Identifying a Research or Philosophical Problem

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 Identifying a Research or Philosophical ProblemIdentifying a Research or Philosophical Problem

The first step to take in writing an essay in philosophy is to identify a research problem one  wishes to shed light on. Identifying a philosophical problem invariably result in stating a thesis one wishes to defend. Thus, identifying the philosophical problem one wishes to analyse is very vital for a philosophical write-up. But what does a philosophical problem consist of?


The major challenge faced by students and researchers in philosophy is the belief that philosophical problems are merely everyday practical problems such as, the problem of infrastructural development, the problem of good governance, and the problem of insecurity.


To be sure, philosophical problems arise from practical issues of everyday life. But if  philosophers engage these problems merely as they are, they do nothing different from what natural scientists or social scientists do. But philosophical problems are more theoretical than practical. They are meant to identify issues with theories postulated for practical everyday problems, or theories that interpret other theories of everyday practical problems.

 Identifying a Research or Philosophical Problem

Concerning the issue of good governance, for instance, there are theories of justice and fairness postulated to resolve such a problem. A philosopher engages a particular theory or theories of justice, identifies a problem, and defends a thesis.

The problem could be that the main arguments tabled in support of a theory are not coherent or consistent, a theory does not fit with everyday experience or reality of the issue at hand, the criticism already levelled against a theory does not hold in the light of new evidences (defence of  a theory), or that a theory has become anachronistic or outdated.

Thus, a philosophical problem identifies a gap or lacuna that has been left open or unfilled in theories or scholarship. One a theoretical problem is identified, then, the writer postulates and defends a thesis that he or she is convinced can fill the obvious vacuum in scholarship.

Identifying a Research or Philosophical Problem

  • What is the major challenge faced by students and researchers in philosophy?

The major challenge faced by students and researchers in philosophy is the belief that philosophical problems are merely everyday practical problems

 Stating the Thesis

Besides identifying a philosophical problem, a philosophical paper is a defence of a thesis.  In  fact, the bulk of an essay in philosophy is dedicated to stating, explaining, analysing, arguing for and responding to anticipated objections to a thesis. But what exactly is a thesis and how is it stated in a philosophical essay? Simply put, a thesis is a statement of the position/conclusion of  the argument of a writer.

It expresses the writer’s position on an issue. Thus, a philosophical essay is not complete if the writer simply describes a philosophical position without analysing it in order to identify a philosophical problem and take a position.

A thesis is a statement that makes some clear, definite assertion about the subject under  discussion.   A philosophy paper is not a personal report of how one feels or what one believes or  a description of what has been said about a topic. It is an argument for a thesis. To avoid  mistaking a thesis for a description, personal feeling or belief, a writer must follow some definite steps in developing a thesis.

First, the writer must explain what he or she means by his thesis.  If the thesis of an essay says  that abortion is wrong in any circumstance as against a position which defends the rightness of abortion in a particular circumstance, the writer must explain what “in any circumstance” means.

 Identifying a Research or Philosophical Problem

The next step would be to provide clearly stated arguments for the thesis, or the position, one holds and show why they are better than, or how they reaffirm, other positions. Very importantly too, a strength of a thesis depends on the extent to which one is able to identify, examine and respond to anticipated or foreseen objections.

Once these steps are followed somewhat religiously, the writer’s thesis will become evident and clear, rather than being difficult to pinpoint.

Identifying a Research or Philosophical Problem

 Citing the Appropriate Authority

People rely on authorities for many of the beliefs they have and the decisions they make; and it is legitimate to do so. But more often than not, such reliance on authority is done uncritically and  the fallacy of argumentum ad vericodium – appeal to inappropriate authority – is often  committed. In writing, particularly in philosophy, it is expected that one would also rely on authorities in making one’s arguments and stating one’s position.

If not for any reason, it is believed that such reliance is justified because the authority that has been depended upon by a writer has good reasons for his or her position. In fact, famous authorities in philosophy are relied upon because of the general belief that they have good evidence for their positions or arguments.

However, one must be careful not to mistake mere fame and authority for good evidence, since it is not always the case that an authority always has good evidence for his or her claims. A bad argument cannot become good simply because a popular or famous philosopher has used the  same argument.

Students are especially susceptible to misusing authority because most of their essays require extensive use of authorities; usually some distinguished and very dead philosopher – Plato, Descartes, Hume, and Kant – and they do not know what it is about an authority  that  is  important. What is important is not his fame, nor his admirable character, nor his  possibly exciting life, but his arguments.


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