A group of leading contributors to and sympathizers with experimental philosophy responded to my invitation to comment on the recent article in Slate and the critique of experimental philosophy by David Velleman (Philosophy, NYU). Their response follows:
Responding to a recent article in Slate, David Velleman decries what he calls the “newest philosophical fad,” – the body of research sometimes referred to as “experimental philosophy.” While not all of us embrace the label “experimental philosophy,” all of us admire the sort of work Velleman appears to have in mind, so it may prove useful to correct some mistaken impressions about the field that Velleman’s critique might engender.
As we read him, Velleman expresses two concerns about experimental philosophy. The first is that those who work in this area advocate “substituting [empirical findings] for philosophy altogether.” We have no idea who Velleman has in mind; all of us reject such a draconian substitution, and some of us have explicitly rejected it in print. (See, for example, Doris & Stich, 2005.) Rather, we argue that empirical work of various sorts may complement other forms of philosophical inquiry – a methodological predilection that Velleman himself shares.
Velleman’s second concern is that “unsuspecting readers” may be unaware that “the ‘discoveries’ touted in the piece in Slate are not exactly news to traditional philosophers.” We believe that Velleman is mistaken. One of the findings discussed in the Slate story (and illustrated with a rather tasteless cartoon!) was Jonathan Haidt’s discovery that low socioeconomic status (SES) individuals judge harmless actions which evoke disgust to be morally wrong, while high SES individuals do not judge them to be morally wrong. Another example mentioned in Slate was the finding by Machery et al. that English speakers in Hong Kong and English speakers (of European background) in the USA had dramatically different intuitions about Kripke’s famous Gödel/Schmidt thought experiment. A third much discussed finding, not alluded to in Slate, is that English speakers of European cultural background and English speakers of East Asian cultural background report very different intuitions about “Gettier-cases” of the sort that brought about a sea change in epistemologists’ thinking in the middle of the 20th century. To the best of our knowledge, none of these discoveries were old news to “traditional philosophers”.
The work done by experimentally inclined philosophers is relevant to numerous philosophical projects. Velleman himself concedes that “it is useful to know what most people think about intentional action and moral responsibility” because “in philosophizing on these topics, we can’t stray too far from what people think.” Presumably he would say much the same about knowledge and reference. Anyone with such convictions, it seems obvious, should be concerned to understand what the actual folk beliefs are, rather than resting content with philosophers’ speculations on these matters, buttressed by the dubious practice of assuming that one’s own intuitions are shared by the rest of humankind. If, as Velleman acknowledges, “it is useful to know what most people think” then there is every reason to pursue the sort of empirical work that experimentally inclined philosophers have been engaged in. In addition to telling us when professional intuition is at odds with folk intuition, experimental work can shed light on the ways in which the judgments made by both philosophers and lay people may be biased, distorted, or otherwise fallible. (See, for example, Greene, in press.) And surely this too is something that philosophers should know.
Of course, a number of the hypotheses that experimental philosophers have explored about “what most people think,” or how they go about making ascriptions of moral responsibility, intentionality or knowledge, have been suggested by “prominent philosophers.” And as Velleman notes,these prominent philosophers “didn't use any data that required approval from the Human Subjects Review Board”. But Velleman’s comments under this heading suggest what we submit is a deeply problematic view about what counts as reasonable evidence in this area. “Traditional” philosophers can use a variety of methods, including consulting their own intuition, to develop hypotheses about the factors that influence people’s judgments on a variety of philosophically important matters. And some of the hypotheses proposed by these philosophers have been brilliant and prescient. But to suggest, as Velleman does, that these philosophers have discovered “that people's description of an action as ‘intentional’ depends on their assessment of the harms or benefits that resulted from it, and whether they were produced reliably or by chance” is at best seriously misleading. What traditional philosophers discovered were some very interesting and important hypotheses. To discover whether these hypotheses are true requires systematic empirical evidence of the sort that traditional philosophers, in most cases, simply do not have.
To conclude, we suggest – and we are confident Velleman would agree – that discussion of a scholarly research program will be most productive when it engages the research itself, rather than journalistic portrayals such as the Slate article. Readers who are interested in learning more about “experimental philosophy” will find a representative collection of articles here.
John M. Doris (Washington University in St. Louis)
Joshua D. Greene (Princeton University)
Paul E. Griffiths (University of Queensland)
Gilbert Harman (Princeton University)
Joshua Knobe (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)
Edouard Machery (University of Pittsburgh)
Ron Mallon (University of Utah)
Thomas Nadelhoffer (Dickinson College)
Eddy Nahmias (Georgia State University)
Shaun Nichols (University of Utah)
Jesse Prinz (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)
Walter P. Sinnott-Armstrong (Dartmouth College)
Stephen Stich (Rutgers University)
Manuel Vargas (University of San Francisco)
Jonathan M. Weinberg (Indiana University)
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