Philosophy tool kit

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Thinking like a philosopher need not be a strange and arcane art, if you get started with these tricks of the trade

by Alan Hájek is professor of philosophy at the Australian National University in Canberra. His research interests are in probability and decision theory, formal epistemology, and the philosophy of science and language. He publishes regularly on these topics. 

Philosophers pride themselves on thinking clearly by seeing what follows from what, exposing sophisms, spotting fallacies, and generally policing our reasoning. Many have spent years honing their skills, often deploying them on arcane topics. But these skills are not the exclusive property of rarefied sages, accessed only with a secret handshake and insider training, as much as some philosophers wish this were so. Instead, some of these skills can be captured by generalisable, all-purpose techniques for the proper conduct of thought, whatever the topic. Many of these are easily taught and learned. As such, they can be utilised by non-philosophers too. At a time when we are bombarded more than ever with specious claims and spurious inferences, clear thinking provides a much-needed safeguard that we should all strive towards.

Philosophers place a premium on certain tools for regimenting our thinking, especially logic and probability theory. However, there is a far richer toolbox at our disposal. Over the years, I have observed philosophers repeatedly using various argumentative moves or strategies, which can be encapsulated in rules of thumb that make their tasks easier. These are what might be called philosophical heuristics. This should come as no surprise: pretty much every complex activity has its heuristics, which experts teach and beginners learn – photography, calligraphy, diving, driving, football, foosball, judo, Cluedo, curling, hurling, climbing, rhyming, and so on. Such heuristics are especially well-documented for chess: ‘castle early and often’, ‘check every check’, and what have you.

There are also common heuristics for intellectual activities such as mathematics and creative writing. Here’s a good one for mathematics: if you are not making headway on a problem, modify it slightly to make it easier, and solve that one. A good heuristic for creative writing is to juxtapose familiar words and phrases in unfamiliar ways. One might use the ‘cut-up technique’, popularised by William S Burroughs and by David Bowie, in which written text is cut up and rearranged to create a new text.

Yet philosophy might be thought to be especially unsuitable for such heuristics. The word ‘philosopher’ comes from the Ancient Greek philosophos, meaning ‘lover of wisdom’. And wisdom, a skeptic might insist, cannot be so easily achieved. Philosophy strives for deep, profound insights, yet heuristics might by their nature be regarded as superficial. I don’t pretend that philosophical heuristics provide shortcuts to profundity – any more than chess heuristics provide shortcuts to becoming a grandmaster. That said, grandmasters do typically castle early and often, and check every check, consciously or not; a chess textbook that ignored these heuristics would be remiss. Likewise, good philosophers do use the heuristics I identify, consciously or not, often in the service of deep insights. Indeed, philosophy textbooks have been remiss in ignoring these heuristics.

If we think of logic and probability theory as all-purpose tools for checking for the consistency and coherence of our claims at a high level of abstraction, then the philosophical heuristics collectively form more of a Swiss army knife. Some of these heuristics have a broad application, like an LED light. Others have a narrower application, but are perfect for the occasions on which they apply, like a corkscrew. There is something of a trade-off between how frequently a particular heuristic might be used, and how specific its advice is. Too general, and the heuristic doesn’t provide an applicable strategy – for example: ‘Say something insightful!’ Too specific, and it can never be used in another context – for example, ‘the reply to Pascal’s wager (that you should believe in God because doing so is the best bet) is that it leaves open which God you should believe in’. The best heuristics find ‘sweet spots’ in this trade-off.

I work in the Western ‘analytic’ tradition of philosophy. Much of analytic philosophy involves arguing for positions. So some terminology will be needed here. For our purposes, an argument is a number of premises followed by a conclusion, where the premises are intended to lend support to the conclusion. A valid argument is one in which the support is as strong as can be: the truth of the premises guarantees the truth of the conclusion. A sound argument is one that is valid and whose premises are true (and so its conclusion is true, too). An unsound argument is one that is either invalid or that has at least one false premise…



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