Formatting a Philosophical Question

C D Johnson. Holds degrees in analytic philosophy, computer science, and comparative religion from Old Dominion University and Virginia Theological Seminary.

What is a philosophical question? — This would be a “general question.”

Believe it or not, there is such a thing as a philosophical question, and it is not the same thing as a general question. A general question, the ones we are mostly used to, when reduced to their most basic form are usually in the following format:

W [is/are] X? — Also called the “What is X?” question, where W is the Interrogative or “question word” like Who, What, Where, When, Why, How — followed by the verbs like “is” or “are”, and concluded with a proposition X.

Examples:

  • What is Reality?
  • Who is Descartes?
  • Why do we suffer?

But these are not philosophical questions.

A philosophical question, in modern academia, is typically a four-part question. But there are various styles to this question according to who has taught you philosophy. The most watered down style, which can be seen to have a two-part structure, is describes as:

  1. In the first line, formulate a single focused question about the proposition or subject.
  2. Motivate this question on the basis of an analysis of the subject and its premises, adding support to the background of the question.

However, this two-part method is rather rudimentary, and the kind of format a first year philosophy student would be expected to use. The actual philosopher or philosophizer will require a bit more. The philosophical question in its more popular form consists of four elements:

  1. Proposition
  2. Reasoning (Premises)
  3. Analysis
  4. Inquiry (Actual Question)

If the form seems familiar, it’s taken from the form of a logical argument. However, there is a difference. Where in a logical argument, the final element is a Conclusion, in the philosophical question, it is an Inquiry, excluding the conclusion. The purpose being to present a question, not provide an answer.

You may also recognize the format as something else related to logic: The Syllogism. But this form is probably not the three-part syllogism (via Aristotelian Term Logic) that you are familiar with [Involving: Major Premise / Minor Premise / Conclusion]. This is a slightly older syllogism. Older by about 250 years at least.

The syllogism, in five-parts, first appears in the Indian Nyaya logic school in the 6th century, where its usage is adopted by other philosophical schools at later dates. How it managed to make its way to Europe is unknown, but it ends up being found in use in Greece during the Socratic era. In fact, many people are familiar with this five-part form which is referred to as the “method of Elenchus,” called “maieutics” [obstetrics] by Plato, and most commonly known today as the “Socratic Method” for its popular use by the teacher and philosopher, Socrates.

In its first five-part form, we have the following format:

  1. Proposition or Thesis
  2. Reasoning or Premises
  3. Analysis or Demonstration
  4. Inquiry (or in this case, an application of the analysis to the proposition)
  5. Conclusion

Even the first steps in the scientific method were modeled after it:

  1. Formulation of a question
  2. Reasoned hypothesis
  3. Predictions of outcomes
  4. Testing
  5. Analysis and interpretation of data

You may also recognized the reduced “formal logic” form:

  1. Proposition
  2. Premises
  3. Conclusion

Here is an example from the Nyaya schools method:

  1. Pratijna (Proposition or Thesis) — Tom is a cat.
  2. Hetu (Reasoning) — Because Tom has all the distinguishing characteristics of a feline.
  3. Udaharana (Analysis) — Things that have the characteristics of a feline are defined as cats, whereas as things that do not have the characteristics of a feline are not defined as cats.
  4. Upanaya (Application) — The probability is high that Tom is a cat based on the rules of analysis.
  5. Nigamana (Conclusion) — Therefore, Tom is a cat.

And here we can compare Socrates’ method:

  1. Proposition — Socrates’ interlocutor asserts a thesis, for example “Courage is endurance of the soul.”
  2. Reasoning — Socrates decides whether the thesis is false and targets for refutation.
  3. Analysis — Socrates secures his interlocutor’s agreement to further premises, for example “Courage is a fine thing” and “Ignorant endurance is not a fine thing”.
  4. Application — Socrates then argues, and the interlocutor agrees, these further premises imply the contrary of the original thesis; in this case, it leads to: “courage is not endurance of the soul”.
  5. Conclusion — Socrates then claims he has shown his interlocutor’s thesis is false and its negation is true.

It should be noted that while Socrates mostly applied this method along the lines of the dialectic — thesis-antithesis-synthesis — this method can also be used to argue for the thesis as much as the anti-thesis or synthesis.

The important thing to note here is that in the case of Nyaya and the Socratic methods, both are engaging in logical argumentation, but the philosophizer is not required to do so in order to just ask a philosophical question (even though in many cases, it would be much appreciated). I should also note that when writing longer forms, like essays or papers, philosophers tend to forgo the more formal expression of a question and simply present their question as a much more detailed “treatment” or “dissertation” where they work out their ideas about a particular subject in greater context. Like this post you are reading now, if you have made it this far, fighting against your ADHD. However, the philosophical question framework still applies to even the longer form.

To show the difference in a long-form paper, take for example the University of Vermont’s guidelines for writing a piece on philosophy quoted below:

1] Begin by stating what argument you are going to evaluate.

  • Clarity is highly valued in philosophical writing. Thus, writers should get right to the point rather than writing an elaborate introduction.
  • Example: “In this paper I will be evaluating Philippa Foot’s argument in ‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’ that moral judgments are only hypothetical imperatives.”

2] Provide a roadmap.

  • In this segment, you should basically give an outline of how your paper is going to unfold. Again, philosophers like to get right to the point by giving the reader a general understanding of the structure of the paper at the beginning.
  • Example: “In this paper I will first explain Foot’s argument. Next, I will highlight some problems for her position. Then I will proceed to offer a possible fix for her view.”

3] Thoroughly explain the argument in question.

  • You should spend a significant amount of time describing exactly the argument that you’re evaluating.
  • The explanation should be thorough enough that someone who has never read a philosophy paper before should be able to understand the argument without any confusion.

4] Explain the potential problems for the argument.

  • Here you should go over any potential issues with the argument that you have been evaluating.
  • You should be evaluating whether or not these possible problems weaken the philosopher’s argument.

5] Conclude by restating what you have shown in the paper.

  • After all of the arguments and objections you have considered, again state what you have tried to prove about the argument in question.

However, if you want to express yourself in the short form, four-part question which is the standard in the majority of schools teaching philosophy academically, creating a legitimate philosophical question, here is the way to do it…

I would first suggest that you understand the elements that are involved in their purest notion: [1] What you TAKE, [2] What you HAVE, [3] What you TURN (idea, belief, challenge), and [4] What you GIVE.

1] (Proposition) What you TAKE is a proposition or position (usually reflected in a fact or truth):

Justice is a means by which a society through its legal systems applies law and fair judgement to the prosecution of criminality, in order to ensure an outcome that is in best agreement with the letter, spirit, and rule of law.

2] (Reasoning) What you HAVE is your reasoning in regards to the assertions of the proposition:

Any just society would therefore uphold that in its dealings with legal process, it applies justice uniformly and fairly to all persons involved.

3] What you TURN is a challenge to the proposition in regards to the claims of its “truth”:

However, for any society in which the application of justice is halted by local politics, prejudice, bias, and media propaganda, it can be said that there are people in that society who get in the way of the uniform and fair application of justice.

4] What you GIVE is the final question, which stems directly from the other elements above:

Therefore, we must ask… If a society calls itself a just society because of its laws and due process, but does not successfully apply the law or provide a means by which it is not usurped by external elements which seem to disrupt its process, can that society truly call itself a just society without contradictions and falsehoods in regards to justice?

And when you put it all together, this is what it looks like — what we don’t see often:

Justice is a means by which a society through its legal systems applies law and fair judgement to the prosecution of criminality, in order to ensure an outcome that in best agreement with the letter, spirit, and rule of law. Any just society would therefore uphold that in its dealings with legal process, it applies justice uniformly and fairly to all persons involved. However, for any society in which the application of justice is halted by local politics, prejudice, bias, and media propaganda, it can be said that there are people in that society who get in the way of the uniform and fair application of justice. Therefore, we must ask… If a society calls itself a just society because of its laws and due process, but does not successfully apply the law or provide a means by which it is not usurped by external elements which seem to disrupt its process, can that society truly call itself a just society without contradictions and falsehoods in regards to justice?

Compare this to a general question — what we DO see often:

What is justice, and is a society a just society if that justice doesn’t work?