Last year at the APA Eastern, I was talking with a good friend of mine who is a very well established philosopher - a senior member of the profession who has published a plethora of articles in all the elite journals, and books with all the elite presses. We were talking about the nature of philosophical work, and he said something I found very striking. He said that "research" is not the right word to describe what philosophers do. Rather, he said that philosophical work is a type of art, and that the medium for this type of art is ideas.
As you know if you have been on the job market, one of the most common requests you receive as a candidate is to tell your interviewers about your research. The language of research is used outside of the context of the job market too, of course. We talk about our "research programs" all the time. To me, the language of research is ingrained in the profession, which is why I found the words of my friend - someone who has been in the game for so long and has achieved so much success - so striking.
But what he said resonated with me, too. I confess I have always found it kind of misleading to talk about my own work as research. I work mainly in moral philosophy these days. My recent work has focused on friendship and blame. I defend theses about what constitutes good friendship, and about the nature of blame. You could say I researched these topics by digging into the literature and reading a lot about what other philosophers thought about them. But of course, our job as philosophers is not to just catalogue what other people have to say. What do you think the editor of Journal of Philosophy would do with a paper that purported just to establish the claim (via some very serious research into what philosopers actually think) that 55% of philosophers of mind are dualists? I imagine the editor would say, "Interesting empirical claim. Where's the philosophy?" Obviously, we don't just catalogue what our colleagues have to say in our papers. We assess what they have to say about the problem we are writing about and we draw our own conclusions. And it just seems strange to describe that part of the process as research. Of course, the word "research" can be used broadly to mean an investigation into a subject for the purpose of learning something new, and in this sense - of course philosophers engage in research. But on the narrower use of the term, which I think is more common both inside and outside of academia (I can't tell you how confused many of my friends who are not philosophers have gotten when I've attempted to tell them about my "research"), research is an activity that leads to discoveries. In this sense, the word "research" seems a more apt label for what academics who collect empirical data and work in labs and in the field do. Philosophers do something else. And I bet, on some level, many of you feel the same way; otherwise - how could you find something like this so funny? You could only find something like that funny if you thought it was a little silly to think of philosophical work as findings-producing research.
Of course, I realize that many philosophers work on projects that are importantly linked to empirical research. For example, there are philosophers of mind and ethicists whose work is closely linked to empirical findings in neuroscience and psychology. Also, philosophers who specialize in the history of philosophy often have to do things when investigating a topic - like tracing the usage of an ancient Greek term from Homer to Aristotle - that it seems very natural to describe as research. So I should make clear here that I have in mind your typical, run-of-the-mill analytic arm-chair philosopher. Open the latest issue of Journal of Philosophy, or Philosophical Review, or Ethics, or Philosophical Studies. That's the sort of work I have in mind. Does it make sense to think of the articles in those issues as presenting the findings of research? Or is my friend right that it makes more sense to think of them as works of art? Or is there another way we should think of them?
For my part, I find it awkward to think of myself, insofar as I am a philosopher, as a researcher. But I also find it awkward to think of myself, insofar as I am a philosopher, as an artist. Perhaps this is because I think that art aims at beauty, while philosophy aims at truth. Then again, as the poet John Keats said:
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.