Over the last week, there have been quite a few blog posts prompted by Tim Williamson’s recent critique of experimental philosophy in his review of J. Alexander’s Experimental Philosophy. In particular, at NewAPPS Eric Schliesser and Berit Brogaard shared some of their views on the debate. Here, however, I want to discuss a post by Eric Schwitzgebel at Splintered Mind, as I think he identifies an important and overlooked component of the whole debate. Eric puts forward the distinction between X-Phi in a narrow and in a wide sense. The narrow conception can be thus described:
Most of the work canonically identified as "experimental philosophy" surveys ordinary people's judgments (or "intuitions") about philosophical concepts, and it does so by soliciting people's responses to questions about hypothetical scenarios.
The wide conception is more difficult to define, and Eric basically offers a definition by exclusion:
In this broad sense, philosophers who do empirical work aimed at addressing traditionally philosophical questions are also experimental philosophers, even if they don't survey people about their intuitions.
Let me illustrate why I think this is unfortunate with an anecdote involving myself and – yes, here he is again! – Tim Williamson. Last year, he gave a talk in Groningen arguing against the KK principle (If you know p, then you know that you know p). (Some of you may have seen this talk: it’s the one with a clock and a probabilistic argument.) (Here is a blog post I wrote over at M-Phi on this episode and the KK principle.) Someone in the audience then mounted a defense of the KK principle, and it looked like the debate had reached something of a deadlock. I then asked Williamson whether he thought that empirical data might be relevant, given that on purely conceptual grounds it did not look like the debate could be resolved. His first reaction was an emphatic ‘NO!’, but it quickly became apparent that what he thought I had in mind were surveys on people’s intuitions concerning the cogency of the KK principle – that is, the narrow conception of X-Phi. But that was not at all what I had in mind; instead, I was thinking of work on meta-cognition of the kind that e.g. Joelle Proust talks about (here is her paper on meta-cognition at Philosophy Compass). This body of research is for the most part conducted by experimental psychologists and cognitive scientists, and yet it seems highly relevant to a number of discussions in epistemology in particular (KK principle, reliabilism etc).
By the time I had been able to dispel the misunderstanding, it was time to move on to the next question, so Williamson and I did not get to discuss the question I had actually intended to ask (we did so again in private at a later occasion). In other words, the fact that the narrow conception of X-Phi as described by Eric Schwitzgebel, essentially relying on surveys of intuitions, became more or less synonymous with empirically informed approaches in philosophy in general leads to a number of misunderstandings and misconceptions. This does not mean that X-Phi in the narrow sense is not a legitimate and fruitful enterprise, but it is just one among many ways in which philosophical discussions can increase their empirical content.
My own preferred approach is both to engage with already existing literature in the empirical sciences, and in case the particular philosophical question one is interested in has never been approached as such in these disciplines, to team up with the relevant researchers to conduct novel experiments. (This is what I am doing at the moment in a project with cognitive scientist Keith Stenning and developmental psychologist Paul L. Harris.) Now, Schwitzgebel’s wide conception of X-Phi is closely related but still quite different from the kind of approach I’ve been engaging in myself, which then suggests that there may well be more than one wide conception of X-Phi that we could be interested in. However, to avoid further misunderstanding, I prefer to use the term ‘empirically informed philosophy’. My hope is that sooner or later it will become widely recognized that X-Phi in the narrow sense is but one species of a much more encompassing genus.