As a kind of inquiry, philosophy is aimed at establishing knowledge and understanding. Even where certain knowledge about a particular issue can’t be had, there are often interesting things to learn about why we can’t have certainty and what sorts of less-than-certain reasons there are for or against holding a position on that issue. So, rational inquiry may be interesting and fruitful even when we are denied straight-forward answers to our initial questions. Once we raise a philosophical issue, whether about the nature of justice or about the nature of reality, we want to ask what can be said for or against the various possible answers to our question. Here we are engaged in formulating arguments. Some arguments give us better reasons or accepting their conclusions than others. Once we have formulated an argument, we want to evaluate the reasoning it offers. If you want to know what philosophers do, this is a pretty good answer: philosophers formulate and evaluate arguments.
Your introduction to philosophy should be as much a training in how to do philosophy as it is a chance to get to acquainted with the views of various philosophers. To that end, you should carefully study the sections below on arguments.
Once a philosophical position is considered, we want to ask what arguments can be advanced in support of or against that issue. We then want to examine the quality of the arguments. Evaluating flawed arguments often points the way towards other arguments and the process of formulating, clarifying, and evaluating arguments continues. This method of question and answer in which we recursively formulate, clarify, and evaluate arguments is known as dialectic. Dialectic looks a lot like debate, but a big difference lies in the respective goals of the two activities. The goal of a debate is to win by persuading an audience that your position is right and your opponent’s is wrong. Dialectic, on the other hand, is aimed at inquiry. The goal is to learn something new about the issue under discussion. Unlike debate, in dialectic your sharpest critic is your best friend. Critical evaluation of your argument brings new evidence and reasoning to light. The person you disagree with on a philosophical issue is often the person you stand to learn the most from (and this doesn’t necessarily depend on which of you is closer to the truth of the matter).
Dialectic is sometimes referred to as the Socratic Method after the famous originator of this systematic style of inquiry. We will get introduced to some of Plato’s dialogues chronicling the exploits of Socrates in the next chapter on Ancient Greek Philosophy. This will give you a good sense for how the Socratic Method works. Then watch for how the Socratic Method is deployed throughout the rest of the course.