Sunday, February 9, 2014

Philosophy Toolkit

(Co-authored by Matt Silliman, Dave Johnson, Gerol Petruzella, and Paul Nnodim.  Philosophy Program, MCLA, Third Edition, 2011)

The Sub-domains of Philosophy:

(theories of the nature, scope, and limits of knowledge)

(theories of what there is and how it works)

Ethics/Moral Philosophy/Axiology
(theories of value and norms)

+ Logic
(principles and structures of good reasoning)

This toolkit is a bit more challenging than an ordinary vocabulary list. Many of these concepts will only begin to make sense over time, as you apply them in reading, thinking, and conversation. Our purpose is to provide a helpful and accessible guide as introduction and reference, but to accomplish this we must be as concise as possible, so many entries will seem forbidding at first. Patience is an intellectual virtue you will want to cultivate, but patience is not passivity. Our main purpose is to create a basis for thoughtful discussion and further inquiry– ask questions!

The sub-domains of the discipline are all interrelated. We cannot make ontological claims about what there is without invoking some epistemological claims about how we know that to be the case. Likewise, we cannot make epistemological claims in the absence of ontological assumptions about the nature of knowers and the known. Lastly, we cannot settle questions about either knowledge or being without raising questions of value or worth (axiology), such as whether and to what extent knowledge and truth are good or worth seeking.

You will encounter most of these terms and ideas outside of traditional philosophical contexts. This is because many other intellectual disciplines derive from philosophy historically and conceptually – the main reason scholars of most fields, from biology to literature to history, earn Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) degrees. For example, the physical and life sciences are branches of applied ontology and employ epistemological methods; pedagogy and cognitive science are, in part, applied epistemology; and fields like political science, economics, and literary criticism are applications of axiology. Indeed, all serious inquiry, not to mention everyday life, employs logic (and the other branches of philosophy).

Intellectual Virtues: Seven habits of highly reasonable people

1. Passion for Truth – Whether in epistemology, ontology, moral philosophy, or life generally, a persistent desire to get things right.

2. Critical Thinking – An attitude of curiosity and respect toward all potential sources of knowledge, and an unwillingness to accept important claims uncritically or on mere authority.

3. Judgment – A refined capacity for making judicious and useful distinctions, avoiding gratuitous ones, and framing issues in their appropriate context.

4. Intellectual Honesty – An openness to re-examining one’s views and frankly and openly assessing their merits, contrary to one’s prior assumptions or personal and material interests.

5. Intellectual Humility – A preparedness to acknowledge one’s ignorance or error while proceeding with inquiry (not to be confused with a deflective skepticism or dismissive claim of ignorance. See Fallibilism).

6. Intellectual Courage – A willingness to consider with an open mind ideas or lines of reasoning that are unpopular or potentially dangerous, to follow reasoning and evidence where they lead undeterred by any potential risk their conclusions may pose.

7. Interpretive Charity – A preparedness to give others the benefit of the doubt, interpreting their statements in the best possible light and on the working assumption that their thoughts are valuable. To interpret charitably is not to read or listen uncritically, but to be disinclined to condemn others’ views except as a last resort. It is the practical basis for civility in discourse, as well as prerequisite for grasping unfamiliar texts and approaches.

Some key terms and how philosophers use them

General Philosophical Terms

Absolute/Certain: If there is anything absolutely the case, it is permanent and unchanging. Certainty is a psychological state of a believer who is convinced of the truth of his/her belief. Thus, an absolute claim is (mostly) about metaphysics, while a claim of certainty is (primarily) epistemological.

Ambiguity/Vagueness: These are easy to confuse. An ambiguity is a potential confusion between two or more possible meanings where each is distinct: absent clarifying context,’ head’ might be a body part, a coastal prominence, or the leader of an organization. Vagueness, by contrast, is a potential confusion due to the scalar nature of the quality a term refers to (scalar qualities come in degrees). The term ‘hot’ is vague, for example, because there is no fixed boundary between hot and cold except relative to some stipulated reference temperature. Thus a term, statement, or experience can be ambiguous but not vague, vague but not ambiguous, or at once vague and ambiguous.

Aporia, or Socratic ignorance, is neither a simple lack of knowledge nor a deflective skepticism, but rather acknowledges our lack of full understanding as something for which we seek a cure. It yokes the principles of intellectual humility and intellectual honesty to a relentless and rigorous drive to learn.

Atheism/Agnosticism: Atheism and Theism are (mostly) metaphysical claims, the one denying and the other affirming the existence of God. Agnosticism is the (mostly) epistemological claim that the question is undecidable on the basis of present evidence.

Axiology, Ethics, Moral Philosophy: The study of value and norms. Areas of study within axiology include Social and Political Philosophy and Aesthetics. (Terms for further research: deontology, consequentialism, utilitarianism, virtue theory, hedonism, emotivism, cognitivism/non-cognitivism.)

Description/Prescription: Description involves factual claims; prescription involves moral or valuational judgments. For example, after observing a wild party, one could give a straightforward report of what went on (description), which would be distinct from criticizing (judging) anyone's behavior or asking them to change it (prescription).

Epistemology: The study of the nature, scope, and limits of knowledge or understanding. Related Areas of study include Logic, Cognitive Science, Philosophy of Mind, Pedagogy (teaching and learning). (Terms for further research: rationalism, empiricism, positivism, pragmatism, constructivism, phenomenology, phenomenalism, a priori, a posteriori, teleology.)

Fallibilism: An active recognition of the limitations of our knowledge and judgment. As Socrates understood with his principle of aporia, a balanced sense of our fallibility as investigators is methodologically indispensable to honest inquiry (see intellectual humility above).

Imagination and Feeling: Contrary to popular misconception, philosophy properly concerns itself with feelings, wonder, and imagination as well as with reason. These are the raw materials of thought without which reason would have no focus. We build all systematic thought out of information supplied by subjective experience and narrative, rooted in our emotional responses, which also ground its aims and purposes.

Knowledge: Classically, philosophers conceive knowledge as beliefs that are both true and based on adequate evidence (“knowledge = justified true belief”). There are competing ideas of knowledge, and many subtleties in the details, but this is a good place to start.

Metaphysics & Ontology: The study of what there is and how it works. Areas of study within metaphysics include Cosmology, Ontogeny, and Systems Theory. (Terms for further research: materialism, existence, essence, nominalism.)

Morality/Ethics: Many philosophers define ethics as the systematic study of morality, while others view ethics as the application of moral theory to particular areas of life (e.g., medical ethics). Still other philosophers use the terms ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’ interchangeably. Where usage varies so much within a discipline, not to mention in everyday speech, it is especially important to pay close attention to how a particular writer or speaker is using these terms.

Objective/Subjective claims: A claim is (epistemologically) objective if we possess a public method for investigating whether or not it is true. A claim is (epistemologically) subjective if the primary evidence for determining its truth is a matter of individual experience, opinion, or taste. "The Earth is round" and “Murder is wrong” are objective claims, whereas "I have a headache" is a subjective claim. Either sort of claim, of course, might be true or false.

Ockham’s Razor: We are never entitled to a more complex explanation if a less complex one will serve the available data (the principle of explanatory parsimony). In the words of William of Ockham: “Do not multiply entities beyond necessity.” A more complex explanation might well turn out to be true, but intellectual honesty prevents us from subscribing to it unless and until all the simpler ones fail to explain.

Realism/Idealism: There is an ongoing debate between philosophers who think we can know at least something about a world external to our own minds (realists), and those (idealists) who deny this categorically. Notwithstanding the many great minds who have defended versions of idealism, common sense and most of the compelling arguments favor a fallibilist version of realism, to which most philosophers now subscribe. This is not to say the debate is finished, but a heavy burden of proof at this point rests with idealism.

Reductionism: This is a powerful method for simplifying our understanding of complex, interactive systems by explaining away some elements of a system in terms of others. It is useful but can be dangerous, because a reductive analysis is easy to mistake for a full and adequate account of all features of a system, which it rarely is. The notion of efficiency in economics is an example: producing electricity by burning coal is efficient, according to standard cost-benefit analysis, since downwind environmental, social, and health costs do not figure in the equation. Economists can thus misleadingly reduce real total costs to mere financial costs, leading to destructively narrow policies and behavior.

Relativism: The skeptical assertion that there is no objective measure of something (for example, morality). Some philosophers take a relativist view of knowledge (epistemological relativism) or being (ontological relativism) as well. Whereas it is clear that some things really are (notice the non-relativity in that phrase) relative to something else – we can only measure velocity in terms of a specified frame of reference, for example – relativist assertions often flirt with exaggerated skepticism, and are frequently fallacious and intellectually lazy.

Skepticism: Although it is important to adopt an attitude of cautious doubt (moderate skepticism) toward novel claims as a matter of intellectual humility and critical thinking (see intellectual virtues above), it is equally important not to exaggerate the dubiousness of philosophical or everyday propositions. To do so is to fall into a radical skeptical fallacy, which deflects rather than advances serious thought.

Theism/Deism: Theism is the claim that there is an all-knowing, all powerful, etc., god who creates and governs the universe. Deism is the supposedly milder claim (held, for example by many of the founding fathers of the U.S.) that such a god created the world, but no longer plays any active role in it.

Truth as Correspondence/Truth as Coherence: Many philosophers hold that statements are true if they correspond with the way the world is. Coherence theories of truth deny that such a correspondence is discernable and propose instead that we test a statement’s truth by how well it fits in with other statements – it is true if it coheres, false if it does not. Most (but not all) philosophers who defend realism generally favor a correspondence conception of truth; those inclined to idealism tend to defend coherence.

Logical Terms

Truth: the correspondence of a statement with the way the world is. Philosophers disagree about this definition (see above), but it is a good place to start.

Premise: a claim that a writer or speaker presents in support of some further claim (conclusion).

Logical argument: A set of claims consisting of one or more premises presented in support of a conclusion.

Inference: the intellectual move from premise(s) to conclusion in a logical argument.

Deductive arguments have conclusions intended to follow necessarily from their premises due exclusively to the arguments’ structure or form (thus we call their study formal logic). A deductive argument whose conclusion follows necessarily from its premise(s) is valid; it is sound if it is valid and has true premises. Here is one valid form, called modus ponens:

P1: If A then B
P2: A
C: (Therefore) B

Inductive arguments have conclusions intended to follow from their premise(s) with some degree of probability. An inductive argument whose conclusion follows with a high degree of probability (greater than 50%) is strong; it is cogent if it is strong and has true premises. One example of a fairly strong inductive argument:

P1: Fred has stubbed his toe and is writhing on the ground with tears in his eyes.
P2: As far as we know, Fred is not involved in a theatrical production or deliberate subterfuge.
C: (Therefore) Fred is experiencing pain.

Nonarguments: It takes some practice to distinguish logical arguments from other things we do with language that may at first look like arguments, including disputes, explanations, descriptions, reports, illustrations, and conditional (if…then…) statements. The latter may sometimes represent truncated inferences, but it is usually best to interpret them as single propositions.

Law of Non-Contradiction: Identified by Aristotle as a basic logical principle, the law of non-contradiction claims that something cannot be both true and not true at the same time. For example, the desk in President Obama's office cannot, at one and the same time, be entirely made of wood and not entirely made of wood.

Intensional/Extensional definition: An intensional definition refers to the concept of a term or symbol; its extension is that to which it refers. For example, the intension of the term ‘dog’ includes dictionary and commonplace descriptions of this kind of animal, while the extension of ‘dog’ is the set of all animals that fit this description, past, present, and future.

Necessary/Sufficient Conditions – we intensionally define a term by specifying conditions for it which are both necessary and sufficient. A condition is necessary for X if something could not be an X without having that characteristic (a thing could not be a tree without being made of cellulose, though many things are made of cellulose that are not trees). A condition is sufficient for X if having that characteristic is enough to determine that something is an X (being an oak makes something a tree, though many trees are not oaks).

Tautology: A statement that is true by virtue of its redundancy (e.g., “everything is what it is”). Tautologies are undeniably true, but can never be sources of new information. For example, the truth of fatalism does not follow from the tautology “what will be, will be.”

Types of Definition: Thinking well and clearly demands that we are systematic about what we mean by the terms we use. In clarifying usage, we can appeal to lexical meanings (those reflecting everyday usage and locatable in dictionaries), or we can stipulatively declare a meaning for an existing or coined term (for example: “In formal logic, soundness is a property of deductive arguments such that they are valid and have true premises” or “By ‘frupal’ I mean all and only friends who are cautious with money”). Other means of defining terms include theoretical definitions, which propose hypotheses about a term's meaning to be explored further, and persuasive definitions, which attempt to fix a given meaning rhetorically.

Informal Fallacies

These reflect some of the systematic ways that reasoning can go wrong. Notice that one of the reasons why these mistakes often mislead us, whether intentionally or accidentally, is that they closely resemble good arguments. Thus we need to exercise intellectual humility and interpretive charity whenever there appears to be a fallacy in our own or someone else’s reasoning. Named fallacies are useful tools for noticing possible mistakes in thought or speech, but the search for truth is not a game of “gotcha;” identifying a possible fallacy is the beginning rather than the end of a respectful conversation. Here is a short list of common informal fallacies with an example of each.

• Appeal to the People or ad populum – A claim that something must be the case because many people believe it. Child labor is a widespread historical practice, and still common in much of the world. Therefore, there’s nothing wrong with buying products made with child labor.

• Argument Against the Person or ad hominem – Shifts focus from the substance of your opponent’s statements to an irrelevant attack on his or her person, character, or situation. She's a member of the Republican Party. Therefore, I have no reason to listen to what she says about anything.

• Appeal to Unqualified Authority – My hairdresser thinks we should invade Iran. He's the best hairdresser I've ever found, so I can only conclude that a war with Iran is our best option.

• Appeal to Ignorance – An assertion that some substantive conclusion follows from the mere fact that we don’t know something. No one seems to know where my keys are. It follows that aliens must have taken them.

• False Cause – Misidentifies the actual cause of something, or misinterprets a coincidence as a causal relation. My government research grant application was turned down shortly after Barack Obama became president. It's obvious that the new administration is afraid of what my research might reveal.

• Slippery Slope – Some slopes really are slippery; this fallacy makes it seem like an undesirable outcome is causally inevitable when it really isn’t. If we let students have a say in what the cafeteria serves, they will soon want to help decide how the academic side of the college is run. Before we know it, students will demand the power to assign their own grades, which would undermine the credibility of academic credentials, and then civilization would crumble. Clearly, therefore, we must not let the students influence cafeteria offerings.

• False Dichotomy – Artificially closes off the range of available options. Either we fight the terrorists over there, or we'll have to fight them over here. We don't want to fight them here. Thus there is no alternative to fighting them over there.

• Equivocation – An error in reasoning that results from sliding between alternate uses of an ambiguous term. Some triangles are obtuse. Obtuseness is a form of stupidity. It follows that some triangles are stupid.

• Begging the Question -- Covertly assumes what you're trying to prove. It is perfectly natural for humans to eat animals. Therefore, vegetarianism/veganism is a violation of nature.