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?

I'm at the meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association in beautiful (and rainy) Vancouver, and one of the hot topics is the very idea that one can do “experimental philosophy.” As Jonathan Weinberg and Stephen Crowley of Indiana University immediately pointed out during their talk, “this isn't an oxymoron.” OK, then, what is it? The very idea that philosophers, the quintessential “armchair thinkers” of all ages, would get their hands dirty with actual data sounds amusing to some and repelling to others.

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?


  1. RE: The "coolness" of philosophy. I don't wear an earring, but I do frequently say of pursuing my Ph.D. in philosophy that, "I'm in it for the money and the chicks."

    Why do people always laugh when I say that?

  2. Why do people always laugh when I say that?

    They haven't seen Salman Rushdie's wife? For god's sake don't give up hope man! And accessorize as necessary.

  3. Oh man... The fatwa is well worth it...

  4. at first glance it does make me want to laugh

  5. ".....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."

    I would like to hear more about this. Maybe in the context of an example so I know exactly what they were talking about.

  6. Sounds like the bit that sheldon quoted refers to concepts like Karma. Is that what is meant?

  7. Nothing to do with Karma. From my notes the talk was about how when most people say that X "caused" Y (usually referring to events that involve human actions) they use a moral assessment of "cause," not a neutral one.

    For example, if faculty are not supposed to take pens from the office, and both the administrative assistant and a faculty pick a pen, leaving no pens available for others, the problem was "caused" by the faculty, according to most people. In fact, from a neutral perspective, the problem was caused by both people going for the last two available pen.

  8. J Krehbiel wondered about the difference between natural language philosophy and experimental philosophy. I'm pretty sure that Xphi has broader scope than natural language philosophy - the Stotz and Griffith's work at least was conducted without a focus on language (it required scientists to look at notional gene sequences) and seemed to be aimed at something other than conceptual analysis - they call it conceptual ecology and I can think of no better brief description.

    That said - much Xphi does bear more than a passing resemblance to some work in the natural language tradition - but even here the differences are critical. The key difference being in which linguistic data count and how it is collected. Unlike Austin consulting his own intuitions about what is apt to say (and perhaps the intutions of his mates?) Xphi pursues the views of as many folk as they can get to talk their surveys. Typically these are non-specialists which means, with luck, that their intutions are not theoretically 'polluted'.

    Hope that makes things a trifle clearer.

  9. I like the idea of experimental philosophy because one could actually carry out Karl Popper's thought experiment, showing that the observation itself is value-laden (the same observation claiming to lead to the non- impartial hypothesis), where you ask a group of students in a room to "observe." The hypothetical result of course is without prior bias there is nothing to observe, proving the traditional scientific method unsound to that extent. I've always wanted to show videos of fish behavioral interactions (I study fish ecology) to a group of undergraduates and ask them to "observe," then link their observations with their demographics. The problem is, the more I think about this, the more it strikes me as sociology.

  10. The data and very notion of incorporating data into philosophical discourse is preconditioned from the very practice of preferring data--a normative assumption. The very essence of experience and cognition are concepts.

    If you want to incorporate data into your philosophical intuitions by circulating data, then why don't you just go for a different PhD. Seriously. It doesn't need to be done. Instead, suspend the natural attitude "out of play." Philosophers cannot afford to take nothing for granted, and assuming the validity of empirically based research, when that preference is itself normatively driven, oversimplifies what it is we actually do.


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