Philosophy in the New York Times

by Brian on August 21, 2010

There is a small symposium in the New York Times today about the recent trend in analytic philosophy towards experimental philosophy.

As some of the contributors note, it’s easy to overstate the trend that’s going on here. It’s not that for the 20th Century, philosophers used only armchair methods, and with the dawning of the 21st century they are going back to engaging with the sciences. When I was in grad school in the 90s, it was completely common to rely on psychological studies of all of uses, especially studies on dissociability, on developmental patterns, and on what was distinctive about people with autism or with Capgras Syndrome. And the influence of Peter Singer on work in ethics meant that purely armchair work in ethics was out of the question, whatever one thought of Singer’s conclusions.

This was hardly a distinctive feature of philosophy in south-eastern Australia. Indeed, we were probably more armchair-focussed than contemporary American philosophers. As Ernie Sosa notes in the entry linked above, 20th century metaphysics is shot through with arguments from results in 20th century physics. The importance of objective chance to contemporary nomological theories is obviously related to the role of chance in different branches of physics and biology, and modern theories of it involve a lot of attention to various sciences. And I’ve lost count of the number of debates I’ve been in in philosophy of language where appeal has been made at one stage or other to cross-linguistic data, which is presumably not armchair evidence unless we assume that the person in the armchair knows every human language. It’s not that I think philosophers do as good a job as they should at drawing on evidence from sources outside traditional philosophy – I’ve even tried to encourage philosophers to do more of this – but they tend to see appeal to other areas of inquiry as a generally acceptable, and often important, kind of move.

So it’s a bit of a stretch to say, as Joshua Knobe does, that in that time “people began to feel that philosophy should be understood as a highly specialized technical field that could be separated off from the rest of the intellectual world.” I’m really not sure which of the great philosophers of the 20th century could be characterised this way. Perhaps if you included mathematics in philosophy and not the “rest of the intellectual world” you can get a couple of great 20th century philosophers in. But I doubt it would get much beyond that.

That’s not to say there’s nothing new or interesting that’s been happening in the last fifteen years or so. In fact I think there are three trends here that are worth noting.

One purely stylistic, and actually rather trivial, trend is that philosophers are now a bit more inclined to ‘show their workings’. So if I want to rely on Daniel Gilbert’s work on comprehension and belief, I’ll throw in a bunch of citations to his work, and to the secondary literature on it, in part to give people the impression that I know what’s going on here. You won’t see those kind of notes in, say, J. L. Austin’s work. But that’s not because Austin didn’t know much psychology. I suspect he knew much much more than me. But because of very different traditions about citation, and because of differences in self-confidence between Austin and me, his philosophy might look a bit further removed from empirical work. My case is hardly unique; citations to non-philosophical work by philosophers feel like they are up a lot on what they were a generation or two back. But I doubt this tells us about much more than changes in citation practices.

A more interesting trend is picked up by Ernie Sosa – philosophers are doing a lot more experiments themselves than they were a generation ago. This is presumably a good thing, at least as long as they are good experiments!

The university that Ernie and I work at, Rutgers, has a significant causal role in this. We encourage PhD students to study in the cognitive science department while they are at Rutgers, and many of them end up working in or around experimental work. That’s not to say I’m at all responsible for this – I’m much more sedentary than my median colleague. But many of my colleagues have done a lot to encourage students interested in experimental work.

The third trend, and this one I’m less excited about, is the reliance on survey work in empirical work designed to have philosophical consequences. Indeed, sometimes the phrase ‘experimental philosophy’ seems to be used, at least in conversation, to mean philosophy that involves taking surveys. And most of the original experiments reported on the experimental philosophy blog involve taking surveys. To be fair, many people who regard themselves as experimental philosophers, such as the contributors to that blog, know a lot about philosophically relevant work that doesn’t involve taking surveys, and even write about such work. They tend as a group though to be less involved in running such experiments.

It seems to me that surveying people about what they think about hard philosophical questions, or tricky examples meant to illustrate philosophical points, is not a great guide to what is true, and isn’t even necessarily a good guide to what they think. We certainly wouldn’t take surveys about whether people think it should be legal for an Islamic community center to be built around the corner from here to be significant to political theory debates about freedom of religion.

A slightly more interesting result comes from a survey that Matthew Yglesias posted this morning. If you trust Gallup, only 26% of Americans believe in “the power of the mind to know the past and predict the future”. This is a more than a little nuts, at least as interpreted literally. I know that I had blueberries with breakfast, and I can confidently and reliably predict that the Greens will not win the Australian election currently underway. And I know these things in virtue of having a mind, and in virtue of how my mind works. There’s the power of the mind to know the past and predict the future in action!

Of course, the 74% of people who apparently denied that the mind has the power to know the past and predict the future probably don’t really deny that I have these powers. The survey they were asking was about paranormal phenomena generally. And I left off part of the question they were asked. It asked whether they believed in clairvoyance, which they ‘clarified’ as the power of the mind to know the past and predict the future. Presumably at least some of the people who answered ‘no’ (or ‘don’t know’) interpreted the question as not being about the power of the mind to know stuff through perception, memory and inference, but through some more extraordinary method.

It’s in general extremely hard to understand just what qustion people are answering in surveys. And this makes it hard to know how much significance we should place on different surveys. This matters to some live puzzles. For instance, as Jonathan Schaffer recently wrote, there is an “emerging consensus in experimental philosophy, according to which … the magnitude of the stakes does not affect intuitions about knowledge.” (By ‘the stakes’ he means the stakes faced by a person about who we’re asking whether they know that p, when the person has to make a decision to which p is relevant.) This consensus is largely because the experimenters asked subjects whether certain fictional characters, some facing trivial decisions and some facing quite momentous decisions, knew that p, where p is something that would be important in their deliberations. Generally, they didn’t find a difference in the responses.

But there is quite a bit of evidence, including a lot of experimental evidence (PDF), that differences in stakes in this sense really do matter to cognitive states. In particular, what it takes to have settled the question to one’s own satisfaction of whether p is true, depends on what is at stake, and if you ask them the right way, survey respondents agree that it depends on what is at stake. Assuming, as everyone in this debate does, that knowledge requires settling questions to one’s own satisfaction, this means we have empirical evidence that stakes matter to knowledge. What does this mean for the consensus that Schaffer reports? I suspect it means, like in the Gallup survey, that different people are interpreting the survey questions differently, but there are lots of alternative explanations. In any case, I’d want a lot more evidence than surveys about instinctive responses to difficult cases before I gave up on a well established result in experimental psychology.

{ 36 comments }

1

Matt 08.21.10 at 3:17 am

I tend to think this is all about right. But more importantly, though, I just want to say that it’s really nice to see a post by Brian Weatherson, especially since the last one was something like 20 months ago! Don’t stay away so long.

2

moe 08.21.10 at 3:28 am

Aren’t the surveys often designed to reveal things like inconsistency between moral conclusions? It seems like they could be useful for that or similar tasks.

3

praisegod barebones 08.21.10 at 4:40 am

A friend of mine has suggested that we should do a survey to establish whether, according to their linguistic intuitions, the things that experimental philosophers call experiments really are.

4

David Hobby 08.21.10 at 4:47 am

There’s a bad link. It should be:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capgras_delusion

5

Vance Maverick 08.21.10 at 5:23 am

Did other readers wonder what, precisely, the participants were responding to? There’s a little blurb at the head, linking to a three-year-old, somewhat glibly dismissive, piece by Appiah, but I don’t think that was it. What did the Times ask?

6

Vance Maverick 08.21.10 at 5:24 am

(please consider that excess comma to have been deleted)

7

ben w 08.21.10 at 5:29 am

It’s not that for the 20th Century, philosophers used only armchair methods, and with the dawning of the 21st century they are going back to engaging with the sciences.

Indeed, Heidegger was familiar with the results of ethological and biological studies, as evidenced by the second half of The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, and Merleau-Ponty’s work is chock-a-block with citations to, and engagement with, a large amount of psychological literature. I believe other philosophers of the day interacted with linguistics as well.

8

Brian 08.21.10 at 12:39 pm

Link fixed – thanks David.

9

Brian 08.21.10 at 12:54 pm

I agree with Vance that it wasn’t clear what the subject of the forum was supposed to be. Tim Williamson offered up a fairly familiar set of objections to recent work on experimental philosophy, Tim Maudlin said some fairly uncontroversial things about the importance of epistemic holism, and Brian Leiter talked about the utility of philosophy undergrad education. It’s not clear what question these are three answers to at all.

To be a bit less ecumenical about things, that’s actually one of the things that bother me about many of the surveys used in experimental philosophy. It’s a hard task knowing just how people interpret questions, especially moderately complicated questions. I assume the Times asked something that they thought was relatively clear and simple, but the different presuppositions that the respondents brought to the table led them to have very different opinions about what was being asked for. As Simon Cullen has argued, the same thing can happen with surveys using philosophically significant terms.

That’s not to say the answers to unclear questions are of no interest. I wouldn’t be writing this if they were! But they can be hard to interpret.

10

Brian 08.21.10 at 12:55 pm

Matt @1,

I’ll try to write more frequently in the future. But CT has high standards – if I don’t have thoughts up to the standards of it, I shouldn’t post them :)

11

John Protevi 08.21.10 at 1:54 pm

Following Ben W, and just off the top of my head, a number of 20th C French philosophers other than M-P were engaged with the sciences of their day: Bergson with psychology and neuroscience in Matter and Memory (okay that was published 1896) and of course less successfully with physics in Duration and Simultaneity; Beauvoir with psychology and medicine in Second Sex;Bachelard with physics; Canguilhem with biology and medicine; Raymond Ruyer with biology and cybernetics; Gilbert Simondon with the same, plus crystallography and electronics; Michel Serres with just about everything under the sun; Foucault (whose degree was in psychology), even though the bulk of his research was in history of human sciences; and Deleuze with a whole mess of things in Difference and Repetition and A Thousand Plateaus. And of course Badiou with math, but does that count?

Anyway, I’m probably forgetting someone or other, and I’m not counting psychoanalysis and linguistics among the sciences, for otherwise you’d have just about everybody.

12

John Protevi 08.21.10 at 1:57 pm

You’d think I would have remembered Creative Evolution, which is much less crazy than one is led to believe by hearing only élan vital.

13

Brian 08.21.10 at 3:20 pm

Here’s the question, from the invitation e-mail:

“How useful — if at all — are the methodologies of psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive science to philosophy’s pursuit of truth? Are they useful to philosophy’s continued viability in the university?”

As far as I can tell, I’m the only one who tried to respond to both bits; most focused on the first.

14

mcd 08.22.10 at 3:55 am

Perhaps there’s a time-delayed response to Wittgenstein. If meanings are in their uses, then surveys would be useful as measures of actual use, as opposed to thought-experiments.

Something like the replacement of prescriptive lexicography with descriptive lexicography.

15

Vance Maverick 08.22.10 at 5:36 am

Thanks, Brian. The word that jumps out at me there is “methodologies”, presumably in the sense of “methods”, but distinct from “results”.

16

John Quiggin 08.22.10 at 7:02 am

I’m surprised that there is a consensus view among any group on what “knowledge” means, let alone an assumption that survey respondents share this consensus. This concept seems both very difficult, and to have different meanings in different contexts.

17

ejh 08.22.10 at 8:48 am

I know that I had blueberries with breakfast

I bet you’d never get away with that in an Oxford tutorial without somebody saying “but how can you be sure you know?”

18

skidmarx 08.22.10 at 1:51 pm

How could you confidently make such a bet without having attended an Oxford philosophy tutorial (let alone a representative sample of same? One of my philosophy tutors once told a story of a lecture in which the professor said it was impossible to tell if the chairs in the class were really there. One of of his students picked up a chair and threw it at him with the words “Now you can”. I’m quite attracted by naive realism (when I’m thinking that general philosophy is of any use as anything other than convenient pub conversation).
Having recently participated in a survey for the NHS in the UK in which I found that almost all of my answers failed to represent my views on the subjects addressed, I would suggest that some care is taken about how more abstract questions are interpreted by survey respondents. In particular the case cited by Appiah might produce its result because we are more inclined to interpret recklessness as intention when negative results occur.

19

ejh 08.22.10 at 3:18 pm

One of of his students picked up a chair and threw it at him with the words “Now you can”.

Johnson on Berkeley, surely?

20

tomkow 08.23.10 at 1:32 am

The programmatic remarks are all very well.

The problem is that when one actually looks at a piece of experimental philosophy what one finds is junk science combined with junk philosophy.

21

Anderson 08.23.10 at 1:58 am

which is much less crazy than one is led to believe by hearing only élan vital

But how much less crazy? Still too crazy to read except for historical purposes?

The problem is that when one actually looks at a piece of experimental philosophy what one finds is junk science combined with junk philosophy.

That is the traditional nature of cross-disciplinary study ….

22

Landru 08.23.10 at 3:00 am

One of of his students picked up a chair and threw it at him with the words “Now you can”

Was this one of those heirloom leather wing-back chairs? or just some sort of seminar-room folding stool? It certainly makes a difference in how to picture the scene.

Now, what kinds of realism are on the menu other than the naive kind? I’m just curious what my options might be.

23

John Protevi 08.23.10 at 3:44 am

Still too crazy to read except for historical purposes?

Good question. Depends on how you feel about the history of philosophy, I guess. I thought it bogged down to tell the truth, not like the amazing Matter and Memory which kept me on the edge of my seat, especially in the fourth part, which is worthy of Leibniz. “Beyond the turn in human experience”!

24

bigcitylib 08.23.10 at 3:31 pm

Well, three things:

1) On Austin particularly, remember that 2/3rds of his published work is in the form of reconstructed lecture notes. You can’t expect much in the way of citations there.

2) More generally, it seems unwise to lean your philosophical thesis too heavily against some physical/psychological thesis. Are you then doing philosophy, the poetry of physics, or junk physics? There’s also the possibility that your scientific thesis will turn out wrong. Witness Quine and W&O. Much of that went down in flames along with Behaviourism.

3) On the other hand, most extra-philosophical appeals have tended to show the flaws in the origonal philosophical reasoning (History vs. Popper, Logical models of reasoning vs. psychology). So I suppose that is good.

25

sdf 08.23.10 at 5:02 pm

Recent French philosophy has a deep and well-known engagement with the sciences. For a historical survey, see Sokal and Bricmont.

26

Brian 08.23.10 at 5:08 pm

That’s a good point about Austin. I think the general point I was trying to gesture at – that changes in citation practices make it hard to easily judge how much philosophers interact with other disciplines across different era – is probably right. But Austin’s a bad example to use to illustrate it for that reason.

27

Brian 08.23.10 at 5:11 pm

I bet you’d never get away with that in an Oxford tutorial without somebody saying “but how can you be sure you know?”

Given the influence of Williamson on current day Oxford, I doubt that would happen. Maybe a decade or three ago, but less likely today.

In any case, the answer is easy. I saw (and tasted) the blueberries at the time, and I’ve preserved the knowledge gained through my senses via memory. There might be a further question about how I can know my senses/memory are reliable, but I’m not sure I need to know that to know stuff through the senses.

28

Brian 08.23.10 at 5:13 pm

I’m surprised that there is a consensus view among any group on what “knowledge” means, let alone an assumption that survey respondents share this consensus. This concept seems both very difficult, and to have different meanings in different contexts.

Actually, one of the big questions in contemporary debates about knowledge concerns how much “knowledge” varies in meaning between different contexts. The plurality position probably is that it varies a fair bit. My view, FWIW, is that whether a sentence of the form “S knows that p” is true depends a lot on the circumstances S is in (for instance, whether she faces a crucial decision which depends on p) but very little on the circumstances of the person uttering the sentence. But that’s not a particularly popular view, I’m afraid.

29

chris 08.23.10 at 7:01 pm

Actually, one of the big questions in contemporary debates about knowledge concerns how much “knowledge” varies in meaning between different contexts.

Semantics are considered a question amenable to debating? Am I reading this wrong? Different camps may assign different meanings to the predicate “S knows that p”, but I don’t see how such differences could possibly be resolved by argument — rather, the different definitions lead to conclusions that appear mutually contradictory only if “knows[1]” and “knows[2]” are conflated in order to produce the apparent contradiction. But “S knows[1] p, but doesn’t know[2] p” isn’t a contradiction at all, merely an example of the difference between the rival definitions of knowledge.

30

The Fool 08.24.10 at 4:17 am

Just to follow up on Protevi’s thumbnail survey of French philosophers engaged with the sciences, there is an extensive list of such engagements in the Sokal and Bricmont volume of 1988.

ROTFLMAO.

31

The Fool 08.24.10 at 4:19 am

1998, that is

32

The Fool 08.24.10 at 4:22 am

damn, sdf beat me to it

33

The Fool 08.24.10 at 4:25 am

“Merleau-Ponty’s work is chock-a-block with citations to, and engagement with, a large amount of psychological literature.”

So are the rantings of any number of paranoid schizophrenics and conspiracy theorists on the web — simply chock-a-block I tells ya!

34

The Fool 08.24.10 at 4:27 am

Did I mention that the Sokal and Brixmont volume was originally published in French?

35

John Quiggin 08.24.10 at 5:33 am

From a decision theory perspective, there are huge problems in separating beliefs/knowledge, preferences and choices. Expected utility theory gives you a neat separation, but once you admit that your awareness of the world is inevitably incomplete, any concept of knowledge has to be provisional, and the point at which this provisional knowledge is satisfactory will typically depend on what is at stake.

But, just to complicate things, a lot of phenomena that challenge standard ideas about knowledge/belief\/rationality, such as the “preference reversal” problem, do turn out, in experiments, to be robust to changes in the stakes from hypothetical to real.

36

peter 08.24.10 at 10:14 pm

“It’s not that for the 20th Century, philosophers used only armchair methods,”

The people who really did use only armchair methods from the start of the 20th century were the pure mathematicians, starting with Pieri’s and Hilbert’s axiomatic treatments of geometry (published in 1895 and 1899 resp.).

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