The Personal Website of Mark W. Dawson


Containing His Articles, Observations, Thoughts, Meanderings,
and some would say Wisdom (and some would say not).

A Philosophical Approach

My Approach

When reading my webpages, you will notice that I often take a philosophical approach to discuss issues and concerns. But why do I take a philosophical approach? The answer is because Philosophy teaches you how to think, not what to think. Philosophy, as usually taught and practiced by academic Philosophy Departments and philosophers, turns most people off--and rightfully so. The essence of 'Philosophy' is an approach to seek the truth in order to be able to live our lives more wisely. It shouldn't be an academic exercise or contest to be clever with words or to baffle non-philosophers with 'deep' though obscure thoughts--intended only for the elite few. Nor is it the history of what philosophers have said or of so-called philosophical issues, most of which is incomprehensible and irrelevant to non-philosophers. The philosophical approach that I take is to fully understand the issues and concerns that I write about, in a way that illuminates the issues and concerns, by the use of philosophical “Reasoning.” And a philosophical approach is the best means to achieve this illumination on issues and concerns.

What is Philosophy?

“Philosophy (from Greek φιλοσοφία, Philosophia, literally "love of wisdom") is the study of general and fundamental questions about existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Such questions are often posed as problems to be studied or resolved. The term was probably coined by Pythagoras (c. 570 – 495 BCE). Philosophical methods include questioning, critical discussion, rational argument, and systematic presentation. Classic philosophical questions include: Is it possible to know anything and to prove it? What is most real? Philosophers also pose more practical and concrete questions such as: Is there a best way to live? Is it better to be just or unjust (if one can get away with it)? Do humans have free will?

Historically, "philosophy" encompassed any body of knowledge. From the time of Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle to the 19th century, "natural philosophy" encompassed astronomy, medicine, and physics. For example, Newton's 1687 Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy later became classified as a book of physics. In the 19th century, the growth of modern research universities led academic philosophy and other disciplines to professionalize and specialize. In the modern era, some investigations that were traditionally part of philosophy became separate academic disciplines, including psychology, sociology, linguistics, and economics.

Other investigations closely related to art, science, politics, or other pursuits remained part of philosophy. For example, is beauty objective or subjective? Are there many scientific methods or just one? Is political utopia a hopeful dream or hopeless fantasy? Major sub-fields of academic philosophy include metaphysics ("concerned with the fundamental nature of reality and being"), epistemology (about the "nature and grounds of knowledge [and]...its limits and validity"), ethics, aesthetics, political philosophy, logic and philosophy of science.”
- From the Wikipedia article on Philosophy

“The aim in Philosophy is not to master a body of facts, so much as think clearly and sharply through any set of facts. Towards that end, philosophy students are trained to read critically, analyze and assess arguments, discern hidden assumptions, construct logically tight arguments, and express themselves clearly and precisely in both speech and writing.”
 - Brown University

Why Study Philosophy?

“It is not enough to have a good mind. The main thing is to use it well.” 
 - Rene Descartes

Here’s what some of the Lehigh University Department of Philosophy students have said about why they study philosophy:

 “It’s important to learn about genetics, but it is more important to learn to think. Philosophy makes me think!”

“Philosophy courses give you more than just knowledge of the world; they give you a deep understanding of how the world works, even how it should work.”

“Majoring in philosophy makes me a better thinker and a more well-rounded person.”

“My senior philosophy thesis was not only the best part of my Lehigh experience, but it has helped me tremendously throughout law school and my life.”

“Studying philosophy, I learned to analyze closely and critically, to question thoroughly, and to write and think rigorously. My philosophy skills have made me more valuable to prospective employers and graduate schools.”

Consequently, the above reasons are why I take a philosophical approach when I think and write on an issue or concern.

What Philosophy Cannot Do

If you believe that Philosophy will provide definitive answers to questions, then you are delusional. For Philosophy can never provide definitive answers, but it does provide significant questions and potential answers to the questions. Questions and answers that can guide you to potential answers but not definitive answers. Answers that allow you to think about the question from a different perspective. A different perspective that can provide different answers or potential solutions, and that often leads to other questions, but definitive answers or solutions are not possible.

Philosophers, themselves, often differ and reach contradictory conclusions. There is no right or wrong answers or solutions to philosophical questions. There is only the continuing inquiry on the questions and answers. The increase of human knowledge can assist in providing answers or solutions, but it cannot resolve the questions.

In the real world of nature, and the real world of human interactions, it is not possible to have definitive answers or solutions. The sheer number of data points, the interactions between the data points, and the feedback loops into the interactions make it impossible to have definitive answers or solutions. You may obtain the best possible solution, given the best possible information on data points, interactions, and feedback loops, but you will never have a definitive answer. The “The Law of Unintended Consequences” will always apply and prevent a definitive solution.

There's nowt so queer as folk

This old English saying points to the problems of what Philosophy cannot do. Nothing is as strange as people can be, as people can behave very oddly sometimes. The personal life experiences, personal knowledge, personal skills and abilities, personal economic circumstances, and the personal goals of every person are different and are utilized differently by each person in reaching a decision. Decisions that are often motivated by emotions and only sometimes motivated by the intellect. Most people often decide based on their emotional responses, and sometimes intellectual, but often faulty, reasoning. A philosophical person decides based on their intellectual reasoning, which attempts to reduce faulty reasoning. To expect each person to decide on intellectual reasoning is to expect too much from a person, as intellectual reasoning takes considerable time and effort to achieve as well as intellectual acuity. We should expect that our leaders will utilize intellectual reasoning to reach decisions, and then explain their reasoning to elicit the support of the people. Alas, this is not often the case as it often leads to informing the people what they need to hear, rather than what they want to hear. As such, philosophical considerations are not often utilized in decision making, and philosophizing is not prized by the public.

Often the Cultural and Historical, and even language differences amongst people also impact their decision making, and this is true even for Philosophers. As such, Philosophy has difficulty reconciling ideas from different cultures, histories, and languages. It certainly cannot make a value judgment of the importance of or weight of philosophical ideas from different cultures and histories, or reconcile language misinterpretations, which could potentially assist in the answers and solutions that beset peoples from different cultures, histories, and languages. Therefore, Philosophy cannot bring people together and resolve their difference. It can only point out the fallacies of their arguments and help with the understanding of their differences.

This is why philosophical ideas usually have no direct impact on people. There are numerous indirect impacts, but these indirect impacts take circuitous paths into people's lives. Impacts that may not even be recognized as coming from philosophical ideas. Consequently, it is important that philosophers continue to philosophize, as it broadens the knowledgeableness of human existence.

The Crux of the Matter

Most people prefer to get to the crux of the matter, rather than discuss the philosophical constructs of the matter. But going directly to the crux of the matter leads you to Presumptions; Assumptions; Incorrect Facts; Incomplete Facts; Missing Facts; Irrelevant Facts; Faulty Reasoning; Logical Fallacies; Cognitive Biases; and the Unintended Consequences that may be inherent in the crux of the matter (see my articles on “Reasoning”, "Oh What A Tangled Web We Weave", “The Law of Unintended Consequences”, and “The Devil is in the Details” for more information on these subjects). Only a philosophical approach can help you to avoid these problems. A philosophical approach is one that starts by trying to eliminate these problems, and that allows you to think clearly and completely about an issue or concern. To start with the crux of the matter and then try to eliminate the problems most often leads to faulty reasoning. Your arguments become convoluted and often unreasoned, and in many cases, they are often unpersuasive because of these problems. A philosophical approach avoids these problems and helps you become a wiser person and make wiser decisions.

Conclusions

Waxing philosophically is the most effective way of thinking and is the best path to achieve wisdom. Thinking philosophically focuses and organizes your thoughts in a manner that helps you reach a sound conclusion. If you recall history, the wisest persons were almost always philosophical or theological, as all good theologians are philosophical, but not all good philosophers are theological. Becoming philosophical is not an easy thing to accomplish, and it requires that you examine the wisdom of others, both current and historical, to obtain wisdom.

But becoming philosophical is very difficult, if not impossible, without reading extensively, both pro and con of your beliefs, and outside of your current spheres of knowledge. Watching thought-provoking movies, television, and plays, listening to the meaning of music rather than the catchy tunes and lyrics, listening or watching substantive discussions or debates on all topics, and then thinking about what you have learned is also necessary to become wise. This means being more concerned with the substance rather than the superficial in all you may do, see, and hear. All of this helps you to become a wiser person. This is not an easy thing to accomplish and requires considerable time and effort on your part. Reducing the time you spend on the superficial and allocating it to the substantial will help alleviate the time concerns. Prioritization of all you do, watch, and listen will also help you in your journey on the road to wisdom.

Many of the issues and concerns that beset modern America could be better resolved it we applied a philosophical approach to resolving them. Going directly to the crux of the matter is often an easier and less time-consuming way to discuss these issues and concerns, but it is not the right way as it often leads to unwise decisions and unintended consequences. In addition, untangling the crux of the matter will often be more difficult and more time consuming than if you had started with a philosophical approach. Also, going to the crux of the matter often leads to the issue or concern being unresolved because of its inherent problems. It is for this reason that I take a philosophical approach when thinking and writing about the issues and concerns in American governance and social policies.