Is experimental philosophy useless? (Part I)

Some people think it is. Or actually worse than useless:

Richard Marshall: X-phi in particular has spent a lot of effort examining intuitions because they thought they did play a huge role in philosophical thinking – so have they been wasting their time? Did all those armchairs perish in vain?

Herman Cappelen: Yes, a complete waste of time. Philosophers don’t rely on intuitions when they philosophise so the project of studying intuitions isn’t relevant to anything we’re doing. But X-phi is worse than that: the movement has had very negative and paradoxical effects. It started out as a movement critical of what they took to be philosophers’ reliance on intuitions. So they attacked a non-existing practice. However, the popularity of that movement is today responsible for people starting to pay attention to intuitions in a way they never did before – they are in effect creating the practice they set out to destroy. Every time an experimental philosopher (or one of their fellow travellers) engage in X-phi, they make it true that a philosopher appeals to intuitions when doing philosophy. So they are the exception to the rule: they are the (only) philosophers who rely on intuitions when they philosophise. So the more of those we have in the profession, the more the profession changes into one in which intuitions (of the worse kind) play a role. Exactly the opposite of the goal e.g. Stephen Stich had when he started the movement.

How does the mistaken belief that philosophers use intuitions as evidence make experimental philosophy a waste of time, according to Cappelen? The story goes like this: experimental philosophers look at a philosophical text, they single out a particular proposition, call it p, that they believe is meant to support other propositions because it’s intuitive. Then they go out and empirically test how many people in different demographic groups actually agree that p and what influences the judgment that p. The problem is p is not meant to support other propositions because it’s intuitive in the philosophical text. Usually there’s an argument for p in the text, and we’re expected to accept p on the basis of this argument. Sometimes the argument is not there – but in this case p is a part of the pre-theoretic common ground, which has nothing to do with accepting something on the basis of its intuitiveness. Either way, trying to find out whether p is actually intuitive or what makes it intuitive is pointless.

Do I agree with all that? To a large extent, but not fully. I think there’s definitely a lot of x-phi that makes exactly this kind of mistake. For example, experimental philosophers like to test the so-called Gettier intuitions in different cultures, as they think Gettier intuitions play an important role in Gettier’s argument for the conclusion that knowledge isn’t justified true belief. And more broadly, they think that intuitions about what counts as knowledge in different situations play an important role in epistemology. But this is simply false, which means that by examining Gettier intuitions across cultures to find out what knowledge is experimental philosophers not only waste their time, but also score an own goal – the way Cappelen explains they do.

However in his comments under the previous post Joshua Knobe pointed me to a study that also examines Gettier judgments cross-culturally, but apparently for different reasons. The authors, Yuan Yuan and Minun Kim, say their results might confirm the hypothesis that there exists something we may call the innate concept of knowledge. This question is of course very different from the question Gettier wanted to answer. Whether Yuan and Kim are on the right track with the way they test their hypothesis depends on many things, but regardless of whether they are not, their approach seems to be immune to Cappelen’s criticism. Cappelen says that “philosophers don’t rely on intuitions when they philosophise”, but I think what he means is “philosophers don’t rely on intuitions when they philosophise in the way experimental philosophers – and many other people – portray it”. I may be wrong about this, but I don’t think he completely rules out the possibility of relying on intuitions in philosophy in some way. It seems to me that on some fairly rare occasions learning something about people’s intuitions can help us address philosophical problems, and Yuan and Kim’s study might be one example.

As there seems to be more x-phi work that falls under the category of “testing people’s intuitions in order to shed some light on the problem of innate knowledge” (for details, see the exchange under the previous post), we can conclude that some significant portion of x-phi is not necessarily useless – at least not in the sense Cappelen argues it is. And in addition to the innateness-related material, I can think of two more ways in which x-phi can make sense, but these are going to be discussed in Part II.

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