Monday, November 20, 2017

Principles of Philosophy

Last week I discussed the Principle of Charity, especially the version developed by Donald Davidson. It says – to put it in another way – that “in seeking to understand a point of view ... we seek to understand that view in its strongest, most persuasive form before subjecting the view to evaluation.” (1) Such a principle is a methodological rule. It is a rule for cogent philosophy in order to get the best philosophical results. A methodological rule like this “represents a guideline to be followed if error is to be avoided.” “It is not a philosophical thesis or doctrine that purports to answer to some substantive philosophical question, [but] a rule of procedure that specifies a modus operandi, a way of proceeding in the course of philosophizing.” (2) Such a philosophical thesis says for example, “Ought implies can” (Kant), or “that it is fine for the rich to get richer only if the poor always become richer than they would have done had the wealthy been held back.” (the difference principle, formulated by John Rawls) (3)
Nicholas Rescher distinguishes several kinds of methodological principles of philosophy (4), which I’ll ignore here. Instead I want to put forward a few principles by way of illustration. The selection is arbitrary, and reflects more what I consider interesting than philosophical significance.

- Occam’s Razor. This principle has different formulations, but basically it says that you must remove everything that is superfluous in your argumentation. The principle has been named after William of Ockham, a medieval philosopher who lived from 1288-1348. However, the principle was already known before Ockham, and it has also been worded by philosophers after him. Strangely enough, the principle cannot be found in Ockham’s writings, although the idea is present, so it is to be wondered why the principle has been named just after him.
- Nothing is without a reason, better known as the principle of sufficient reason. This principle has been formulated by G.W. Leibniz (1646-1716) and says that nothing must be maintained without a substantive reason. Don’t state what hasn’t a sound basis. There is also an ontological version of this principle, saying that everything in the world has a reason why it is. (5)
- The falsification principle, brought forward by Karl R. Popper. It says that you must look for arguments that undermine your views and the views developed by others and not for arguments that sustain them. The latter can always be found and will not make a view better, but the former lead to scientific and philosophical progress. If your theory is that all swans are white and you have seen already ten white swans, then the eleventh white swan that you observe will not make your theory better, but a black swan will do.
- Never explain what is obscure by something yet more so. If you replace in this principle the word “explain” by its synonym “make clear”, it becomes a tautology. It’s the purpose of philosophy to elucidate, not to obfuscate. (6) David Hume (1711-1776) formulated a related principle, the principle of evidence. This says that a weaker evidence can never destroy a stronger.

Voilà some methodological principles of philosophy. Principles like these help solve philosophical problems and they provide powerful rules of thought. What remains, however, is how to choose our problems. There can be many reasons to consider a topic relevant for philosophical discussion, but at least one principle must guide your choice: Never flog a dead horse, that is don’t argue against that which nobody maintains. (7)

(2) Nicholas Rescher, Philosophical Dialects. An Essay on Metaphilosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006. Quoted from , p. 2
(4) p. 3 (see note 1). – (5) id. p.5. – (6) id. p.8. – (7) id. p.15.

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