According to its (official?) twitter account, experimental philosophy, aka x-phi, is “an interdisciplinary field that uses the collection of empirical data to shed light on philosophical issues.” In what is often cited as “the first experimental philosophy study” Jonathan Weinberg, Shaun Nichols and Stephen Stich presented groups of Westerners and East Asians with some well-known epistemological problems and concluded there is a difference in terms of what they think counts as knowledge. Since 2001 countless similar, questionnaire-based and non-questionnaire-based studies have been published. Experimental philosophers contrast this kind of empirical work with what they call “armchair philosophy”, which is, as they suggest, deficient in some way. Hence their logo, the burning armchair.
There are many different accounts of what armchair philosophy is supposed to be exactly. It’s usually claimed that it’s non-empirical, or a priori, or has to do with analysing concepts, or uses intuitions as evidence, or searches for metaphysical necessities, or relies on introspection. In any case, the general idea is that many philosophers just sit in their armchairs and think, and there must be something wrong with trying to solve philosophical problems this way.
It’s also often claimed that armchair philosophy is mainstream. For example, in their “Experimental Philosophy Manifesto” Joshua Knobe and Shaun Nichols argue that the rise of analytic philosophy in the 20th century “heightened interest in more technical questions that could be addressed from the armchair”*, which they regard “as a highly regrettable development.” Then they advertise x-phi as the remedy to this situation.
What can be wrong with their idea? My beef with experimental philosophers is that what they call armchair philosophy is, I think, a caricature. They seem to be opposed to something that doesn’t exist. The problem they address is therefore a pseudoproblem, and the solution they offer doesn’t solve anything.
To see why, let me first point out there are dozens of straightforward examples of relying on empirical data to make philosophical points in contemporary analytic philosophy. Take, say, Peter Singer’s argument for veganism. The argument is based on biological data concerning animals’ capacity for pain and suffering and their behavioural needs. Or consider the fine-tuning argument for the existence of God, advanced by people like Robin Collins. Its premises are full of detailed empirical data from physics, having to do with values of physical constants and initial conditions of the universe. Or think of Robert Kane, who argues that quantum events in our brains can explain how libertarian free will is possible. Or take Thomas Kuhn who appeals to historical data concerning scientific discoveries to make his point about progress in science. There’s an awful lot of 20th century philosophy that is both very armchair (since philosophers don’t carry out any experiments themselves) and very empirical (since they rely on empirical results obtained by others) at the same time.
Here experimental philosophers might reply: “Ok, this may be mainstream philosophy, it may be done from the armchair, but it’s not what we refer to as armchair stuff. If you look into other instances of philosophical practice, especially in epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of mind or philosophy of language, you’ll discover cases of purely conceptual, a priori arguments. And that’s what we’re opposed to.”
This is, admittedly, a hypothesis about philosophical practice that is worth testing. However it’s important to remember it’s only one of many possible positions, and one that is not terribly popular outside x-phi. Philosopher of language Martin Davies argues that there is a whole spectrum of views on the role of the empirical in semantics, and consequently on the relation between philosophy and science:
Towards one end of a spectrum of possible views is a position that says that the only questions about language and mind that are susceptible of rational investigation are questions that belong to the sciences of language and mind. According to this position the business of the philosophy of language and mind is simply to hand all the substantive questions over to cognitive science. We might call this first position cognitive scientism. (…)
Towards the opposite end of the spectrum is a position that maintains that the philosophy of language and mind offers a distinctive methodology for investigating a class of substantive questions about the notions that figure in our everyday thinking about linguistic and mental matters. The occupants of this position say that cognitive science has little or nothing to contribute to the philosopher’s project of plotting the contours of our conceptual scheme. Let us call this second position philosophical isolationism.
Experimental philosophers generally think that armchair philosophy as a practice is based on the assumption of isolationism (and that isolationist distinct methodology is purely a priori). There are two problems with this position though. First, even if it’s correct and armchair philosophy is, or tries to be, a priori in some sense, it’s not clear why being a priori should be understood as its flaw. Take mathematics, the ultimate example of a priori activity. I think we can all agree it’d be pretty daft to tell mathematicians to burn their armchairs, put on lab coats and start conducting empirical experiments. So if it’s ok for mathematicians to stay in their armchairs, why is not ok for philosophers? Experimentalists have answers to this question, but they all seem inadequate. For example, they’d say things like “when philosophers use the method of cases, they assume they can know people’s intuitions without leaving their armchairs, but this is impossible”. However philosophers usually don’t try to appeal to people’s intuitions, so they don’t need to care what they are, and the so-called method of cases doesn’t even exist.
Secondly, the more basic problem is that whether philosophy is actually done within the isolationist framework is very controversial, at best. I think there are good reasons to reject this idea. There are quite powerful arguments, put forward by philosophers like Quine or Williamson, for the claim that this kind of philosophical activity, sometimes called conceptual analysis, is not even possible. If those arguments are sound, there is simply no way to peel off the empirical from the conceptual. And when we examine the alleged typical examples of conceptual analysis, it turns out, in my experience at least, there’s always some sort of empirical knowledge that plays an important role in the argument. It’s not necessarily scientific knowledge, very often it’s a kind of knowledge that we gain from everyday experience of the world, but it’s empirical nonetheless.
If experimental philosophers disagree with this, they should have a response to the arguments I’ve just mentioned. The problem is they don’t, as far as I know. They seem to just assume that a priori conceptual analysis is not only possible, but widely practised in contemporary philosophy, and that it’s basically identical with what they call “armchair philosophy”. I agree with Max Deutsch, who argues this picture of philosophy is heavily skewed:
It is now common to hear the dispute between xphiles and those who defend analytic philosophy and its methods characterized as one over whether philosophy can be pursued “from the armchair.” (…) the characterization of the dispute in terms of those for or against armchair philosophy is misleading in at least two ways. First, the characterization wrongly suggests that armchair philosophy is unscientific, or unconcerned with empirical results related to its subject matter. Second, the characterization unfairly casts xphi as a curative—a pro-science balm designed to counteract the tendency to simply sit in an armchair and think.
Since typical survey-style xphi methods are clearly empirical, casting xphiles as opposed to armchair philosophy suggests that armchair methods are not empirical. But this is not true. By definition, a priori methods are not empirical. But sitting in an armchair does not prevent one from appealing to things one has learned a posteriori.
Now: what happens when you try to solve the non-existent problem of lack of empirical data? One thing that might happen is that you start collecting irrelevant empirical data. And this seems to be exactly the problem with a lot of x-phi. For example, experimentalists spend a lot of time studying people’s judgments about knowledge – they try to determine how they differ across demographic groups and what influences them. But when it comes to explaining how their results can help us answer traditional epistemological questions, like “What is knowledge?”, the answers are either lacking or confused. And this makes me think that while armchair philosophy definitely “uses the collection of empirical data to shed light on philosophical issues”, it’s far from clear whether experimental philosophy does it too.
* Note that there are actually two different, incompatible claims being made here. One is that there is only a narrow range of philosophical problems that can be addressed from the armchair and analytic philosophers are too focused on those problems, while largely ignoring everything else. The other claim is that the problems that analytic philosophers address from the armchair cannot, or shouldn’t be, addressed from the armchair. These two claims seem a bit jumbled together in the Manifesto. Anyway, my point is that both are false.