by Swami Krishnananda
The methods employed in philosophical reasonings and enquiries include the basic presuppositions of scientific approach in general; but over and above these methods, philosophical processes endeavour to discover ways of considering and knowing the facts implied in the phenomena of experience. Before entering into a detailed discussion of the proper methods of philosophy, we will do well to remember the principles laid down by the philosopher Descartes. In his Discourse on Method, Descartes gives an outline of the procedure he followed in philosophical enquiry: “The first of these was to accept nothing as true which I did not clearly recognise to be so; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitation and prejudice in judgments, and to accept in them nothing more than was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly that I could have no occasion to doubt it. The second was to divide up each of the difficulties which I examined into as many parts as possible, and as seemed requisite in order that it might be resolved in the best manner possible. The third was to carry on my reflections in due order, commencing with objects that were the most simple and easy to understand, in order to rise little by little, or by degrees, to knowledge of the more complex, assuming an order, even if a fictitious one, among those which do not follow a natural sequence relatively to one another. The last was in all cases to make enumerations so complete and reviews so general that I should be certain of having omitted nothing.”
The true philosophic method should not be lopsided, should not be biased to any particular or special dogma, but comprehend within itself the processes of reflection and speculation and at the same time be able to reconcile the deductive and the inductive methods of reasoning. The philosophy of the Absolute rises above particulars to greater and greater universals, basing itself on facts of observation and experience by the method of induction and gradual generalisation of truths, without missing even a single link in the chain of logic and argumentation, reflection and contemplation, until it reaches the highest generalisation of the Absolute Truth; and then by the deductive method comes down to interpret and explain the facts of experience in the light of the nature of this Truth. This is a great example of the most satisfactory method of philosophical enquiry.
Philosophy being the way of the knowledge of Truth, its method must be in agreement with the nature of Truth. In philosophy and religion the end always determines the nature of the means. What we know is not entirely different in nature from the essential constitution of the means by which we know it. The immediate objects of our experience here are the entities of the physical universe, and the means of our knowledge of them are our senses which, too, partake of physical characteristics. Hence the method that philosophy employs in its approach to Truth is much dependent upon what conception we have of philosophy and of the nature of the goal of philosophy. Our goal may be matter, mind or Spirit, and accordingly we may become either materialists, idealists or mystics. Our instrument of knowledge may be the senses, understanding, reason or intuition. And our theories of knowledge may lead us to be empiricists, rationalists, transcendentalists, absolute idealists or spiritual intuitionists. All these theories resort mainly to two processes; contemplation of what is considered to be indubitable and real, and a searching analysis and critical study of empirical experience, including all the methods and conclusions of science. The former helps us to a greater knowledge of the goal of philosophy, and the latter to a disavowal of false values and vindication of the methods and fundamental principles of philosophy. The theories of knowledge and reality generally subject the existing ones to a critical investigation as to their nature and contents and found strong systems of thought after protracted contemplation on the possible nature of reality.
Philosophy is said to have begun with wonder. The marvel of creation evokes the admiration of man, and its mysteriousness excites his wonder; and this wonder naturally leads to a serious enquiry into the nature of things, for man is not content to rest in a state of awe based on ignorance and is curious to know the truth behind the enthralling wonder of the world. He investigates, speculates, argues and discusses, and comes to a settled opinion of the nature of things in this wonderful world. This becomes his philosophy. Modern man, however, seems to have stepped into the region of philosophy through doubt and sceptical thinking. Man commenced doubting the validity of authority and dogma no less than that of accepted traditional beliefs. Descartes started with doubting everything, even the validity of thought itself. Later, Kant, too, followed the critical method of enquiry in philosophy. Bradley was of the opinion that the chief need of philosophy is “a sceptical study of first principles.” However, he adds: “By scepticism is not meant doubt about or disbelief in some tenet or tenets. I understand by it an attempt to become aware and to doubt all preconceptions.”
The technique of doubt in philosophical pursuits has however, the danger of the possibility of falling into a hopeless maze of rank scepticism, with no ground left even for the sceptic to stand on, or into agnosticism, which is a smug way of coolly forgetting the basic significations of the sceptical outlook and speciously arguing that nothing definite can be known in reality. Scepticism as a principle to be followed at the commencement of the application methods in philosophy is really praiseworthy, for, all philosophy, as above said, begins in wonder and doubt. A secret and irresistible urge to know that which presents itself as something extending beyond the scope of human knowledge and a simultaneous dissatisfaction with the surface view of things is the foundation of all enterprise in philosophy. Though philosophy may begin in doubt, it should not end in doubt; for, then, the very purpose of philosophy would be defeated. If the sceptic is left to confine himself to his position of universal doubt and disbelief, he becomes guilty of dogmatism. When he tries to free himself from dogmatism, he cuts the ground from under his own feet. This is the fate of the sceptical approach, which overreaches itself and stultifies its own purpose. Only an acute and sincere thinker like Descartes could detect this error in entertaining universal doubt and come to the wise conclusion that the existence of the doubter himself cannot be doubted. His philosophy began with doubt but ended in absolute certainty regarding the nature of reality. Scepticism as a method of philosophy has value only when it is aware of its limitations and scope, and not when it tries to assume a metaphysical status.
Agnosticism is easily the consequence of the thoroughgoing sceptical outlook, and it reaches the conclusion that the reality of things cannot be known, for almost the same reasons as those advanced by the sceptic. Knowledge of reality is impossible, inasmuch as we have no means of knowing it. It may appear that the agnostic position is in some way better than the findings of the sceptic, as the sceptic disposes of all questions by disbelief outright, due to his conviction of there being no possibility of arriving at any certainty regarding anything, while the agnostic only denies the chance of our having any knowledge of it. But the theory as a whole is, obviously, untenable. “Its essential defect is that it is based on the unconscious assumption that man is somehow an alien in the very world which gave him birth and in whose bosom he lives and moves and has his being, that he is doomed to look at the universe through the medium of forms and categories of thought, which are, so to speak, mental spectacles of foreign manufacture” (D. M. Edwards: The Philosophy of Religion p. 185). “To say that reality is such that our knowledge cannot reach it, is a claim to know reality; to urge that our knowledge is of a kind which must fail to transcend appearance, itself implies that transcendence. For, if we had no idea of a beyond, we should assuredly not know how to talk about failure or success. And the test, by which we distinguish them, must obviously be some acquaintance with the nature of the goal” (F. H. Bradley: Appearance and Reality, p. 1). Agnosticism as a method fails, because to assert that we know only appearance and cannot know any reality beyond it, we must already possess some knowledge of reality, which alone could possibly enable us to have any knowledge of the distinction between appearance and reality.
Empiricism as a method of philosophy is mainly confined to sense-experience. It urges that all knowledge obtained by the senses is of what is already existent outside themselves and that reason has its function in carefully judging the nature of the perceptive material provided to it by the senses. The laws of reason, according to empiricism, are copies of and controlled by knowledge which is a posteriori. No a priori knowledge in the sense of what rationalism contends to be present in reason is ever possible. Rational concepts are by-products of the experiential material. The source of knowledge is sense-experience and not mind or reason. The method of acquiring knowledge is inductive. Ideas are reducible to sensations. Knowledge cannot be gained by merely finding that the opposite, which is inconceivable, as rationalism holds, and truth cannot be established by the fact that to deny it implies, somehow, its reaffirmation. A priori knowledge independent of sense-experience is inconceivable. There are, therefore, no universal and necessary self-evident truths that are adumbrated by rationalism. So goes the bold empiricism.
The defect of empiricism lies in the fact that the senses are untrustworthy as means of right knowledge. Sense-percepts have being or reality only in relation to the constitutions of the respective senses, and never independently. Minus the characteristics of the senses, our empirical percepts are nothing, which is equal to saying that we know, in an objective way, only what is already contained in the very nature of the senses subjectively. This is certainly not a reliable or valid knowledge of reality. The background of the sense-percepts ever remain unknown to us, and the attitude which we develop towards the things in themselves that lie beyond the reach of the senses is naturally one of doubt. It only means that we have to become sheer sceptics with regard to the nature of reality. In the West, Locke’s empiricism naturally paved the way for Hume’s scepticism. The sceptic’s attitude has a very harmful reaction on the progress of philosophy, for, if we are to carry scepticism to its logical limits, there can never be any such thing as universal and necessary truths, and all that we know would be, at least on the suppositions of Hume, mere fragmentary and disconnected shreds of events, which would convey no meaning at all, due to lack of causal relation and necessary connection among themselves. Doubt and disbelief of every settled opinion is not only non practicable but is detrimental to the very position of the doubter himself, for, a systematic doubter who seriously pursues his method without deceiving himself has to doubt his own judgments, in order that he may avoid the charge of peremptoriness in his search for truth. This, however, he cannot do. What he really does is to doubt all other positions except his own! A dogmatic adherence to one’s own convictions where other views are possible is not the characteristic of a true philosophic method. To know that we do not know implies the acceptance of some criterion of certainty, some knowledge which we already possess without any trace of doubt. Truth, goodness and beauty lose their meaning and value when unconditional doubt sweeps into our hearts. Life becomes an empty affair, with no intelligible aim before it. Empiricism is the precursor of scepticism, and as a method of enquiry into the nature of Truth, it is incomplete and fallible.
The mathematical method of rationalism takes reason to be the sole means of acquiring philosophical knowledge. According to it, the objective universe is known, arranged and controlled by the a priori laws of reason. The universe is an expression of the innate rational nature of the knowing subject. The criterion of truth is not sensory but intellectual, rational and deductive. The mathematical methods of deduction are most suited to a proper philosophy. Knowledge is gained when the opposite of what is inconceivable is discovered. Truth can be established by the fact that to deny it implies its reaffirmation in one way or another. True knowledge is a priori and is independent of sense-experience. This knowledge is self-evident, and so it implies universal and necessary truths. But even rationalism taken exclusively cannot escape the charge of being non-critical in regard to its own position. How can the rationalist be sure that what he knows through his rational powers is uncontradicted knowledge? What one thinks to be a self-evident truth need not necessarily be so. There is nothing, whatsoever, to prove that the principles that the rationalist logically deduces from his a priori premises really correspond to the actual characteristics of the world of experience. The geometrical method of reasoning may be very pleasing to the philosopher, but it need not carry with it the stamp of universal validity. The self-evident nature of the truths discovered independently by rationalism has been called in question. Many of the so-called self-evident truths turn out to be private to their owners and do not enjoy universal acceptance. Even in regard to the principles of logic and the laws of thought, there is no universal agreement. The rationalist is certain about the ability of reason to give him uncontradictable knowledge. He forgets, however, that reason cannot be taken as an infallible instrument of knowledge and that its only function is the critical examination, verification and judgment of the knowledge that we obtain through the senses. Direct or immediate knowledge is given to us relatively in sense-perception, and absolutely in intuitional revelation, but not in reason. Reason has a purely negative value and is not a positive means of knowledge. The senses and intuition provide us with knowledge which reason cannot contradict, though it can criticise and judge them. There are certain facts, of course, which we cannot know through the senses; but this does not mean that reason can know them. It is only in spiritual intuition that they are realised. Unless the innate ideas of the rationalist are equated with the infallible revelations of intuition, they cannot carry much weight in the light of an experience which presents itself before us as having the value of reality. If what is called a self-evident truth is confined to reason alone, its validity is capable of being doubted. Only when it is taken to mean a spiritual realisation of Reality does its truth rise above the realms of doubt and criticism.