Should Philosophy Be Experimental?

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.


  1. Anibal

    What i´m going to say is a little bit laconic but grappling some truth:

    “let the methods be judged by the results”.

    Until now philosophy had been accumulating a big inferiority complex. Philosophy once was the science´s mother watching how progresively each field of inquiry separete from her because she progresively deal with untenable issues about universals (or not so),sex of angels (yes it is so) but nevertheles very weird things… Aside from specific debate around experimental philosophy and his validity etc., that his relevant proponents are tackle firmly because experimental philosophy is a good new game in the town, what could happen in the next decades are three things:

    1)that philosophy reorient itself to accomadate the challenge that science increasingly pose her, fullfiling what was her first intent, a more or less “complete knowledge of evrything”, gaining sophistication in his methods adding principles, ways to form genuine hypothesis to test with some rigor (¿statistics?),ways of falible replications and robustness of data and findings (not just different opinions or tastes about things only resoluble if you talk loud and dialectically rude in meetings)paraphrase it: ¡show me the facts! (not the money)
    2)philosophy as we know it dissapear because some of our best scientists also know the classics, history od ideas, philosophy etc.,
    3) in the more opmtimistc scenario philosophy again engulf the other sicences because the new phenotype of philosopher arising from the experimental philosophy movement not only will do science but also good science guide by ultimate unchange philosophical questions.
    In any case experimental philosophy that dates back to the works of mankind´s luminaries (Aristotle, Ockham, Aquinas,Locke,Spinoza,Kant,Comte,Newton, Hume…)continuosly will arrive in the back and forth of people and theirs ideas trying to remind us that philosophy must honour her name, until we not confront these problems: what is to do philosophy? and how to do philosophy?. Experimental philosophy have some ideas about some topics.

  2. Brandon N. Towl

    Interesting how much “chatter” the slate article has generated! I have to confess that when I dabbled in “x-phi” about three to four years ago, only a small minority considered it worthy of a grad student’s time and attention. Makes me wish I had actually trademarked the name 🙂

    But to more substantive discussion: one of the things confounding the debate is the confusion between what x-philosphers would like to see done, and what they have done. The latter, much more so than the former, is constrained by what is feasible, affordable, and publishable. And so, yes, many of the experiments that have been done have been surveys about folk intituions. But one should not assume that this is *all* that x-phi is about. This is merely one area where experimental philosophy has gotten a foothold. Surveys are also easy to understand as far as experiments go, which makes them ideal for talks and colloquia. But again, it would be unfortunately if, upon seeing such a talk, one assumed that the x-philosophers were just survey takers who were ignoring the philosophy.

    So what *is* it that the x-philosophers are up to? I think, broadly, that x-philosophers simply want to be open to methodologies typically used in the sciences, even when “doing their philosophy”. This is not just because empirical research provides data which may bear on philosophical issues (though this often happens). Such research is also important because it changes our concepts and forces us to think about old philosophical problems in a new way. Or so I’d say.

    Under this definition, there has been lots of “experimental philosophy” out there for some time. Here’s a list that I like:

    * Naturalized Ethics/Moral Psychology: moral perception, empathy, pain studies, moral cognition, etc.
    * Naturalized Epistemology: belief formation and change, intersubjectivity, practices of justification, epsitemology & cognition.
    * Philosophy of Mind: Patient-based studies (philosophical psychopathology), theory of mind, linguistic studies, etc.
    * Science Studies: Naturalized philosophy of science, sociology of science, anthropology of science.

    I hope this helps some!
    –Brandon N. Towl

  3. Anibal

    Mr. Towl,
    Knobe have found a gold mine when he has been applying paradigms of psychological effects (such as “frame effects”) to study the way people “reason” with their reasoning heuristics (intuitions)in cases or situations that involve emotions and moral behaviour showing us how we must to take into account the “folk” instances of our mind workings (either in lay or expert mind i think).
    But, how to choose or select the appropiate paradigm of experimentation within philosophy concerning “philosophical psychopathology”, (disregarding the use of neuroimaging technology and other techniques far to handle currently to undergraduate and graduates in many philosophical departments nor to mention contact with psychiatric population, albeit this soon will change) without falling in the long standing unbridgeable gap between appearence and reality; phaenomenon and noumenon; observation and theory; manifest image and sicentific image; and in currently terms “folk” and “expert”… given the fact that when we reflect about mental disorders, pathologies or the like, though bearing in mind an experimentally orientation, the true reality is that not only is necessary conceptual clarification but a natural description of what we are talking about because of the seriousness of the theme. To put it crudly, we cannot gain, i believe, for the case of philosophical psychopathology (not like in the case of moral cognition and action theory and his interdependence with other abilities as Knobe show) any philosophical insight from the heuristics of people when they think about pathologies… except stereotypes, prejudices etc.
    Or, standing always under the heading of experimental philosophy, is it the case that the orientation here in this theme (philosophical psychopathology) should deserves a totally different paradigm from the successful paradigm used by Knobe and others?

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