Historical Introduction to Philosophy/Philosophical Method
The Philosophical Method
"Those who are eager to learn because they wonder at things are lovers of wisdom."
- Alexander of Aphrodisias
Doubting and Questioning
Philosophy begins with wonder, but goes further than that. It is an attempt to formulate, understand, and answer fundamental questions in life.
Socrates is famous for his Skepticism. He would approach popular people who were considered wise, and ask them to justify their beliefs. They would provide him with various attempts at justification, but Socrates would not accept their words without further probing for reasonable justification.
In Metaphysics, Aristotle described how wonder fit into the philosophical method: “For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters, e.g. about the phenomena of the moon and those of the sun and of the stars, and about the genesis of the universe” (Metaphysics, Book I).
Philosophers clarify their questions and claims to remove ambiguity. As part of the great conversation of philosophy, a question must be understood in terms people can agree on.
To pose a proper philosophical question, one must be able to make distinctions between conceptual questions and those that can be answered with empirical evidence.
"Somehow it fills my head with ideas, only I don't know exactly what they are."
- Alice in Wonderland
In order to participate in the great conversation of philosophy, and to apply the philosophical method in a meaningful way, one must become familiar with the conversation. Reading philosophy is often a challenge, but it has the intrinsically motivating factor of revealing thoughts on things that matter. In approaching primary sources in philosophy, a method can help one to extract meaning from the words:
Read and re-read the material.
Analyze the works, separating them by their distinguishing features and essential elements.
Criticize the works, applying reason to your evaluation of the authors' arguments.
Argument is essential to philosophical inquiry. Logic is the study of correct argumentation. Aristotle is generally credited as being the first to formalize logic. He devised ways to analyze and evaluate arguments. His main work was in what is called syllogistic logic, in which the primary constituents of arguments are terms, which are judged to be better or worse depending on the way in which they are arranged. His works On Sophistical Refutations and Prior Analytics address this.
The method of definition involves seeking out the meanings of words, and figuring out how meanings can be identified. Socrates and Plato brought a new method into philosophy with a search for definitions. By seeking to clarify the meaning behind grand words like "holy" and "just" (in Plato's Euthyphro and Republic, respectively,) they introduced a new way of investigating the fundamental questions in life.