Techniques and Tools of Philosophy

We cannot describe these matters without entering into areas of some controversy among philosophers. But certain points are important for anyone studying philosophy to bear in mind.

First, the kind of paper that students will be asked to write in most philosophy courses is rather different from papers required in most other areas. Philosophical writing requires an important skill that philosophy students will be encouraged to master. Assignments tend to place heavy emphasis on the ability to give careful, detailed arguments for positions on philosophical questions. Above all, learning to state one's position clearly, without ambiguity, and to set out systematically the considerations for and against it, is the key to writing a good philosophy paper, and most courses will encourage this skill. Clearly this is a useful thing to be able to do even outside of philosophy or philosophy courses. As was suggested in section 4, this skill is one of the great advantages of studying philosophy, and studying philosophy is one of the best ways to acquire it.

Another sort of technique much used by philosophers is logic. Here logic must be distinguished from the skill just mentioned, the careful construction of clear and sound arguments for philosophical views. In the present sense `logic' means mainly the study of valid arguments, not merely as a tool for use in presenting one's case, but as an interesting object of study in its own right. At its most formal, logic involves studying the general properties of arguments and languages in much the same way as a mathematician studies an abstract system of numbers, and in this sense logic can be a branch of mathematics. The philosophy department offers several sorts of logic courses in a variety of formats. Informal logic courses (180, 201) study the features and fallacies of arguments in a variety of areas with a minimum of attention to the elaborate formal languages that philosophers have developed for the most rigorous approach to these topics. Courses in symbolic logic (296, 303, 414), on the other hand, focus at length on the properties of artificial symbolic systems and their relations to natural languages. Note: Courses in informal logic do not satisfy the logic requirement for the concentration in philosophy.

Aside from its interest as a tool for argument and as an object of mathematical study, logic also has important uses in other parts of philosophy, some of which have become increasingly formalized in recent years. For example, the philosophy of language nowadays involves considerable formal machinery, and students who wish to move in this direction will need to master the necessary techniques, often at the level of Philosophy 296 or 414. Students interested in graduate work in philosophy (especially if their interests run toward the philosophy of language, the philosophy of science, metaphysics and other technical areas) would be well advised to take 414.