What is philosophy and why every Ph.D. candidate should study it first before undertaking research?
One of the early mistakes I did in my Ph.D. journey was not investing time to understand philosophy. One might think, doesn't Ph.D. mean the Doctor of Philosophy? So how can one not understand what philosophy is all about?
Unfortunately, many early researchers (like myself) straight away jump into doing research. This includes going through the literature on the topic.
As of today (9th Dec 2021), I am in my second year of Ph.D., and only recently have I invested time to understand the length and breadth of philosophy. This post is targeted at early researchers who are either doing their Ph.D. or master's dissertation.
Purpose of philosophy
Early researchers are often confused about the purpose of philosophy. Philosophy is an interesting topic that can help you a lot in your research journey, but it's also easy to misunderstand and get lost with all the different schools of thought.
This post will give you a broad overview of what philosophy is, its history, how it relates to science, and why it's important for early researchers. I have also included some resources at the end of this post that will help you dig deeper into each topic if interested. Let us start by defining what philosophy actually means…
What the hell is Philosophy?
Philosophy is the love of wisdom that seeks understanding about the universe and our place in it through critical thinking, logical reasoning, and argumentative discourse.
Did it make sense? I am sure, it didn't.
Let me try again.
Philosophy is the study of fundamental questions about existence, knowledge, values, reason, and language.
Studying philosophy has many benefits for Ph.D. candidates including helping us to develop skills needed to complete research tasks such as critical thinking and understanding complex concepts without oversimplifying their meaning.
I hope this made little sense
Let me make a final attempt. For this, I will bring up a context that will make it easy for you.
Here it is.....
Do you recall the time in your life when you gazed up at the stars for the first time? What sparked your interest in space? Have you ever wondered why people can't fly? Why do different species exist? I'm able to think, so why not others as well? Have you ever been perplexed by the question, "why am I here?" or that “the world exists at all”?
At its most basic level, philosophy is derived from the Greek word "Philos" (love) and "Sophia" (wisdom). It is translated as "Love of Wisdom" or "Search for truth" or "thinking about thinking." Although other alternative definitions provide a better illustration of its breadth.
In other words, philosophy is a way of thinking about the world, the universe, and society. It works by asking very basic questions about the nature of human thoughts, the nature of the universe, and the connection between them.
Point to remember: Philosophy is understood differently by different people.
Now, that the meaning of Philosophy is clear (hopefully), let's try to understand what can philosophy do?
It cannot provide us with lots of money or food (I wish).
I used to think that philosophers were nothing more than a bunch of "lazybones" people. They spend their time pondering pointless subjects and squander human resources.
But learning philosophy changed my perception. I hope it changes for you too (fingers crossed).
In my second year, I've learned that research philosophy is the basis of any study because it sets forth the beliefs on which the inquiry is based.
Philosophical heroes (I call them "The Thinkers")
Did you know that there were several false beliefs in early human history? In Nordic tales, for example, people thought that it was Thor who generated thunder and lightning, which brought fertility. The ancient Greeks, like the Romans, wrote poetry and produced various myths, including those of Zeus, Apollo, Athena, and Dionysus. People began to change from a mythical mode of thinking to one based on experience and reason after that. The goal of the early Greek thinkers was to discover natural causes for changes in nature, rather than supernatural ones. These individuals are referred to as "natural philosophers."
Some philosophical thoughts by early philosophers
Parmenides (our first thinker) thought that everything in existence was unchanging and that there was no literal transformation. Nothing can change into anything else. Only "one-ness" is real.
Now that's a deep thought, isn't it?
Heraclitus (second thinker) argued against this concept. He suggested that “everything flows,” in opposition to the view of Parmenides. He also made the point that everything in the world is defined by polarities. We would not enjoy being full if we had never been hungry; peace would not be valued if there was no warfare, and spring would not be experienced if winter did not exist. As a result, both positive and negative qualities, as well as benevolent and malevolent ones, are required. The world would not exist without the continual interplay of opposing forces.
Following the natural philosophers, Socrates (third thinker) introduced philosophy's history. He was a secretive person who kept to himself and was known for his silence. Socrates was one of the most important individuals in European philosophy, but he never wrote anything down himself. All that we know about Socrates thus far is based on Plato's (fourth thinker) teachings.
Btw Plato was Socrates's student.
According to Socrates, the duty of a philosopher was to recognize how little they knew and thus persevere in their search for truth. He once said, “One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing.” As a result, philosophers are people who realize that they know nothing and are disturbed by this. Socrates considered himself to be a "philosopher," which in Greek means "one who loves wisdom."
Soon after, Socrates was charged with corrupting the youth and not believing in the gods of Athens. He was convicted by a jury of 500 individuals, only by a narrow margin. In fact, he could have survived if he had requested a pardon or left Athens sooner, but he instead chose to go to his death with honor.
Basically, the people of Athens wanted Socrates to......
Image Source: www.tenor.com
Many academics believe that it is more accurate to regard Socrates as a philosophy himself rather than a philosopher. He's more like the physical manifestation of philosophy: in the history of philosophy, all philosophers have regarded philosophy's wisdom and knowledge as a tool; but for Socrates, it was a conversation.
The death of Socrates changed philosophy from a merely academic subject to one that was more relevant and significant. After him, philosophy became a genuine calling.
(Thank you, Socrates)
Now, let's come to our fourth thinker, Plato.
When his teacher Socrates died by drinking hemlock, Plato was only 29 years old. He was totally taken aback when Athens sentenced its greatest intellectual to death. This event had a lasting impact on his later philosophical career. The death of Socrates, according to Plato, proved that there was a contradiction between the real world and the ideal one. As a philosopher, Plato's first action was to publish Socrates' entreaty for acquittal in the form of Apology of Socrates.
Aside from the Apology, Plato is responsible for the existence of all of Socrates' and Plato's writings. Basically, he is the guy who you quote a lot on Instagram without giving him his due credit.
Not only Plato's thoughts were linked to his teacher as well as his student, Aristotle (fifth thinker). Throughout the last two millennia, Plato's ideas have been repeatedly discussed and criticized by others. It was Aristotle who began this practice. Aristotle admired Plato a great deal. “Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is truth,” he added. Lastly, according to Aristotle, nature was a reflection of the real world.
Btw, Aristotle was the teacher of Alexander the Great. His work spanned a broad range of themes, including physics, metaphysics, biology, poetry, music, logic, ethics, politics, and economics.
This brings us to the end of our Philosophical celebs. Now, let's understand the branches of philosophy.
3 major branches of philosophy:
Episteme (knowledge) + Logy (science) = science of knowledge
It is the argument - why this and not that.
Epistemology is concerned with “how” we may gain knowledge and come to understand things - in other words, how can we figure out what reality is and what the limits of this knowledge are.
So, how do we know "knowledge?"
The sources of knowledge are:
a) Revealed knowledge
This information is taken as fact because it has been revealed (via divine books). Even the revealed knowledge is now being researched within the context of scientific knowledge.
b) Scientific knowledge
The knowledge has been acquired through systematic study and organized into general concepts. For example, “mathematics is the foundation for much scientific knowledge.
c) Intuitive knowledge
Subjective judgment or gut feeling is informed by little or no prior specific learning.
d) Man-made knowledge
Experiences are at the core of man-made knowledge.
Always remember that any examination of the link between theory and practice necessitates an epistemological standpoint.
Meta (beyond) + Physics (nature) = beyond the nature
Discussion about reality.
What is the reality of this universe?
What is the reality of human beings?
What is the reality of everything that exists or does not exist?
What is truth?
What is beyond nature?
Branches of meta-physics are:
Cosmogony: the study of the universe, solar system, how the world came into existence, etc.
Cosmology: the study of the universe, space, time, etc.
Ontology: this is explained below in detail.
Teleology: also known as teleological reasoning or finality, is a rationale for something based on its end, aim, or goal rather than its cause.
Eschatology: the study of or doctrine about the end of history or the last things. For example, the judgment day.
Axio (value) + Logy (science) = science of value
What are values?
What is good?
What is bad?
What is acceptable?
What should be rejected?
Basically, discussion of values within a society.
Branches of axiology are:
Ethics: refers to the moral code of an individual, group, or society. It is determined by sentiments and decided by society. It varies depending on location, time, and circumstance.
Aesthetic: in philosophy, aesthetics is based on an individual's perspective. For instance, what I find beautiful, you may find ugly.
Now, that we have understood branches of philosophy, next we will learn about paradigms.
Before we dive into the research paradigm, let's take a moment to understand the paradigm.
What is a paradigm?
Greek word meaning 'pattern'
A paradigm is a shared worldview that represents the beliefs and values in a discipline that guides how a problem is solved (Schwant, 2001). In other words, a world view or general perspectives (looking through the lens. Basically, how the researcher views the world).
Point to remember: Our beliefs, knowledge, and reality are termed paradigms by social scientists.
The phrase "shared view" refers to truth, reality, and knowledge. When we think about these things, our minds go to the discipline called philosophy.
Remember, a paradigm has its roots in Philosophy.
Point to remember: a paradigm has its roots in Philosophy.
Let's understand the paradigm with an example.
Let's assume you are in a new country and exploring places. You want to go to a certain location. There are three or more routes to reach the destination.
Now, it depends on you to decide on a route based on your knowledge, belief, and reality.
The important thing is your views on each of the routes. This is the paradigm.
Now, that we have learned about the paradigm, let's understand about research paradigm.
Whenever we think of doing research, we get a few thoughts such as:
'How do we plan to do this research?'
'What will be my approach of investigation?'
'Will I do Qualitative or Quantitative or mixed?'
To come out of this situation, the researcher takes the help of the "Research Paradigm."
The research paradigm is guided by our philosophical assumptions. The philosophical assumptions are nothing but branches of philosophy (we have covered at the top)
Point to remember: Every paradigm has its own ontology, epistemology, and axiology.
Okay, so what is Ontology?
So far we've learned that the study philosophy is at the heart of any research since it sets forth the set of beliefs on which the research is based. Research philosophy can be described from either an ontological, epistemological or axiological point of view.
When I explain Ontology to someone
The study of concepts such as existence, being, coming into being, and reality is known as Ontology in Philosophy. It addresses issues such as how things are grouped into fundamental categories and which of these things exist at the most basic level.
It means to be.
Study of reality.
Ontology is sometimes referred to as the science of being and belongs to the major branch of Philosophy known as metaphysics (beyond physics).
Point to remember: In simple terms, an ontology is the "what" and "how" of what we understand.
For example, does reality exist as a single objective thing, or is it different for each person? Think about the simulated reality in the film The Matrix.
We have reached the point where we can now understand how researchers decide (or should decide) their methodology in a research study.
For deciding your methodology, follow the constituents of the paradigm below.
Constituents of research paradigm
First, comes ontology.
Second, ontology will decide epistemology.
Third, epistemology will decide axiology.
Fourth, all three will meet and decide the research methodology i.e (positivism/interpretivism).
Your research methodology will guide the research design (experimental, cause-effect, survey, grounded theory, ethnography, etc)
Lastly, the research design will guide the research instrument.
Point to remember: When all the 'ology' is of the same nature, they lead to a certain research methodology. For example, positivism or interpretivism, or pragmatism.
Philosophy can be a confusing subject (as it was for me), but it's important to understand the basics. The three main branches of philosophy are Epistemology (the study of knowledge), Meta-physics (study on existence and reality), and Axiology (the study of values) all have an impact on how to go about crafting your research question or study whether it be qualitative or quantitative in nature. If you are researching for a paper or dissertation, the three branches of philosophy will help guide your methodology and design.
The difference between these fields is vast but understanding them can make the process easier when designing your own research study. Subscribe to the ScroogeMarketer blog today if interested in learning more about research.