Friday, November 09, 2007

What Is "Experimental Philosophy"?

Appeals to intuition have been central to analytic philosophy since at least the 1970s. Epistemologists rely on our intuitive judgments about whether someone looking at a real barn in (unbeknownst to her) Fake Barn Country knows that it's a barn she's seeing. Ethicists rely on our intuitive judgments about whether it's wrong to push someone in front of a runaway streetcar, killing him in order to save five others. Philosophers of mind rely on our intuitions about whether a cleverly enough designed machine would be conscious.

Several years ago, a number of young philosophers decided they were fed up with philosophers' armchair claims about "our" intuitions (especially when those claims contradicted each other). Such claims are empirically testable, they said, so let's test them! Hence "experimental philosophy" as a movement was born.

Experimental philosophy, so conceived, is a coherent and interesting movement -- even if it's debatable exactly how much polls of undergraduates about philosophical puzzles really tell us about deep philosophical questions.

But then the question arises: Some philosophers have done experiments that aren't a matter of polling intuitions. Should they, too, be called "experimental philosophers"? It turns out there aren't many such philosophers, but I happen to be one (e.g., this and this and this and this and this).

The consensus seems to be that "experimental philosophy" should be construed broadly to include people like me -- to include, basically, any philosopher who does experiments with an eye to philosophical issues. I'm honored to join the party (and the society and the blog and everything else!), but I'm concerned about this characterization of experimental philosophy. What if a psychologist runs an experiment with an eye to philosophical issues (as many have done)?

For example, I've given people beepers and asked about their stream of consciousness, with an eye to issues about the basic structure and epistemology of our experience (critiquing Descartes and James and Dennett and Siewert and many other philosophers). A psychologist could have done exactly the same thing, though -- and many have done similar things. If we count all such psychologists as experimental philosophers, then the movement is too big and broad to be a coherent entity. On the other hand, if we count me but not those psychologists, then it's hard to see how "experimental philosophy" could be a subdiscipline or movement defined by a set of research questions and methods. Instead, it would have to be some sort of sociologically defined movement in which departmental affiliation plays a key role. But is that what we want?


Matthew J. Brown said...

I have a very different worry about "Experimental Philosophy" than yours, and the others I've seen people fret over. Not, whether "X-Phi" counts as philosophy, or whether work like you're doing counts as "experimental philosophy" (or philosophy), but whether "X-Phi", as practiced by Knobe, Stich, and the others, really counts as "experimental"!

Perhaps I have a sort of fuddy-duddy based on having started off in physics, and not having spent a lot of time with the social sciences, but the claim of X-Phi to being experimental really rankles. What they're doing is no more an experiment than a marketing survey is! This is just to equate "experimental" with any old sense of "empirical," it seems to me.

It is true that there aren't many philosophers who actively do experiments, in a more robust sense of "experiments," but there are some, including yourself, and probably Pat Churchland and some of her students, though perhaps this would include a little bit more if we consider philosophers who actively collaborate with experimental scientists and rely on these collaborations in their philosophical work. And in any case, some such philosophers were using the term "experimental philosophy" long before the current movement (fad), as in the case of UCSD's "Experimental Philosophy Lab."

(Full disclosure: I'm at UCSD and have been a participant in the EPL, though I wouldn't say that my own work could reasonably be called "experimental," except as Dewey uses that word in the title to his Essays in Experimental Logic: a philosophy of experiment rather than an experimental philosophy.)

Anonymous said...

I do not see what is incorrect in having “experimental philosophy” being such a big umbrella term. I do not see why empirical philosophers and philosophical psychologists (biologists, neuroscientists, etc.) should not have this heading. Some would say that all science has emerged from philosophy, and that scientists who are interested in philosophical issues or philosophers doing empirical research (regardless of whether or not it is limited to polling undergrads) is quite natural. Where your concern arises, I believe, is in how modern departments are demarcated. Today we think of the disciplines, psychology, philosophy, biology, as all separated in a way in which we can get our Ph.D. in one. And yet, we are seeing that many new disciplines, interdisciplinary subjects, are emerging. The way I see it, experimental philosophy can be a new discipline all on its own (that is, not merely a “subdiscipline,” or “movement” within philosophy) taking philosophical scientists and empirical philosophers under its belt (the HPS department at Pittsburgh might be a first glimpse). After this new discipline enters as a new department, then we can have the coherent entities, research question and methods, you ask for, as the new discipline splits into new subdisciplines (just as psychology splits into cognitive psychology, social psychology, etc., and as philosophy splits into many areas that usually look like “philosophy of X”). What do you think?

Anonymous said...


I would like to say that what Knobe does is in the "robust" sense of "experimental." How his experiments are mere "marketing surveys" has to be shown. When attacking experimental philosophy, we should be mindful about which research programs or "subdisciplines" we are discussing. "Experimental philosophy is an big tent."

Anonymous said...

Seeing as nearly all work in experimental philosophy uses research designs that involve control and experimental groups, and the manipulation of some independent variable distinguishing those groups, I just don't see what sense there is in denying that the work is indeed generally "experimental". (I take it that this is not something done in your basic marketing survey or political poll.) What sort of definition of "experiment" are you working with, Matt, that would rule such things out?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the interesting comments, folks!

Matt: I agree that it's a bit strange that the "experimental philosophy" movement has not taken more notice of the UCSD lab of that name, and I also agree that some of their/our work is not "experimental" in the strictest sense of the term (though I agree with Wes and Anon that other of their/our work is). In some sense, the use of a label like this is about drawing boundaries, and academic boundaries are at least partly sociological and political. The question then, in my mind, is what boundary designates the most useful kind?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Part of me agrees with you, Wes. The other part thinks this:

"Experimental philosophy" -- and my own work in particular -- is deeply interdisciplinary, bringing together elements from psychology and from philosophy. And maybe there's nothing wrong with that, and no need to (or justification for) redrawing disciplinary lines so that this kind of work qualifies as belonging centrally to a coherent discipline of its own!

I do think, though, that interdisciplinary researchers are somewhat disadvantaged by the structure of academia, where either they have to deal with the expectations of two home departments, or they have only one home department that discounts the portion of their work that doesn't fit into the department's vision of the discipline.

Anonymous said...

Before reading the comments I want to respond to your final point regarding the difference between your X-Phil and certain questions that are dealt with theoretically psychologists. In essence the difference, as I understand it, is between philosophers and theorists in other disciplines. Your stated concern was the potential graying of the line between the two. I don't think that this is worth worrying about. As someone who does Aesthetics I quickly became aware that some of the most interesting stuff on aesthetics is not necessarily by philosophers. That does not necessarily make it less philosophical. After all that musicologists and art historians should have philosophical concerns is not surprising. It is even less so that some would choose to write on theories of art or music. I see little value in somehow excising these works as 'not-philosophical.'

Anibal Monasterio Astobiza said...

In its most essential core i see experimental philosophy as a fresh return to the basics. Reinvingorating philosophy as the "mother of all sciences" when philosophers were the only scientists trying to explain/predict and understand the structure of reality, physical or social.
Though as a movement it has only a couple of years functioning, when X-phi develops and mature, philosphers once again will be able to be taking seriously by some scientists in the hardnose scientific sphere and community.
With respect to some branch of your work Eric, it is totally X-phi.
Experimental philosophy can be defined in rough manners as any attempt to dilucidate philosophical matters with an empirical outlook and not only with the powress of reason and argumentation of one individual.

Anonymous said...

(Does the UCSD "Experimental Philosophy Laboratory" actually do any experiments? I thought they were more a kind of reading and discussion group.)

Anonymous said...

To anibal:

Why should philosophy care if it is taken seriously by the sciences?

This is not meant as a slam against x phi. If certain philosophers think that utilizing experimental procedures would be beneficial to producing good philosophy, then that is find. however if the point of x phi is to somehow impress the more serious and rigorous estranged sibling of science then I think that this is ridiculous. For one thing it implies that serious philosophy = x phi, and that prior to x phi there wasn't serious philosophy. it also seems to suggest that philosophical methods improve, which seems extremely problematic to me as well.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for your comments, Colin! I certainly wouldn't exclude the works of artists or psychologists as "not philosophical". I more or less agree with Gopnik's characterization of philosophy as just "very theoretical anything".

Yet philosophy as an academic discipline has a certain unity, sociologically and historically and in vocabulary, common references, and issues that are regarded as central.

Is there anything wrong with being interdisciplinary? I'm a little worried that part of what's going on in trying to define experimental philosophy as a subdiscipline is an assumption that calling oneself interdisciplinary isn't enough....

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon: I think there may be some experiments going on among UCSD EPLers, but I agree that doesn't seem to be the main activity of the group.

Anibal: Thanks for the kind words! Your characterization of X-Phi as "any attempt to elucidate philosophical matters with an empirical outlook" is appealing, but broad enough that it will include many more people, both inside and outside philosophy, than those who think of themselves as X-Phi-ers. For example, one can embrace such a view without actually doing any experiments oneself. Maybe that's the best way to go, but I don't think it's the original intent of the label.

Anibal Monasterio Astobiza said...

To colin:

Well during certain periods in the heydays of philosophy of mind that was revolutionizes by the cogntive and biological revolution of the 50´s and 70´s (Chomsky, information era in biology and AI...) some philosophers in conferences were denounce by scientists to be only chatting about the meaning of words rather than the real substance of problems. Philosophy not need to impress science becuase philosophy is science, but due to academic, administrative and enven cultural factors some divide exist in the colective mind to separate the humanities from the natural sciences. Philosophy is theoretical but also empirical becuase when theorize cogently it strive the creation of experiments and applications. The image that philosophers have in some circles (in less circles each day fortunately) is that of a contemplative man in his ivory tower desconnected of the real world.
As a final remark if philosophy is not doing science we will back to talk about "elan vital" caloric stuff, heaven circles or chimeras...with very logical argumentation but without flesh.