Philosophers probe for answers

What is “philosophical research”? What informs philosophers’ ideas about vast topics like the nature of reality, knowledge or meaning? In short, what the heck is philosophizing? To clear up some of the abstraction and fuzziness surrounding philosophy, I talked to three members of the philosophy department to find out their specific methodologies in doing “philosophical research.”

Associate Professor of Philosophy Joe Cruz suggested that philosophy research draws on preexisting literature and concrete empirical data. “‘Research’ in philosophy is a funny label,” Cruz said. “Many philosophers research what has been said on a topic by the great philosophers of the past. Sometimes this takes special effort like visiting archives or translating correspondence, but usually it is as simple as reading in the library the central works of a thinker.”

Professor Gerrard related Hopper’s painting, on display at WCMA, to the nature of meaning. Image courtesy of Steve Gerrard.

Cruz is primarily interested in philosophy of the mind and knowledge. Whether conducting his own experiments in the lab or using data from other scientists’ experiments, he always uses empirical data as his jumping-off point. “I am not one of those philosophers who thinks that we can make progress in understanding essential human questions solely from the armchair, by merely ‘thinking about [them],’” he said. From specific experimental data, he then draws larger, more universal conclusions about the nature of the mind or knowledge.

“Scientific research does not explain itself in a larger context of culture, history and our conception of ourselves,” Cruz said. Thus, the next step in philosophizing is to explain what data alone cannot – how results relate to the bigger picture. Finally, his research zooms in from the general back to the specific, applying the bigger conclusions about the mind or knowledge to try to answer other, more specific questions that scientific experimentation might not be able to directly address.

Right now, Cruz is trying to find out whether being a skeptic requires taking an alternative, rational stance or if one can just criticize without defending a position – while examining whether every mental phenomenon can be explained through physical, scientific vocabulary and how people rationally judge one belief to be “better” than others. To answer all these questions, he is using a conception of the mind and knowledge that he derived from empirical results. Eventually, Cruz hopes to share his ideas with the philosophy community. “Ideally, all the notes and speculation get turned into a manuscript, and then one contacts a publisher or sends the material to an academic journal,” Cruz said.

Professor of Philosophy Steve Gerrard follows a similar method for philosophizing, using particulars to form a basis for more general, abstract conclusions. However, his research is concerned with the nature of meaning – what art means, what math means, what words mean and ultimately, what life means. Gerrard starts with something concrete to draw upon in order to get a sense of the bigger picture of meaning. He is currently looking at a painting currently on display in the Williams College Museum of Art, Edward Hopper’s “Morning In A City.” He is examining color, line, shape, and affective and thematic relationships in this piece of art to discover what these relationships might tell us about life. Perhaps the expression of loneliness on the woman’s face suggests her alienation in a strange city and the importance of relationships to a life. That said, Gerrard does not think a single explanation of the nature of meaning can be found. “We find the meaning of life changes over time,” he said. “At one point, I might want to know what it means to be a good son or a good student. Now, I might want to know what it means to be a good father, teacher or citizen.”

Professor of Philosophy Alan White takes a slightly different approach. His research deals not only with theories about larger, abstract concepts, but also with the right ways to arrive at those larger concepts. He and a German colleague, Lorenz Puntel, have developed a systematic philosophy including (among others) ontology, cosmology, semantics, aesthetics, morality and its own methodology. In order to come up with this methodology, he and Puntel looked at works of other philosophers, correcting holes that they saw to improve preexisting theories. “We’re not aiming to present the last word on anything; our attempt is to develop a theory that is better than any available alternative,” he said.

White knows that his theory will someday be revised when new information is available, much like we expect current scientific theories will be modified in the future. He anticipates that future philosophers will use similar research tactics, finding the holes in his theory and correcting them to generate a new, more accurate and comprehensive theory.