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Philosophy’s Methods

As with any academic discipline, philosophy has a characteristic range of techniques and reasoning strategies. These techniques, by themselves, will never answer a philosophical question unless complemented by imagination and creativity, but they can certainly help.

Here are two items in the philosopher’s toolbox:

Fallacies detection: Arguing for a position often involves making plausible assumptions and then inferring from those assumption to the desired conclusion. But not all such inferences are legitimate. The illegitimate ones are called fallacies. Philosophers are trained at spotting and exposing these.

Thought experiments: Sometimes it is possible to argue for a philosophical conclusion by imagining a situation or ‘scenerio’ and considering what we should say about it, even though it is not real.

USING THOUGHT EXPERIEMENTS: AN EXAMPLE

In the field of philosophy called ‘ethics’, many have wondered whether the numbers of people involved are what truly matters when we face a difficult decision. Comparing two different scenarios can help to shape discussion:

Scenario 1: You are to imagine that you are in a railway control room. A train is approaching and will strike five people tied to the track ahead unless you switch the train’s direction. You are about to do so when so see that the new direction will hit a single person tied to the new route. There is no time to alert anyone. You face a simple choice. Should you intervene or not?

Scenario 2: Five people have various ailments, and will die soon unless they receive organ transplants – a kidney for one, a heart for another, etc. You could just pick a healthy person who has done no wrong, slaughter him or her, freeing up five organs to save the others. Should you?

If you give different answers, are you being consistent? What justifies the different response? If you give the same answer, why do you think so many people would answer the second with an emphatic ‘No’ but the first in a more ambivalent way?

These and other techniques are useful beyond philosophy, too. Knowing how to avoid a logical fallacy, for example, is important in all aspects of life. It is philosophers who have, over the centuries, development these skills into a high art.

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