Philosophical method? NY Times on experimental philosophy

A few weeks ago, the NY Times published a short set of pieces on the recent emergence of so-called experimental philosophy. From what I could tell, the nuance is interesting; the ‘armchair’ insultation is hyperbolic, as is the derision of the movement; except from the articles by Tim Williamson and Ernest Sosa. Both Sosa and Williamson are very good philosophers in their respective areas that breach between philosophical logic, metaphysics epistemology and language. It is also worth noting that Williamson and Sosa (slightly older philosophers than the ‘x-phi’ cohort) are hardly ‘armchair’ theorists in that they exhibit a good knowledge of psychology, linguistics, and mathematics/computer science between them.  I’ve read a few papers by Sosa, and I have to admit that while I can understand the overall structure of some of his arguments, the really technical stuff that forms the premises are a bit beyond my grasp of logic.

I thought I’d put out a few observations as to what the real meat of the issue is:

  1. According to the x-phi hero, Joshua Knobe (who, at 35, has a phenomenon named after him – what a guy!). The project of using psychology and empirical observation harks back to the tradition of philosophy going to Hume. Leiter (mentioned in a previous post) also makes this case for Nietzsche; and pair (Leiter and Knobe) have committed to some Nietzsche-based observations of people’s moral beliefs in some shared work.
  2. Philosophy is one of the great humanistic disciplines which unifies a great amount of subjects and skills the likes of which is incomparable. I often think of philosophy as the magical supernatural discipline which makes the likes of music and literature on the one hand contiguous to the likes of logic and theoretical natural science. Where else can you have papers using complex symbols or theorems about lambda calculus interspersed with the importance of international development issues and the politics of difference. Philosophy is currently, at least as a university subject; pluralistic. Even Christians and Eastern Religious philosophies have a small place in the anglo-american philosophy department. (Leiter’s ‘report’ on x-phi [see what I did there?])
  3. Don’t underestimate the power of proper scientific practice. Philosophers doing psychology is not as good as psychologists doing psychology; or neuroscientists doing their research. The degree of specialisation is a serious issue, with matters far from philosophical (but methodological and practical) toward the proper conduct of scientific experimentation. Just because a philosopher may have something interesting to say about M-theory does not make them a phsyicist; likewise, if a philosopher has something interesting to say about the methodological or social practices around medicine; it does not make them a medical health professional. It’s okay to take an interest in science, but philosophers that attempt experiments (without the help of say, joint PhDs or professional experimenters in the subject) is not only bad science with uncritical acceptance of their research method. It’s bad philosophy (or rather, bad philosophical method) – (Williamson & Sosa)
  4. Lets talk a bit about ‘philosophical method’, because I think this is the most striking issue to me in this issue. The opponents to x-phi are hardly lone armchair wanderers thinking puffs of logic (like Hegel); if anything, the armchair is a bit of an unfair straw man. You could say, the only person who sits on an armchair as a philosopher is a straw man. While it is true that there are many philosophers who engage in metaphysical speculation in a manner befitting a 17th Century whackjob or a pre-Kant german in the 18thC (Baumgarten?); to deride the so-called armchair theorist is an utter misnomer. Bad armchair philosophy is just bad philosophy. But to say that has something to do with the new experimental movement is a non sequitur. Great strides are being made in mainstream philosophy towards developments in linguistics, empirical psychology (consider the work of say, the late Susan Hurley), and even the historical philosophy gets quite empirical; in the history of philosophy; facts about the historical situation affect our interpretations, also, I might add, historical factors about how works have been accessed or are accessible ; JP Sartre for instance, is known to have a big batch of writings which belong to his current estate Executor. #
  5. Another comment on ‘philosophical method’; Sosa makes the point that the best way that philosophers can be ‘experimental’ is if they understand the science properly, with the analytical eyes that only philosophers have. Scientists are good at estimating methods and making ‘dirty’ statistical predictions; but philosophers are good at looking at the big picture; how to Tachyons relate to our intuitions of causation? is the 4+ dimensional universe conceivable phenomenologically? (answer: no). Being a great philosopher is about having good answers, but being a good philosopher is about having the right questions.
  6. A further on philosophical method: I used to have a lecturer who I will not name, who was of the opinion that real philosophy should be science proper. This philosopher (who taught me metaphysics and epistemology, ironically) thought that philosophers wasted their time on the old hat issues of metaphysics and epistemology; about painting zebras and ‘quus’ linguistics; but the direction for future philosophical research is really in understanding the state of the art of scientific literature. The approach of this philosopher has some merits; it raises interesting questions as does it bring light to fruitful areas of discourse, both in philosophy and science. But it is also limiting to other conceptions of philosophy; particularly value-based discourses.
  7. Perhaps we should be pluralists in theory/public but exclusivist in practice/public. What exactly is ‘philosophical method’ anyway? If it is to be anything; its but a mix of the great works of philosophers recent and past. Leiter rightly points out that academic philosophy is in a crisis of funding; with the current economic situation. This is really the enemy for all philosophers; and as a practice in universities; departments will have a diverse mix of philosophical rogues; from historians, to the harder logician type, to the interdisciplinary, to the value theorist, to the literary/cultural type. As a humanistic discipline, its important to acknowledge the breadth of what it means to be human. We are emotional creatures as well as logical; philosophical insights can come from many places; from Shakespeare to S5 axioms. A meta-issue really is about what ‘philosophical’ method constitutes. I have my own views on this, and many have others; but different methods can yield different results; it is not as if some methods or approaches that differ are mutually exclusive (well, some are, but that’s besides my point). 

Michael

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