What exactly does a philosopher do?
Yes, they do philosophy, but that’s hardly an answer. Another option is that a philosopher is someone who writes and teaches philosophy. It’s a little better, but the real fundamental aspect of the answer is still missing.
No matter how much time we spend on this question, the answer will elude us. This is because there is no objective idea of ââphilosophy itself. And without a clear answer as to what philosophy is, there is no way to know what a philosopher does.
Unlike the “scientific method”, which explicitly defines what a scientist does, there is no “philosophical method” defined in every student’s curriculum. Unfortunately, philosophy is absent from most school curricula. But, I digress.
Just because there is no objective answer does not mean that there is no answer at all. On the contrary, whatever the number of philosophers, there are as many answers to the question of what a philosopher does. A slight hyperbole, but it should be noted that the idea of ââphilosophy is very subjective.
Whatever the answer, there are certain philosophical tools that every philosopher has in their toolbox. And while identifying these tools might not be a straightforward answer to our original question, it could be as close to an objective answer as we get.
To understand what I mean, think of a mathematician. Equations are perhaps the most practical tool available to a mathematician. Are equations the end for a mathematician or the means to some other end, be it a theorem or some sort of solution? It’s an open question, but equations are undeniably a fundamental part of what a mathematician does.
This is what distinctions are for philosophers. They are like equations for mathematicians. Even though making a distinction is not the end product that a philosopher hopes for, the majority of all philosophical dialogue essentially involves them, and therefore is inseparable from what the act of philosophizing is.
For example, what is the distinction between body and mind? Is one physical and the other not? Is there even a distinction or is the mind just high powered neurons that activate to create consciousness? It is a distinction that has occupied philosophers for millennia.
There are many other similar confusing distinctions that are discussed in philosophy seminars across the world. As stimulating as they may be, the physical or otherwise of the mind is hardly a relevant distinction for most leaders today. However, there are two basic philosophical distinctions that should be extended beyond the classroom, just as basic mathematical equations are used by far more than mathematicians.
Necessary vs sufficient
The first distinction that should be in every leader’s toolkit is the difference between a necessary condition and a sufficient condition.
Let’s look at an example. If you are a hiring manager, you will most likely have a set of quality criteria that you are looking for in a candidate. This may be at least 3 years of experience, mastery of the technology used and a graduate degree. If all 3 qualities are required for the job, it means that each respective quality is a necessary but not one sufficient state.
Because a candidate must have each quality, they are all necessary. However, no single take will be enough to get the person hired, so none is enough. If a recruiter brings in a candidate with great experience but a lack of credentials, you will be able to clearly state what they are lacking and identify what they are missing as well.
Understanding the difference between these is an important step in making the right decisions as a leader. It allows you to make choices based on logic.
Sound vs Valid
This is a crucial distinction when making any decision. The difference between sound reasoning and valid reasoning is often overlooked, but can have drastically different results.
The key to understanding the difference lies in the starting assumptions of a decision. Let’s use the previous example of hiring a new employee. If you are looking for a candidate with a business degree and assume that graduates from Ivy League schools are the most qualified, it is valid find and hire a candidate with an ivy league degree.
But is this ring? For the decision to be sound, not only must it make sense based on the assumptions, but the assumptions must be true. So, are those with Ivy League degrees still the most qualified? Clearly, certainly not.
To make the best decisions as a leader, it is important to analyze your assumptions. One of the best ways to do this is to understand and use the distinction between a valid and a healthy decision.
With this and the distinction between a necessary and sufficient condition, we see one of the many universal uses that philosophy can have.