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Doing Philosophy


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Photo of Bryan Magee
Bryan Magee

The phrase ‘doing philosophy’ has resonated with me since I was fifteen. I used to read a BBC magazine’s weekly transcripts of radio interviews Bryan Magee was conducting with prominent philosophers of the time, including A.J. Ayer, Karl Popper, Gilbert Ryle, Peter Strawson, and Bernard Williams. I noticed that they described themselves as ‘doing philosophy’, not as ‘philosophizing’. I thought they were trying, perhaps too hard, to emphasize that their work was down to earth, not up in the clouds. Those interviews helped me realize that I was better suited to philosophy than to archaeology, my previous ambition. I loved the level of abstract clarity at which they thought, and the subtlety of the distinctions they drew. An archaeological dig is down to earth if anything is, while the philosophers were flying high—but above the clouds, not in them. Despite the altitude, common sense was still serving as some sort of compass. I had already encountered pretentious theoretical bullshit: this was not it. The air felt fresh, even though there was not much oxygen. The route from common curiosity to logical reasoning looked doable. In fact, I suspected that if only one could fly still higher, one would see even more clearly, and the picture would take a more elegant form. Of course, I wanted to be the one who would fly higher. Later, I came to realize how such methodological gains—and losses—tend to happen collectively more than individually.


One aim of my book Doing Philosophy is to explain, in non-technical terms, how philosophers can fly so high in thought, sometimes without crashing. How can they get anywhere, despite not using the experimental methods of modern science? Since the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, there has been a long tradition of dissolving the puzzle by saying that philosophers are not really flying after all: we are just doing something much less ambitious, such as cleaning the aircraft before someone else flies it. In less metaphorical terms, philosophers are not discovering anything about reality itself, we are only clarifying, improving, and organizing the ideas or concepts or words which natural scientists and other non-philosophers will then use to formulate their discoveries about reality. In another variation on that theme, philosophers only describe our experience of things, not the things themselves. As far as I can see, that tradition of making philosophy a second-order discipline has gone bankrupt—although some people continue to invest in it. The tradition fails to work for philosophy as it has developed over the past sixty years. Contemporary metaphysicians (for example, David Lewis and Kit Fine) are interested in the nature of possibility and necessity themselves, not just in our experience of possibility and necessity, or the ideas or concepts or words we use to think or talk about possibility and necessity. Contemporary moral and political philosophers are interested in the nature of justice and injustice themselves, not just in our experience of justice and injustice, or the ideas or concepts or words used to think or talk about justice and injustice. Philosophers formulate substantive theories about possibility and necessity, and about justice and injustice. Whether those theories are true or false is no mere matter of definition. It depends on what possibility and necessity, or justice and injustice, really are. Someone might agree that many contemporary philosophers are resuming the ancient ambitions of philosophy, but condemn them for doing so, and argue that they are falling into nonsense, or at least asking questions which they have no chance of answering properly. But the evidence does not support such condemnations. Contemporary super-ambitious philosophy is often intelligible by any reasonable standard, and explicitly guided by rational argument and evidence. It is constrained by modern physics and biology, where relevant, but natural science often provides only very limited help with the questions philosophers are asking. So how do we manage? A clue is mathematics. It does not depend on the experimental method, yet it is even more rigorous and reliable than any natural science. Some philosophers have tried to interpret mathematics as not telling us anything about reality, but such attempts have failed to make good sense of the mathematical enterprise. Mathematicians themselves tend to regard mathematics as discovering truths about the abstract structure of reality; the central role of mathematics in physics and other experimental sciences is indirect evidence that they are right. Although mathematics proceeds mainly by deduction, its proofs rely on first principles which are not themselves justified by being proved. Rather, they are justified by their capacity to unify previous mathematics. The laws of mathematics are less different than you might think from the laws of physics, even though physics is an experimental subject while mathematics is not. Mathematics is a science, but not a natural science. Similarly, I suggest, philosophy is a science, but not a natural science. Deductive logic plays a very significant role in philosophy too, though of course nothing like as dominant a role as it plays in mathematics. There is obviously far more disagreement and disputation in philosophy than there is in mathematics—though mathematics is not without its controversies and unorthodoxies. At any rate, we can use the case of mathematics to disrupt the tunnel vision which sees the experimental method as the only path to truth. Having done that, we can notice the deep similarities between the ways of comparing and testing theories in philosophy and those of comparing and testing theories elsewhere. In Doing Philosophy, I explain and illustrate what I take those similarities to be. Four commentators—Nigel Collins, Hisham El Edrissi, Edward Gibney, and Amanda McBride—presented responses to Doing Philosophy at a one-day workshop of the Newcastle Philosophy Society. I am delighted that they responded in such creative, diverse, and interesting ways. Their responses appear below, with my replies. There are many areas of agreement, which for reasons of space I have not emphasized, preferring to concentrate on points where I had something different to say, sometimes in addition, sometimes in disagreement. The book is meant to be provocative (though sincere), and at least in that respect it seems to have succeeded.

Timothy Williamson’s book is called Doing Philosophy which suggests something more than merely describing philosophy. The question of doing philosophy is subtly different from the question of what philosophy is: it implies an activity, an agent, it emphasises that philosophy is not a passive activity. There is a requirement to do something and, as Williamson argues, this something is not unnatural for us. It already happens without any formalised methodology – we all ask in our own way questions on the meaning of life or the nature of reality. Philosophy, then, starts with ways of thinking that all humans engage in naturally but reaches fruition through the application of care, method, and a deeper and more consistent level of thought. In short, for Williamson philosophy starts from common sense, so I will focus on this for the remainder of my essay.

To his claim that ‘we have to start from common sense’, Williamson adds that philosophy ‘never completely escapes its origins in common sense’. But given that he places the pursuit of knowledge and truth at the top of philosophy’s agenda, Williamson accounts for the fact that common sense is often false by splitting common sense into mere common sense belief (which can be true or false) and common sense knowledge (which is true). However, this distinction opens up new problems as there needs to be a reliable method for separating false common sense from true common sense, mere belief from true knowledge. Therefore, even if we accept that philosophy may begin with common sense, the first thing the philosopher must do is question it.

In this sceptical spirit, Bertrand Russell writes, ‘Common sense, however it tries, cannot avoid being surprised from time to time.’ Even if we forgave common sense its occasional errors of judgement, another problem is how we get to an objective view of common sense as my view of common sense is likely to be different from yours. René Descartes, called common sense ‘the most widely shared commodity in the world, for every man is convinced that he is well supplied with it.’ And even if we find shared notions of common sense that overcome the whims of individual subjectivity, does this point to the truth of the notion or is it just another example of popular prejudice or mob rule?

Of course one way to overcome this risk of collapsing common sense into subjectivity is by giving primacy to the reality of the physical world rather than the ideas of the mind. This was a motivation for the 18th century Scottish School of Common Sense who were reacting against the sceptical positions of, amongst others, Locke, Berkeley, and, especially, Hume. According to this kind of view, the physical world exists independently of our conceptual schemes, so we can gain ‘common sense’ knowledge of it purely by virtue of the fact that the world is common to all.

However, appealing this may be, the realist and common sense starting point for philosophy is still only one possible starting point for philosophy, and favours some kinds of questions over other equally important questions. Consider, for example, the existentialism of Sartre or Heidegger in which the focus is on the human condition as experienced through our consciousness of the world. I don’t deny the world but I do deny that we can understand our place in the world through mere empirical evidence. The common sense scientific-empirical stance seems to overlook the human condition and the place of the mind (however we may describe it) as a critical and irreducible structure in this condition.

Returning to scepticism about common sense, one way to defend common sense from scepticism is to see it as pragmatic and useful, and that this is itself a guide to truth. Williamson hints at this when he writes that although common sense beliefs have evolved to be practically useful rather than true, ‘true beliefs’ he says ‘tend to be more practically useful than false beliefs’, and that we overestimate errors in common sense because we find them more interesting. But how far can we take the kind of reasoning born out of everyday experiences of our environment? It may be common sense not to touch a hot stove but can this type of knowledge illuminate questions related to the meaning of a life or the creation of an ethic? Can it answer the question of God’s existence or the puzzle of determinism verses free will?

In Williamson’s account, common sense is not only a starting point for the philosopher but also acts as ‘a check on the philosopher’s provisional conclusions’. How can a philosopher begin to deny the existence of time when we have to get up before eating breakfast? Or deny the existence of free will when we can raise our hand on demand? Or deny the existence of a self when there is an ‘I’ who denies it? But must common sense always be there to keep a rein on supposed metaphysical excess? For my part I don’t see why common sense must act as a constraint upon philosophical theory or why departure from common sense is seen as an indication of philosophical error.

For the philosopher Bertrand Russell, philosophy ‘suggests many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and frees them from the tyranny of custom’, and ‘while diminishing our feelings of certainty as to what things are’ it ‘increases our knowledge as to what they may be’, and keeps alive ‘our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect’. Too often common sense is simply custom writ large and a way of dulling our sense of how things could be otherwise. So, at the risk of entangling myself in a paradox, it seems like common sense to treat common sense sceptically.

Nigel Collins is a member of the Newcastle Philosophy Society and a tutor for the U3A. His main philosophical interest is in existentialism.

Nigel and I agree that common sense is sometimes wrong. Nigel draws the lesson that ‘even if we accept that philosophy may begin with common sense, the first thing the philosopher must do is question it’. Does that mean questioning all of common sense or only part of it? If one begins with common sense and then immediately questions all of it, one has nothing left to continue with. All one’s beliefs, knowledge, and ways of thinking are in question, and not to be relied on. But if one first questions only part of common sense, how does one decide which part not to question? At that initial stage, one has only common sense to tell one which part most deserves to be doubted—will Nigel be happy to rely on common sense for that guidance?

Think of it this way: if you must always test something before you use it, then before you test a belief you must test the test, and before you test the test you must test the test of the test, and so on in an infinite regress.

Imagine a scientist thinking that since sense perceptions are sometimes wrong, the first thing to do is to question them. A similar issue arises: does that mean questioning all sense perceptions or only some of them? If one questions all of them, what basis is left for science to get started? If one questions only some of them, how does one decide which not to question? Descartes’ approach was to suspend belief in whatever he could get himself to doubt, and then rebuild his beliefs on the remaining indubitable basis. But he cheated, by relying on a fallacious ‘proof’ of the existence of a god and then using the god to underpin the rest of his knowledge. Indubitability and certainty are unreasonable standards. If you exclude whatever fails to meet them, you are left with too little to do anything with. It is a kind of intellectual self-harm.

Science has a better strategy for dealing with the possibility of error. Rather than setting itself the hopeless task of ensuring that errors never arise, it accepts that they will sometimes arise, and concentrates on identifying and eliminating them once they have occurred. We can and should become more reliable; we cannot and need not become perfectly reliable. To make progress, we should not doubt whatever we can. Instead, we should concentrate our doubts on what we have serious, specific reasons to doubt. In the famous metaphor of the Austrian philosopher Otto Neurath, we must repair our ship while at sea in her.

The same lesson applies to common sense. Even if we were psychologically capable of suspending all our reliance on it, which we are not, doing so would be a kind of intellectual self-harm. Instead, we should concentrate our doubts on those parts of common sense which we have serious, specific reasons to doubt. Those reasons may come from other parts of common sense. Both natural science and philosophy originate in the self-refinement of common sense.

I would like to begin by setting up a few oppositions as they have been helpful for me in thinking through this response to Timothy Williamson’s Doing Philosophy:

  1. Philosophy as a way of knowing vs. Philosophy as a way of living

  2. Dialogue vs. Debate

  3. Reason vs. Affect

  4. Academic philosophy vs. Community philosophy

Williamson is very clear that he considers philosophy to be a discipline that is in the business of knowing, and hence to be allied with the sciences. The idea of philosophy as a way of living appears to place it dangerously close to the kind of ‘lifestyle advice’, ‘pop psychology’ or general self-help approach that Williamson is keen to distinguish from proper philosophy.

In terms of the second opposition, Williamson justifies the adversarial nature of philosophy when he writes that ‘the process of two sides arguing against each other is too central to philosophy to be considered misbehaviour.’ Certainly, Williamson’s vision of philosophy as involving at least two people is an improvement upon the kind of isolated individual in a mountain hut approach that has been glorified since Descartes, but the idea that the gold standard for philosophical discussion must involve intensive criticism, with only those ideas that survive this onslaught being considered up to scratch, seems problematic to me for a number of reasons. Williamson anticipates one objection when he acknowledges that such a format can privilege confidence at the expense of insight, but this concern is explained away with reference to the reasoning power of the philosopher. Bullying, bluff and sophistry are presented as counter-productive to philosophy, while the genuine philosopher is presented as an entirely rational subject freed from these all too human impulses.

This brings me to my third opposition. There is surely an affective dimension to the philosophical process, running alongside the rational one, and this is surely the case even in the kind of academic environments where adversarial philosophy is the standard. I think the impact of this affective dimension on the quality and diversity of the ideas shared deserves more recognition than it gets. Where Williamson does acknowledge the role of affect, he considers how the more ‘unsavoury’ affects such as competitiveness, rivalry, and ambition can be ‘harnessed to play a constructive role’ in philosophy. I would like to consider another affective response stoked in the philosophical arena. When challenged in relation to our ideas, rather than this firing us up and fuelling our thinking through fantasies of crushing a rival, it may simply upset us and close us down rather than open up potential spaces for creativity. An environment is which buzz words include ‘criticism’, ‘opposition’, ‘objection’, and ‘refutation’ may not be conducive to philosophy’s purported search for wisdom.

Williamson does not discuss the role of wisdom in philosophy although he is certainly resistant to modern self-help inflected philosophies that may well claim wisdom as their goal. But the differing goals of knowledge and wisdom force us to accept an unavoidable pragmatic element in philosophy, as a philosophy in the service of science is likely to look very different to a philosophy in service to freedom or solidarity or God or political emancipation (to give but a few central goals that have driven philosophers over history).

We now come to my final opposition between academic and community philosophy. In the community philosophy organization I’m part of, we run discussion groups and talks open to the public. Sometimes we have guest speakers who know a lot about their topic, other times members of the society put a bit of time aside to learn about a philosopher or a movement or even just a single idea, and disseminate it to the group so we can have a discussion about it. Inevitably some people know more than others, and some are passionate about one aspect of philosophy and haven’t given much thought to anything else. On a practical level, sharing your ideas with people who think it is their job to find flaws in them when you’re only doing it as a hobby would likely put a whole host of people off, but there are other, more philosophical, reasons why we might look for other ways of doing philosophy in this context.

When practicing philosophy in this setting what becomes very clear, very quickly is just how diverse people’s minds are, despite sharing a capacity for reasoning. Some take time to process what they’re hearing; others are quick-talking and articulate; some are invested in the response; others simply curious; some struggle to answer questions on the spot but given a couple of minutes can come up with a really elegant response. We are not fighting to be considered right but are trying to think together so as to work out how best to think about the issue at hand.

What this rests upon is an implicit acknowledgment of the situatedness of knowledge – there is no God’s eye view to many of the questions that we ask. And this is especially true for many of the questions that draw people to philosophy in the first place, e.g. those related to how to live well, how to be a good person etc. When we are trying to make ideas work for us and integrate them into our lives, we needn’t attach ourselves to them so tightly that even on being presented with better evidence we feel the need to cling to and defend them. Furthermore, having recognized that our knowledge is contingent and situated, and thereby having adopted a humble position as a basic philosophical attitude, we are free to, without shame, change our minds. Pride is a very powerful human drive, and I don’t doubt that in the course of many an adversarial exchange, academic philosophers have been too embarrassed to say, ‘I hadn’t thought about that, yes you’re absolutely right’, something that happens frequently in the non-adversarial domain.

Williamson clearly wishes to clarify the optimal conditions for intellectual exchange to flourish. But this has to depend upon the philosopher’s goal, and we do not need to fully accept Nietzsche’s idea that philosophies are simply the personal confession/involuntary memoir of its author in order to acknowledge a pluralism in philosophy, even if not a chronic one. Rigour may be typically demonstrated through successful bouts of adversarial debate, but there are other goals and other ways. And these are likely to be just as welcome in academic philosophy as in community philosophy.

Amanda McBride is on the Board of the Newcastle Philosophy Society. Her favourite philosopher is William James and she considers herself a pragmatist in his tradition.

Amanda rightly contrasts the needs of academic philosophy with those of community philosophy, where people are ‘only doing it as a hobby’. Still, people with a hobby usually want to do it as well as they can. Her description incidentally shows much common ground between the two practices. Community philosophers ‘are trying to think together so as to work out how best to think about the issue at hand’; so too in the long run are members of the community of academic philosophers. Her community philosophers frequently say ‘I hadn’t thought about that, yes you’re absolutely right’ in response to objections, so objections are frequent in community philosophy as well as the academic version. People are often drawn into community philosophy by questions about ‘how to live well, how to be a good person’ and so on. To ask such questions for the sake of it, with no interest in applying the answers to one’s own life, would be academic in the negative sense. But if, like many community philosophers, one does hope to apply the answers in living one’s life, they had better not be wrong answers, for applying those could wreck one’s life, or the lives of others. Although there are many different ways of living well and being a good person, there are also many different ways of living badly and being a bad person. Criticizing bad answers to such philosophical questions can make a practical difference, not just a theoretical one.

Amanda contrasts knowledge, as the goal of academic philosophy, with wisdom, as the goal of community philosophy. The two are not very far apart. The people to ask for advice are the wise (if you know who they are), because they are more likely to know what to do.

Harshness and aggression are no more productive in academic philosophy than in community philosophy. But they are easily confused with clarity. The clearer a criticism, the more it helps one to learn from it, even though the process of remaking one’s comfort zone is often painful—for philosophers of all kinds.

As Amanda hints, the ideal of ‘the genuine philosopher . . . as an entirely rational subject freed from . . . all too human impulses’ is sheer fantasy. It has never tempted me. Many of our feelings, far from obstructing rationality, are its human form. Even in the most abstract studies, elegant hypotheses give pleasure, arguments dragging us down into a mire provoke disgust. A key motivation is curiosity, the appetite for knowledge, which we share with many non-human animals.

Teachers at schools and universities would agree with Amanda that an unsupportive atmosphere often blocks learning, and that what helps one person can hinder another. There is no easy solution. Low self-confidence makes you give up in despair before you have properly tried to understand something new; high self-confidence makes you think you know it all already. A useful starting-point may be that while asking philosophical questions is easy, giving them good answers is incredibly hard for all of us, in both academic and non-academic communities.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett has said that thought experiments have provided the most memorable passages in the history of philosophy. Not formal proofs. Only very few people can recall the premises and conclusion of some important logical syllogism. But many, many more will have heard of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave or the innocent bystander on the tracks near a runaway trolley or maybe even the child called Mary who was locked away in her black and white room while she learned “everything there is to know about the colour red.”

Why do we remember these? Because they are art. They are stories that evoke strong emotional responses. They have memorable characters who are tied up in some conflict. And we’re not sure how, or even if, they’ll be able to get out of it. But if they are art, why do we get to use them in philosophy? Why do they count for arguments of reason too? How come, as Timothy Williamson asks in Doing Philosophy, “philosophers get away with just sitting in their armchairs and imagining it all?”

The reason is that our imagination is an incredible tool that has been honed to a fine edge over billions of years of evolution. Evolution is usually characterised as a series of trials and errors, but ones that are done blindly by Mother Nature. And until very recently, that’s how all life on Earth adapted and survived. But now that we know about this, we humans can conduct those trials and errors with a bit of wise foresight and consciousness. Scientists carefully plan their trials and errors all the time, but there are some places where it’s impossible for scientists to go. As Williamson says:

“Imagination is especially useful when trial and error is too risky. … Imagining is [also] our most basic way of learning about hypothetical possibilities. … Only the dumbest animals would not think about [these]. … Thought experimentation is just a slightly more elaborate, careful, and reflective version of