the Dialectical method, the Cartesian method, the Phenomenological method, the Speculative method, or the method of abstraction.

It would be stated here that it is essential that students and researchers are familiar with the multiple methods of philosophy and apply them in the best suited research cases since the particular issue being researched or written on may determine the method adopted.

We would therefore examine these methods, while mentioning that these do not exhausts the methods used in philosophizing.


1. Socratic Method

The Socratic method, which draws from Socrates’ method of philosophizing, consists of a number of stages. 

Following Socrates, as such, he first presents his philosophical views in an everyday conversation-like situation, casually mentioning them to his companion and engaging their interest. Second, he would point out a certain philosophical concept that needs to be analyzed.

Third, he would profess ignorance and ask his companion his opinion on the matter. When given the other person’s answer, Socrates would analyse their definition by asking questions that expose its weakness or wrongness.

Once again, the person would provide another definition, revised more clearly this time, and again Socrates would repeat the process of questioning, exposing the weakness of the revised definition. They continue in this way until the clearest definition of the question is reached.

In this manner, Socrates would also cause the other person to realize his own ignorance, which is the first step, according to Socrates, to wisdom. Socrates also employed in his method, the use of the reductio ad absurdum form of argument, which means “reducing to an absurdity.” He would begin by assuming that his companion’s offered definition is true but then show that it logically implied either an absurdity or a conclusion that contradicted other conclusions previously drawn by his companion.

By exposing a false statement from the proposition, he skillfully proved that the assumption, rationally, must be false. Although sometimes quite frustrating to one, Socrates’ use of the method, combined with the reduction ad absurdum argument, proved effective and eye-opening.


2. Dialectical Method

The Dialectical method is a method of argument or exposition that systematically weighs contradictory facts or ideas, with a view to the resolution of their real or apparent contradictions.

In other words, it involves disputation or debate particularly intended to resolve differences between two views, rather than to establish one of them as true. It is thus the process of reconciliation of contradiction either of beliefs or in historical processes.

This method, as such, reconciles the seeming differences between what is usually referred to as a thesis with its antithesis, in a synthesis. This synthesis, which is the reconciliation between the thesis and the antithesis, becomes a new thesis, which will later on be reconciled with its antithesis in a new synthesis. In this way, knowledge progresses.

This method is more pronounced in the works of G.W.F. Hegel and Karl Marx. Hegel applied the method in arriving at truth by stating a thesis, developing a contradictory antithesis, and combining and resolving them into a coherent synthesis. 

It is also seen in the Marxian process of change through the conflict of opposing forces, whereby a given contradiction is characterized by a primary and a secondary aspect, the secondary succumbing to the primary, which is then transformed into an aspect of a new contradiction.


3. Cartesian Method

The Cartesian method of philosophy is associated with the philosopher Rene Descartes, in who’s thought the method is pronounce used. It is a process of finding solutions to philosophical problems on a presupposition less basis.

It involves rejecting anything one may have known about an issue at hand and approaching the issue on a “clean slate”. Descartes’ philosophy was deeply rooted in his desire to ascertain pure and certain foundations for knowledge.

In order to accomplish this, he felt that he could not rely on what he had been taught, or what he thought he knew, as he could not be absolutely assured that this was pure and uncorrupted information. Thus, he set out to formulate clear and rational principles that could be organized into a system of truths from which accurate information could be deduced.

The principle that he came up with as a starting point for his philosophy was that of methodic doubt, that is, to doubt everything. Descartes believed that we should not rely on our observations of the world around us, as these perceptions could be deceiving.

Consequently, Descartes believed that only those truths which he derived using reasoning, that is, reason and intuition alone, were reliable. This method is also referred to as Descartes’ methodic doubt


4. Phenomenological Method

The phenomenological method is one of the most prominent philosophical methods of the twentieth century popularized by Edmund Husserl. It aims to describe, understand and interpret the meanings of experiences of human life. It focuses on research questions such as what it is like to experience a particular situation.

Husserl emphasized the centrality of the human context in understanding life; that is, researchers and readers of research can understand human experience because they are participants in the human condition.

Thus, the task of understanding is to retain continuity with what is already experientially evident and familiar to us as humans. As a method of inquiry, it is based on the premise that reality consists of objects and events as they are perceived or understood in human consciousness and not of anything independent of human consciousness.

The method is not intended to be a collection of particular facts about consciousness but is rather supposed to furnish us with facts about the essential natures of phenomena and their modes of givenness.

Borrowing from Descartes methodic doubt, the method employs phenomenological reduction in carrying out its research; that is, the bracketing of all we know about a phenomenon and approaching it presuppositionlessly in order for the thing to open itself to our consciousness just as it is.


5. Speculative Method

The speculative method or the method of abstraction involves the researcher’s ability to explore imagination as a vast territory of enchanted possibilities. 

When philosophers are faced with questions that transcends what sense experience can answer, they tend to speculate within the ambit of reason. To be sure, what may give rise to such questions are always within the realm of experience but in trying to answer them, philosophers usually apply the method of speculation and abstraction in a logical and rational manner.

Plato’s speculation about the world of forms and the robust description of such a world as if it were real and tangible is a clear case of abstraction resulting from a philosopher’s dilemma on why certain things change and others do not, on what could be real as different from what appears to be real.


Conclusion on 5 Method in Philosophy

To effectively research in philosophy, it is clear from the above that we must not only be aware of the features of philosophical inquiry but master the methods that have characterized philosophical research.

We are also to master the principles and techniques of good reasoning so as to be able to detect fallacious arguments in what we read, as well as when we write for others to read. 

We necessarily should be in full control of our language of communication and be willing to clarify the concepts we use in our discourse. It is also essential that we are familiar with the methods of research in philosophy and apply the appropriate method in particular research cases.

In the course of the article, we learnt that philosophical inquiry is different from scientific inquiry mainly due to philosophy’s normative character, and the general character of its subject-matter and variety of methods.

In this vein, we learnt that philosophy does not have an identifiable, partial domain as its subject matter. It attempts to think about issues in the widest context. 

If it were a discipline focused only with an aspect of reality, it could at least be vaguely comprehended as being something other than, say, mathematics or sociology; that is, something that studies this domain as opposed to that.

Philosophy leaves nothing out, and hence leaves us without the contrasting foil that would allow us to say what it is.

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