What is Research in Philosophy?

To put it too simply:

In the natural sciences, research is typically about trying to understand things outside of ourselves, largely because we want to know how they affect us and whether we can change how they affect us. E.g. viruses, earthquakes.

In the social sciences, research is typically about trying to understand what people are doing as it were in spite of themselves – how human societies as a whole behave even if their individual members don’t want to, how individuals behave even when they don’t understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, etc. e.g. why relationships sometimes don’t work despite the best efforts of the people in them; how democracies die; etc.

In the humanities, research is typically about understanding our place in the world and understanding how people do now, and in the past have, made intentional efforts to better understand their place in the world. E.g. culture, literature, art. Humanities research is therefore most often interpretive and/or creative.

tree of knowledgePhilosophy is one of the humanities, largely because it’s not considered one of the others; but philosophical research is at the intersection of all three of these. There are three reasons for that.

  1. Simple reason: for every field there’s a “philosophy of…” that field, where we investigate the assumptions and methods of that field – e.g. philosophy of science, philosophy of medicine, philosophy of literature – and if you get really advanced in that field you start working on the philosophy of that field.
  2. Foundational reason: other sciences originated in philosophy and only became sciences after philosophers had articulated a set of problems and methods, so for instance psychology originated with philosophers in the late 19th century, Isaac Newton’s work was called Natural Philosophy, and so on.
  3. Relatedly, in philosophy you study the questions and problems for which we have no clear sense of what a scientific method would look like in that field, or we have no agreement on it. So for instance metaphysics and ethics. These are fields where so far the only test of truth is having the best argument; we don’t know beyond that what exactly would count as evidence or a good dataset or scientific method that could settle ethical questions. That doesn’t mean there’s no right answer; reason alone can be powerful and compelling, and after all, physics started out in philosophy and there are right answers about gravity and the motions of the planets. What it does mean is that research here involves two most important methods:
    1. Critical reasoning – especially the application of logical methods, testing hypotheses, etc.
    2. Creative reasoning – coming up with new thought-experiments (or real experiments), new methods, new ways of approaching questions so they might be easier to answer, and so on.

Fortunately, these are very general and widely applicable skills that will serve you in any discipline and also in the job market and beyond.

That makes philosophical research in a way easier and in a way harder than research in other fields. You can get started in philosophical research without knowing any “methods” or having any apparatus other than a computer keyboard or a pen and paper, and access to the library. You read what others have said about a question that interests you, and you start responding to their arguments. At first your responses are not very powerful, but they spur you to read more and think more, be both more critical about your own assumptions and more creative in getting past them, and soon you find yourself joining a community of scholars thinking and talking about an issue.

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