Tools for philosophy

Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “Philosophy is not a theory, but an activity.” There are five essential branches of philosophical inquiry: Metaphysics  is the study of existence; Epistemology is the study of knowledge; Ethics is the study of proper action; Politics is the study of force in human affairs; and Esthetics is the study of art/beauty. You don’t need a college degree, or formal training, to engage in serious philosophical dialogue. Anyone who speculates about why innocents suffer while the greedy thrive is a philosopher. Anyone who questions dogma is a philosopher. Anyone who thinks for herself and explores alternatives to the conventional wisdom is a philosopher.

Philosophizing can happen in living rooms and on the street. When people seriously debate about abortion or capital punishment or taxation, they’re engaging in the activity of philosophy. As a philosopher you’re not obligated to come up with final answers or solutions, only to ask pertinent questions and make reasonable assertions. Philosophy isn’t a contest. It’s been called an interesting extended conversation that’s been going on for a long time. You needn’t identify yourself with any established “school of thought” (stoicism, Platonism, existentialism, etc.), but can be eclectic in your reasoning. I think of myself as a guerrilla ontologist, which I wrote about in two prior posts on “Agnosticism and certainty.”

One way  you can recognize that you’re talking to a philosopher is when you hear him say, “Define your terms.” It’s a basic tool that philosophers use. When someone asks me if I believe in God, my likely response is, “Define God.” Then we can talk. Real dialogue requires that we understand one another’s definitions of words, because most words don’t have absolute meanings. Another basic tool that philosophers use is formal logic, but that’s too complex a subject to get into here. Yet another is the three-step syllogism, such as the classic example: 1. All men are mortal. 2. I am a man. 3. Therefore, I am mortal.

Another helpful philosophical tool is the thought experiment. It’s a tool for changing your perspective, examining your values, or thinking outside the box of your preconceptions about an issue. It usually takes the form of a “what if ______?” question, followed by a question about what you would or could or should do in that situation. A classic example of a thought experiment is, “If your mother and your wife were both drowning and you could only save one of them, which one would you save, and why?”

Another classic thought experiment is the runaway streetcar scenario. What if you saw that a runaway streetcar was about to mow down five people in its path, and you were standing by a rail switch that would re-route the streetcar to a track where only one person would be killed. Would you throw the switch? Would your decision be different if  the five were strangers to you, and you knew and cared about the one person who would die because of your decision to throw the switch?

Under what circumstances you might kill someone is also a values question posed by the thought experiment: if you could go back in time and had the opportunity to kill Hitler before he rose to power, would you? What if he was only a baby? Thought experiments like these help you to examine your values. Examination of ones values (sometimes called values clarification) is a specific process: what do you value over what? Do you believe in absolute values? Certain Republicans have cast themselves as “values voters,” as if they held a copyright on values. Everyone has values, from the Pope to a Mafia don like Tony Soprano. We all value this over that when it comes down to making practical or moral decisions. I don’t believe that any ultimate authority exists, when it comes to what we understand as being real, or just. That’s one reason I consider myself to be a guerrilla ontologist.

Another helpful philosophical tool for English speakers who want to better understand the role of language in our thinking is E-Prime. E-Prime (which I wrote about in my post, “It’s only Monday if you think it is”) is English that omits all forms of “is.” Nobody suggests that E-Prime should replace English, but it’s a tool for understanding what “is” is in our thinking. The Aristotelean “is-of-equivalency” posits subjective things as objective things, creating an either/or dichotomy that need not apply. If an apple “is” sweet, it cannot be tart or sour. If one person in a room says that it’s hot and another says it’s not, one of them has to be wrong. If “is” is omitted, and one person says “I feel hot” and another says “I don’t,” there’s no conflict. Wars are fought over where, precisely, the border “is.”

Formulating sentences in E-Prime is an exercise in the activity of philosophy. It helps to make you aware of how language affects your worldview and your judgment. Here are some examples of English sentences and their E-Prime translations:  “He is a liar” becomes “He lies a lot.” “She is very pretty” becomes either “I find her very pretty” or “I’m attracted to her.” (That she “is” very pretty can be disputed; the two E-Prime alternatives cannot.) “He is the smartest man in the room” becomes “His intellect impresses me.” “Look! There’s a UFO” becomes “I can’t identify that flying object.”

The use of E-Prime eliminates subjective bias, or what I call the objectification of subjective experience. Try writing, or copying someone else’s writing, in E-Prime and see what you learn. I think that your philosophy will benefit from the activity. I describe this blog as a psychology blog, “with a side of philosophy.” More about the traps of language in my next post.


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