How to Write the Philosophy of Science

[See also: How to write the background, theory, methods, analysis and discussion sections. How to write the introduction and conclusion. How to review the literature and how to structure a research paper. How to finish on time and how to reference properly. Part of the Craft of Research series. Full program here.]

In what sense is your research project “scientific”? It is the purpose of your “philosophy of science” section to answer this question. It may not be a formally identified section of your paper, integrated instead into your theory or methods sections, but wherever you are reflecting on the quality or value of your research as “science”, your are doing philosophy in some sense.

I say “reflecting” advisedly. Very few social scientists (or students of the social sciences) actually let philosophy guide their theoretical or methodological choices. They simply see the world as their peers do and do what their peers would do to study it. But sometimes they ask themselves (and each other) what is so special about their work. How are their results more than merely personal opinions drawn from subjective experience? On what basis can they claim to have “empirical knowledge” of their subject?

To begin your reflections I suggest you begin, not with your theories or your methods, but with your analysis. Most of the paragraphs in your analysis will be supporting claims about the world on the basis of your data. They will offer interpretations of your observations. (My go-to example is that you might claim that the employees in a company are unhappy with their leaders and quote what they told in your interviews as evidence.) Well, what is the difference between an observation and an interpretation? Here you might invoke hermeneutics to explain how it is possible to go from what people to say (or write) to what they mean (or think). If we have recorded and transcribed an interview, it is perhaps easy to see how we can take their words for granted. But how can we speak truthfully about their state of mind? How can we know when they intended with their words? That’s a good, philosophical question.

Likewise, we might distinguish between our experience of things and the “reality” we “construct” to explain them. Do we in some sense experience things as “really” are? Are we “realists” about the things we encounter and do more abstract objects like “organizations” and “strategies” and “agents” really exist “out there” and “in themselves” or are they merely fictions that serve an “instrumental” purpose in our thinking about the world. We may proceed phenomenologically, “bracketing” the question of whether anything “exists” behind our experiences and focusing our attention on the “condition of the possibility of our experience of objects”. What, within our experience, can we use to tell us how experience is ever possible. What is given “immediately” to us know? Again, these are, perhaps obviously, philosophical questions.

Thinking in this way about what your analysis means is a good way to begin thinking about your ontology (what there is) and epistemology (how we know). I’ve always found it useful to think of ontologies and epistemologies as belonging to the theories and methods of particular disciplines (or, to use Kuhnian language, paradigms). That is, since we’re doing philosophy of science, not, say, metaphysics (philosophy of everything) we don’t have to have a position on what the universe is made of and how it is knowable at all. We just have to be able to make explicit what things we, and our peers in the discipline, know something about it and how those things are known to us.

This page is a work in progress. Here are some more posts about the subject:

“How to Imagine Science”


“Observation and Construction”

“The Philosophy of Science”

“The Conditions Under Which the Objects of Human Knowledge Are Given”