Symposium on Fischer et. al. ‘Experimental Ordinary Language Philosophy’

In ‘Experimental ordinary language philosophy: a cross-linguistic investigation of default inferences’, (Synthese, 2019) Eugen Fischer, Paul Engelhard, Joachim Horvath and Hiroshi Ohtani seek to take experimental philosophy beyond the study of intuitions and highlight links to one of its historical precursors. They show how experimental methods and findings from psycholinguistics can be adapted to analyse philosophical arguments, and the ‘argument from illusion’ in particular. In doing so, they look to provide empirical foundations for the kind of critical ordinary language philosophy associated with  J.L. Austin.

The Austinian research program aims to ‘dissolve’ philosophical problems that are generated by philosophical paradoxes. It seeks to do this by exposing seductive verbal fallacies at the root of paradoxical arguments. The fallacies Austin focuses on are contextually inappropriate default inferences that are routinely made in language comprehension and production. Fischer et al.’s paper addresses the crucial methodological challenge to this approach: Austin maintains – and psycholinguistic research confirms – that competent speakers’ inferences are highly sensitive to contextual cues. So why should philosophical proponents of the relevant arguments – who are competent speakers – make the contextually inappropriate inferences supposedly involved in their arguments?

Specifically, their paper seeks to do three things:

First, it develops and experimentally tests a psycholinguistic explanation of when and why even competent speakers make contextually inappropriate stereotypical inferences from polysemous words. Fischer and Engelhardt have developed the Salience Bias Hypothesis: that rare uses of polysemous words trigger inappropriate inferences which are licensed only by the words’ dominant sense (when this sense is clearly dominant and functional for the interpretation of less salient (rare) uses). Fischer et al. test this hypothesis through experiments on inappropriate doxastic inferences from rare ‘phenomenal’ uses of appearance verbs.

Second, they attempt to show that their findings help expose fallacies in ‘arguments from illusion’, and so help ‘dissolve’ the ‘problem of perception’ (Crane & French, 2015) that is generated by these arguments (together with structurally similar ‘arguments from hallucination’, analysed elsewhere: see Fischer & Engelhardt, 2019a; 2019b).

Third, the paper explores how insights from cross-cultural psycholinguistics can be deployed to assess the philosophical relevance of the inappropriate inferences we experimentally documented.

In this symposium, Justin Sytsma assesses the experimental evidence provided by Fischer et al., proposing an alternative explanation of their findings, and presenting some empirical data to adjudicate between these explanations. Meanwhile, Pendaran Roberts, Keith Allen, and Kelly Schmidtke critically assess the relevance of the empirical findings to the analysis of the argument from illusion. A response by Fischer and Engelhardt draws on a follow-up study with eye tracking to defend their account of the target paper against these challenges.

Target Article:
Fischer, Engelhardt, Horvath, Ohtani: ‘Experimental ordinary language philosophy: a cross-linguistic investigation of default inferences’


  1. Pendaran Roberts

    I very much appreciate Eugen et al.’s response. I read it with great interest. I understand and accept that stereotypes might influence how we interpret our experiences. However, I remain unconvinced that the PP seems intuitive due only to these kinds of issues. It seems that in a hallucination as of, say, something being red that an actual instance of redness must be present to my mind, because I can learn what red is by having this hallucination. How can I learn what red is if redness is not present to my mind, and if redness is present to my mind, something, presumably mental, must certainly be red.

    This is a kind of philosophical argument based on phenomenological observation that seems compelling. Why does it seem compelling? I’d argue the reasons have to do with our tendency to seek reductive explanations and to explain things we understand poorly (hallucinations, for example) in terms of things we understand better (seeing objects and their properties in the world). So, there may be a broadly psychological explanation for why the PP seems intuitive. However, this explanation seems to involve deeply ingrained philosophical and explanatory methods, not mere issues of language.

    • Many thanks for your response, Pendaran. The target paper launches ‘experimental argument analysis’: the experimental study of how automatic comprehension inferences shape natural language reasoning. It specifically examines how deeply ingrained stereotypical inferences shape philosophical arguments. These are not ‘mere issues of language’, I think, but fundamental aspects of language processing which are bound to profoundly shape our reasoning.

      I agree that the Phenomenal Principle owes its intuitiveness to several factors (some mentioned in the target paper). We discuss the assimilation of hallucinations to cases of seeing objects in the sister paper “Lingering stereotypes: Salience bias in philosophical argument” which came out last week in Mind and Language:
      Precisely the details of how stereotypes (here: the situation schema associated with “see”) are deployed in language processing allow us to understand when and why we excessively assimilate the unfamiliar to the familiar case, and when we do not. The relevant psychological explanations would seem to crucially include psycholinguistic explanations like those we have developed and tested.

      The present target paper discusses the version of the PP used in arguments from illusion: When something appears F (from a certain perspective, distance, etc.), the subject is aware of something that actually is F. In visual cases, this F-thing is typically taken to be a speck of colour – so when a round coin is viewed sideways and appears elliptical, the viewer is aware of an elliptical silvery speck. This much sounds right. But is the ‘elliptical silvery speck’ then something that is elliptical or something that appears elliptical but can be the round coin – as in “The small silvery speck in the sky grew larger and turned out to be a plane”? Staring at the coin in an effort to ‘introspect’ won’t tell us. The paper proposes an explanation of when we metaphorically interpret relevant judgments as referring to things that merely appear F, and why we interpret them literally as attributing F-ness to something, when going along with the argument from illusion. This explanation reveals that the conclusion in line with the PP already presupposes what the argument is meant to show: that the viewer is not aware of the round coin. One potentially productive and empirically grounded way of advancing the debate about whether to accept this notorious principle would seem to be to experimentally study automatic comprehension inferences in reasoning from and with phenomenological claims.

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