Sunday, December 09, 2007

Experimental Philosophy and the Armchair

Kwame Anthony Appiah has a good piece in the NYT (here) on experimental philosophy -- or the movement that uses empirical research (think surveys) to determine what intuitions people really have about philosophical problems.

No doubt, experimental philosophy is a lot of fun: it's fascinating to read how people's intuitions ebb and flow based on small changes in a particular thought experiment (and Appiah has a couple classic examples).

In addition, experimental philosophy has shown (conclusively, I think) that professional philosophers' intuitions often aren't shared by the general public. Now, that may be because the general public hasn't thought as hard about these issues. But there is also the risk that professional philosophers operate in a kind of echo chamber where our intuitions become increasingly divorced from reality.

The alternative to experimental philosophy is "armchair philosophy" which Appiah ultimately comes down in favor of -- he argues that the results of surveys require interpretation, and deciding on the right interpretation is ultimately an armchair endeavor.

I agree with Appiah, mostly. As exciting and fun as experimental philosophy is, it strikes me as basically psychology and I don't yet see how it solves any philosophical problems.

Having said that, I thin Appiah also downplays one of its major strengths. In passing, he notes that experimental philosophy can enforce a kind of modesty -- again, the reminder that our intuitions aren't universal.

But that's actually a big deal. This was brought home to me in an Epistemology course last year. We'd read some feminist epistemology and many of the students would reject it immediately as patently absurd. Later we read some experimental philosophy -- making essentially the same point about the contingency of our intuitions, and everyone thought it was completely obvious. So, for better or worse, experimental philosophy can break down resistance to new philosophical ideas.


Blogger Evelyn Brister said...

Noelle McAfee also has some commentary on Appiah's piece over at Gone Public (

I was surprised to see her agreement with Appiah from a feminist angle.

On the one hand, I agree with both of you that the experimental philosophy stuff can be silly and over-rated. Sometimes it seems like philosophers are totally stunned to have discovered that there is such a thing as empirical research and that one can actually learn interesting things from it. And yes, it does seem to tread close to being psychology.

But I should think that, as you point out, the findings of experimental philosophy and the lessons of feminist epistemology are quite similar. Namely, both show that what traditional epistemology and traditional metaphysics consider to be timeless truths are cultural constructs and reflections of contextual knowledge. Both experimental philosophy and feminist epistemology then motivate further investigation into the social structures of knowledge production.

9:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Philosophy as some kind of justificator and explicator of the lowest common denominator of thought? What a horrible vision--- sounds like the death of philosophy to me, replaced by some kind of populist dogma.
I say thank god that philosopher's intuitions differ from the general public's. Philosophy is a creative enterprise---invention and exploration in depth and originality are the glories of philosophy--the most sublime art of thought.
Without original and profound thinkers---culture stagnates.
Philosophy itself already has enough minor churnings of the narrow pot of traditional philosophical questions-- without chaining it further to some populist priority.
I say head in the other direction-- I say open the floodgates!

4:28 PM  
OpenID said...

Experimental philosophy strikes me as a waste of what might otherwise might be an interesting way to label a certain approach to philosophy.

Basically, what they're doing is psychological sociology concerning nominally philosophical topics. Which is fine, if you want to do that, go nuts. But, if there's no "meta" angle to it, it probably shouldn't be called philosophy. That's ignoring what is supposed to be the core strength of academic philosophy. On top of all of that, it's really historically ignorant: Hello, Socrates whole friggin' project was to tell us that ordinary people have weird intuitions and to expose their internal contradictions! This part of their results isn't new, but because it's "scientific" (because it's done as a survey!), it "counts" more than Socrates. Which means that what they're really doing is perpetuating a lot of bad ideas, like the absolute epistemic authority of "scientific"/"objective" methods and a hyper-democratic blind deference to mass opinion. (If democracy has a downside, it's that it consistently devalues elite opinions. If philosophy has a social purpose, it should be to resist the negative tendencies of the age.)

To me, what the term "experimental philosophy" should mean is thinking about the question, "How should I live?" and applying tentative conclusions about that to your own life, then reporting your results, in order to iteratively refine one's approach to understanding and existing in the world. Of course, it would be hard to do this in an academic context, but actually, I think that if there were a way to approach this matter academically, it might be really powerful in its effects. Unfortunately, since the term "experimental philosophy" is now occupied, that approach to philosophy will have to be called something else. I'm leaning towards "action philosophy," but that's probably too lame of a name.

6:28 AM  
Blogger ShaneR said...

On his blog 'Requiem for Certainty', Colin Koopman has some insightful comments on the points of convergence and divergence between American Pragmatism and Experimental Philosophy:

2:54 PM  
Blogger Christopher Richard Wade Dettling said...

A think survey is empirical research?
Perhaps you should elaborate a little on that one.
What exactly do you mean by empirical research, a collection and catalogue of opinions?
Probably you don't mean exact scientific research.

5:36 AM  

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