We Mean By "Applied Philosophy"?
by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.
Classical realists generally define the academic
discipline of philosophy as the study of all
reality in its ultimate causes and principles
through the use of human reason alone. We also
differentiate various branches of philosophy, such
as metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, logic,
ethics, and so forth. We also point out that each
branch of philosophy has its own specific object of
study: ontology, the study of "being";
epistemology, the study of the verification of
knowledge; logic, the methods used in right or
correct reasoning; and ethics, the study of right
conduct or the means to achieve happiness.
Many philosophers have also distinguished two
general categories within philosophy itself:
"Speculative" or descriptive philosophy and
"normative" or prescriptive philosophy. The former
category includes such studies as metaphysics and
epistemology, while the latter includes ethics and
axiology (the study of value). To these two general
categories, I and others have added a third general
category called "applied" philosophy. What do we
The term "applied" simply means "to put into
practice" or "to be used practically." From this
use of the term "applied," we can formulate a
general definition of applied philosophy: it is the
application of those principles and concepts
derived from and based on philosophy to a study of
our practical affairs and activities. Notice that
these principles and concepts are used to "study"
our practical affairs. The reason why this is
important is because applied knowledge is
third-order philosophical knowledge and does not
necessarily lead to a completed "truth" applicable
to all times and places. Let me explain.
First-order philosophical knowledge is primarily
metaphysical in nature. That is, the principles and
concepts set forth in metaphysics (including
ontology, rational psychology, and philosophy of
inanimate being or cosmology) constitute the
foundation for further philosophical thought in
both the normative and applied areas. Epistemology,
once generally a part of metaphysics, has now
developed into a discipline itself, primarily
because the rise of philosophical skepticism has
increased during the past four hundred years.
Logic, of course, is primarily a methodological
science but it is first-order knowledge in the
sense of being "basic" to all further thought. I
refer to first-order knowledge as "descriptive"
because that is, in my view, exactly what
metaphysics and epistemology do: they "describe"
reality or the "real" state of things.
Second-order philosophical knowledge includes
axiology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics,
disciplines which tend to be "normative" in nature.
Our principles and concepts in these disciplines,
in my view, tend to be less exacting with a less
degree of certitude, although the principles and
concepts utilized in second-order are based on
knowledge derived from descriptive philosophy. In
order to develop principles and concepts in ethics,
for instance, it is important to have knowledge
from rational psychology, that is, what is
sometimes called the philosophy of man or the
philosophy of animate nature. One cannot, it seems
to me, arrive at the "good" for man or develop a
system of correct ethical principles or a code of
rational human conduct without basing such on some
understanding of human nature in philosophical
terms. What is "good" for man implies some
understanding of what man is.
Third-order philosophical knowledge is, in my
conception, where applied philosophy enters the
picture. Given what we know from our study of
descriptive and normative philosophy, what
practical applications can we make to human affairs
or to the human condition? We can then develop
disciplines such as philosophy of education,
philosophy of law, philosophy of religion,
philosophy of science, and so forth. There is
currently a great deal of interest in a study
called philosophy of sports. Virtually any area of
life can come under philosophical scrutiny.
The main (and most frustrating!) problem with
third-order philosophical knowledge or "applied"
philosophy relates to its inability to provide
anything approaching absolute certainty in its
conclusions. We must, it seems, be satisfied with
some degree of certitude, but never absolute
certitude. So, we talk about "a high degree of
probability," "a preponderance of evidence," or
"beyond a reasonable doubt," or some such degree of
certitude. This causes problems for many people
because they want to know "the best form of
education," or "the best way to organize a judicial
system," or "the true religion," and philosophy
itself can never provide the definitive answer
which is "true" at all times in all places.
Frustrating as this might be to many, there are
some things that applied philosophy can do that are
vitally important. For instance, while applied
philosophy may not be able to prove which from of
government is the best, it can shed a definitive
and important light on what forms of government are
better and which forms are worse. I think it can be
clearly shown that a democratic form of government
is better than a non-democratic form. Why? Because
a democratic form of government is based on an
understanding of human nature which is closer to
the truth (as determined in the metaphysics of man)
and includes (one hopes) a moral philosophy which
provides a framework and support for the actual
practice of democratic government.
Applied philosophy, however, is never tightly
woven. There are many practical issues which we
will always be debating. I think of capital
punishment, for example. Should the death penalty
be part of any society's criminal justice system?
There is wide disagreement. It is a practical issue
and an important one. We must refer back to
second-order knowledge in ethics and politics and
from there to first-order knowledge about the
philosophy of man or rational psychology. How do we
decide the issue? It isn't easy. I am opposed to
the death penalty and I use second-order principles
to bolster my argument. Unfortunately, these
principles cannot be shown to be necessarily true
in all cases. I don't have real certainty. I think
I have truth beyond a reasonable doubt, but my
opponents dispute this, citing other principles
which may also be reasonable. The debate continues
and reasonable people may reasonably disagree.
These three levels of knowledge give rise to
three levels of problems or questions in a
philosophical sense. Virtually all classical
realists agree on the principles and concepts
involved in first-order knowledge. With a few minor
technical points still under debate, classical
realists are in unison when it comes to the truths
of metaphysics. The "first-order questions" have
been, for all practical purposes, settled.
Classical realists do not generally sit around and
debate the big questions of metaphysics. They may
discuss them in order to refine them or develop new
arguments for them but, for the most part, the
matter is concluded.
This is less true of "second-order questions,"
although second-order philosophical knowledge is
settled to a large degree among classical realists.
There is some debate about second-order principles
and concepts but the debate is not rampant and
mostly concerns minor points and interpretations.
The same principles of ethics, for instance, are
generally accepted by most classical realists, as
are the principles of politics and aesthetics. This
is, of course, reasonable since these principles
are based on principles of metaphysics already
accepted. Any arguments here among classical
realists are mostly about interpretations and
"Third-order questions," which are the problems
generated within applied philosophy, raise
virtually all the debates among classical realists.
While most first- and second-order questions are
settled, the matter of "applying" the principles
from descriptive and normative philosophy to the
practical affairs of mankind is the major task of
the classical realist now and in the future.
Furthermore, probably the best we can do to "prove"
the correctness of any answer or solution to a
third-order problem is to use the "reasonable"
argument method. This means we will have to
accumulate enough "evidence" for our conclusion and
then present an argument based on this evidence
that is consistent and persuasive. This, of course,
does not give us absolute certitude, but it may get
us as close as we can humanly get in our practical
affairs and activities.
By the way, many years ago as part of my
graduate program in philosophy, I took courses in
philosophy of literature, philosophy of education,
and philosophy of religion. In all of these courses
we applied principles and concepts from metaphysics
and ethics to the specific subject under study. As
a matter of public disclosure, I must say that the
individual members of the class did not arrive at a
consensus about what was "best" or "true" in any of
these courses in applied philosophy. The debate
continues, as it always will.
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