Some great logicians and mathematicians (e.g. Gödel) in the past have pointed (perhaps implicitly) to the possibility of formal philosophy (can be referred to as "exact philosophy" as well). I read it to be more of a desire, rather than something that has been actualized. But it's believable, if one considers for example the success of the scientific method, which is a set of rules taken from a larger set of rules (the set of all rules that can be taken) and which lead to more well-defined knowledge.

But what is formal philosophy? Is it different from mathematics (perhaps augmented or extended to natural language)?

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    Welcome to Phil.SE! I haven't come across the term 'formal philosophy' - it's not, I think, a standard term; in which case it might be useful to provide a link to it; otherwise it would appear to be a term of your own invention - this on its own is not inappropriate, but it's useful generally to leverage (ie use) the properly philosophical language; there is a mode of thought in the philosophy of mathematics called formalism - generally (ie conventionally) associated with the mathematician Hilbert - is this what you are referring to by the term 'formal philosophy'? Aug 29 '15 at 12:28
  • The other possibility is how Deleuze describes scientific thought in practise as a 'function' (as a function of axioms or 'rules') in your terms; or Kuhns notion of 'normal science'. Aug 29 '15 at 12:31
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    I disagree; it's a standard term. Aug 29 '15 at 16:20
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    @christopherE: see comment above, I've voted the question up. Aug 29 '15 at 16:55

Formal philosophy is an approach to philosophical questions which attempts to answer them by developing formal systems. Formal systems are those in which ideas (terms, claims, etc) are formalized, meaning symbolized. In such systems, conclusions drawn are typically reached as a function of the form of premises alone, which is to say their logical structure. An example is formal epistemology, which develops formal models (mathematical and otherwise symbolized models) of knowledge-justification.


Formal philosophy, as others pointed out, is an approach with formalized language. To ease things here, let us assume that the main idea is that by formalization it is possible to infer the thruth value and propositional content directly from grammar and syntax. The ultimate goal is a perfect scientific language where equivocations and misunderstandings are impossible (like in mathematics), but still a language. And not only in an analogic sense like mathematics are called a language, but a medium for communication about the world.

It would be "the" medium of philosophy, as every sentence in this language would be true or false and every true sentence would presumably be knowledge. Contradictions and fallacies could easily be identified.

Ideas like this have been persued by Frege, Carnapp, early Wittgenstein and early Husserl, for example. Wittgenstein being the best known example of a person later rejecting even the possibility of formal philosophy. In fact, every try so far failed.

A good start could be SEP, like the entry for Frege.


Firstly, I suggest that you make sure that we're talking about formal philosophy and not 'formal logic', 'formalism' or other areas of philosophy that might use the term in their title, as these likely have much more specific meanings.

As far as I know, there is no real definition for what formal philosophy is. In my experience, most people and writers seem to use it as a distinction between philosophy that adheres to certain standards of rigour and explanatory completeness rather than simply asking questions and proposing ideas that seem relevant to a given philosophical concept. Analytic philosophy tries to adhere to this for the most part.

Depending on the context, it might also refer to the way that philosophy is taught or learned - e.g. studying at a university under a philosophy professor might be called "studying philosophy in a formal way", etc., as opposed to, say, reading a few books and asking/answering questions on the internet - this might be called "informally studying philosophy" (though I am not saying that one is necessarily better than the other).

  • I think it's reasonable to say that formal phil. has to have a set of formal rules. Like mathematics. We could even say that it "should behave like" mathematics.
    – mavavilj
    Aug 29 '15 at 13:54
  • @mavavilj One would assume so, but it really depends on what the author is saying more specifically.
    – DTR
    Aug 29 '15 at 13:56

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