Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Psychology of Philosophy

"Experimental philosophy", as a movement within philosophy, has so far been almost entirely focused on testing people's intuitions and judgments about philosophical puzzle cases. In this post on the Underblog, I argue for a broader vision of experimental philosophy, including the possibility of experiments on:
* introspective claims about the structure of concious experience (e.g., beeper studies to test claims about ordinary lived experience)

* the causes (including the psychological and cultural factors) influencing philosophers' preferences for particular sorts of philosophical theories (e.g., studies of the psychological correlates of a preference for Kantianism over consequentialism in ethics)

* the real-life consequences of adopting or teaching particular philosophical theories (e.g., does teaching students utilitarianism, or Nietzsche, have any positive (or negative) effects on their behavior?)
I'll be presenting these ideas orally at the Experimental Philosophy Workshop pre-conference at the Society for Philosophy and Psychology meeting in Philadelphia next week. (The program shows my presentation title as "Introspection and Experiment", but I've broadened my topic and thus changed the title.)

Comments welcome!


  1. The second kind of question within the psychology of philosophy seems to me critical.

    Why some individuals choose some sort and not other sorts of philosophical theories according to his/her psychological profile could provide a better method not only for the academic profession of philosophy (qualitative assesment of carrer accomplishments and achivements of teachers and students) but for prevention of "bias" as well.

    For example, if some policy analysis group (goverment or other) needs to hire the services of a given political philosopher and this person has a marked psychological profile with inclinations toward utilitarism assertions and conceptions, and what is required is a more principled based approach the results of mature and solid "psychology of philosophy" may informs us not to hire that person.

    The "screening era" for the philsophical orientations with psychometric and philosophical studies, and even neuroimaging, begans here.

  2. Some discourses serve (and are served by) established power structures, some don't. Basic Marx, Foucault, much feminist criticism... if you're serious about the "culture" rubric. Constraints of language (does English lend itself to certain philosophizing, Russian to a different sort, etc.). The construction of professions and professional authority (one of my preoccupations re: Italian scholastic medical doctors, 1350-1450). Deep intellectual, social, economic trends in Anglo-American history. Internalist accounts (the direction of research and working out of problems a discourse community) vs. externalist (extramural political and economic shifts). Gender (why so majority male, when the French dept. isn't?) Etc., etc.

    You're biting off a lot there.

    (Forgive the lack of formation herein; busy day.)

  3. To what extent is this not re-inventing the wheel? This is exactly how psychology started as a discipline, as an empirical, experimental approach to what were considered philosophical issues.

    What's new?

  4. Great idea, Eric. And a nice coincidence: Some time ago, I wanted to post something along the lines of your second area (studying what rationality-independent factors influence philosophers to take on certain views). I even wanted to title my post "the psychology of philosophy"! But I never wrote the post, and now you scooped me. Well done. I'll put up a link at Brains.

  5. Thanks for all the nice comments, folks! (And for the link, Gualtiero.)

    (I agree, anon, that it's not new. Nietzsche, James, and Dewey all had projects that fit into the psychology of philosophy in the current sense.)

    As kboughan points out, it's a huge subject. Obviously, I can't try to do all these things myself!

  6. Hi Eric, when I went to register for the SPP, the experimental phil part was closed. I really would have liked to hear your work!

    I've got a number of papers in a related area, one of which in fact has the P of P in the title:
    - “The Psychology of Philosophy: Locke and Hume,”2004, in Alanen, L and Witt, C, Feminist Reflections on the History of Philosophy, Kluwer Academic Publishers.

    Among the questions I've wanted to ask are:
    1. To what extent is philosophy's self conception consistent with recent cognitive science;
    2. How and why do philosophical texts so often in fact fail to meet that self-conception, despite claims to the contrary.

    Now, one might think that there isn't such a thing as 'philosophy's self-concepton,' but just try questioning some features, and the unity behind the horrified responses is informative. E.g., just try looking critically at the thesis that all great philosophers aimed at producing a consistent text.

  7. LOL. Regarding that last assumption, it's surprising how many Chinese philosophers want to find unity and consistency even in the Inner Chapters of the Zhuangzi -- what seems to me an obviously disunified and inconsistent text!

    I'm sorry to hear the Experimental Philosophy session closed so quickly. Evidently, there has been huge demand we didn't expect. I guess we needed a larger room! Maybe the organizers wanted to keep it seminar-like? I'd have preferred to welcome all comers -- especially you!

  8. I was looking at The Philosophers' Magazine a moment ago about women and philosophy, and I was just reminded of this: Fewer women pursue philosophy as a major and as an academic field than men. It would be interesting to query women, however one would, on why they tend to choose other fields rather than philosophy. But I don't know how one would go about getting that data, since it seems like a messy process. For instance, having to figure out who considered it but didn't pursue it as a field, who took courses in it, and so on. Maybe figuring out who took courses but didn't pursue the major would be a start. Do you find that to be an interesting subject for experimental philosophy, or no?