Experimental philosophy is a recent philosophical movement. In spite of the name, its proponents do not attempt to do philosophy by conducting experiments. Strictly speaking, they don’t conduct experiments at all (at least in the literature I’ve read).
They conduct surveys, however, in which they ask for subjects’ opinions on a variety of philosophically relevant subjects. Examples include whether certain actions are intentional or which of two people a name refers to (e.g., assuming that the true discoverer of the incompleteness of arithmetic was not named “Gödel,” does “Gödel” now refer to the person who stole the theorem’s proof and who was named “Gödel” or to the proof’s true author?). The results of these surveys may be used as data for theories of people’s concepts and cognitive processes. They may also be used as data to test philosophical accounts of various folk notions, such as reference and intentional actions. So far, this sounds like a careful methodology for conceptual analysis (a traditional philosophical enterprise) or cognitive science (an enterprise to which philosophers traditionally participate).
Some experimental philosophers draw stronger conclusions. They reject conceptual analysis. For folk intuitions appear to be more variable and less stable than is often assumed. In other words, different people have different folk notions, or they easily change them depending on contextual factors. Hence, some experimental philosophers maintain, philosophers have little business in offering conceptual analyses of folk notions and drawing philosophical conclusions from them.
(Of course, there are philosophers who reached similar conclusions about the instability of certain intuitions without conducting rigorous surveys (e.g., Peter Unger, in his book Philosophical Relativity). But at the very least, it’s good to replace softer data with harder ones. When it comes to folk intuitions, experimental philosophers’ data are harder than most other philosophers’.)
Given all this, experimental philosophy is controversial, and for good reasons. I, for one, have heard exaggerated claims about the consequences of their work. (For instance, by my friend Edouard Machery when he gave a talk in Barcelona.)
The rejection of conceptual analysis may be taken too far. Even if folk intuitions are unstable, there is still room for analyzing concepts, provided that one is careful about what one is analyzing and what follows from it.
A perfect example of an overly strong conclusion drawn from conceptual analysis is David Chalmers’s dualism. Chalmers argues that phenomenal consciousness cannot be physical, and an important premise in his arguments is that our folk notion of consciousness cannot be analyzed in physical (or functional) terms. But at most, this argument shows a limitation of our (current) folk notion. It doesn’t show anything about consciousness itself. If folk notions turn out to be variable and unstable, it is all the more dangerous to draw strong metaphysical conclusions from their analysis.
Nevertheless, experimental philosophy does not undermine more modest analytical projects. In fact, the work of experimental philosophers may be used as a more sophisticated evidential basis for certain kinds of conceptual analyses.
Whether or not you agree with any of the above, I hope this brief discussion shows that experimental philosophy is interesting and valuable, and cannot be summarily dismissed.
But recently, experimental philosophy made it into a Slate article. You may want to forgive the journalist for not capturing every wrinkle in the philosophical debate. But the article ticked off David Velleman, who posted an unpleasant comment on Left2Right. Velleman wrote, roughly speaking, that experimental philosophy is trivial, and it’s not even philosophy. Since Velleman is a professional philosopher who should know better, you may want to be less forgiving towards him.
Of course, experimental philosophers quickly responded with a comment posted on Leiter Reports. Here are some other comments and links. In their response, experimental philosophers point out that Velleman is not well informed on their work.
In a comment on the experimental philosophers’ response, Velleman seems to suggest that experimental philosophers should find jobs outside philosophy departments. He writes: “Should departments have slots for faculty in the sub-field of experimental philosophy? Should we take time to train our graduate students in experimental design and statistics? As I said in my post, I believe that philosophy needs to inform itself about empirical matters. It’s less clear to me that the relevant empirical research should itself be considered philosophy or should take up time and resources available to the discipline.”
This purism about what constitutes philosophy gives me the creeps. Does Velleman know how to draw a principled line between philosophy and other disciplines? If so, he should let us know. While we wait, I hope that other philosophers, of all people, will welcome those who disrespect so-called disciplinary boundaries.
Ironically, in his original post Velleman mentions Aristotle as someone who (unlike experimental philosophers, in his opinion) treated folk intuitions appropriately. But Aristotle spent much of his time developing empirical theories of the natural world. By Velleman’s standards, Aristotle shouldn’t seek employment in a philosophy department.