What is Experimental Philosophy?


[Posted by BR]

The CFP we just posted from Essays in Philosophy makes passing reference to “Experimental Philosophy,” but in my experience, I’ve found that this is a phrase — and philosophical movement — that is (understandably) not familiar to many who work in literary studies, even among those of us who have a keen interest in recent developments within analytic philosophy. So, I thought it might be useful to post links to some resources about experimental philosophy, as an aid to those who would like to learn more about it (below, I also say just a bit about why experimental philosophy might interest those who are invested in OLP).

In a forthcoming essay by Joshua Knobe (a leading figure in this burgeoning new movement), entitled “What is Experimental Philosophy?,” Knobe begins with this:

Since the earliest days of analytic philosophy, it has been a common practice to  appeal to intuitions about particular cases. Typically, the philosopher presents a hypothetical situation and then makes a claim of the form: ‘In this case, we would surely say….’ This claim about people’s intuitions then forms a part of an argument for some more general theory about the nature of our concepts or our use of language.

One puzzling aspect of this practice is that it so rarely makes use of standard empirical methods. Although philosophers quite frequently make claims about ‘what people would ordinarily say,’ they rarely back up those claims by actually asking people and looking for patterns in their responses. In recent years, however, a number of philosophers have tried to put claims about intuitions to the test, using experimental methods to figure out what people really think about particular hypothetical cases.

Reading this, and similar statements by others associated with experimental philosophy, I cannot help but be reminded of critics of OLP like Benson Mates, who many years ago argued that disputes between practitioners of OLP (like Austin and Ryle) about “what we would say” in a given situation could only be rigorously settled by the use of empirical methods, such as surveys (a data-gathering method that is, in fact, now commonly employed by experimental philosophers, in order “to put claims about intuitions to the test”). Cavell’s 1957 essay, “Must We Mean What We Say?” was, of course, written as a response to Mates’ critique of OLP procedures, and I take the contemporary phenomenon of experimental philosophy as but one more sign that Cavell’s subtle and sophisticated defense of OLP-appeals to “what we say when” is as timely and necessary today as it was when first published over five decades ago. It is this historical and philosophical parallel, or echo, that led me to think that a post about x-phi (as the movement is sometimes called) would not only be relevant to the concerns of this blog, but potentially of some interest to its regular readers.

To find out about x-phi, the best place to start may be an article Kwame Anthony Appiah published in the New York Times on this movement. You can read it by clicking here. Appiah has developed his thoughts about the place of experimental methods in philosophy (particularly in moral philosophy) at greater length in the following book:

Experiments in Ethics (Mary Flexner Lecture Series of Bryn Mawr College)

Kwame Anthony Appiah, Experiments in Ethics (Harvard Univ. Press, 2008)

Another good place to go is the Experimental Philosophy page maintained by Joshua Knobe (Appiah discusses Knobe’s work in his N.Y. Times piece). On this page Knobe has put together a useful set of links for those who are new to experimental philosophy and want to get a quick sense of what it is all about, including overviews (including his own piece, “What is Experimental Philosophy?,” quoted above), links to coverage in the popular media (like Appiah’s), as well as some theoretical critiques.

To see a video of a conversation in which Knobe discusses experimental philosophy (among other things), click here. To skip right to the segment of this conversation in which Knobe explains what experimental philosophy is and how it works, click here.

Examples of x-phi can also be found in the following essay collection:

Experimental Philosophy

Quick Add

Joshua Knobe and Shaun Nichols, eds., Experimental Philosophy (Oxford Univ. Press, 2008)

Finally, should you want to find out more about x-phi, you can check out the website of the Experimental Philosophy Society and the Experimental Philosophy blog.

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