Vincent F. Hendricks


Roskilde University, Denmark

John Symons
University of Texas at El Paso, TX, USA


In the spring of 2005 we had the opportunity to work collaboratively on problems related to the application of epistemic logic and formal learning to traditional epistemological questions.  Given the nature of this topic, our conversations regularly turned to the more general question of the relationship between formal methods and philosophical investigation.  We realized that some of the philosophers we most admire had never explicitly articulated their views on these questions and it occurred to us that it might be worth asking them.  We decided to pose five relatively open and broad questions to some of the best philosophers who make formal methods a centerpiece in their work.  This book contains their responses to our questions. 

The book is motivated by our curiosity but also by our discontent.  Neither of us is content with the prominent histories of analytic philosophy currently on the market and we both believe that the discussion of general methodology of philosophy is in a pretty poor state.  One of the most significant faults we see with such recent work is its failure to recognize and tackle the central place of formal methods.  Shopworn narratives about the failures of logical positivism, the decline of formal methods in philosophy and the rise of intuitions-based conceptual analysis, are neither entirely true nor particularly helpful.  In any case, such talk has been overwhelmed by the ongoing buzz of interesting work from philosophers who look much more like Russell and Carnap than Rorty.   We hope that this project can serve as a counterweight to some of the more popular surveys of the philosophical landscape.  However, our intention is not to promote the use of formal methods in philosophy.  Firstly, it is not necessary for us to do so.  Formal philosophy is thriving without any advertising.  In our view, rather than promoting this kind of work, we can help to begin a fruitful conversation about the deep and interesting methodological problems that formal work in philosophy presents. 

Clearly formal methods by themselves are not a panacea for all that might ail the philosopher, however, it is just as clear that there is something peculiarly fertile in the interplay between formalism and philosophical inquiry.  Even those who reject analytic traditions in philosophy recognize that many of the most important developments in philosophy and its broader intellectual environment have arisen out of engagement with mathematics, logic, computer science, decision theory, physics and the other natural sciences.  While there are limits to what formal methods can contribute, formal insights have sharpened, radicalized and extended philosophical investigation which would never have seen the light of day without the aid of formal methods.

Of course, it would be foolish to suggest that philosophy is a purely technical enterprise.  Clever manipulations of symbols and formal apparata by themselves are not enough to solve or to deepen the understanding of philosophical problems.  Philosophers must not only achieve some result, but must also judge that it is relevant to some philosophical problem or line of investigation.  It must be determined when the applications of formal methods is appropriate and when something like common-sense, intuition and conceptual analysis legitimately come into play.  When one encounters cases where scientific results lead to conclusions that seem to run counter to common-sense, how does one adjudicate?  Are there a general set of principles that determine when a given problem can be solved using formal methods?  These and related questions arise naturally at the intersection of formal methods and philosophical investigation.

Many of the philosophers we most admire simply avoid taking sides on these methodological questions in their written work.  Rather than speaking in broad terms about the nature of the philosophical enterprise, they simply do philosophy.  Rather than worrying over the ends or the death of philosophy, they are doing wonderful and important work in philosophy. We will not comment on the details of the responses we received to our five questions.  Each is self-explanatory and readable and it is not our goal to synthesize one overarching view of the nature of formal work in philosophy.  Our purpose in this project is not to articulate any specific agenda or definition but rather to begin to open the discussion of how formal philosophers understand their enterprise.  Part of this project involves understanding why these philosophers chose to make formal methods central to their work.  Of course, the decision to pursue this kind of work is, at least in part, a matter of taste.  However, in and beyond intellectual biography, these responses provide some very illuminating and erudite examples of how philosophers make - formal as well as informal - methodological decisions.

Copenhagen and El Paso
December 2005


We are indebted to Christopher M. Whalin for proof-reading the manuscript and to our publisher Automatic Press ● VIP, in particular senior publishing editor V.J. Menshy, for taking on this 'rather unusual academic' project.


The 5 Questions

1. Why were you initially drawn to formal methods?


2. What example(s) from your work illustrates the role formal methods can play in philosophy?


3. What is the proper role of philosophy in relation to other disciplines?


4. What do you consider the most neglected topics and/or contributions in late 20th century philosophy?


5. What are the most important open problems in philosophy and what are the prospects for progress?


Only extracts from the interviews are brought online. Order the entire book Formal Philosophy

ISBN-10    87-991013-1-9    hardcopy
ISBN-10    87-991013-0-0    paperback
Published by Automatic Press ● VIP, 2005

Order now from Amazon!    US    UK    CA     DE