The Different Approaches in Doing Philosophy

Analytic and Speculative Philosophy

C.D. Broad, in his article entitled The Main Tasks of Philosophy, differentiated two main approaches in doing philosophy: Critical or analytic philosophy and speculative or metaphysical philosophy.

Analytic Philosophy

Critical or analytic philosophy, according to Broad, has two fundamental tasks: First, the analysis and definition of our fundamental concepts and second, the clear and resolute criticism of our beliefs. How do we go about doing these two?

In our everyday lives, we go about our daily routine without being aware of the nuances in meaning of the use of concepts that we use. Often, we take for granted that we understood what is being said. Unfortunately, we fail to realize that there may be useless controversies that could have been avoided if we just know how to analyze and clarify the use of these concepts that we take for granted.

For example, perhaps you heard of the perennial problem about the chicken and the egg: “Which came first: is it the chicken or is it the egg?” How do we go about systematically analyzing this problem?. Let us now apply analytic philosophy. Initially, there seems to be a very big and profound problem underlying this question. We could give two answers that are both right: first, because the chicken is needed before you could hatch its egg, and second, you need to have an egg before it can grow as a full-grown chicken. Others may have alternative answers like it must be the chicken because of the alphabetical arrangement of the letters, or a biblical answer tracing back to Noah’s ark where he brought in full-grown animal pairs including the chicken. The list of possible answers given above is not exhaustive. There are a lot of other possible answers to the problem.

How do we use analytic philosophy in order to resolve the problem stated? First, we need to recognize that this is not a disagreement in fact. Our disagreement is not based on how facts actually stand. There is no quarrel about facts. But what is contentious here is a verbal disagreement for the use of the phrase “coming first.” Perhaps, instead of answering quickly without fully analyzing the question that we are trying to answer, let us first ask a more basic question, according to Acuña, “What do you mean by that?” or “In what sense are you using the word or phrase?” Using this as our guide, the phrase “coming first” could be associated with several meanings like: from the reproductive standpoint, the answer should be the chicken or from the developmental standpoint, the answer should be the egg first. Thus, we need not quarrel with this perennial problem when we could easily resolve this by using analytic philosophy. By merely analyzing the concepts that we take for granted in our everyday life, we were able to successfully resolve this issue. Thus, according to Waismann, “A philosophic question is not solved, it dissolves.” In this context, we could clearly say that this is true.

The second task of analytic philosophy, according to Broad, is to examine and criticize our beliefs and assumptions in our everyday life. These assumptions, very often, involve our beliefs and preconceived notions about many things around us. There are many beliefs which are often based on our prejudices. A very succinct example would be our bias against Muslims. Because of the terrorist acts of a small group of bandits like the Abu Sayyaf, many Christians, especially those who are not exposed to Islamic traditions and live in cities predominated by Christians, would carry their prejudice against all Muslims and regard them as terrorists and troublemakers. But we know that a majority of our Muslim brothers are peace-loving citizens. They are against war and terroristic acts done by this small groups of Muslims. What is important to note here is that this bias has been with you since you were growing up as a child. At this point, you need the guidance of philosophy, to free yourself from your prejudice against our Muslim brothers. According to Broad, it is important to subject our beliefs and biases to constant criticisms to be able to test whether or not they are worth holding on to. If, after this method of being subjected to scrutiny and criticism, you still find it difficult to doubt them and to set them aside, then, perhaps, they are worth holding on to.

This calls for a reiteration of the worth of philosophy in our everyday lives. Philosophy gives us a venue and an excuse for criticizing and examining our concepts and beliefs in order to gain a broader perspective in life. Philosophy is a new way of looking at things. Let us try to look at what other people are seeing, from the point of view where they are coming from, they have their own story to tell us. It is not the case that we are always right. Let us try to look at the other side of the coin and try to understand them. This is an exercise in empathy, by allowing ourselves to see and feel what others do. Let us extend our humanity to the fullest and try to broaden our perspective through empathy!

Speculative Philosophy

In contrast, speculative or metaphysical philosophy tries to find an underlying explana-tion or general principle that could explain reality in its entirety. As Broad would put it, “speculative philosophy aims to reach some general conclusions as to the nature of the universe; and as to our position and prospects in it. It is an attempt to think synop-tically of all the facts—the results might be trivial but the process will remind us of the extreme complexity of the world.” Thus, following this context, the attempt of the pre-Socratic philosophers to explain reality is an example of this process of speculative approach. No matter how crude their methods were, what is important is the attempt to abstract and extract a unifying explanation in order to give a coherent explanation of the nature of reality. The process of extracting a unifying explanation from the multi-plicity of the things around them is called abstraction. By trying to abstract the essence of the particular things that exist, they try to give and offer a coherent explanation about the nature of reality and its underlying substance. This marked the beginnings of Western Philosophy. Thus, the first philosophers used the speculative approach to arrive at their conclusion about the underlying principle of reality.

Reduction and Holistic Philosophy

In an article by Willy Ostreng entitled Reductionism versus Holism—Contrasting Approaches, he singled out the distinction between holism and reductionism in doing philosophy. The difference between the two contrasting approaches, according to Ostreng, stems from their fundamental differences in focus. Reductionism focuses on the properties of its parts while holism leans on the relationship between them.

Reductionist Philosophy

A reductionist approach of doing philosophy refers to understanding complex ideas by reducing them to their parts or individual constituents. It holds the notion of a classical Newtonian assumption that a complex system is nothing but just a sum of its parts and that everything in it can be reduced to individual properties. The reductionist approach is analogous to the levels of organization in science in which, an organism can be broken down into organ system, organ, tissue, and cells.

Rene Descartes first introduced the concept of Reductionism during the 17th century in Part V of his treatise called Discourse on the Method. He likened the world to a machine with pieces working like a clockwork mechanism. He argued that the machine can only be understood if an individual would take its pieces apart and study its individual components before putting it back together to understand the bigger picture.

In science, reductionist philosophy and methods are considered the basis for many areas of modern science such as physics, chemistry and biology. While in linguistics, reductionism holds the notion that everything about languages can be described with a limited number of core concepts and combinations of those core concepts.

Holistic Philosophy

Holistic philosophy works on the assumption that all properties in a given system cannot be broken down by its component parts alone, but rather the system as a whole entity decides how the individual parts behave.

Holism is the idea that something can be more than the sum of its parts: more specifically it usually refers to the concept of reality. Holism proponents contend that one must understand reality as a whole. They hold that one can’t start examining just the parts of reality and expect to end up with an accurate picture of it. The word holism came from the Greek word holos which means “all”, “whole”, or “total.” Holism was summed up by Aristotle in Metaphysics in which he stated that, “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” Nevertheless, it wasn’t until 1926 that the term “holism” was introduced into the language by South African statesman Jan Smuts. It can be contrasted with atomism which contends that everything can be broken down into smaller parts.

The fundamental assumption underpinning the holistic perspective is that the properties of the parts contribute to the understanding of the whole. However, the properties of the parts can only be fully understood through the dynamics of the whole. Thus, the primary focus of holism is the relationship between the parts or its interconnectedness and interactions.

Holism in philosophy refers to any kind of doctrine that gives priority to the whole over its parts. In addition, holism refutes the necessity to divide the functions of separate parts to the overall mechanism of the whole. Holism also implies that its key characteristics is the concept of a certain fundamental truth of any particular experience. Taking into account the philosophy of mind, it suggests that a mental state can be identified only in terms of its relations with others. This notion refers to content holism in which philosophers like Frege, Wittgenstein, and Quine supported.

Holism has a great significance particularly in Epistemology and the Philosophy of Language. The two main types of Holism are:

  • Epistemological Holism – This is what you get when you apply to language the theory of holism. It is also called Confirmation Holism. This type of holism claims a scientific theory cannot be tested individually, since testing a single theory would always depend on other established theories and hypotheses. An example of this in scientific research is the theory-laden (dependent on theory) approach and another is the notion that evidence alone is insufficient to assert which kind of theory is correct.
  • Semantic Holism – The idea behind semantic holism is that every word has meaning only in relation to other words, sentences, or the language in which it is used. It is doctrine in the Philosophy of Language which suggests that a certain part of language, a term or a complete sentence, can only be understood through its relations to a larger segment of language or possibly the entire language. This also suggests that the meaning of an individual word or sentence can only be understood in terms of its relations to a larger body of language or a whole language altogether.

Although Epistemological Holism and Semantic Holism are closely related, Epistemological Holism gained more acceptance among philosophers compared to Semantic Holism. The birth of Moderate Holism or Semantic Molecularism served as a middle ground for contrasting views of philosophers in Semantic Holism. Moderate Holism refers to the belief that the meanings of words depend on some subset of the language and not the entire language.