X-phi in the NYT

Courtesy of Brian Leiter's blog comes a link to an article by Kwame Anthony Appiah in the New York Times about X-phi, or as it's better known, Experimental Philosophy. This is an approach to thought experiments that tries to find out what people actually think before launching into the sorts of armchair theorising for which philosophers are famous (or infamous).

X-phi was started by, among others, Stephen Stich, at Rutgers, as a way to see whether the sorts of intuition pumps philosophers use in their arguments really hold true. It has become very hot in ethics, with undergraduates being tested for their moral intuitions before they are corrupted by philosophers (first year undergraduates must be the most studied tribe of them all). It looks to be a key topic in the new Springer journal Neuroethics, edited by my friend Neil Levy.

In the philosophy of science, X-phi has been employed extensively to test what scientists of various flavours, ages and locales think about scientific key terms like "gene". Rather than relying on the published work, which as everyone who publishes in journals knows is often bowdlerized, Paul Griffiths and Karola Stotz have censused many biologists to see what they actually mean by "gene" and the results are interesting.

The justification for this is that there is not a single epistemological community, in science or ethics or any other domain of philosophy. Instead there are several epistemes (as the term is used in French philosophy), and so appealing to intuitions depends crucially on whose intuitions are supposed to count. It comes as no surprise that the intuitions of philosophers are not always those of everybody else.

X-phi will continue to inform philosophy for a while, I warrant. Whether it will remain philosophical, or slide into another kind of social science-style attitudinal surveys depends very much on what philosophers who use it do with it. In other words, by my lights, it is a tool, not the end, of modern philosophy.

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Forgive my ignorance, but what is the difference between 'science' and 'experimental philosophy'? They both draw conclusions from empirical evidence don't they?

Didn't this argument happen about 100 years ago with the resulting "experimental philosophy" being PSYCHOLOGY? All of the experiments described in the NY Times piece are class cognitive psychology paradigms. Am I missing something here?

Yes, it happened back then. It will no doubt happen again. The point, though, is that this time it is happening in ethics and in philosophy of science, which is new(ish). Cognitive Science is not so far off being philosophy anyway (at least, the way I teach it). At some point the empirical stuff takes over and we start to make empirical hypotheses and test them, at which point it ceases to be philosophy, but since traditional analytic philosophy (and to an extent the phenomenological and continental traditions) rely on the impressionistic intuitions of the philosophiser, this is a welcome development in anchoring some aspects of philosophy to what people really do think is appropriate or intuitive.

The difference lies on the fact that philosophers perform those surveys to see if their philosophical quests depart from the same premises and target the same concepts that everybody has.

I prefer 'empirically informed philosophy' to experimental philosophy. For one thing, I think the survey methodology is very limited; there is more fun stuff to be done using the standard tools of cognitive and social psychology. For another, there is already a wealth of material out there ripe for philosophical exploration. Much of my own work draws on neuroscience and psychology, and is open to empirical refutation for that reason. But I haven't (yet) actually done experimental work myself.

By Neil Levy (not verified) on 09 Dec 2007 #permalink

Philosophy has always appealed to data in the sciences (even Hume did, I think). What I find interesting here is that it is data collected in order to elucidate philosophical arguments. For myself, I still prefer the old fashioned kind of analysis - relying on the documentary evidence because it is usually that which is influential on others. In the philosophy of science, both approaches are, I think, useful. In Science and Technology Studies, this approach is almost essential, or something like it.

The justification for this is that there is not a single epistemological community, in science...Instead there are several epistemes

A statement that confirms my interpretations of the history of science and forms a central concept in my own burgeoning philosophy of science I call it "patchwork pluralism".

Cognitive Science is not so far off being philosophy anyway (at least, the way I teach it).

Then you are teaching it incorrectly.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 12 Dec 2007 #permalink