The Philosophical Method and the Scientific Method

Submitted by Tom Last on Thu, 08/25/2011 - 9:20am.

The Philosophical Method and the Scientific Method

By verbosestoic

So, for the longest time I’ve thought that theology was basically philosophical, and didn’t really see the difference between them, despite a number of people saying that I was wrong and that theology wasn’t philosophy.  So, now, let me clarify:  I think that theology uses the philosophical method, and as such doesn’t use the scientific method.  The philosphical method is quite different than the scientific method, which explains why a lot of scientist don’t really get either.

So, how does that differ from the scientific method?  Let’s go through the points in order:

1) Science works with things, with objects.  Philosophy works with concepts.  Now, a lot of the time these are mostly interchangeable, which is why people don’t really notice this difference.  But philosophy is conceptual analysis, while science is object analysis.  They aim at two compeltely different types of ends.

2) Science has to be grounded in the empirical and empirical observations to achieve its end.  Philosophy has to be grounded in reasoning to achieve its end.  Both can use either, but philosophy accepts propositions that are not ultimately grounded in empirical observation and science doesn’t.  Philosophy accepts that you can find out interesting things with pure reasoning and science doesn’t.

3) Philosophy deals with things that have to work in all cases, whether inside or outside of the real world; science doesn’t care about anything outside of the real world.

4) Philosophy uses thought experiments and modal logic that don’t have to be real world situations to do its work.  Science always has to look at the real world to do its work.  In fact, philosophy wants to take things out of the real world to effectively examine their concepts while science wants to situate things as much as possible in the relevant real-world situations to do its work.

Note that the philosophical method doesn’t have to ignore completely empirical data or the results of science.  You can even naturalize – ie make scientific — parts of philosophy if it helps or if that’s the best way to do it.  In fact, science was born from natural philosophy because people discovered that the scientific method really did work best there.  But ultimately, philosophy has a different — though still important — goal than science, and thus has different methods.  Thus, good philosophy will naturalize only as far as it needs to to be able to properly analyze the concepts.

This also doesn’t make philosophy necessarily impractical.  All category judgements are philosophical because they involve determining what a category ought to contain regardless of what we think it does.  This is determining, for example, the concept of a mammal as opposed to simply talking about mammals directly.  Why are whales mammals and not fish?  If we’re going to appeal to natural kinds, we have to know what properties make up the concept “mammal” and the concept “fish” to make that determination.  Otherwise, all we’re left with is a pragmatic decision that’s subjectively determined by everyone based on what they think is the best way to classify.  Thus, general classifications at least ought to be relying on conceptual analysis to work.

The Philosophical Method

An outline of the key components of the philosophical method:

1) Its objects are concepts.  The philosophical method’s prime role is conceptual analysis, and so the objects it works with are concepts of things, not necessarily things themselves.

2) It is rationalist, not empiricist.  Since the philosophical method deals with concepts, it grounds its knowledge in reasoning.  You don’t have to ground or test any philosophical theory empirically or in empirical data; the concept can be tested regardless of any details of any instantiation, or even if it actually is instantiated.

3) It is generally abstract.  Again, since concepts exist and can be examined regardless of whether or not they exist, the philosophical method works as well or better with abstract notions than concrete ones.

4) It universalizes across all possible worlds.  The concept has to apply in counter-factual situations.  In order to have a good concept, you have to be able to say what it would do if the world was not like this one, even if that means that it couldn’t be instantiated or would have to work a lot differently.  Thus, concepts formed by the philosophical method don’t  just work in this universe, but work in all possible ones.

5) Possible world examples are as good or better than real world examples.  Again, the philosophical method has to universalize to all possible worlds.  Because of this, examples of the concept from possible worlds or thought experiments are as good data as real world instantiations are, since those examples need to be handled by any properly defined concept.

6) The main drive of specific philosophical tools is to abstract away from real world instantiations as much as possible, to eliminate distractions.  Again, the philosophical method is abstract and has to universalize and generalize across all possible worlds.  The specific details of a specific implementation can detract from this, as you can get caught up in thinking that a specific trait must be a property — and a critical one — of the concept simply because a specific instantiation possesses it.  But, for example, a red colour doesn’t make a house a house even if all the houses you know of are red, and this applies generally to concepts.  Thus, the philosophical method wants to abstract away from specific examples to ensure that it captures the pure concept, and not just the one that we’re most used to seeing.

7) The main philosophical tools are thought experiments, modal logic (possible worlds), and analytical reasoning.

8 ) The philosophical method does not require lab work; it can be done from the armchair by one person examining their own concepts.  The philosophical method doesn’t in and of itself require anything other than someone sitting down and thinking about what they know, and much progress can be made with that method.

9) The philosophical method is validated against the thought experiments, analytical reasoning, and modal logic (possible worlds) of others.  Even though you can do a lot on your own, ultimately everyone has a worldview.  Only by testing your conceptions against other worldviews can you ensure that you’ve covered all the bases and universalized properly.


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Not sure what to make of this.

I've read it, and all I can say ( apart from a whole lot) is right back in the first sentence where s/he says he believed theology was philosophy.( "...for the longest time") The author seems to have invented the following article with its trenchant split in methodolgy to justify his preconception. Am I right? Am I wrong? Words like "Objective" and "reality" assumed as instantly meaningful etc. What is this about re PoF? Pof is surely an entirely different state of cognition fom the one implicit above.

The original blog article

The original blog article has more on theology. What I am interested in is a distinction in POF between scientific thinking which is based on observation and pure thinking which is purely conceptual thinking not concerned with perceptual content. It is thinking versus thinking about thinking. My ethics video script includes this distinction.

I get you.

Personally I never experienced there to be a "thinking not concerned with perceptual content". Having arrived at PoF via practical mysticism, I always welcomed the idea of thinking as a form of perception. And also the fact that a thought required a sense world to instantiate it, meaning you couldn't just think from a standing start; out of nothing as it were.

Best regards

Personally I never

Personally I never experienced there to be a "thinking not concerned with perceptual content".

This is the essential issue of freedom, the possibility of pure thinking. Steiner says our concept lion is not formed from perception. Though the concept lion arises when we observe a lion. Thinking is a two step process (3-4), creating thought through observation of something, and then thinking about the thoughts created.

POF 6-2 My concept of a lion is not formed out of my percepts of lions; but my mental picture of a lion is very definitely formed according to a percept. I can convey the concept of a lion to someone who has never seen a lion. I cannot convey to him a vivid mental picture without the help of his own perception.

Steiner tries to explain the process in relation to perceptual content below. It is a section that requires a lot of work and diagrams to sort out. I try to explain it in the video as what a philosopher does to universalize a situation by putting it in generalized conceptual form.

POF 9-6 [27] A superficial judgment might raise the following objection to these arguments: How can an action be individually made to fit the special case and the special situation, and yet at the same time be determined by intuition in a purely ideal way? This objection rests upon a confusion of the moral motive with the perceptible content of an action. The latter may be a motive, and actually is one in the case of the progress of civilization, or when we act from egoism, and so forth, but in an action based on pure moral intuition it is not the motive. Of course, my "I" takes notice of these perceptual contents, but it does not allow itself to be determined by them.

The content is used only to construct a cognitive concept, but the corresponding moral concept is not derived by the "I" from the object. The cognitive concept of a given situation facing me is at the same time a moral concept only if I take the standpoint of a particular moral principle. If I were to base my conduct only on the general principle of the development of civilization, then my way through life would be tied down to a fixed route. From every occurrence which I perceive and which concerns me, there springs at the same time a moral duty: namely, to do my little bit towards seeing that this occurrence is made to serve the development of civilization.

In addition to the concept which reveals to me the connections of events or objects according to the laws of nature, there is also a moral label attached to them which for me, as a moral person, gives ethical directions as to how I have to conduct myself. Such a moral label is justified on its own ground; at a higher level it coincides with the idea which reveals itself to me when I am faced with the concrete instance.

In a slogan form;-

thinking is sensing, and sensing is thinking. Thats my understanding and experience of working out of PoF into imagination, inspiration and intuition a la Steiner. It is just a bit more than philosophy to me.

thinking observation


Sounds like you're speaking anthroposophy.

3-3 describes thinking observation.

While I am reflecting on the object, I am absorbed in it; my attention is turned to it. To become absorbed in the object is to contemplate by thought. My attention is not directed on my activity, but on the object of this activity. In other words, when I think, I do not look at my thinking which I am producing, but rather I look at the object of my thinking, which I am not producing.

I'm curious, have you found a reference to anthroposophy's "inspiration" in POF?

As I say, I was born mystical:-)

..and worked under a guru for years. (but not any more) Anthroposophy is no club I can belong to, but Steiner's cosmic anthro stuff is helpful after years of assuming I was some sort of special case as a clairvoyant. Steiner is openly condemning of the "woo-woo" brigade in places and rightly so I later discovered in my reading. He descibes such people as crippled, as I recall. After I got used to being a bit more humble RS's anthroposophical advice turned out to be very helpful. As for "Inspiration" it involves a willed act of inner suspension of creativity accompanied by a delicate inner sensing.It comes with entailments and implications. I only discovered it consciously because Steiner's exact accounts matched my own already existing but disorienting experiences. It is an act in which you cannot remain yourself but have to realise that you are holding your own (just) among other entities that are as real as the "your own" you are holding. Carl Unger's book "the principles of Spiritual Science" gives a lenghty description of how this is epistemically possible; of the ego's creative interactions with an ontological non-ego.
I know that Rudi wrote descriptively of his experience (self-observation0 and that he was already awake to Inspiration in his life at the time of his writing of PoF but I imagine he deliberately avoided verbalising about Inspiration for good reason. I say that because the only way i came accross it was after many deliberate sessions of sit-down meditation, an activity which no one would expect a philosopher to regard as part of studying philosophy. Ps inspiration is always meant here as Steiner uses the word.
When I say aphosistically, in the prvious post above: "sensing is thinking" -it is "inspiritive" consciousness that enables me to say that(and not be lying !) . Dont know if there is a word "inspiritive"!

the argument from reason

an example of reasoned theology is C S Lewis' "Argument from reason" presented in the third chapter of his book "Miracles". The argument is summarised on wikipedia, for those interested.