I'm applying for an intramural grant to work on a perfectly ordinary, non X-phi, piece of philosophy. (I want to think about the claim that someone like a florist might make that being required to provide services to a same-sex wedding violates her freedom of association in light of On Liberty.) I'm required to spell out my "Study Design/Methodology." More specifically: "Provide a detailed account of precisely what will be done to answer the question(s) or test the hypothesi(/e)s. Include plans for the protection of human or animal subjects and the environment." I think that I can provide convicing assurances that my project poses little risk to the environment. But how have other philosophers finessed these questions about methodology that are obviously formulated with empirical work in mind?

8 Replies to “What’s My Method?

  1. I tend to frame my method as “conceptual analysis” and describe it as examination of the the logical consequences and commitments associated with commonly held or received understandings of concepts to determine whether those concepts are appropriate and/or adequate for their intended purposes. Then I provide examples based on the specific project.
    Is that a helpful answer at all?

  2. I’ve seen successful grant applications in which people basically just describe reflective equilibrium, w/ citations to Rawls, Daniels, Goodman, Nussbaum, Aristotle, Sidgwick, etc. So I think that could work.
    This I’m less sure of, but I for one would find it more satisfying: Just explain how philosophy differs from the sciences, such that the wording of this question is not quite appropriate for philosophy. Specifically, you might say that most philosophers use the same method most of the time, so that asking a philosopher what his or her method is is not very informative; say it’s more informative to say what your arguments will be or might be, and then just give those.
    Even more specifically, and perhaps better: The reason it’s strange to ask a philosopher what her “study design” or “methods” are is that such terms suggest that the philosopher is setting up conditions under which outcomes will either confirm or disconfirm the hypothesis, in advance of those outcomes occurring. In other words, you start off with an idea what this or that evidence would show, then you gather the evidence. But that’s not the way philosophy works (at least not in my case!) If, for example, I read a paper that prompts me to write a response, I don’t think “Ah, if indeed McX’s view is vulnerable to a counterexample involving transporters and fission and cats with human-level intelligence, then that disconfirms McX’s view; now, give me some funding so I can determine whether McX’s view is vulnerable to a counterexample involving transporters and fission and cats with human level intelligence!” No, rather, I tend to think of the example and assess its disconfirmatory powers all in one stroke. Again, this is why it’s much more helpful for a philosopher to just give her arguments.

  3. Thanks Clement, that is helpful. And Andrew, I take your point, and my usual experience is much the same as yours. However, I think there’s a general danger about putting things that way in a grant application, inasmuch as the funders might well wonder what you needed the grant for if you have already worked the arguments out. And there’s a a particular problem for me in this case, which is that at this point I’m not entirely sure yet what my arguments will be. I have what I might call an inkling; I suspect it may turn out to be quite important whether the “reluctant florist” is operating as a corporation. I hope that turns out to be true, because it will let me say what I hope are some useful things about Mill’s failure to understand corporations properly. But perhaps on further investigation this line of thought will turn out to be a non-starter. So at this point I can say more about my questions than my arguments.

  4. I had to fill out something like this when applying for a dissertation fellowship and adopted a strategy people I know in English use. They talk about pitching a project by discussing the kind of “intervention” you will make in the on-going debate.
    So you basically say your method is to question the background assumptions that others have been making and to then show how the conclusions others have drawn depend on the truth of those assumptions & to assess their truth. You then spell this out in terms of your specific project. Maybe you could say that unlike others who have written about this issue, you are going to show that to understand and assess Mill’s argument we should bring in questions about what corporations are?

  5. Thanks, Brad. I don’t think that approach would work for my current application, but I’ll keep in the drawer for another occasion. (Although ‘intervention’ always makes me picture paratroopers.)

  6. Don’t forget about the possibility of using “case studies” to explore an issue (including for testing theories). If the thought-experiments are just idealizations of real-world cases, then an evaluator might be able to relate to it as a case study.

  7. Doubtless, one cannot overestimate Rawls’s contribution to philosophy grant applications by giving a fancy name that begins with the word “method” to ordinary reasoning. However, I think that trying to be a bit more specific can be helpful in writing something that’ll be acceptable in this context. You can talk, for instance, that much work on X started with the assumption A. But you’ll propose to relax assumption A as this can allow for … . Or you can say that much of the work on X looked only at cases of type T. This might not be so different (and thus recognizable) from what people in other areas do. After all, no one just writes in their methodology that they will run experiments, or even that they will use surveys. They often say what the problems were with previous experiments, surveys, etc.
    But do take everything I say with a grain of salt. In Canada, we are blessed by the fact that most of our grants are evaluated by philosophers.

Comments are closed.