Essentialism and operationalism in philosophy

I just finished a remarkable little book called How to Think Straight about Psychology. It was remarkable because it was such a good introduction to what science is; you can read my review of it here. There was one point, however, where I felt like I wanted to write a reply, to explain that what was being said did not apply to philosophy the same way. At the same time, such a reply will illuminate something in science and philosophy. This is that reply.

In chapter three, “Operationalism and Essentialism”, there’s a section entitled “Why Scientists Are not Essentialists”, and it has a subsection called “Essentialists Like to Argue About the Meaning of Words”. I liked this as soon as I saw it, because this is the feeling I get in philosophy. Essentialism is roughly the idea that there are (or that we should find) some ultimate real nature of things that really define what they are. I think it’s generally more meaningful to say what you mean (by a word, say) and then say what is to be said about that meaning and its relationship to the world. Indeed, I’ve written before about “arguing about words” in almost the same sense. Continue reading


Why philosophy is both more and less “naïve” than science

The basic idea of philosophy is to examine those things that are normally taken for granted. This should make it the most critical approach — critical meaning just that, to really consider what the right answer is rather than just accepting something without looking into it, as they say, uncritically. Yet, those using empirical sciences to answer some question can often say with reason that the question should be solved empirically, not by mere philosophical speculation. Suddenly, it is philosophy that is too naïve and not critical enough. How can it be so?

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