Philosophical lenses provide analytic tools for use when engaging in philosophical inquiry. Given a question or topic to be examined philosophically, these lenses can help to characterize and clarify the nature of the question or topic.
First, here is the raw list of philosophical lenses. Many will be rather obvious, others will require elaboration to follow. There is no intended ordering or degree of importance.
This list is not intended to be exhaustive. Actually, it is, but this is the initial cut which will be amended as additional philosophical lenses become apparent.
- Aspects, elements, qualities, and factors.
- Degree of subjectivity.
- Is it personal?
- Reason vs. opinion.
- Degree of clarity of definition of the problem or matter to be discussed.
- Physical world, plant, animal, man distinction.
- Early man, ancient man, medieval man, modern man distinction.
- Animal vs. human distinction.
- Religion vs. secular distinction.
- Economic, political, and social distinction.
- Partisan political distinction.
- Science vs. faith distinction.
- Free will vs. determinism distinction.
- Physics vs. human behavior distinction.
- Observable vs. speculation distinction.
- Categorical distinction.
- Temporal vs. eternal distinction.
- Past, present, or future distinction.
- Context vs. universal distinction.
- Narrow vs. broad distinction.
- Specific vs. wide-ranging distinction.
- Cultural bias.
- East vs. West distinction.
- Parents, family, church, school, community, government, culture, personal distinction.
- Appeals to authority.
- Specialized knowledge and language.
- What is it — coping with definitions.
- What is it — examples.
- What is it — bounding the topic.
- Larger topic in play.
- What are the assumptions?
- How are terms defined?
Aspects, elements, qualities, and factors
Regardless of the topic area, gaining a grasp of the aspects, elements, qualities, and factors relevant to the topic can go a long ways towards comprehending the topic.
Granted, some topics may best be viewed holistically, without attempting to decompose or otherwise reduce them into simpler topics, but to the degree that aspects, elements, qualities, and factors can be identified without interfering with the holistic effects of the topic, philosophic inquiry is facilitated.
And to the degree that a topic area defies decomposition and reduction, that fact can in itself greatly inform the philosophic inquiry.
Degree of subjectivity
Is this a topic where objective truth is achievable, or one where the only achievable truth is strictly subjective in nature?
How subjective? Is it an either-or or an us vs. them topic, or is there a whole spectrum of subjective truths, possibly even each individual having their own, personal subjective truth on the matter under discussion?
Will different groups or strata of society have rather distinct differences on the topic?
Is this a topic where elites, the unwashed, minorities, and disenfranchised groups may have very different perspectives?
Is it personal?
Beyond simply being subjective, does the topic strike a personal, emotional chord, such that it may be difficult for someone to examine the topic objectively? If so, it is imperative that they stop, pause, take a breath, step back, and carefully consider what factors are making the topic such an emotional, personal matter for them.
There’s nothing wrong with taking the topic personally — provided that one intentionally take that step back to inquire as to why it is so personal, and then work diligently to separate the personal factors from the impersonal factors.
It’s not that the personal factors are not just as important, but simply that they need to be highlighted so that the less personal (but maybe still somewhat subjective) factors can be seen clearly.
Reason vs. opinion
Is the topic a matter where truth can be determined, measured, or reasoned, or is it strictly a matter of personal opinion?
Is the topic subject to analytical reason and dispassionate discourse or are individuals merely presenting opinions with little in the way of reasoning or philosophical justification?
Are individuals more interested in presenting their opinions as positions to defend without yielding, or is the interest in examining all opinions, understanding their justifications, investigating where they came from, and what they are made of? Not so much to demolish or change them, but merely to examine them as objects of study in the tradition of philosophy.
Degree of clarity of definition
Is the topic clearly defined? Are the terms used in the topic description reasonably objective, at least in terms of referring to a specific topic?
One metaphor is boxes with labels — we may not agree in advance exactly what is in the box, but at least we can (or can’t) agree which box we are talking about. The metaphorical box might be a particular book or other creative work, or a well-defined topic area.
Or not. The whole point of the topic may be to highlight how ill-defined a particular topic really is.
Is the topic so vague as to defy clarification?
That could be okay or even intentional, inviting the participants to add their own clarifications.
Physical world , plant, animal, man distinction
Can we clearly identify whether the topic covers or includes or is restricted to the physical world of minerals and geology, water, air, space, stars, light, and energy?
Can we clearly identify whether the topic covers or includes or is restricted to the world of plants?
Can we clearly identify whether the topic covers or includes or is restricted to the world of animals?
Can we clearly identify whether the topic covers or includes or is restricted to the world of mammals?
Can we clearly identify whether the topic covers or includes or is restricted to the world of higher-order mammals?
Can we clearly identify whether the topic covers or includes or is restricted to to the world of man?
Can we clearly identify whether the topic covers or includes or is restricted to non-human mammals or animals?
Can we clearly identify whether the topic covers or includes or is restricted to the natural world, the physical world with plants and animals, exclusive of man?
There needs to be clarity as to which subset of this spectrum is covered by the given topic. Or, it could be that the intent is to discover how much of this spectrum is covered by the given topic.
This spectrum excluded theological elements such as gods, angels, devils, saints, heavens, and hells, but they can be included, if desired.
Early man, ancient man, medieval man, modern man distinction
Is the topic restricted to only modern man, like in the current century or recent decades only?
Is the topic broad and cover man and human nature and social constructs since the very first humans, the entire history of humnity?
Does the topic relate to man at some particular stage of human, social, and historical development?
Does the discussion of the topic or answer to the topic question reach distinct answers when man is considered at the various stages?
Does the topic cover or is it restricted to early man, before the advent of large-scale civilization, when only tribes or at most small villages existed?
Does the topic cover or is it restricted to early civilizations, such as the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Mayans, etc.?
Many philosophical discussions concern only modern man in the modern world, but it is important to be clear whether that is actually the case for a particular topic, particular discussion, and particular discussion group.
Animal vs. human distinction
Many human traits are shared with animals through our common genetic heritage, even some relatively high-level traits, even social behavior. So, is the intended topic really limited to man alone or are animals covered as well?
Even if the intent is to focus on man alone, it may still be helpful to distinguish aspects of human behavior that aren’t uniquely human.
Religion vs. secular distinction
Does the topic touch on areas which are particularly spiritual or religious in nature, where religious beliefs or religious dogma may conflict with more secular thinking? Not that religious and spiritual topics cannot be discussed philosophically, but more than a bit of care is needed.
It should also be clear if the intent is to specifically address a topic through a religious or secular lens such that only one or the other is relevant to the particular discussion even if the general topic touches on both.
Economic, political, and social distinction
Is the topic narrowly constructed to be in the economic and sociopolitical domains of human society? Not that that is not a very broad category, but it is at least useful to identify whether the topic is within that domain.
Partisan political distinction
Is the topic distinctly political in nature so that members of different political parties or affiliations will have different or even wildly divergent views? Not that philosophy cannot address political topics, but it can be important to identify whether the intent really is to focus on partisan views or to transcend them.
Science vs. faith distinction
Some topics are settled within particular religions as dogma or articles of faith, such that science has no significant role on those particular topics.
There may be matters of faith that are of particular interest to people of faith, but which hold no significance to those who do not share their faith.
As powerful as science is, there are many topics where even science does not yet have answers but religious faiths may have very clear or strict answers, or may simply be willing to accept certain mysteries as an article of faith.
There may be topics of a particularly scientific orientation for which people of some faiths may not be able to participate in fully due to the strictures of their religious dogma.
Free will vs. determinism distinction
Is the topic one that hinges on whether one believes in free will, or is it one where strict, hard determinists would quarrel with reasoning that presumes free will?
Is this a topic where believers in free will have opposing or discordant views from those who are strict determinists, such that very little can be had in common?
Not that free will and determinism cannot be discussed, but there should be clarity from the start if the topic hinges on free will or strict determinism.
Physics vs. human behavior distinction
Does the topic deal with existence at the level that a physicist or chemist can speak authoritatively about (mass, energy, particles, waves, charge, atoms, molecules, chemical reactions, behavior of liquids and gases), or is it in the realm of human behavior?
Even at the level of the nature of existence, is the topic more about atoms and stars or more about human beings and human social structures?
Observable vs. speculation distinction
Is the topic about things or phenomena that we can go out and observe, measure, and experience for ourselves, or is it speculative by nature — the unobservable, the unmeasurable, the inderminant?
Speculation can be fun, but inconclusive.
Can a specific category be identified for the topic, or does it apply to a broad range of categories?
Identifying the category of the topic can help greatly to frame the discussion.
Temporal vs. eternal distinction
Is the topic focused on a particular period or moment of time, maybe even the present time, or does it apply to all of time, the distant past as well as the distant future?
Past, present, or future distinction
Is the topic focused on the here and now, events of the past, or speculation about the future?
Is the goal of the inquiry to conclude something about the here and now, the past, or about the nature of future events?
It may be that the inquiry seeks only to establish the facts of what has already transpired, without regard to what may or may not transpire in the future. Or, the past may simply be viewed as prelude and the real issue at hand may be to draw conclusions about possibilities for the future, however speculative they may or may not be.
Context vs. universal distinction
Does the topic depend on a particular context, maybe a particular place or time or demographic or social group, or is it universal, for all people in all places, times, and demographic groups?
Discussion of a topic can be greatly facilitated if any intended or implied context can be identified, or if the intent is to apply the topic universally, to all contexts.
Narrow vs. broad distinction
How narrowly construed or broadly interpreted is the topic intended?
Each has its advantages. Sometimes it is more fertile to dig much deeper on a narrow topic, while other times it can be more satisfying or enlightening to pursue a topic more broadly albeit in less depth.
Specific vs. wide-ranging distinction
Is the topic area clearly bounded, or is the intent to encourage discussion to follow implications in a wide range that may be somewhat distant, tangential, or peripheral from the specific core of the topic?
Is the topic likely to be construed as being relative to a particular culture, or is the intent to cut across cultures and to attempt to eliminate or at least moderate or be sensitive to cultural bias?
Is the topic at risk of cultural bias even if not completely obvious from a superficial inspection? Many or most are. If so, attempting to clearly identify and highlight aspects of the topic at risk of cultural bias can greatly facilitate philosophical inquiry.
East vs. West distinction
Is this a topic where western civilization and eastern thought may have very divergent perspectives?
Is it clear at all whether the intended context of the discussion might be one of the two?
There may be no harm in focusing only on one, but there can also be value in pulling in elements of the other, either to integrate them or at least to contrast them.
Parents, family, church, school, community, government, culture, personal distinction
What is the source of beliefs on the topic?
Were beliefs on the topic learned from parents?
Were beliefs on the topic learned from experiences in the family, interacting with siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents?
Were beliefs on the topic learned in a religious institution, from religious training, doctrine, or dogma?
Were beliefs on the topic learned in school?
Were beliefs on the topic learned from members of the local community?
Were beliefs on the topic spread by the government?
Were beliefs on the topic spread by culture in general, maybe popular culture in particular, such as novels and movies?
Were beliefs on the topic derived by the individual themselves, from their own personal experiences and own personal thinking?
What particular combination or hybrid of these sources combined to influence the beliefs of an individual, a group, or society as a whole?
Appeals to authority
Does knowledge relevant to the topic depend solely or in large part to appeals to authority? Generally and traditionally, an appeal to authority is not a valid form of argument, but… given the high degree of complexity and specialization in modern society, many topics depend on knowledge that is not readily accessible to non-experts.
The problem may be unavoidable for many topics, but discussion can proceed, provided that all participants comprehend and acknowledge the great risks of depending on unexamined knowledge that is accepted only on the faith of experts.
Specialized knowledge and language
Does the topic depend on and require complex or specialized knowledge and language which may not be readily accessible to non-experts? There is no problem as long as the specialized knowledge and language can be translated into relatively plain English. In other cases, a little training can enable non-experts to gain enough of a grasp to engage in discussion of the specialized knowledge.
As a general proposition, specialized knowledge and language should be viewed with at least a modest dose of skepticism. Even Einstein recognized and accepted and encouraged the need to express even complex theories of physics in plain language.
What is it — coping with definitions
When face with philosophical inquiry of a “What is it?” topic, definitions are a good first start. But, definitions are a mixed bag:
- It is certainly true that life (and philosophical inquiry) can be a lot easier if definitions can be clear and agreed upon.
- Sometimes “it” can be very vague and difficult to define. Actually, if “What is it?” is being made a topic of a philosophical inquiry, the odds are great that one of the motivations is the difficulty with definitions.
- Sometimes “it” can be very subjective and there can be a multiplicity of competing definitions, each being equally valid.
- Sometimes “it” is inherently vague so that any definition may be similarly vague.
- Sometimes even credentialed experts cannot agree on definitions for an area of shared expertise. Frequently they “know it” even if they have difficulty defining or agreeing on definitions of “it.”
- Sometimes the experts can agree, but their jargon is inaccessible to mere mortal, average citizens.
Nonetheless, from a philosophical inquiry perspective it can be very fruitful to attempt to examine or even produce definitions.
Indeed, the degree of difficulty experienced identifying, parsing, or producing definitions is a great indicator of the degree to which we do or can understand the given topic.
And it certainly makes sense to admit if we are unable to arrive at satisfying definitions of “it.” And then to identify and explore the factors which may be inhibiting clear and complete definition of “it.”
Some of the factors that can inhibit successfully arriving at satisfying definitions:
- The understanding of the topic area may be weak or vague.
- There may not be enough known about the topic to proceed to clear and complete definitions.
- Some aspects of he topic may defy elaboration in textual natural language. Whether this is absolutely true, or simply a matter of cutting short such an effort may be a matter of debate.
- The individuals performing the inquiry may not have sufficient skills to complete the task of arriving at satisfying definitions.
- There may be a cultural bias against clear definitions — a bias in favor of mystery and intuition.
- Topic area is too subjective to come to wide agreement on definitions.
- Topic area involves intuition, emotion, or tacit knowledge that cannot be easily articulated.
- Individuals may not have the time, energy, ability, skills, or interest in the difficult work of developing or comprehending definitions.
- Truly complete definitions may require too much specialized jargon to arrive at clear and complete plain-language definitions. It may still be possible to actually arrive at plain-language definitions, but the time, energy, ability, skills, and interest may not be available with the individuals at hand.
- The topic area may be so dynamic that even if definitions can be arrived at, they become invalidated to some degree in short order.
What is it — examples
Regardless of whether clear and complete definitions can be arrived at, any philosophical inquiry is greatly aided by examining a whole series of examples, to:
- See what they have in common.
- See how they differ.
- See how or whether pre-existing definitions cover or explain the commonalities and differences between the examples.
- See how features of the examples can help clarify or explain pre-existing definitions.
- See how features of the examples can be analyzed and combined to synthesize new definitions or refine or clarify pre-existing definitions.
Sometimes a lot can be learned by placing two examples literally side by side to highlight similarities and differences.
What is it — bounding the topic
When faced with a “What is it?” topic, the question arises of how one defines the “it” of the topic, in particular, the bounds or limits of “it.” Some suggested questions:
- What is the center of the target, the sweet spot, where there is no real dispute that this is “it”?
- What are solid and non-controversial examples of the epitome of “it”, maximum “it”?
- How big or broad is that center of the target, before even modest questions begin to arise about whether something is really “it”?
- How far from that center can you go before you get to the fringes of what most, but not all people would accept is part of “it”?
- How broad is the fringe area where there is some degree of reasonable but nowhere near universal dispute over whether this is still “it”?
- Where is the bright line edge, the test, the relatively objective criteria, where some reasonable number of reasonable persons can argue that something can be considered part of “it”, while just a very, very short distance further out most reasonable persons can argue that something is very clearly not “it.”
- How bright or broad or vague or fuzzy is that supposedly bright line where one can reasonable test whether something is or isn’t “it”?
- Is there any limit at all where there can be virtually universal agreement that something is very clearly not “it”?
Larger topic in play
Is the intended topic really simply a subset or special case of a larger topic area, such that inquiry into the larger topic can greater or at least partially enlighten inquiry into the intended topic?
Granted, broadening the inquiry into a larger topic can distract attention from the intended topic or introduce issues or complexity that may not be relevant to the inquiry of the smaller topic, so care is needed when expanding the scope of the topic.
Either way, care is needed.
Temporarily expanding the topic can also be used as a test, to see whether the inquiry on the smaller topic holds up or is aided by expanding the topic.
What are the assumptions?
There are always assumptions, even if only the meanings of the terms in which the topic is specified.
All assumptions need to be identified and elaborated.
Some assumptions may not be so obvious. Some may involve bias on the part of the particular individual examining the topic. Some may be cultural, such that most individuals examining the topic may tend to have similar biases. Some be be social group-based, such that members of the same social group (ethnicity, race, socioeconomic status, political affiliation, gender, gender identity, etc.) may tend to share biases and assumptions and not necessarily share them with other groups.
How are terms defined?
As with an explicit “What is it?” topic, philosophic inquiry into any topic depends on how terms are defined.
Explicitly discussing how the terms of the topic are defined is usually helpful.
That said, the difficulty of achieving agreement on definitions is frequently problematic. In fact, actual agreement can be even more problematic since agreement can be more of a superficial social negotiation than a deep philosophical inquiry — people may say or feel that they agree, but it may be that they only superficially agree while disagreeing at some deeper, unexamined level.
Even “obvious” terms can be problematic, especially when bias and assumptions come into play.
Nonetheless, a little attention to the difficulty of defining terms can be quite helpful in any philosophical inquiry.