The myth of “the method of cases”

“This much should be uncontroversial: the method of cases plays an important role in contemporary philosophy” write David Colaço, Markus Kneer, Joshua Alexander and Édouard Machery. There are numerous articles and even entire books about the method of cases, many of them denouncing it as unreliable. What is remarkable about them is that they rarely bother to explain what the method is. Usually all we get is a list of the alleged paradigm examples of its use. In one of the previous posts, I mentioned three: Chalmers’s zombies, Thomson’s violinist and Gettier cases. There are many more: Searle’s Chinese Room, Putnam’s Twin Earth, Nozick’s experience machine, Burge’s arthritis-in-the-thigh, Frankfurt cases, trolley cases, Lehrer’s Mr Truetemp, Jackson’s Mary the colour scientist, Kripke’s Gödel the thief, Goldman’s fake barns, Dretske’s mules disguised as zebras, the list goes on.

But what is it that they all have in common? One of the scarce attempts at a definition is provided by Machery in his recent book, Philosophy Within Its Proper Bounds:

Cases are descriptions of actual or hypothetical situations, and philosophical cases are cases put forward by philosophers. Philosophical cases are almost always meant to elicit a judgment or some other mental state about the situations they describe.

Now, this is really bad. First of all, the “put forward by philosophers” bit cannot be meant literally. Machery is a philosopher, but when he’s discussing his holiday plans, or what he had for dinner last night, he’s not putting forward a philosophical case – at least not necessarily. On the other hand, when two plumbers talk about, say, whether a psychopath murderer should be held responsible for his actions, they’re putting forward a philosophical case. The fact they have no formal philosophical education is completely irrelevant. Maybe by “put forward by philosophers” Machery means something like “put forward by philosophers in philosophy journals”? Well, there are problems with this qualification too. Let’s put this aside though. Let’s suppose there is a reliable way of telling the difference between a philosophical case and a non-philosophical case. There are still more serious issues with Machery’s definition.

The main one is it’s hopelessly broad. Pretty much everything philosophers do consists in describing situations, hypothetical and actual, and making judgments about them. Maybe by “eliciting judgments” Machery means something different than “making judgments”? But what could it be? I guess some would say that elicited judgments are always intuitions, while judgments that are simply made are not. The problem is Machery explicitly rejects this idea. He argues that to call the elicited judgments intuitions is to mischaracterise the method. Which brings us to a dilemma: either Machery is right and pretty much everything counts as the method of cases, or the intuition advocates are right and nothing counts as the method of cases – this is because there is no method of using intuitions as evidence in philosophy.

In other words, Machery may sort of be right, but in this case saying that philosophers rely on the method of cases would be a bit like saying that philosophers rely on the method of using language. Of course they do, but there’s no point calling it a method. Worse still, this makes Machery’s argument self-refuting. The upshot of Philosophy Within Its Proper Bounds is that the method of cases can never give us reliable answers to philosophical questions. But if we accept Machery’s definition of the method of cases, it follows that Machery is using the method of cases to repudiate the method of cases. He describes situations, hypothetical and actual, and makes judgments about those situations, practically on every page of his book.

Here someone might object “Ok, perhaps Machery gets the method of cases wrong, but this doesn’t mean someone else doesn’t get it right.” My reply would be: fine, show me this someone. I’m simply unaware of any better accounts. Many philosophers suggest that the method of cases has something to do with thought experiments – cases either simply are thought experiments, or are based on thought experiments in some way. Apparently “thought experiments” are less vague than “descriptions of situations”. This may give us some hope. So what are thought experiments then? To find out, I opened The Routledge Companion to Thought Experiments, “an invaluable guide and reference source to this multifaceted subject”. In the introduction, Michael T. Stuart, Yiftah Fehige and James Robert Brown write:

While philosophical and scientific thought experiments have stolen most of the scholarly spotlight, the scope of thought experiments grows substantially when we recognize the many works of art that we can fruitfully characterize as thought experiments. These might include paintings such as Jackson Pollock’s “Number One”; novels such as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, William Shakespeare’s Henry V, King Lear and Hamlet, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and E. M. Forster’s Howards End; and films including The Matrix and 2001: A Space Odyssey (see Carroll 2002; Wartenberg 2007; Camp 2009; Davies 2012, this volume; Elgin 1993, 2014). It might also be useful to discuss the creation and appreciation of art as a kind of thought experiment.

Besides humanistic, scientific and artistic pursuits, thought experiments are deeply important for ordinary life (Nersessian 2007). On an inclusive conception of “thought experiment,” simply planning out a busy day might require several; figuring out how best to get from one place to another, deciding what to eat, etc. Thought experiments and repeated visualizations may also be used in therapy, for example, to overcome phobias (Gendler 2004).

Pollock’s thought experiment. Wally Gobetz (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

So it turns out even Pollock’s paintings are now thought experiments. I was hoping for something more concrete than “descriptions of situations”, but what I’m getting is less concrete – Machery’s “descriptions” are at least propositional. Of course there also exist other, less inclusive accounts. They mention a number of features that thought experiments are supposed to have, like being a narrative or having independent and dependent variables – just like empirical experiments. However, as far as I can tell, none of those more restrictive definitions can be very helpful in terms of making sense of the method of cases. If we’re after any difference between the paradigm cases listed above and other instances of philosophical practice, then fair enough, we might find something – for example, the former typically involve some sort of mental imagery. But if we’re looking for a difference that would justify calling the paradigm cases examples of a distinct philosophical method – then I’m not optimistic at all.

If I’m right about this, how is it possible that so many philosophers firmly believe in the myth of the method of cases? Herman Cappelen and Max Deutsch in their review of a recent book by Avner Baz (yet another ill-concieved attack on the method of cases) argue that it’s the lazy, superficial attitude common in contemporary metaphilosophy that is to blame:

The large majority of contemporary methodologists approach philosophy much like philosophers of science approached science prior to Kuhn and Feyerabend. It’s dominated by a simplistic top-down approach with very little detailed focus on the rich and varied practice of philosophizing. Massive generalizations are made based on a handful of examples and there’s a lack of careful attention to the nuances of what philosophers actually do. On our view, there is no single Method of Philosophy. Nor is there some small set of Core Methods. There’s also no such thing as ‘the method of cases’: if this denotes anything, it’s simply enormously varied efforts to investigate interesting aspects of the world.

Do I agree with all this? I’m not sure. What I’m sure about though is that the proponents of the method of cases should either finally explain what it is or stop banging on about it.

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