In the theoretical article Reinstating the ‘Queen’: understanding philosophical enquiry in nursing, Pesut and Johnson (2008) attempt to provide a much needed structural guideline that articulates the nature and characteristics, including the problems and tools, of philosophical enquiry for novice nursing researchers interested in engaging in this mode of knowledge development. In nursing, there are very few available structural steps that outline the process of philosophical enquiry (Gray 2004). As such, it is suggested that two major questions are at issue: (1) how does one differentiate between nursing philosophy and nursing theory? and (2) is philosophical enquiry a branch of qualitative enquiry?
In theorizing about the structure and validity of knowledge (Thagard & Beam 2004) created via the philosophical mode of enquiry, Pesut and Johnson (2008) use an ancient yet useful epistemological metaphor to depict philosophy as the dethroned ‘queen of the sciences’ in nursing. This depiction supports the author’s claim that philosophical enquiry is not positioned as substantially contributing to the knowledge base in nursing. It follows that this metaphor is ‘best viewed as theoretical so that its historical use supports a view of philosophy as the construction of descriptive and normative theories’ (Thagard & Beam 2004, p. 504). Accordingly, like science, the basic aim of philosophy is theory.
Pesut and Johnson (2008, p. 116) posit that the distinguishing characteristics that make nursing philosophical theory different from scientific and other forms of theory lie in the nature of the problems of philosophy and the type of evidence gathered to address those problems. Arguably, despite the non-investigative nature of philosophical enquiry, this delineation requires philosophical enquiry to be viewed as a scientific method to investigate phenomena (Manchester 1986, as cited in Phillips 1992) in which the problems likely refer to epistemological questions and the evidence gathered refers to ideas as data, which is ‘always subject to and requires interpretation’ (Callahan 1996, p. 18). It is also implied that theories derived via the philosophical mode of enquiry be labelled nursing philosophical theory rather than nursing theory. Care must be taken not to be lured into the knowledge division slough dug by Hume and Kant (Simmons 1992) and emphasis must be placed on the usefulness of the theory.
Pesut and Johnson (2008, p. 115) deem philosophical enquiry as a unique and distinct method from quantitative and qualitative approaches to knowledge development commonly used in nursing. Written argumentation, characterized by analysis, interpretation and logic, is the method of philosophical enquiry (Edgerton 1988, as cited in Gray 2004). This distinct method ‘allows the researcher to question beyond empirical evidence that can be investigated…permits us to step outside the box housing our cultural values and reframe our ideas from another perspective’ (Gray 2004, p. 1161). Accordingly, because this method is a legitimate mode of enquiry in nursing and of obvious value to nursing enquiry, Meleis (2007, chap. 9) proposes an integrated approach to theory development in which the philosophical process is integrated with the empirical scientific process as a strategy that may increase theorizing abilities for theory development and result in a more integrated nursing knowledge.
Nursing theorist and/or researchers often use the tools of philosophy (Pesut & Johnson, 2008) in the philosophical and empirical scientific enquiry processes considering both the philosophical and empirical scientific enquiry processes are processes of theorizing that may or may not result in a theory (Meleis 2007, chap. 9). The theorizing process is comprised of processes of reflecting, analysing, questioning, relating, thinking, writing, changing and communicating, which are the integral parts of philosophical analysis. These integral parts are essential to theory development, a prelude to, and consequence of research (Meleis 2007, chap. 9). Pesut and Johnson (2008, p. 115) assert in their findings that philosophical enquiry relies upon the capacities to think and reason, that is, in creating nursing knowledge. As such, a theoretical thinker (i.e. theorist) is a critical thinker with a goal of discerning patterns, connecting ideas and developing explanatory models; whereas, a critical thinker is inquisitive, analytical, systematic and truth seeking (Meleis 2007, chap. 18). Hence, ‘philosophy is not the queen of the sciences…but rather a partner in the collaborative endeavour to understand and improve the world’ (Thagard & Beam 2004, p. 514).
As a first year PhD student in nursing science, the first quarter of required coursework includes a course entitled ‘Philosophical Bases of Nursing Inquiry’. I am currently enrolled in a course entitled ‘Theoretical Perspectives in Nursing’. Given the discord over the nature and power of the philosophical and empirical scientific enquiry processes, I contend that much of the discord is unknowingly couched in scientific modernism, the cultural dominance of science, in which science as ideology, a set of beliefs/values, speaks authoritatively to public life and thus provides a sense of meaning while laying out a template for the living of life. A commitment to science as the most reliable source of knowledge about the nature of things is at the core of scientific ideology (Callahan 1996), which is implicitly authoritarian.