There seems to be a widely shared sense these days that the philosophical study of mind has been undergoing some pretty dramatic changes. Back in the twentieth century, the field was dominated by a very specific sort of research program, but it seems like less and less work is being done within that traditional program, while there is an ever greater amount of work pursuing issues that have a completely different sort of character.
To get a better sense for precisely how the field has changed, I thought it might be helpful to collect some quantitative data. Specifically, I compared a sample of highly cited papers from the past five years (2009-2013) with a sample of highly cited papers from a period in the twentieth century (1960-1999). You can find all of the nitty gritty details in this forthcoming paper, but the basic results are pretty easy to summarize.
First, I looked at the methods employed in the papers from each time period. Each paper was coded into one of three categories:
- A priori. Papers that do not make any use of results from systematic empirical studies
- Experimental. Papers that report original experimental results
- Relies on empirical. Papers that do not report original experimental results but do engage with the results of empirical studies from the existing literature
In the twentieth century sample, the distribution of methods looks like this:
In other words, the majority of papers are a priori, with a minority relying on empirical work and none at all reporting original experimental studies.
Now take a look at the distribution in the papers from the past five years:
As the figure shows, the change in our field has been pretty radical. At this point, only a small minority of the highly cited papers are purely a priori. The majority engage in some way with empirical findings, and a surprisingly large percentage actually report original experimental results.
I then looked at the topics that the papers investigated. Within the twentieth century papers, the focus was clearly on questions about the metaphysics of mind. In particular, there were a huge number of papers on either the mind-body problem or the nature of content. These topics clearly dominated the philosophical discussion in that period.
Now suppose we switch over to the contemporary sample. There we find a surge of papers engaged in a very different sort of project. Specifically, there are a very large number of papers looking at the cognitive processes underlying people’s ordinary intuitions about philosophically relevant questions (morality, causation, knowledge, etc.). This work tends to be concerned not so much with metaphysical questions as with questions in cognitive science.
Within the contemporary sample, the number of papers pursuing this new research program is actually greater than the number pursuing all of the topics continuing within the twentieth century tradition put together. (For example, suppose we add up all the papers on the mind-body problem, the nature of content, consciousness, perception, the extended mind. The number of papers within this new research program still comes out to be higher than the number on all those topics combined .) So this new research program has at least a fair claim to be the dominant one in the contemporary literature.
I would be very interested to hear any thoughts that people might have either on this specific dataset or on recent developments in the philosophical study of mind more generally. All of the details are available within the published paper, but please do feel free to write in with comments even if you haven’t taken a look at the paper itself.
[Header image credit: TateMag]