April 27, 2017 | How (And When) To Think Like A Philosopher

As an undergraduate, I majored in philosophy – a purportedly useless major, except that it teaches you how to think, write and speak.

The skills I was learning from working through papers and arguments extended well beyond the coursework itself, yielding habitual patterns of reasoning that made me a more discerning scientist, a more careful writer and a better thinker all around. Within and beyond philosophy, I was learning to spot poor arguments, uncover hidden assumptions, tease out subtle implications and recognize false dichotomies. (It was around this time that my then boyfriend, now husband, jokingly gifted me a modified light box with a button that I could press to light up the damning message: “Distinction blurred!”)

Of course, good thinking isn’t the sole province of philosophy. Training in any discipline or area of expertise teaches you habits of mind that – hopefully – lead to better performance in that domain. But philosophy is unusual in its explicit focus on the structure of arguments across a broad range of topics, from the meaning of words to the nature of knowledge, from ethics to animal minds. It makes sense, then, that training in philosophy might be unusual in its potential to yield general-purpose tools for better thinking.

So what do these tools for better thinking look like?

In a new article published in Aeon, philosopher Alan Hajek presents a “philosophy tool kit,” sharing some common philosophical moves that apply both within and beyond academic philosophy. What Hajek offers isn’t logic or probability theory (though that’s useful, too), but rather common heuristics or “rules of thumb” that help philosophers quickly identify problematic claims or assumptions. These heuristics are intended to make difficult reasoning tasks easier for the philosophically untrained, though Hajek is clear that “there are no shortcuts to profundity” – the tools are a starter set, not a complete kit nor blueprints for the construction of worthwhile arguments.