The Philosophical Approach

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Written by Dr. Nash Popovic

For centuries philosophy was an umbrella term for all methods of rational enquiry. Gradually, however, more and more disciplines gained their independence and the field of philosophy shrank rapidly, especially after the apparent failures of grand philosophical systems (such as Hegel’s).

On the one hand, philosophy could not compete with science in studying the natural world. On the other, turning to personal experience would blur its boundaries with the artistic or even the spiritual and mystical, with which few philosophers wanted to be associated for fear of losing credibility. In order to find or preserve its own identity, philosophers tried to develop logic into an elaborate system, an exact meta-language that could rival mathematics. However, this endeavour hit a dead-end when it transpired that logic can never be completely logical (only shortly before it happened to mathematics itself – both at the beginning of the 20th century[1]). As a result, many philosophers focused on the relationship between subject and object, the so-called ‘human condition’. The domain of philosophy became relations not particulars that relate, which freed philosophy from being bound to a specific subject. It is now considered to be a method of enquiry that develops defensible/valid arguments based on reason (rather than observation or experience). The aim of philosophy is understanding, which necessitates the examination of the relation between awareness of the world and the world as the material of awareness. For example, philosophy is not primarily concerned with the question ‘does God exist?’, but rather ‘does the idea of God make sense?’, or ‘does the concept of reality without the idea of God make sense?’ This is why philosophy can never be conclusive – people are changing, so their understanding is changing too.

[1] This refers to the work of Russel and Whitehouse, and Goedel, respectively.

A Common Misconceptions About Philosophy

It is irrelevant – the inconclusiveness of philosophy has led to a widespread belief that philosophy does not matter. Yet throughout history philosophy has influenced every sphere of life, from science and religion, to education, politics, economics, art and even fashion. Stoicism served as the working ideology of the Roman Empire, the writings of Plato and Plotinus were instrumental in transforming an intellectually rudimentary offshoot of Judaism into one of the dominant world religions. Descartes and Leibniz directly contributed to the 17th century rise of science, while Voltaire and Rousseau inspired the French Revolution. John Locke and Adam Smith are credited for laying the foundations of capitalism, and the philosophy of Marx and Engels stirred political changes from Cuba to China. More recently, existentialism and later, post-modernism shaped Western culture.

The most important value of philosophy is that it uses reasoning as the method of enquiry. Reasoning provides a basis for independent judgement (because its criteria can be internal, and therefore less prone to distortions). This method can avoid some of the pitfalls to which spirituality and science are vulnerable. On the one hand, reasoning is not so difficult to verify as spiritual insights. On the other, reasoning is not limited to observation to the extent that science is, and it therefore has potentially much wider scope (being able to deal with non-observable, abstract subjects); indeed, philosophy often addresses problems lying beyond the reach of scientific investigation. So this approach can have several roles:

It can examine the coherence of concepts, frameworks and existing practices within any individual discipline (for example, whether the concept of learning makes sense in computer science, or programming in biology).

Other approaches have their own ways to validate their findings, but they rarely have criteria for interpreting them. This is another sphere where philosophy can make a significant contribution, as it is not uncommon that scientific, spiritual, and common sense discoveries are misinterpreted.

One potential problem with any discipline is that its theoretical foundations are usually taken for granted. Thus, besides critical analysis of existing practices and theories, philosophy can make distinct contributions by focusing on the meta-level of enquiry. In other words, it can tease out and examine assumptions on which any particular discipline or method is based. Individual disciplines cannot do so because they already operate within their own frameworks, which in turn, require accepting their presuppositions.

Finally, philosophy can have an overarching, synthetic function. Cross-disciplinary subjects and themes that need a synthetic approach are largely neglected. Whereas scientists tend to become more and more specialised in their interests, philosophers generally stand back from the details of particular research programmes and concentrate on making sense of the overall principles and on establishing how they relate to each other. This can be essential in determining the way in which various aspects of a topic in question function together: for example, findings about that topic from different fields, or its practical aspects in relation to its theoretical premises. Thus, even if some epistemic categories require contributions from specialised disciplines, it is philosophy that can provide the perspective from which they are not only examined, but also combined. This attempt at synthesis is significant because it gives hope that a degree of coherence and completeness of human understanding is not beyond our reach.

Many philosophical ideas have given rise to or been associated with various ideologies. A radical example is dialectical materialism based on the philosophical work of Marx and Engels, which became the official credo of communist countries in the 20th century. Another instance is Nietzsche’s philosophy, distorted to such an extent that it was linked to movements such as Nazism. These may be extremes, but other philosophies have also been used to justify ideological ends – for instance, an impoverished interpretation of Adam Smith’s work (via economist Milton Friedman) was popularised  during the Thatcher-Reagan era, leading to so called neo-liberalism. Such ideologies are usually distortions and simplifications of the original thought that contradict the impartiality of philosophical argument and severely restrict its independence. Philosophy properly conceived should scrutinise power, rather than being just another channel for it.

As with the other approaches, philosophy also has its limitations.

Extrinsic Limitations

Relying on authorityalthough to a lesser extent than religion, philosophy can also suffer from an over-reliance on authorities in its field (i.e. great philosophers such as Aristotle, Kant, or Marx). The weight of an argument is sometimes based on who has said something rather than on its reasoning strength. This is reflected in the extensive use of references to other philosophers that may have an aura of authority, but mean little to those who are not initiated. Such a trend contributes to solidifying particular views into ideologies. Many philosophers have given their allegiance to various ‘-isms’ and felt obliged to remain true to these frameworks.

Limitations of Spiritual Approach as a Social Practice

Focusing on the languageexamining the relationship between the subject and object, between human beings and reality, degenerated in the mainstream Western philosophy of the mid-20th century into examining only the means by which the constructs of reality are made: the use of words and language. The clarification of language (getting rid of ambiguities) was considered a proper way of formulating the truth, despite the fact that the futility of such an endeavour was quickly realised – even by some originators of such approaches to philosophy (broadly speaking logical positivism and analytic philosophy).

Abstractness – one of the problems with philosophy as a social practice is that it is often divorced from everyday experiences. Philosophers often indulge in attempts to outwit each other by building more and more elaborate arguments, while dissecting minute details of their opponents’ arguments. This may be a great intellectual game, but it tends to move a discourse further away from the subject at hand and contributes little to its real understanding. When philosophical theories become too abstract, they forfeit a connection with ordinary life and are of little use. This gives rise to the impression that philosophers live in ivory towers, and the term ‘philosophising’ has acquired an almost derogatory connotation.

Intrinsic Limitations

A mismatch between thoughts and reality: philosophy is based on language, and language (as well as reality that it represents) is far less precise than that to which philosophy aspires. Let’s take definitions, for example. They are important for discourse, otherwise we cannot know whether we are talking about the same thing or not. However, definitions are often elusive. As far back as 1902 Charles Peirce wrote in the Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology: ‘Think of arm chairs and reading chairs and dining-room chairs, and kitchen chairs, chairs that pass into benches, chairs that cross the boundary and become settees, dentist’s chairs, thrones, opera stalls, seats of all sorts, those miraculous fungoid growths that cumber the floor of the art and crafts exhibitions, and you will see what a lax bundle in fact is this simple straightforward term. I would undertake to defeat any definition of chair or chairishness that you gave me.’ There is a limit to how precise we can be, and we do sometimes need common sense to cut through the Gordian knot that our conceptualisations can make.

Groundlessnessreasoning can be so proficient that it can prove almost anything, which can easily lead to unhealthy relativism. Sufficiently complex systems allow endless combinations and permutations, so even radically opposed views may seem reasonable. Hence, philosophy can become a game of words and, therefore, in effect unreliable. To relate to the real world, some other constraints or tests of acceptability are needed. In other words, reasoning needs to be grounded in hard facts that can be supplied by methods usually associated with science.

Speculativeness – philosophers are in a good position to deal with universals, but philosophical method cannot provide content – without taking experience into account, reasoning is nothing more than a speculative activity. But if the full picture, aspired to by philosophers throughout the centuries, is ever to be reached, philosophy cannot rely only on common experiences and scientific facts. 

Philosophy that does not take into account what can broadly be called spiritual aspects of human life can never be complete, as these supply unique raw material that any metaphysical framework grappling  with the big questions of existence  simply cannot afford to ignore.