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28 September 2012


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John Schwenkler

The problem is that while this may be a distinctive philosophical skill (say supplemented by logical tools), albeit shared by some theoretical economists and theoretical physicists, it is an extremely slender methodology for constructive philosophy, if only because such examples are, well you know, hypothetical. (Not to mention the fact that thriving areas of philosophy (say, in philosophy of science) do not rely fundamentally on the method of hypothetical cases.) This is not to deny, of course, that hypothetical cases cannot play a useful role in philosophical explorations. But why should those of us raised in analytic philosophy embrace as its essential methodology one that gets us at best counterfactual possibility? Why is this a philosophy worth having?

He talks about this, no? A great number of those hypothetical cases can easily be replaced by real-world ones, e.g. by showing someone who sets his watch by a stopped clock. Moreover it is far from clear why the mere fact that a case is counterfactual would mean that it can't show us something about the structure of actuality. I think it is true that in lots of instances the reliance on hypothetical cases is problematic, but this is because they are often underdescribed and lack the vividness necessary to elicit informative responses. But it does not follow that the method is per se uninformative.

Eric Schliesser

First, even in the part that you quote I am not denying that hypothetical cases can play a useful role.
Second, sure, there is a class of hypothetical cases that can, in principle, be empirically instantiated in our world. But this is a bit too clever, for there are also a lot that could not: Swampman, Zombies, Twin Earth, etc. (Trolley cases can be *simulated* in the real world, but there -- you know -- ethical constraints on really doing them.)
Third, my point is that even if the reliance of hypothetical cases were problem-free, this is not a method that ought to be so central in philosophy that we judge philosophical expertise by competence in it.

John Schwenkler

... even if the reliance of hypothetical cases were problem-free, this is not a method that ought to be so central in philosophy that we judge philosophical expertise by competence in it.

But where does Williamson say we should do this? Not in the review, from what I can see. (The language of "expertise" is Alexander's.) I thought the most damaging criticism was just that the experimentalists seem sometimes to be insensitive to what is at stake in the philosophical intuitions they mean to be testing (e.g. the discussion of contextualism and invariantism from pp. 3-4). Of course it may be possible to do philosophy in a way that avoids complicated hypotheticals -- but this is NOT what experimentalists are doing, so of course it is fair to object that they don't get the hypotheticals right, or that the upshot of their findings is ambiguous.

Eric Schliesser

John, I claim that this is implied by Williamson because (a) he does not distance us from "The systematic deployment of elaborate hypothetical cases," and (b) does not offer an alternative as a proxy for philosophical expertise.
I am not sure what is the most damaging criticism of the experimentalists; frankly, I do not care that much about experimental philosophy one way or another--I care much more about the fact that Williamson appears to be delegitimizing a rival approach and that it is unclear that he has something more viable to offer us.


The questions that you raise here with regard to why counterfactual reasoning must be assumed to be definitive of philosophical work, and about the comparative theoretical virtues of the method, are, I believe, crucial.
I’m not sure, however, whether your characterization of Williamson’s response to experimental philosophy is precise. In his recent “Philosophical Expertise and the Burden of Proof” -- -- he notes three properties of expertise that [Weinberg, Gonnerman, Buckner, & Alexander -- "WGBA"] suggest, i.e. “repetitive practice with fast, accurate feedback; decomposition of the task into sub-tasks; [and] use of external decision aids” (p. 14). He argues then that those properties aren’t precluded by the skills acquired via philosophical training.

In another section of the paper, he writes:
“For some cognitive skills, WGBA explicitly concede that philosophical expertise is genuine. In particular, they assert that ‘philosophical training does typically bring a mastery of relevant literatures both contemporary and historical, and even specific technical skills such as argument evaluation and construction’ (334), without providing any experimental evidence such as they require their opponents to produce for genuine expertise in thought experimentation. Similarly, they grant ‘philosophers’ possession of such demonstrable skills as, say, the close analysis of texts, or the critical assessment of arguments, or the deployment of the tools of formal logic’ (335), without explaining how such skills have been demonstrated in ways for which thought experimentation would have no analogue. In these cases, they treat the positive effect of philosophical training as obvious” (pp. 11-12).

When you write, then, that “The core underlying issue that runs through the review is what counts as philosophical expertise”, it may be questioned whether this is correct. In the paper above mentioned, Williamson explicitly remarks that the experimental philosophers' own understanding of the skills developed via philosophical expertise is sufficient. So it might be too quick to characterize Williamson as being a “Royalist anti-revolutionary on behalf of the status quo,” and further attempting to delegitimize the significance of empirically informed philosophical work. He does record, in his review, the significance of results in cognitive psychology for the philosophy of perception. And in the paper that I’ve cited, he writes too that: “Psychological evidence may well have a significant role to play in refining our skill at thought experimentation. It can alert us to unexpected sources of bias and distortion in our verdicts, and help us correct for them. We are likely to have most to learn from general psychological theories of judgment that are well-established on the basis of a broad range of evidence, rather than from data gathered with a specific philosophical (or anti-philosophical) agenda on complex, philosophically contested judgments.”

So his ambitions might be more modest than you suggest. Demanding clarity, as he does, about the nature and role of philosophical “intuition” and the way in which experimental philosophy purportedly eludes it is a fair issue. But the particular ambition to which I’ve tried to point here seems less to be some reactionary dismissal of a variant method as not amounting to genuine philosophical work. Nor is it a defense of the primacy of counterfactual simulation. Rather, there is a demand for at least one argument for why – given the specification of philosophical expertise that he adopts willingly from the theorists against whom he's writing – thought experimentation should be considered a defunct approach.

He puts it best himself, in a concluding section:
“[T]he dialectical situation is this. The experimental critique presents evidence that philosophically untrained subjects perform poorly at thought experimentation, a cognitive task characteristic of contemporary analytic philosophy. In general, given a cognitive task characteristic of a discipline, it is unwarranted to project data about the performance at the task of subjects untrained in the discipline onto subjects trained in the discipline, without specific evidence that training in the discipline makes no substantial difference to skill at that task. WGBA’s attempt to provide such specific evidence consists of a few vague and casual claims about training in philosophy and thought experimentation. They provide no significant evidence that thought experimentation is worse off in the relevant respects than the cognitive skills they acknowledge to be enhanced by training in philosophy, such as informal argumentation and the close analysis of texts. Consequently, they provide no reason to rely less on trained philosophers’ skill at thought experimentation than on their skill at those other cognitive tasks" (p. 19).

Jennifer Nagel

Hi Eric.

I'm not sure why you say 'Williamson does not deny that "philosophical intuition" exists'. On page 8 he says that experimentalists use the expression in a way that 'fails to capture anything useful"; on page 9 he claims that it 'does not pick out any specific psychological kind'. Looks like denial to me. If he does present good arguments in the piece that there is no special category of "philosophical intuitions" (even if belief in this category may have been part of philosophy's self-understanding at some point), then he should be on solid ground in criticizing those parts of xphi which are dedicated to generic attacks on the legitimacy of "philosophical intuitions". Other more specific projects in xphi could perhaps survive unscathed, however (as he hints at the end in his less scathing remark about xphi work that is not anti-philosophical in its motivation).

Mark Eli Kalderon

Eric, I don't really understand your animosity to Wiliamson's critique. You say he is trying to delegitimize a rival approach. Fair enough. As a metaphilosophical Maoist (let a thousand flowers bloom) that seems like a good complaint. But remember the context. In particular, the apocalyptic ambitions of his opponents. I mean, their icon is Descartes pissing on a burning armchair. Not to mention that the armchair metaphor is uncharitable if not indeed bullshit. Isn't it the expermentalists that are engaged in a project of delegitimization? Why no comparable ire directed in their direction? Because they do not hold the Wykeham Professor of Logic?

Jeremy Goodman

What Mark said


Though it is true people in X-phi often talk as though they have imperialistic ambitions, I think that for most of them this is meant tongue in cheek. After all, many of them also do some other kind of philosophy as well. Shaun Nichols does naturalistic philosophy of mind, in the Stich mould. Eric Schwitzgebel does X-phi as a sideline from more traditional philosophy of mind. I think they would all acknowledge that X-phi shouldn't displace other methods.

John Schwenkler

What Jeremy Goodman said!

Eric Schliesser

Jennifer, yes, it is possible that Williamson meant to say that philosophy once recognized intuitions, but not anymore at all. But the passages that you cite are compatible with a narrower claim, that is, that Xphi doesn't capture the relevant sense in which intuitions still play a role. My reason for thinking that he (tacitly) relies on the narrower claim is two-fold: (a) his focus on the significance of bias elimination (I took that to be bias from the way we use intuitions); (b) his granting of the significance of elaborate hypothetical cases in ongoing philosophy. (Again (b) is compatible with some role for intuition properly understood.)
Incidentally, even on the narrower reading, I do not deny that he is on solid ground in his criticism of the generic attacks.

Eric Schliesser

Mark, in general blog posts do not work well if they try to cover too many issues (and too much argumentative subtlety). So, we always have to focus our ire on one target at a time around here. (But in the back of my mind there is always the thought, "I have valuable, nearly unlimited content real estate to fill up down the road; I can always return to the topic from a different angle.") I do have critical perspectives on Xphi, too, promise. (I did a mildly critical blog post in the past about John Mikhail's work.)
Having said that, in general, I prefer for NewAPPS to kick up then to kick down.
But, strategy aside, what was interesting to me in Williamson's review were not the particular criticisms directed at Xphi, but the attempt to de-legitimize (and then toward the end of the piece domesticate) a new philosophical movement, and manner by which this was executed.

Eric Schliesser

Let me grant that I probably misrepresented Williamson in a crucial way. Williamson wrote me (privately, prompted by me) as follows: "A reader of your post might misunderstand my position, e.g. I don't suggest or believe that doing thought experiments is the most important philosophical skill (they don't figure very largely, though they do occur, in my own work), and since I find the term 'philosophical intuition' useless and misleading of course I don't assert or deny 'There are philosophical intutions'. But never mind, since people can read my piece for themselves." This seems right to me. Nothing in Williamson's piece requires that he believes that thought experiments are central to philosophy.
I also think your presentation of what Williamson is after substantially is plausible. Having said that, your reading that no de-legitimizing is going in the piece that I discussed, also requires a considerable amount of wishful thinking.

Eric Schliesser

PS My comment #13 below where I quote (with permission) from a private note from Williamson. You can take that as evidence for your claim (but maybe also mine).

Catarina Dutilh Novaes

My tentative two cents. If I understand him correctly, Williamson is saying that what XPhi is criticizing -- intuition-based philosophy -- is not the real thing, though it may have been an influential approach to philosophy at some point. Williamson is indeed quite critical of intuition-based philosophy in 'The Philosophy of Philosophy' (one of the things I like about the book!). But to some extent, this is a sociological claim: how influential is intuition-based philosophy at this moment in time? Here I would disagree with Williamson and say that there's still too much of it around.

XPhi is in a sense what prompted a whole new momentum of methodological reflection in philosophy (an observation I owe to Herman Cappelen), so in this sense it is a welcome development. But there were some serious methodological problems especially with earlier XPhi (which, to be fair, have been to some extent addressed in more recent work). Personally, I much prefer the notion of 'empirically informed philosophy', i.e. the idea that philosophers can and should engage with material from the empirical and social sciences to discuss philosophical questions, possibly also to collaborate with researchers in these other areas.

This being said, it's worth noticing that at least some XPhi work has now become quite influential among experimental psychologists. The Knobe effect, for example, is now being systematically investigated by psychologists such as Ruth Byrne and others. That's a very nice example of two-way communication between philosophy and psychology.

Jonathan Weinberg

"Personally, I much prefer the notion of 'empirically informed philosophy', i.e. the idea that philosophers can and should engage with material from the empirical and social sciences to discuss philosophical questions, possibly also to collaborate with researchers in these other areas." I think that this is an idea that every self-identifying x-phile would agree with heartily, and it seems to me to capture a key part of the animating spirit of x-phi. We would just add: sometimes, there is not existing work in the sciences that addresses the empirical questions that one thinks are of some philosophical moment, and when that happens, it is legitimate for philosophers to engage in the scientific projects themselves. (Though maybe this is already included in your "collaboration" clause; certainly lots & lots of x-phi is done in such an interdisciplinarily collaborative fashion.)

Fwiw, I don't find the debates about the term "intuition" particularly helpful, and Williamson's attempts to do away with the term have turned out to raise more confusions than may have accompanied the term itself! I take it that when people talk about "philosophical intuitions", etc., that they are ostending a significant, though hardly exhaustive, piece of philosophical practice, and that there's really not much question as to just what is being picked out by that ostension. Williamson knew it was things like the Gettier case that needed to be defended, after all, and not, say, Goedel's second incompleteness theorem.

Eric Schliesser

Agreed, Jonathan.

BLS Nelson

In a piece at The Stone blog, Williamson writes:

"Critics of contemporary philosophy sometimes complain that in using thought experiments it loses touch with reality. They complain less about Galileo and Einstein’s thought experiments, and those of earlier philosophers... Once imagining is recognized as a normal means of learning, contemporary philosophers’ use of such techniques can be seen as just extraordinarily systematic and persistent applications of our ordinary cognitive apparatus."

It sounds to me that Williamson would have us think that the use of thought-experiments is essential to both learning in general, and philosophical learning in particular.

Anyway, as an aside -- this might be my problem, but I think that 'philosophical intuitions' are here to stay. e.g., it follows from the usual story about the nature of paradoxes that one cannot recognize the difference between a paradox and a contradiction without appealing to competing intuitions. If we give up on intuitions, then perhaps we would have to give up on that distinction. But that seems like an awful shame.

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