Phi Beta Cons

More on Experimental Philosophy

From reader Micah Tillman:
Thanks to Ms. de Russy and Mr. Schwarz for their posts on experimental philosophy. Philosophers in the West have traditionally felt threatened by the social and psychological sciences, since many people try to reduce philosophy to those sciences.
The phenomenon of experimental philosophy is, therefore . . . interesting (to put it mildly). One would expect a strong reaction against it. It will make most of us philosophical types feel threatened. We don’t want to lose our unique identity.
I’d first like to articulate my personal response to experimental philosophy (as a student and teacher of philosophy). Then I’d like to take issue with Dr. Knobe’s use of the phrase “leftist intuition.”

Regarding experimental philosophy, trying to find out “what people think” is not philosophy. That is an attempt to determine facts.
Philosophy, however, as Indiana Jones said, is about truth. Philosophers aren’t interested in what people happen to think at a given point in time (in a given place on earth), unless such a fact helps to illuminate some more universal truth about humanity, the world, or what have you.
One thing I appreciate about Dr. Appiah’s article is his claim that sociological/psychological tools can be used by philosophers to weed out improper uses of the word “we.” The use of questionnaires, MRIs, and experiments is not philosophy, but can be helpful to philosophers.
After all, philosophers are concerned with questions like, “What is it about humans in general that some would use experiments to explore their world? Are the theoretical underpinnings of the preference for science legitimate? Is an experiment (or questionaire, or MRI scan) an appearance in the same class as visual perception, or is it something of another type altogether? What type of appearances are most valuable in the search for knowledge?” Etc.

Finally, I would take issue with Dr. Knobe’s claim that the responses he got to the “abstract” question were evidence of a “leftist intuition.” It is evidence of a classically liberal leaning in our culture. It is a modernist intuition, not a leftist intuition.
With the Renaissance, Luther, and Descartes, the idea of the Other-as-Equal spread throughout Western culture. Thinking that your rights depend on your personhood, not on your genes, is a pattern on both the Right and the Left. It is derived from the modernist roots of our culture, not from one or the other wing of our culture’s political spectrum.

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