Sound and Fury

Signifying nothing

Experimental Philosophy

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I didn’t know google had a “blog search” thing. So I tried it out. I searched for “philosophy of science” (obviously) One of the results was about experimental philosophy. I read it and decided I don’t like “X-Phi” (which is the annoying name that these people have chosen to give to their approach). Bristol university has its own x-phi page here. I mention this out of some kind of misplaced loyalty, not out of any approval for such an endeavour.

Here is some experimental philosophy in action. And here is an NYTimes article about it. It contains the following passage which I think is marvelous:

Colleagues in biology have P.C.R. machines to run and microscope slides to dye; political scientists have demographic trends to crunch; psychologists have their rats and mazes. We philosophers wave them on with kindly looks. We know the experimental sciences are terribly important, but the role we prefer is that of the Catholic priest presiding at a wedding, confident that his support for the practice carries all the more weight for being entirely theoretical.

I don’t take issue with what these people are doing. I just wonder whether the label philosophy really applies… I mean what makes this new experimental philosophy philosophy, rather than, say anthropology or psychology or political science? Obviously philosophers should take empirical findings into consideration. Kant’s view that Euclidean geometry is necessarily the only possible geometry, and therefore necessarily the geometry of the world is cleary untenable in our post-elliptic geometry, post-Minkowski spacetime world. Any number of examples could be given here. But philosophy is still somehow separated off from empirical science. Of course you could just criticise me for having an old-fashioned view of the nature of philosophy. Armchair theorising is out of favour.

OK, here is the problem; what can the results of these polls tell us? If they tell us that some notion, X, is actually pretty much universal, then  philosophers are allowed to say things like “it is clear that X” or ” most people would agree that X.” But if everyone agrees with X, it’s already clear that we’re allowed to assert it. No experiment is needed to demonstrate that everyone thinks X is true. Everybody already knows that: X is pretty damn obvious, right? If the poll gives more ambiguous results, it is unlikely that the notion under scrutiny is the kind of thing philosophers would go about asserting without justification. So this Experimental Philosophy might take its questions from philosophical literature, but its methods don’t seem to fit with philosophical practice.

I’m stressing the philosophical part. Obviously it is interesting to see what people think about the truth value of sentences like “the king of France is bald” or “the king of France is not on a state visit to Prussia” but is it really philosophy to go around asking people?


Written by Seamus

July 18, 2008 at 3:03 am

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