What Philosophy Research Looks Like

June 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

In may, I introduced the discipline of academic philosophy.  Here, I’ll talk a little about what philosophy research consists of.  I’m basing this impression on my reading of a bunch of scholarly philosophy articles and books, rather than first-hand experience.  If you have done philosophy research yourself, and I get something here wrong, or miss an important or interesting aspect of your work, please say something about it in the comments!  So, here are some important pieces of philosophy research:


Conceptualization: This is the process of coming up with new concepts and arguments in metaphysics, epistemology, or ethics.  It could take the form of new entities (the “sense data” which Bertrand Russell argued were the real objects of our perception), our conceptualization of existing entities (the  different positions on the nature of color from last time), definitions of knowledge (like Plato’s classic “Justified True Belief”), or ethical systems (like utilitarianism).   Of course, as a complementary activity, philosophers examine each other’s conceptualizations, critique them, and offer suggestions for improvement.


Elaborate Thought Experiments: Philosophers frequently support their conceptualizations, critique others’ conceptualizations, or simply explore the implications of various ways of thinking about a philosophical issue by imagining thought experiments.  Since I gave ethics short shrift in my first post on philosophy, I’ll provide an example from that field.  In the late ’60s, Philippa Foote, a major ethicist, came up with a thought experiment called the trolley problem.  It goes roughly like this:


Imagine that a trolley or tram is barreling out of control down a track.  On its current course, it will hit and kill five people.  You could flip a switch, and the trolley would move onto another track and kill one person instead.  Is it moral to flip the switch?


Foote notes that from a consequentialist viewpoint, the answer would be “yes.”  She also notes, however, that from a deontological viewpoint that forbids one from acting in a way that will cause somebody’s death, the answer would be “no.”  So, through this thought experiment, Foote was able to explore the ways that different ethical systems could lead to different behavioral outcomes.


Another ethicist, Judith Jarvis Thompson, came up with a variation on the problem.  What if, instead of flipping a switch, we could push a very fat man onto the tracks in front of the trolley, killing him, but stopping the trolley and saving the five people down the line?  Thompson noted that most of us would probably be much more uncomfortable pushing somebody in front of the train rather than flipping the switch, even though the acts have equivalent outcomes, and involve an equivalent choice to end one person’s life.  (Some later empirical research suggests that at least in the US, Thompson’s proposal about how we would feel is generally true).  Thus, Thompson exposed an interesting disconnect between the way that our intuitive sense of right and wrong works and our formal ethical systems– which opens up space to figure out what an ethical system that mirrored our intuitions would look like.


Historical Research: Some philosophers critique other philosophers’ conceptions (and develop new ones) by comparing philosophical conceptions of things (like how scientific knowledge-production works) with the ways that they have functioned in real life.  For example, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method base their new understandings of how science works on historical research about real-life scientific research and scientific revolutions.


Physical Science Research: Some metaphysicians try to figure out what’s real by investigating the physical world.  The most prominent philosopher who does this kind of work these days is Patricia Churchland.  Churchland is a metaphysician who champions a position about the human mind called eliminative materialism.  This position holds that our conceptions of mental activities, like thoughts and emotions and memories, are only real insofar as they map onto structures and patterns of activity in the brain.  Hence, Churchland does neurophilosophical research to figure out just what kinds of physical things thought, feelings, and emotions reduce to.


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