First and foremost I should say that I am not educated in Philosophy; I study Mathematics.

Essentially, the job of a mathematician is to prove theorems by logical deduction from axioms, which are statements considered to be true in advance. The axioms themselves are essentially up to the mathematician, in that so long as they don't contradict each other any statements could be treated as axioms for some system. In the experimental sciences, similarly, what is taken as absolute truth is observation: what nature is seen to do.

My question is this: in philosophical arguments, what is taken to be true? Is there an equivalent to what I've described above?


3 Answers 3


Philosophy is not different from Mathematics or other disciplines which need a starting point or basis from which to begin. Virtually all of the arguments in philosophy rely on an agreed upon starting point, such as the use of a particular logical system for which to judge the validity of arguments on either side. Not every philosopher proposes a complete framework for rational discourse; they often assume you already understand the formal logic system they use, for example. Others take a more long-winded approach and synthesize existing systems into a comprehensive framework for reason and knowledge (e.g. Kant). But on a foundational level most philosophers hold a few axioms to be true.

In Western philosophy, these principles or axioms are referred to as the Laws of Thought:

Law of Identity

"That every thing is the same with itself and different from another." A is A and not ~A

Law of Non-contradiction

"One cannot say of something that it is and that it is not in the same respect and at the same time." In other words, it states that contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time, e.g. the two propositions "A is B" and "A is not B" are mutually exclusive.

The Law of Excluded Middle

It states that for any proposition, either that proposition is true, or its negation is true.

(paraphrased from various Wikipedia articles)

  • I think this is what I was looking for, thank you! Commented Jan 4, 2014 at 22:24
  • Well, except that philosophers deny each of these, and more importantly they don't get us very far. Philosophical arguments have to start with premises related to the content of the argument. Some logic, like the above, is often assumed, but it's not what parallels the data in a scientific argument. Commented Jan 4, 2014 at 22:35
  • @ChristopherE - I'm sure there is a philosopher somewhere who at one point in time tried to contest these. In my experience, however, I think virtually all use these as a starting point (in general). It's pretty hard to argue against these effectively, and I'm not sure what good would come of it. And I agree, these axioms are "not what parallels the data in a scientific argument"; science uses these very axioms in the exact same way as philosophy. I.E., this is the backbone to the structure (logic) of an argument. The "data in a scientific argument" is the content.
    – stoicfury
    Commented Jan 5, 2014 at 22:07
  • Well, the kind of good that comes of it is, for example, a set of alternative logics, and a significant body of research on dialetheism (SEP entry). Commented Jan 5, 2014 at 23:19

In philosophical arguments, the premises are typically claims that either (a) other philosophers have already argued for, and so are recognizable from the literature, and typically cited to some sources, or (b) the arguer thinks can be made plausible on their own, either prima facie (at first glance) or by appealing to some briefer, further motivating argument.

In the context of arguments, then, premises are generally not taken to be truths per se, but rather plausible starting-points. They may be thought to be true, but they may also be taken to be merely plausible, or agreeable to the intended audience of the argument.

I note that in the experimental sciences data is not generally taken to be absolutely true. Typically, statistics assumes error. But that's of course apiece with agreeing that data offers a starting point for argument in empirical disciplines.


Certain parts of philosophy are looking for well founded axioms, from whence further claims can be derived. For example, Discourse Ethics and Argumentation Ethics look at what is necessary for argumentation, and exclude arguments that are so called performative contradictions.

For example, the argument "Conflicts should be resolved by force." is a performative self-contradiction. Why? Because, if he who claims it really believes that force should be used, he would simply do that, instead of engaging in argumentation, which is the non-violent form of conflict resolution.

For similar reasons, arguments that deny self ownership (as an ethical norm) do not make sense. For, to contribute something to a conversation, the contributor must surely be in control of it's own body, or else he could not speak, write or do whatever is needed to convey his ideas. Furthermore, by engaging in argumentation, he who denies self-ownership must have previously asserted self-owenership and the non-violence/non-agression priniciple, i.e. he must have asserted that ethical norms can be found and agreed upon - at least in principle - through a rational discourse.

  • Those are rather poor examples. In both cases, context is ignored. In the second there are also dubious assumptions made about the universality of self-ownership (i.e. that you either have all of it or none).
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Jan 5, 2014 at 9:48
  • @RexKerr I should have made it explicit that in "Argumentation Ethics" the topics are universally acceptable ethical norms. Hence, context is irrelevant. At least I did never hear objections like that against "Thou shallst not steal." (for example).
    – Ingo
    Commented Jan 5, 2014 at 16:11
  • The norms might be universally acceptable, but the logic and/or scope in these examples is dubious at best. This seems to me not to be why the norms are universal.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Jan 5, 2014 at 19:16
  • @RexKerr Please feel free to read the originals - it is well possible that I - not being a native english speaker - couldn't convey it all properly.
    – Ingo
    Commented Jan 6, 2014 at 9:28
  • I'm pretty sure the original arguments are either faulty or boring. If someone makes the statement "for all conflicts of any sort, said conflict should be resolved by force alone" when they know in advance that you disagree, it is contradictory. Almost anything weaker is not contradictory. Maybe the speaker doesn't know if you disagree and is trying to find out. Maybe it doesn't need to be only force, and this argument is part of the non-force part. Maybe not all situations warrant force. "Utterly unrealistic statements can be contradictory" is not a very enlightening result.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Jan 7, 2014 at 2:54

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