About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Sunday, November 05, 2006
Did you say experimental philosophy?
Then again, we should remember that science itself originated as “natural philosophy,” with practitioners spanning the ages from Aristotle to Bacon, Galileo and Newton. History notwithstanding, modern philosophy is broadly divided into “analytical,” which continues the tradition of rationalists from Plato to Descartes and of empiricists from Aristotle to Hume, and “continental” (because it originated in continental Europe), with its emphasis on cultural criticism and subjective phenomenology. What, then, could experimental philosophy possibly be?
It is the idea that one can test some philosophical ideas and assumptions by actually collecting data. As Karola Stotz (also of Indiana University) exemplified, philosophers have long discussed the meaning and usefulness of scientific concepts such as “gene.” What Stotz and her colleagues have done was to test the usefulness of some philosophical ideas about genes by actually surveying scientists and see how they thought of and used the concept (turns out that some scientists were not even aware of using different concepts of “gene” in different contexts). Stephen Stich and Daniel Kelly, of Rutgers University, used a similar approach to see if psychological studies of real human beings were consistent with some philosophers' ideas about moral reasoning, and found that people don't really seem to understand morality the same way some philosophers do. Joshua Knobe, of the University of North Carolina, tested another common assumption among philosophers, that scientific reasoning is in some fundamental way analogous to common sense. He went “into the trenches” (i.e., the real world) and found compelling evidence that actual people using common sense don't behave like untrained scientists at all, but instead tend to infuse notions such as causality with logically independent ones like moral responsibility.
This is good stuff, though it isn't meant to turn philosophers into social (or other kind of) scientists. Heck, the philosophers don't even actually need to do the empirical job themselves, since they can often rely instead on the vast published literature in psychology and sociology, and of course they can always collaborate with psychologists and sociologists. But the important point is that experimental philosophers seek to incorporate as much realism into their cogitations as possible, checking out how the facts square with their thoughts, instead of working on the basis of pure conjecture alone. Interestingly, someone from the audience asked why this approach is being referred to as “experimental” philosophy rather than, say, “empirical” -- after all, few if any of the activities engaged in by its practitioners are experimental in the sense of being able to manipulate their subjects under controlled conditions. Weinberg and Crowley shrugged and replied that it was too late, the term had already caught on, and we all know that it is impossible to reverse a linguistic fashion once the genie is out of the bottle.
Oh, a cultural anthropological observation of my own from the trenches of the PSA meeting itself: there seems to be an inordinate number of (male) philosophers with earrings, some even sporting dangling ones. What's up with that, dudes? Think being a philosopher isn't cool enough?