In this article, I would like to explore what is a philosophical argument and what it is made of. It is worth clarifying that by ‘argument’ I do not mean an angry exchange of accusations or any other type of emotionally heated conflict. So, for starters, we should be clear about what philosophical argument is not.
Now that that’s off the table, let’s proceed. The idea to write on this topic came to me during the last couple of days as I continue with my studies of philosophy. Interestingly, the question about what can be considered a philosophical argument did not appear at the very beginning of the course. Rather, it is outlined roughly two months into the study process as part of the bigger context of the philosophy of religion (an immense field of study in itself). Yet, the question about what is a philosophical argument certainly applies to all areas of philosophy. Moreover, I would say that exploring this question and applying the learnings can be very useful beyond philosophy, in our daily lives, especially when confronted by the variety of claims that we tend to come in contact with almost wherever we direct our attention (e.g. social media, the news, gossip at work/school, formal communications at work/school, chatting with friends, family, being told what’s the reality like by the experts/ authorities and so on). So, my choice to write about what is a philosophical argument is motivated partly by the wish to cement the knowledge I have gained so far and partly by the wish to share with others something, in my opinion, very useful. Here we go.
In philosophy, an argument can be described as a set of reasoned claims or a reasoned claim. Reasoned in the sense that you are expected to give reasons why you claim something so as to support your claim. So, put simply – explain why you think that (whatever ‘that’ is). Therefore, statements like “because I like/want it to be like that” will not qualify as a reasoned claim (this doesn’t mean they don’t have their value, they are simply of another kind). So far so good, I assume many can, for now, agree with this description. Now comes the crux, though. We have established that our claims need supporting reasons. This support for your reasons is expected to come from some sort of evidence. Evidence, however, is defined (and accepted) very differently depending on the area of concern. There are broad and narrow understandings of what can be accepted as evidence supporting an argument. Majority of modern sciences (especially natural), for example, are usually based on empirical evidence that is associated with the notion of accepting only that which can be observed through experience (as opposed to, say, something to which one can arrive by the process of thinking, contemplation, reasoning). Then there are such practices as meditation and the insight of intuition. All of these may or may not be seen as good enough evidence to support your reasons for making a certain claim. What will be considered as good enough evidence depends largely on the basic underlying assumptions that serve as the foundation of the respective world-view (one of the areas that philosophy studies, by the way). This is a whole separate topic that I will hopefully be able to explore in time. For now, I will just share my personal opinion (and so, probably, part of my world-view): the more open-minded I am, the broader is the spectrum of the evidence I can consider as good enough or, at least, worth a closer look, the more I am able to learn and develop myself. Alright, back to the main topic of this article – the philosophical argument.
To summarize, a philosophical argument can be described as a reasoned claim supported by evidence. Therefore, in contrast to having an emotionally heated conflict or making ungrounded (and often-times loud) statements, to have a philosophical discussion is to have an exchange of reasoned claims (on philosophical questions*) that are supported by some sort of evidence. Although in philosophy the discussions are indeed mostly about the so-called big questions, this method of exchange is certainly useful in other areas of our lives. Why? Because it allows you to learn to present your own argument in a sound and convincing way, as well as to assess the validity** and soundness** of arguments made by others. And this, in turn, makes you a much more independent thinker.
*What can be considered a ‘philosophical question’ is a topic for another article that I hope to write soon. But very generally, the way I see it – usually these are the questions dealing with the nature of something (in the broadest sense) with the aim to deepen our wisdom of life.
**To keep things focused here, I will describe in more detail the meaning of validity and soundness of an argument in philosophy as well as the related method of evaluating the argument in a separate article.