Wednesday, February 07, 2007

"Experimental Philosophy" -- Wide and Narrow

I'm a philosopher. For some reason, this hasn't prevented me from running experiments when I've felt they could shine some light on an issue troubling me. (I examined whether people still reported dreaming in black and white in the U.S. and in China, as part of exploring how well we know our own stream of experience; for similar reasons, I've given people beepers and had them report on their sensory experience; I'm also trying various things aimed at discerning whether ethicists behave better than other people.) By 20th-century standards, this is highly unusual behavior for a philosopher!

But as I'm sure you've noticed, this is the 21st century. I must be a man of my times, for I find I have company -- most notably the company of a group who call themselves "Experimental Philosophers" and perceive themselves, self-consciously, as a movement -- with a blog, for example, and bibliographies. As a movement, Experimental Philosophy ("X-Phi"!) has received considerable attention, both positive and negative (e.g., here and here).

The philosophers most central to this movement tend to poll undergraduates regarding their moral intuitions or their intuitions about traditional philosophical examples and puzzles. Tired of hearing one philosopher say something like, "Well, of course, our ordinary intuition in cases like X is such-and-such" and another respond with "Well, I don't have that intuition!", they quite sensibly decided to go out and see what people's intuitions actually were. Only in philosophy would it take sixty years to think of doing this! (I chose sixty years as approximately the beginning of the tendency to take ordinary intuition as the principal court of philosophical appeal; it's salutary to reflect on the brevity of this period relative to the entire history of philosophy.)

One might doubt how much we can learn about the world by polling undergraduate intuition (other than learning what undergraduate intuitions are -- which is actually a pretty important thing), but at a minimum the movement should put to an end cavalier philosophical appeals to ordinary intuition. It's good metaphilosophical conscience.

Construed as such a project, experimental philosophy is relatively fresh, controversial, and coherent as a movement. But here's the strange thing: Such philosophers often characterize "experimental philosophy" as experimental work done by philosophers [caveat: see comments section] to shine light on philosophical disputes (e.g., here). In this broader sense, "experimental philosophy" is much less coherent as a movement, and much older; and much of it is hard to distinguish from the sorts of things psychologists do.

In discussions of "experimental philosophy" I think there's often a problematic ambiguity between these broad and narrow senses, as though, implicitly, the participants assume that polling intuitions is the only kind of experimentation a philosopher could do that would shed light on a genuinely philosophical dispute....


Pete Mandik said...

You raise some good points, Eric.

I think the wide/narrow distinction is a useful one to draw here, but I wonder about the utility of another distinction that seems implicit: a dstinction bewteen broad experimental philosophy and naturalistic philosophy, where, as far as I can tell, both broad experimentalists and naturalists use experiemental work to shed light on philosophical topics,but only the experimentalists do the experimentments themselves.

While I think it is often fun and cool to do the experiments oneself, I doubt it is a sufficiently big deal to merit a label. The end result (the philosophy thereby published) isn't any different, is it?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Good point, Pete. Some of my own experiments could, I think, easily have been conceived of and implemented by a psychologist. Then they would only have been "experimental philosophy" in the following very broad sense: Experiments done with the aim of shining light on philosophical questions.

If we go with that definition, then lots of psychologists do "experimental philosophy". Maybe that's okay, though: The label should be applied based on the nature of the work rather than the departmental affiliation of the researcher.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

P.S. -- I see that the qualification "by philosophers" in my original characterization of experimental philosophy in the "wide" sense (in the post) probably inaccurately conveys what the x-phi crowd has in mind. I'll revise the post to flag this.

I think I imported that qualification ("by philosophers") into my definition because without it, it's plain that there's nothing new in "experimental philosophy", it's not a movement, and most of the people doing it are psychologists who've never heard the term!

Eddy Nahmias said...

To make it more complex, the experimental philosophy movement itself has included various projects with overlapping methods and background assumptions, but with three quite different aims. Thomas Nadelhoffer and I have written a piece responding to critics of experimental philosophy that outlines these distinctions while also trying to offer some unifying criteria of experimental philosophy (we hope to post it at the exp phil blog soon).

But as we all know, offering an analysis of concepts is often impossible. At best, there seems to be a family resemblance among the sibling projects done under the name "experimental philosophy, and naturalistic philosophy and experimental psychology (and cognitive science) are cousins.

michael metzler said...

Thanks for the introduction to this new movement—I’ve been trying to figure out what “experimental philosophy” meant precisely. I hope this is a part of what looks to me like a new broad integration of disciplines, including experimental psychology (and other sciences), philosophy, and literature/arts. Patrick Hogan (2003), for instance, seems to me a valuable guide to cognitive science precisely because he is first qualified as an expert humanist in trans-cultural literature (an important product of the human mind open for indirect empirical investigation). Likewise with some of the things I see coming from experimental psychology, such as Raymond Gibbs; his experiments related to metaphor comprehension seem to be guided by philosophical goals.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for your comments, Eddy and Michael! I look forward to seeing your more fully articulated thoughts on this, Eddy, on the Experimental Philosophy blog in the near future.

Thomas said...

You correctly point out that if we construe experimental philosophy broadly then not only will it turn out that(a) lots of psychologists do experimental philosophy, it will also turn out that (b) most of the people doing experimental philosophy are psychologists who have never heard of it. As I said in one of the comment threads over on the x-phi blog, I don't want self-identification to be one of the conditions of experimental philosophy.

I nevertheless think it needs to be construed in a way that excludes most of the work done by experimental psychologists. I think this is fairly easy to do because I believe that the overwhelming majority of papers that come out in scholarly psychology journals do not pretent to be interested in underlying philosophical issues and debates. The goal of most of this work is just to better understand and explain some observed phenomenon x. The philosophical implications of x are often set aside or outright ignored. And while some psychologists certainly try to flesh out the philosophical implications of their views, I do not think it is the norm.

It is nevertheless likely to be true that if we are talking about sheer numbers of researchers whose work counts as experimental philosophy, there are likely to be more psychologists in the group than philosophers. But here again, that's OK. As I mentioned earlier, one way of further limiting the reference class of experimental philosophy is to insist on three conditions: (a) the experimental condition, (b) the philosophical condition, and (c) the intuition condition.

That at least enables us to isolate and identify most, if not all, of the work by experimental philosophers to date (some of whom are philosophers by trade, some of whom are psychologists!). But insisting that work in experimental philosophy needs to focus on intuitions forces us to label some projects as non-x-phi when we might prefer having it be included under the umbrella. There will obviously be border-line cases. But that may be unavoidable if x-phi is a family resemblace term (which it arguably is).

For now, I have a question for you. Let's treat your recent research as a hard case. It is both experimental and philosophical--which means it is x-phi in the broadest sense--but on the surface at least it is not x-phi in the narrow sense as you are not directly interested in intuitions. But aren't you at least interested in intuition indirectly? Consider, for instance, the research concerning people's phenomenological reports of their tactile sensations. How is that study any different in thrust than the paper than Eddy, Steve, Jason, and I wrote on people's phenomenological reports on their experiences of 'free will'?

The same can be said with respect to your work with Gopnik. Indeed, your co-authored paper on intuitions is an instance of experimental philosophy par excellence! But what about your survey of library records and the like--does that count as x-phi? Maybe. Maybe not. At this point, what difference does it make whether we can say whether all of a person's work counts as experimental philosophy?

The only questions that matter are:
(a) Do you run controlled and systematic studies and use the resultant data to shed light on philosophical problems?
(b) Do you sometimes address the tension that exists between what philosophers say about intuition and human cognition, on the one hand, and what researchers are discovering about these things, on the other hand?

We could just define what it means to be an experimental philospher in terms of being the sort of person who could correctly answer 'yes' to both of these questions.

How does that work?

p.s. I should point out that the term 'x-phi' makes me cringe everytime I use it. But it gets tiresome writing experimental philosophy over and over again. Hell, not all experimental philosophers even like the label "experimental philosophy." Be that as it may, the worry about what falls under the term persists!

Clark Goble said...

I wonder how many of those critical of experimental philosophy are simply critical of appeals to intuitions in general? I'm pretty skeptical of appeals to intuition. Didn't Williamson say that intuitions are what philosophers give after they've run out of arguments?

Anyway, I suspect many of those critical simply have trouble with appeals to private intuition as well. Or else they wonder whether the surveys are so narrow as to not go far enough. i.e. if we're looking for universal intuitions we probably have to sample quite a few groups and cultures.

Thomas said...


But there is an entire project within experimental philosophy that grows out of Stich and Nisbett's early stuff on cognitive diversity. The experimental philosophers working on this project draw precisely the critical conclusion you draw with respect to intuition driven philosophy. Alexander, Bishop, Machery, Stich, Trout, Weinberg, Swain, Nichols, and others have relied on the gathering data on intuitions to cast doubt on their suitability for the basis of philosophical theorizing. Hence, it would not make sense for someone to dismiss experimental philosophy just because they happen to doubt the usefullness of intuitions for philosophizing. Indeed, at least in some corners, they will find birds of a feather.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Delightful comments, folks!

Clark: Although I agree with Thomas's response to your concerns as you expressed them in your comment, I also think many philosophers critical of "x-phi" have concerns in this general area that are not *quite* so easily addressed. There's a suspicion that what x-phi-ers are doing with intuitions depends on a mistaken conception of the role intuitions play in philosophy. (Jonathan Ichikawa's post tomorrow will have something to do with that, actually.) But how, exactly, they think x-phi-ers are mistaken probably varies quite a bit.

Part of the problem is that philosophers have done a shockingly poor job of articulating the role of intuition in philosophy. (Bealer is an exception here, but many find his positive view difficult to accept.) Fortunately, this is starting to become a hot topic (partly because of excitement, pro and con, about x-phi), and good stuff has been starting to come out recently....

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thomas -- thank you for your thoughtful (and generous) post! I more or less agree with everything you say in your first four paragraphs.

On the issue of my work in particular:

* Yes, I share with many x-phi-ers a mistrust of philosophical appeals to intuition, and much of my work is directed toward either verifying or discrediting those intuitions.

* In the beeper study about tactile experience, I am probably motivated fairly similarly to you in your work about the phenomenology of freedom. We both doubt the philosophical testimonials about the phenomenology and are looking for empirical evidence. My methodology, of course, is significantly different (and farther from prototypical x-phi).

* I agree that my essay with Gopnik is directly pertinent to the methodology of x-phi narrowly construed, and I'm delighted by the kind things you've said about it.

* I'd answer yes to both your questions (a) & (b) near the end. And on reflection, I like this defintion of x-phi quite a bit. Broader than my "narrow" definition, and narrower than my "broad" definition; picks out a (fairly) coherent movement, but not confined to a specific methodology. Sign me up!

Clark Goble said...

Thomas, note I'm not dissing experimental philosophy. I find it fascinating for precisely the reasons you mention - they give empirical weight to what many have long thought. However I also note that a lot of skeptics of experiment philosophy seem to be reacting largely out of ignorance. i.e. they've not read the results and diss the movement because of a skepticism of intuitions in general.

However you raise a good point. Is some skepticism of EP really due to folks wanting to keep intuitional arguments in a fashion that seems difficult to support? I don't know on that.

Eric, your point about philosophers not making clear the role of intuitions is a good one. There are many "blind spots" in arguments that are either ignored or taken for granted.