Starting to “do” philosophy..


Here’s the thing, philosophy isn’t easy — it just plain isn’t.

What it is, is a systematic way of looking at the world.  It’s based in arguments (which are a connected series of statements intended to support a proposition..) — not “fights” like you may have with a friend etc.. So — to understand a philosophical work of any kind, you need to figure out what the argument is.

Philosophy grows because philosophers make arguments, other philosophers object to those arguments, and then either the original philosopher or his pals formulates a response to the objection.  From there, the response becomes the new argument under consideration, objections are formed etc.. We’ve been doing that for a long, long, long time — SO, in order to understand philosophy, you must understand arguments.

Most of the time, the first step in figuring out an argument is to figure out what the proposition is — i.e. what the conclusion is — i.e. what the author is trying to persuade you to believe.  Sometimes this isn’t easy because philosophers can be pretty obscure writers — other times it isn’t easy because it seems too simple.  It also isn’t the case that there’s a standard position for a conclusion within an argument — often it’s at the beginning, sometimes it pops up in the middle or the end.  The key to it is looking for something that indicates the purpose of the article — like “I intend to prove that __________” or, conclusion indicator words that mean the same thing as “therefore”.

Once you’ve identified the conclusion, look for the supporting evidence, observations, etc.. that form the premises of the argument.  They may be simple or complex — and it may be the case that you have to piece them together from the narrative in the article.  There are also likely to be implied or assumed premises, so make sure that you keep an eye out for them as well.

Once you’ve figured out the argument, it’s a good idea to write it down.. then go back and read the article again.  At this point, you should be evaluating the argument — do the premises make sense (i.e. are they true, from your perspective)?  Do they support the conclusion that they’re supposed to support?  Could they support an alternate conclusion that’s the opposite of the conclusion they’re supposed to support?

Finally — you should take a few minutes to think about objections to the argument.  Of course, if you find a glaring logical hole in the argument when you evaluated it – that’s a good place to start.  The thing is, there aren’t all that many philosophers who get published with glaring logical holes — so you’ll need to think about the argument further.

A good place to start is to ask yourself whether or not there are solid counter-examples to the premises given?  Often premises are in the form of observations, so are there observations of the world that contradict those offered in the argument?

Another good place to go is to ask what would happen IN /TO the world if we fully accept the argument as true?  What would happen if everyone accepted the theory offered?  Would that be a good or bad thing for the world?  What would happen in particularly challenging instances, would there be counter-intuitive results?

Finally, objections can usually be found in competing theories — and there are always competing theories — so, looking there is often a good source of objection.

The thing is, you need to keep in mind that just because there ARE objections to an argument, it doesn’t follow that the argument isn’t a good one.  Philosophers are objectionable people –we’ll fight about nearly everything — in fact, a recent New York Times article described philosophy as an intellectual combat sport, so — don’t think that that just because objections exist, that the theory isn’t plausible.

Also keep in mind that the process of philosophy includes both understanding the arguments AND evaluating those arguments — so formulating objections is crucial to understanding the argument in the first place.


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