A Modest Proposal

Experimental-philosophy-joshua-knobe-paperback-cover-art Antti Kauppinen over at the Experimental Philosophy blog:

I was catching up on this blog just now, and noticed that the old question about the identity of X-Phi came up in several posts and comments. Perhaps this is enough of an excuse for me to made a modest proposal. There is, of course, plenty written about the relationship between X-Phi and more traditional philosophy. I think the simplest way to approach it is to ask whether it is psychology, and if not, why not? (After all, the disciplinary identity of psychology is a lot clearer than that of philosophy.) To lay my cards on the table, I think it is: both the methods it uses and the questions it addresses are those of empirical psychology. This is not, of course, to say that X-Phi studies are necessarily philosophically uninteresting – I agree with Tamler (sort of) that such issues of relevance must be settled in piecemeal fashion. But since the two disciplines have distinct questions and methods, it is important to avoid the sort of confusion that easily arises (and has indeed arisen) from using the same or similar terms for different types of inquiry. So I will advocate that people begin to describe themselves as doing psychology of philosophy or of intuitive judgments when that’s what they do. The label ‘experimental philosophy’ and talk of ‘philosophical experiments’ has generated a lot of heat and no light. The admirable modesty of many smart X-Phiers is incompatible with the alleged continuity with the philosophical tradition.

First of all, I hope it’s not controversial to define psychology as the science that studies how the mind actually works. I don’t know what else psychology could be. (Perhaps it also has some limited otherworldly ambitions.) To answer questions about how the mind actually works scientifically, what is needed is systematic observation and controlled experiments of all sorts, including surveys, lab experiments, studies of the brain, and so on. Now, according to Josh Knobe, X-Phi studies how the mind actually works. It does so by way of systematic observation and controlled experiments of all sorts, including surveys, lab experiments, and studies of the brain, among others. Ergo, X-Phi is a branch of psychology that specializes in how the mind actually works when we make judgments about philosophically interesting topics.

At this point Josh would likely say, as he has recently often done, that philosophers, especially prior to the 20th century, did make claims about how the mind actually works, so this is actually just a return to the classical tradition. (There may also be an underlying narrative of progress: put in my terms, the suggestion is that philosophy has always been psychology, but only now it is done properly and scientifically.) Behind this response, there may be a causal hypothesis: certain misguided developments within philosophy (maybe Moore, Russell, Wittgenstein, Husserl) led to an aberration that has now finally run its course.

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