CRF Blog

Philosophy tool kit

by Bill Hayes

In Philosophy tool kit for Aeon, philosophy professor Alan Hájek reveals “the tricks of trade.”

Philosophers pride themselves on thinking clearly by seeing what follows from what, exposing sophisms, spotting fallacies, and generally policing our reasoning. Many have spent years honing their skills, often deploying them on arcane topics. But these skills are not the exclusive property of rarefied sages, accessed only with a secret handshake and insider training, as much as some philosophers wish this were so. Instead, some of these skills can be captured by generalisable, all-purpose techniques for the proper conduct of thought, whatever the topic. Many of these are easily taught and learned. As such, they can be utilised by non-philosophers too. At a time when we are bombarded more than ever with specious claims and spurious inferences, clear thinking provides a much-needed safeguard that we should all strive towards.

Philosophers place a premium on certain tools for regimenting our thinking, especially logic and probability theory. However, there is a far richer toolbox at our disposal. Over the years, I have observed philosophers repeatedly using various argumentative moves or strategies, which can be encapsulated in rules of thumb that make their tasks easier. These are what might be called philosophical heuristics. This should come as no surprise: pretty much every complex activity has its heuristics, which experts teach and beginners learn – photography, calligraphy, diving, driving, football, foosball, judo, Cluedo, curling, hurling, climbing, rhyming, and so on. Such heuristics are especially well-documented for chess: ‘castle early and often’, ‘check every check’, and what have you.

There are also common heuristics for intellectual activities such as mathematics and creative writing. Here’s a good one for mathematics: if you are not making headway on a problem, modify it slightly to make it easier, and solve that one. A good heuristic for creative writing is to juxtapose familiar words and phrases in unfamiliar ways. One might use the ‘cut-up technique’, popularised by William S Burroughs and by David Bowie, in which written text is cut up and rearranged to create a new text.

Yet philosophy might be thought to be especially unsuitable for such heuristics. The word ‘philosopher’ comes from the Ancient Greek philosophos, meaning ‘lover of wisdom’. And wisdom, a skeptic might insist, cannot be so easily achieved. Philosophy strives for deep, profound insights, yet heuristics might by their nature be regarded as superficial. I don’t pretend that philosophical heuristics provide shortcuts to profundity – any more than chess heuristics provide shortcuts to becoming a grandmaster. That said, grandmasters do typically castle early and often, and check every check, consciously or not; a chess textbook that ignored these heuristics would be remiss. Likewise, good philosophers do use the heuristics I identify, consciously or not, often in the service of deep insights. Indeed, philosophy textbooks have been remiss in ignoring these heuristics. [more]