The following is an excerpt from an essay I’m working on, meant to explain to non-philosophers what it is philosophers do.
Philosophy is the search for wisdom, and wisdom has two large components: what is (or “the True”), and what is valuable (or “the Good”). To be wise, you need not only to have skills and know facts; you also need to be able to sort through matters and focus on the most important elements. This is true in every field, because there is wisdom in every field. A wise lawyer knows the laws and procedures, and knows which ones to call into service. A wise plumber knows water, pipes, and tools, and knows how to determine whether a leak needs a small fix or a big one. A plumber or lawyer who knows stuff but cannot prioritize is worse than useless. Now a philosopher’s project is to discern the most important things – the True and the Good – about the biggest human endeavors, such as understanding the universe, creating social policies, treating others well, and finding meaning in the human experience. That’s wisdom in a formula: knowing the important facts about the most important matters; or, knowing the True and the Good. A philosopher aspires for this wisdom.
That sounds very grand, doesn’t it? But how on earth can anyone go about doing any such thing? Well, doing it requires doing two things. First, philosophers need to have a general knowledge of how theories work. A big component of an education in philosophy is working through grand systems of thought, from Aristotle and Plato through Augustine and Aquinas and Descartes and Leibniz and Kant to Wittgenstein and Carnap and Moore and Rawls. Working through these systems means understanding how they work and testing them against problems and objections and determining, in the end, what is right in them and what is wrong. Even if one sets aside the delight we experience in exploring these magnificent temples of theory, there is great value in these explorations because we learn how to handle great big theories: what they are presupposing, what would rank as a counter-example, how a defender might handle an objection, and so on. The more theories you work through, the better you get at grasping what we might call theory dynamics, or the ways theories generally work. This general ability makes philosophers fairly adept at jumping into any kind of theory and quickly gaining a good grasp of how it works and perhaps where it comes up short. It also ideally makes them good at explaining things.
The second thing philosophers need to do is study widely. What they study of course depends on what questions they are interested in. A philosopher interested in the nature of reality needs to read science. If I am interested in social policy, I should read politics, economics, or sociology. For ethics, I should be a student of the variety of problems people get themselves into – perhaps by studying legal cases, or by talking to others or reading about their experiences. For the meaning of life, I should be familiar with psychology, religion, and anthropology. In any of these cases, I do not need to be an expert, but I should be able to read the works of the experts and be able to gain a sound understanding of what is being proposed. I should be able to enter into conversation with an expert, and not impress them with any new insights, but at least demonstrate that I understand what they are talking about. It would be truly awesome if any philosopher could read broadly in all of these fields, but that is sadly impossible. These days most philosophers confine themselves to a single field, or in extraordinary cases, two. In super-duper extraordinary cases, perhaps three, but such ambition usually results in shallower understanding.
So theory dynamics and wide study are what prepares philosophers to do what they do. But this picture is not yet complete. There is a third component to doing philosophy that I would not call a method, but rather something like a drive that pushes the entire project forward. Philosophers strive to understand the True and the Good, and they will read widely to try to help that understanding along, but there is no guarantee that what they read will provide that understanding. It can happen that a particular science has not reached an understanding of the matter in which the philosopher is interested. Or it may be that the relevant sciences have not even tried to tackle the problem. Or it may be that current specialists regard a particular problem as solved, but the philosopher thinks an important mistake has been made somewhere along the way, or some alternative has not been duly explored.
The drive I am trying to describe is exactly the drive Kant described in his attempt to provide a motto for the Age of Enlightenment: aude sapere, or dare to understand. In the end, philosophers want to understand things for themselves. It is not enough to master what contemporary theories say if those theories are incomplete or if they are blind to other important truths or concerns. Our patron saint, Socrates, had many friends who thought they understood many fine things, but none of them could hold their own against his fierce interrogations. In the end, the explanations must make sense to me. If they do not make sense, then they are held in conceptual orbit, or put on the shelf, until something changes and makes us think that they might have merit after all.