In the 21st century, the landscape of philosophical methods and orientations seems increasingly complex. Reference to ‘schools of thought’ may be misleading, suggesting more internal coherence than exists. Yet, (non-)allegiance to certain ideas about style and method can have real institutional consequences. At present, one can observe an increasing number of debates focused on the reliability of certain philosophical methods. Some attention is being given to how the ever-changing methods and scope of philosophy set it apart from the sciences. Lastly, there have been attempts to understand certain philosophical disagreements as disagreements on a meta-philosophical level, i.e. disagreements about the proper scope, data, standards, and goals of philosophy itself. The Cambridge Companion to Philosophical Methodology situates itself in this context of increasing reflection on methods and on the role of philosophy itself.
The editors Giuseppina D’Oro and Søren Overgaard have gathered an admirable roster of twenty authors with the aim to exhibit the contemporary wealth of positions and debates regarding philosophical methods. Quite generally, nearly all the contributions can be described as normative in scope, i.e. as giving arguments for why one should espouse certain methods. The collection gives a very good cross section of contemporary orientations in philosophy, with some of the essays aimed at a general philosophical readership and others more focused on issues internal to certain traditions. Although the collection is naturally heterogeneous (given the heterogeneity of the philosophical field itself), there is plenty of implicit conversation between the essays, including between those from adherents of different traditions.
The volume is organized into four main parts. The first section concerns broad views of philosophy. It includes essays on the merits of philosophy for the individual, the need for a systematic impulse, the centrality of the human perspective, and on disagreement in philosophy. The second part is concerned with the central thesis of analytic philosophy, which is that the proper method of philosophy is conceptual analysis. Here, different versions of this claim are defended and criticisms from naturalism and experimental philosophy are considered. The third part gathers essays about philosophical methods/orientations (e.g. Kantianism, pragmatism, and quietism) which are not classifiable as continental or analytic. The final part gathers essays clearly continental in orientation (concerning the methods of phenomenology, deconstruction, existentialism, and hermeneutics).
This division into parts befits the content of the essays well. It has the disadvantage of reifying the analytic/continental divide somewhat, perhaps discouraging cross-reading the essays, despite the editors’ reservations regarding the usefulness of this divide. Hence, the remainder of this review is organized around certain dominant themes which appear throughout the volume and which mostly disregard the organization into parts by the editors. Instead of giving detailed summaries of all twenty essays here, which would be beyond the scope of this review, the following will be an impression of the contents of the book in a single account.
The Data of Philosophy
One of the recurrent themes of the volume and a good start when orienting oneself in the vast field of philosophy is the question regarding the data for philosophizing. As Nicholas Rescher points out in his chapter, the available data for philosophy are very diverse, ranging from common sense beliefs, to recent scientific findings, to history, to empirical experience of the world around us, to ideas delivered to us from the philosophical tradition – as he says: “we always begin with a diversified cognitive heritage.” (34) The choice of a method for philosophizing seems to correlate with a preoccupation with certain data. This, of course, is reflected in the other essays in the volume as well, where very different data are considered key to the conceptual work that philosophers engage in. One may extend Rescher’s idea somewhat by recognizing that some philosophers consider the artistic productions of past and present times among the most important data for their philosophizing. This is common in continental philosophy, were one can expect philosophical books about the meaning of Franz Kafka’s work, among others. Also, for some philosophers, transformative first-person life experiences are among the key data to philosophizing (as for Sartre and Adorno, discussed in the essays of J. Reynolds & P. Stokes and Fabian Freyenhagen).
Apart from a positive choice, I would submit that a philosophical method may include the choice to disregard certain sorts of data in favor of others. In the example of methodological doubt (Descartes), the negative aspect of choosing to limit oneself to certain data only is clear. One can find similar tendencies in varieties of ‘critical philosophy’ such as Kantianism and in Wittgenstein’s quietism (explored in the chapter by David MacArthur). The latter chooses to view with suspicion the doctrines of classical ontology and favors observations of actual language use as more reliable data for philosophizing. As a philosophical approach, this is clearly powered by a negative (yet enabling) decision regarding the ‘correct’ data.
Another example of a disagreement about the data of philosophy is between proponents of naturalism and proponents of conceptual analysis, where the former advocate the primacy of phenomena over our concepts and the latter advocate the primacy of linguistic meanings for settling philosophical disputes. That said, as the essay by Hans-Johann Glock about ‘impure conceptual analysis’ shows, intermediate positions are possible. He sketches a form of conceptual analysis where concepts are still regarded as a priori, but where empirical and ethical concerns are put into play. The downright naturalistic perspective, where thinking about knowledge becomes inseparable from the cognitive sciences, is sketched by Hilary Kornblith in his chapter.
Another important theme in the volume concerns the reliability of data. Even if philosophers largely agree on the choice of data for philosophizing, there may be worries about how reliable those data really are. In analytic philosophy, one commonly employs the method of cases, where a short vignette is presented to establish or put into question certain intuitions about philosophical claims. In recent years, so-called ‘experimental philosophers’ have put into question the reliability of this method. The main issue is that one can show, using statistical methods, that certain choices made in the design of the vignette may influence the outcome, even if those choices should be irrelevant. If the outcome of such tests is not stable upon changing seemingly irrelevant details, it may be called into question whether the case reliably prompts the kind of intuition which was taken as evidence for the philosophical claim under discussion. This theme is taken up in detail in the chapter by Jonathan M. Weinberg. Far from criticizing the method of cases in its entirety, Weinberg explains that experimental philosophy aims to exercise a type of ‘quality control’ having both a restrictive and constructive side. This debate is best understood as internal to the tradition of philosophy as conceptual analysis in the armchair.
The question of the accessibility of philosophical data also emerges in phenomenology, addressed in the chapter by David R. Cerbone. In short, there is a gap between the ‘natural attitude’ (when we engage with our surroundings without reflecting on the role of consciousness) and the act of phenomenological reflection (when we consider the active role consciousness plays in constituting reality). But clearly, when engaging in the latter, one reflects on what is ‘given’ in consciousness – the question of data. The next question then becomes: what is it in the natural attitude that permits or calls us into the mode of phenomenological investigation? Cerbone draws attention to how Husserl and Heidegger try to bridge this gap differently. He points out that with both authors, an act of phenomenological reflection must be performed by the reader if she wants to understand a phenomenological text; she must somehow recall that the ideas in such a text also adequately describe her own experience.
Several of the chapters focus on understanding the nature and extent of philosophical disagreement. As has often been noted, disagreement seems to be a rather pervasive feature of the philosophical field, especially when compared to the sciences. One can readily find ways to account for this. It may be that philosophy is simply harder than regular science. Alternatively, it may be that for many problems, it has not found the proper perspective (a sentiment that is strong in Kant’s philosophy, who thought that he had for the first time found the right perspective on the relation between intuition and understanding). The essays in the volume explore more subtle explanations.
Amie L. Thomasson presents an interesting perspective which accounts for at least some of the lasting disagreement. She builds on the already mentioned idea from Wittgenstein, Carnap, and others that philosophy is ultimately a form of conceptual analysis and thus primarily concerned with the proper use of concepts. This perspective has the great advantage that it does not put philosophy in a position rivalling physics (our best way of explaining ‘reality’), by focusing on language and not directly on reality itself. However, as she points out, according to the classical analytic conception, this type of work has a strictly descriptive character. Hence, it remains somewhat obscure how there can be lasting disagreement if all one needs to do is analyze the meaning of a concept. Also, if it is merely descriptive, this type of work is not so easily distinguished from linguistics after all. Her proposal to counteract these worries is to regard conceptual analysis as not only descriptive, but also prescriptive in nature. In other words, on her view, philosophers do not only debate about how words are used, but also about how they should be used – they engage in “metalinguistic negotiations” (David Plunkett quoted by Thomasson, p. 109). This proposal amounts to admitting that our conceptual schemes are often malleable and open to “ameliorative” revision (Sally Haslanger quoted by Thomasson, p. 115).
Questions that could be debated on this level are, for example, whether alcoholism is a disease, or what the best definition of ‘a person’ is. In both cases, wider societal, legal, and ethical concerns may inform our attempts at conceptual revision. An advantage of this view is that it does allow us to reinterpret a lot of ‘heavyweight metaphysics’ as negotiations of this sort. Often, it indeed seems to be the case that debates are so heated because participants are not merely trying to hit upon the one ‘correct’ usage of a pre-given concept but are advocating the best analysis among possible candidates. This opens the door to an ethical and at times imaginative type of conceptual analysis. (Thomasson suggests some compatibility between this notion and Foucault’s work on madness.)
Another essay concerned with the question of philosophical disagreement is Giuseppina D’Oro’s. The dispute she focuses on is between causalists (those who believe there are only events) and anti-causalists (those who believe there are events and actions). She asserts that on an abstract level, there seems to be little hope of resolving such debates, since there are respectable discourses which are causalist in character (engineering, physics, biology) and discourses which also speak of actions (history, sociology, psychology). D’Oro’s proposal, which follows suggestions from R.G. Collingwood’s philosophy of history, is that this debate is “best understood as a conflict between methodological practices which govern different forms of enquiry and the conception of reality that is entailed by them.” (221) The role of philosophy becomes not so much to settle the debate in favor of either of the positions, but to recognize that reality admits of several ontological schemes, dependent on the mode of inquiry undertaken (e.g. history or physics). Since both modes of enquiry are deemed legitimate as sciences, the two ontological schemes are ‘conditions of possibility’ for those modes of enquiry. Certainly, this seems to be applicable to the example debate, but one wonders whether other debates may be recast this way.
A chapter by Robert B. Talisse on pragmatism documents how the relation of pragmatist philosophies (Peirce, James, Dewey, Rorty) to the rest of philosophy is decidedly meta-philosophical. That is, the pragmatists related to other philosophies not on the level of first-order ideas but by developing intricate meta-ideas about philosophy itself. Talisse proposes this as a distinctive feature and risk of pragmatism. Finally, the chapter by Herman Cappelen, most explicitly about disagreement, tackles the claim that philosophy seems plagued by deep disagreements on a more empirical level. By and large, he puts into question the evidence for this claim in a convincing yet somewhat apologetic manner.
The Aims of Philosophy
Another important marker of methodological orientation appearing throughout this volume is the aim one ascribes to philosophy. Again, I would submit that one’s views on the aims of philosophy will generally correlate to some first-order philosophical ideas and with some view regarding philosophy’s data. For example, a scientifically inclined philosopher (‘science is our best way to describe reality’) might declare philosophy to be an “underlabourer to the sciences” (Locke), helping to elucidate the workings of science (epistemology, philosophy of science) whilst warning not to go above and beyond science. On the other hand, the larger one considers the conceptual and experiential territory outside of the bounds of science strictu sensu, the larger one may consider the task of philosophy. Also, there is the recurrent theme of the irreconcilability of internal and external perspectives on such phenomena as consciousness. Certainly, philosophers must not be oblivious about such external investigations (e.g. cognitive sciences) but they need not hand over the keys just like that either. Both the philosophy of mind and phenomenology seem to agree on this. On such views, the aim of philosophy may become to reconcile the findings of cognitive science with our first-person experience of our life-world (as advocated in the chapter by Jean-Luc Petit).
Although the volume has a section which is sort of devoted to the aims of philosophy (Part I: Visions of Philosophy), the theme certainly resonates throughout the entire volume. We already saw Amie L. Thomasson’s extension of conceptual analysis into normative and ameliorative territory. Along similar lines, Robert Piercey presents a case study of the analytic-continental divide, focusing on Richard Rorty (allegedly on the analytic side) and Paul Ricoeur (allegedly on the continental side), who share certain metaphilosophical convictions. Piercey calls these the metaphilosophy of hope and the metaphilosophy of historicity. The former designates that a central goal of philosophy should be to theorize for a better future. He shows us in some detail how this view takes shape in both thinkers and suggests that such metaphilosophical views are ultimately more helpful to orient oneself in the larger philosophical field (beyond the analytic-continental divide). Fabian Freyenhagen’s essay about critical theory and Adorno’s relation to philosophy can be taken along similar lines. There, Adorno is shown to both criticize classical philosophy to work towards its unfulfilled promises. The aim of critical theory is to soften the all too rigid hold certain problematic conceptual schemes have on society at large. This procedure both borrows from philosophy and criticizes it wherever it is found to be complicit in reinforcing the present social order. All of this also raises the questions how creative (in the sense of producing novelty) philosophy should aim to be. As A.W. Moore points out in his essay, the enduring influence of Wittgenstein in analytic philosophy has turned that tradition away from the creative conception of philosophy, an idea which is well alive with continental thinkers such as Deleuze & Guattari.
Beyond such collective aims, philosophy may also have real consequences for individuals engaging in it. Alessandra Tanesini explores a broadly Socratic view of philosophy on which the central aim for the individual is to find a way to live beautifully. She promotes the idea that this requires one to train one’s epistemic self-confidence. This includes skills pertaining to argumentation and concept-formation as well as the emotional capacity to defend unorthodox views within one’s community. Philosophy, construed as such, can greatly contribute to this effort and hence help an individual aiming to live beautifully.
The volume offers a diverse and valuable cross section of discussions regarding philosophical methods. By and large it focuses on methodological ideas which are supported by tradition. The essays display a healthy degree of implicit conversation between them. Reading the entire volume at once will sharpen even the advanced reader’s sensitivity and appreciation of the matter. All the essays are directed at an uninitiated readership, fulfilling the aim of facilitating conversation between different methodological orientations. Let me now close this review with some minor criticisms.
The volume may be found wanting with regards to methods of formal logic. Positions on the role of logical methods for philosophy differ greatly, but it seems that a sufficient segment of academic philosophy attaches great value to them (especially in connection to conceptual analysis and philosophy of language). Many of the classical philosophical paradigms went hand in hand with views on logic. At a more mundane level, logic plays into the (re)construction of arguments, which is part and parcel of philosophical activity. The volume lacks any discussion of the role of logic in the narrow or wide sense.
A more nuanced worry is the following. By focusing on established methods which seem to be shared between many philosophers, the volume furthermore risks neglecting that the history of philosophy is often marked by a degree of methodological extremism. That is, it sometimes seems like each philosopher invents his/her own methods anew. It may be that the volume, despite its pluralist stance, ends up portraying the philosophical field as more unified than it really is. Relatedly, it does not always recognize the negative experience of not understanding an opponent’s position – an experience surely at the heart of philosophical activity since Plato’s Euthyphro.
Here is a final question regarding the evolution of new methods that the essays in the volume suggest but do not really breach. Consider the following: Let us say that upon reading the works of a certain philosopher X, we discern that she is a proponent of the new method Y. Such schemes are by now familiar, and the Cambridge Companion to Philosophical Methodology offers an abundance of examples. Now consider the following question: before X committed their thoughts to paper, what was their ‘method’ Z for arriving at the method Y? In other words, is there a useful distinction for methods understood as internal to philosophical programs and methods used to develop new ones? Given the plurality of different philosophical methods that have accompanied philosophy since its inception, is not deliberation about (new) methods among the key tasks of the philosopher? Far from suggesting an infinite regress, I merely want to express that there may be more dynamism to the philosophical practice than an evaluation of framework-internal methodologies will be able to bring to the surface. If, as Stanley Cavell puts it “philosophy is one of its own normal topics” (Cavell cited in D’Oro & Overgaard, 4), one might add that reflection on philosophical methods is one of philosophy’s normal methods. The Cambridge Companion to Philosophical Methodology is a recommendable way into this terrain.
- Cavell, S. Must We Mean What We Say? A Book of Essays. updated edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
- Collingwood, R. G. The Principles of History. eds. W. H. Dray and Jan van der Dussen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
- Descartes, R. Meditations on First Philosophy. trans. D. Cress. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993.
- D’Oro, Giuseppina, and Søren Overgaard, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Philosophical Methodology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
- Foucault, M. Madness and Civilization. trans. R. Howard. New York: Vintage Books, 1965.
- Haslanger, S. Resisting Reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
- Locke, J. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Glasgow: Collins and Sons, 1964.
- Plato. Complete Works. Ed. J. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997.
- Plunkett , D. “Which Concepts Should We Use?: Metalinguistic Negotiations and the Methodology of Philosophy,” Inquiry 58, no. 7-8 (2015): 828-74.