What Do We Mean By Applied Philosophy?

BY JONATHAN DOLHENTY, PH.D.

Classical realists generally define the academic discipline of philosophy as the study of all reality in its ultimate causes and principles through the use of human reason alone. We also differentiate various branches of philosophy, such as metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, logic, ethics, and so forth. We also point out that each branch of philosophy has its own specific object of study: ontology, the study of “being”; epistemology, the study of the verification of knowledge; logic, the methods used in right or correct reasoning; and ethics, the study of right conduct or the means to achieve happiness.

Many philosophers have also distinguished two general categories within philosophy itself: “Speculative” or descriptive philosophy and “normative” or prescriptive philosophy. The former category includes such studies as metaphysics and epistemology, while the latter includes ethics and axiology (the study of value). To these two general categories, I and others have added a third general category called “applied” philosophy. What do we mean?

The term “applied” simply means “to put into practice” or “to be used practically.” From this use of the term “applied,” we can formulate a general definition of applied philosophy: it is the application of those principles and concepts derived from and based on philosophy to a study of our practical affairs and activities. Notice that these principles and concepts are used to “study” our practical affairs. The reason why this is important is because applied knowledge is third-order philosophical knowledge and does not necessarily lead to a completed “truth” applicable to all times and places. Let me explain.

First-order philosophical knowledge is primarily metaphysical in nature. That is, the principles and concepts set forth in metaphysics (including ontology, rational psychology, and philosophy of inanimate being or cosmology) constitute the foundation for further philosophical thought in both the normative and applied areas. Epistemology, once generally a part of metaphysics, has now developed into a discipline itself, primarily because the rise of philosophical skepticism has increased during the past four hundred years. Logic, of course, is primarily a methodological science but it is first-order knowledge in the sense of being “basic” to all further thought. I refer to first-order knowledge as “descriptive” because that is, in my view, exactly what metaphysics and epistemology do: they “describe” reality or the “real” state of things.

Second-order philosophical knowledge includes axiology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics, disciplines which tend to be “normative” in nature. Our principles and concepts in these disciplines, in my view, tend to be less exacting with a less degree of certitude, although the principles and concepts utilized in second-order are based on knowledge derived from descriptive philosophy. In order to develop principles and concepts in ethics, for instance, it is important to have knowledge from rational psychology, that is, what is sometimes called the philosophy of man or the philosophy of animate nature. One cannot, it seems to me, arrive at the “good” for man or develop a system of correct ethical principles or a code of rational human conduct without basing such on some understanding of human nature in philosophical terms. What is “good” for man implies some understanding of what man is.

Third-order philosophical knowledge is, in my conception, where applied philosophy enters the picture. Given what we know from our study of descriptive and normative philosophy, what practical applications can we make to human affairs or to the human condition? We can then develop disciplines such as philosophy of education, philosophy of law, philosophy of religion, philosophy of science, and so forth. There is currently a great deal of interest in a study called philosophy of sports. Virtually any area of life can come under philosophical scrutiny.

The main (and most frustrating!) problem with third-order philosophical knowledge or “applied” philosophy relates to its inability to provide anything approaching absolute certainty in its conclusions. We must, it seems, be satisfied with some degree of certitude, but never absolute certitude. So, we talk about “a high degree of probability,” “a preponderance of evidence,” or “beyond a reasonable doubt,” or some such degree of certitude. This causes problems for many people because they want to know “the best form of education,” or “the best way to organize a judicial system,” or “the true religion,” and philosophy itself can never provide the definitive answer which is “true” at all times in all places.

Frustrating as this might be to many, there are some things that applied philosophy can do that are vitally important. For instance, while applied philosophy may not be able to prove which from of government is the best, it can shed a definitive and important light on what forms of government are better and which forms are worse. I think it can be clearly shown that a democratic form of government is better than a non-democratic form. Why? Because a democratic form of government is based on an understanding of human nature which is closer to the truth (as determined in the metaphysics of man) and includes (one hopes) a moral philosophy which provides a framework and support for the actual practice of democratic government.

Applied philosophy, however, is never tightly woven. There are many practical issues which we will always be debating. I think of capital punishment, for example. Should the death penalty be part of any society’s criminal justice system? There is wide disagreement. It is a practical issue and an important one. We must refer back to second-order knowledge in ethics and politics and from there to first-order knowledge about the philosophy of man or rational psychology. How do we decide the issue? It isn’t easy. I am opposed to the death penalty and I use second-order principles to bolster my argument. Unfortunately, these principles cannot be shown to be necessarily true in all cases. I don’t have real certainty. I think I have truth beyond a reasonable doubt, but my opponents dispute this, citing other principles which may also be reasonable. The debate continues and reasonable people may reasonably disagree.

These three levels of knowledge give rise to three levels of problems or questions in a philosophical sense. Virtually all classical realists agree on the principles and concepts involved in first-order knowledge. With a few minor technical points still under debate, classical realists are in unison when it comes to the truths of metaphysics. The “first-order questions” have been, for all practical purposes, settled. Classical realists do not generally sit around and debate the big questions of metaphysics. They may discuss them in order to refine them or develop new arguments for them but, for the most part, the matter is concluded.

This is less true of “second-order questions,” although second-order philosophical knowledge is settled to a large degree among classical realists. There is some debate about second-order principles and concepts but the debate is not rampant and mostly concerns minor points and interpretations. The same principles of ethics, for instance, are generally accepted by most classical realists, as are the principles of politics and aesthetics. This is, of course, reasonable since these principles are based on principles of metaphysics already accepted. Any arguments here among classical realists are mostly about interpretations and clarifications.

“Third-order questions,” which are the problems generated within applied philosophy, raise virtually all the debates among classical realists. While most first- and second-order questions are settled, the matter of “applying” the principles from descriptive and normative philosophy to the practical affairs of mankind is the major task of the classical realist now and in the future. Furthermore, probably the best we can do to “prove” the correctness of any answer or solution to a third-order problem is to use the “reasonable” argument method. This means we will have to accumulate enough “evidence” for our conclusion and then present an argument based on this evidence that is consistent and persuasive. This, of course, does not give us absolute certitude, but it may get us as close as we can humanly get in our practical affairs and activities.

By the way, many years ago as part of my graduate program in philosophy, I took courses in philosophy of literature, philosophy of education, and philosophy of religion. In all of these courses we applied principles and concepts from metaphysics and ethics to the specific subject under study. As a matter of public disclosure, I must say that the individual members of the class did not arrive at a consensus about what was “best” or “true” in any of these courses in applied philosophy. The debate continues, as it always will.


The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.