Monday, February 11, 2008

Appiah on Experimental Philosophy: Damning Praise?

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Appiah’s New York Times article on experimental philosophy. I have to confess that I am a little surprised: on one reading, Appiah is attempting to gently curb the (possible) ambitions of experimental philosophy by showings its limits (a critique of experimental philosophical reason, if you will). But on another reading—the one that seems most natural to me—Appiah spends a page praising experimental philosophy, then suddenly turns the tables by first showing that you still need traditional “armchair” philosophy to clarify the results (for two reasons, that I’ll get to in a moment), and really goes on to suggest that experimental philosophy as such is completely unnecessary. Though this isn’t the way he puts it, my impression from the article is that his point ends up being: experimental philosophy is kind of cool, and it’s based on a philosophically important idea, but it’s that idea—not the experimentation—that matters.

Why do we still need the armchair philosophy? Referring to Joshua Knobe’s well-known work on intention attribution, Appiah puts it thus:

although experiments can illuminate philosophical arguments, they don’t settle them. For instance, is it a good thing that we attribute intention in the curious way that we do, and if so, why? (Is the Knobe effect a bug or a feature?) You can conduct more research to try to clarify matters, but you’re left having to interpret the findings; they don’t interpret themselves.

This looks like Appiah is giving one reason why experimental philosophy cannot replace—and, really calls for—traditional armchair philosophy, but there are in fact two reasons here. First, the most obvious reason: data is meaningless without interpretation. Everybody recognizes this, I think; it’s the reason experimental philosophers argue about their results and perform further surveys to try to close in on how the intuitions being studied are interconnected. But second, there is a philosophical reason, which Appiah raises with the question, “is it a good thing that we attribute intention in the curious way that we do”? This reason is distinct from the first one, because interpreting what one’s findings mean is different from what this second question calls for, which is not interpretation but normative analysis. Philosophy isn’t simply about clarifying our intuitions; it is also about asking whether having the intuitions we do is reasonable or justifiable or desirable. And this is the sort of question that cannot be settled experimentally, as far as I can tell. (Survey question: “What is your intuition about this? Do you think it is reasonable for you to have this intuition?” That wouldn’t help: respondents could answer the second question, but they’d just be giving a second, higher order intuition with regard to the first one. And then we’d have to ask, once again, whether the higher order intuition is reasonable or justifiable or desirable to have.)

Now, here is a bit from Appiah’s concluding praise of experimental philosophy:

The best work in experimental philosophy would be valuable and suggestive even if it skipped the actual experiments… X-phi helps keep us honest and enforces a useful modesty about how much weight to give one’s personal hunches, even when they’re shared by the guy in the next office.

And this, really, is the only thing Appiah seems to say in favor of experimental philosophy. But it isn’t much by way of praise. Certainly Appiah does not say that experimental philosophy has no value—what he is says is that it would be valuable even without the experimentation. And its value, on his analysis, is that it keeps philosophers from taking their own intuitions to be obvious truths. But this isn’t a praise of experimental philosophy at all: certainly philosophers can and should be wary of taking their own intuitions, even if their acquaintances share them, to be universal or natural or obvious. But we can take that point away without handing out any surveys. If so, then what is the value of experimental philosophy qua experimental philosophy? Appiah doesn’t seem to say anything about that. Rather, he seems to do away with the sort of answer that might come to mind.

In a case of competing intuitions, he writes,

Both intuitions have their advocates, and the right answer, if there is one, isn’t necessarily to be determined by a head count.

This seems to be an overly conciliatory gesture: it’s not that a head count doesn’t necessarily determine which intuition is right; it isn’t clear how a head count could serve this purpose at all. Genuine philosophical problems just aren’t problems to solve by a head count, because head counts don’t solve normative problems. A head count might tell us who the next president of our country will be, for example, but it won’t and can’t tell us who the right president for our country will be. A head count can, of course, answer a question such as: “Is intuition X universally shared?” But that question isn’t a genuinely philosophical question at all, and it seems to me that it isn’t a genuinely philosophical question precisely because it is an entirely empirical one. In any case—a point Appiah does not make—it isn’t clear what would be contributed even by a survey that showed that a certain intuition really was universally shared. What would that do? It would still be a head count, and the fact that everyone agrees on X still doesn’t establish that X is right. It establishes only that everyone agrees on it.

That is, while Appiah doesn’t say that experimental philosophy (again, qua experimental) has no value, he doesn’t actually give us any reason at all to think that it is valuable. And in this regard I find his article—which seems, on the surface, to be a praise of experimental philosophy—extremely puzzling. In conclusion, though, I would like to suggest two uses for experimental philosophy that strike me as important.

1. Experimental psychology clearly does have some value. (I myself am rather fond of Piaget and Kohlberg; but of course there is a lot of other, and more recent, interesting stuff that philosophers have been exploring more and more in recent years.) And one of the problems with psychology, it has always seemed to me, is that psychologists often conclude their studies with grandiose philosophical claims that remain entirely underdetermined by the evidence. Collaboration between philosophers and psychologists would, hopefully, help to stem this trend, and help also to make psychological insight more obviously philosophically interesting.

2. Experimental philosophy can serve as a kind of normative therapy. This is not what one would call a traditional philosophical approach, of course, but I this is could be an important one. Take the case of individuals expressing their intuitions. And then ask them whether they think their intuitions are reasonable. Well, now, this latter question is something philosophers should be pretty good at dealing with. And what if, instead of simply collecting data from subjects, philosophers then turned around and helped the subjects analyze that data by helping them reason through their higher order reflections on their intuitions? On this approach, experimental philosophy would perhaps not feed back into philosophy proper. What it would do, on the other hand, is something genuinely useful to human beings.


  1. An online reading group devoted to Appiah's latest book:

  2. Yup. I'm there!

    And that Kant post (part 1) is coming in a few hours. For part 2, though, could you tell me where you got that quote from Katsafanas? I can't find it on his website.

  3. I found the Katsafanas quote from the Abstract to "Nietzsche's Philosophical Psychology":

    Looking forward to reading your posts in response to Knobe and Leiter...