What is the point of experimental philosophy if philosophy isn’t conceptual analysis?

Experimental philosophy is largely taken up by experimental methods to find out what peoples’ intuitions are concerning topics of philosophical interest. Why should philosophers care about experimental philosophy? As best I can tell, the answer to that question is bound up with an answer to the following question. Why do philosophers care about intuitions? As best as I can tell what the answer to that question is, it has something to do with philosophers’ (perhaps tacit) acceptance of the following analogy between philosophy and natural science: intuitions are to philosophical theories what observations are to scientific theories. Scientific theories are supposed to offer simple and coherent explanations of past observations and are tested by their ability to predict future observations. Mutatis mutandis for philosophical theories and intuitions. Suppose that it is indeed intuitive that on TwinEarth “water” means XYZ not H20. Explanation: meanings are determined by causal-historical chains. Prediction: we would say of Swampman (a creature bearing no causal historical relations to anything) that his utterances mean nothing. If that Swampman proposition strikes lots of people as highly un-intuitive, then externalism faces, if not a refutation, then at least a challenge. So the story goes. And if the story had a title it would be something like “Philosophy is Conceptual Analysis”.

The view that philosophy is conceptual analysis is a hypothesis that is supposed to explain how philosophers can come to know stuff by just thinking. Philosophers, I guess, are different from natural scientists who know stuff by looking. (This is, of course, a terrible distinction, but let’s run with it for the sake of argument.) It might turn out, though, that the hypothesis that philosophy is conceptual analysis is a bad hypothesis. One consideration against it is that maybe concepts don’t have analyses. Another consideration is that maybe there are no such things as intuitions (as a distinctive kind of mental state). I won’t pursue these sorts of considerations much here. More interesting to me is the following. There are lots of times in which knowledge is gotten by thinking. Lots of math answers to this description. And parts of physics, like the thought experiments of Galileo and Einstein, answer to this description as well. However, in neither case is the hypothesis that what’s going on is conceptual analysis very promising. And more to the point concerning experimental philosophy, in neither case would a scientific survey of people’s intuitions help us learn anything about math or physics. To be sure, such surveys could yield data of interest to cognitive scientists re folk-math and folk-physics. Similarly, I’ll grant, surveys of the folk concerning their intuitions about knowledge, meaning, and free-will might yield data of interest to cognitive scientists re folk-philosophy. But assuming that philosophy is as distinct from folk-philosophy as physics is from folk-physics, I still wonder why philosophers should care about experimental philosophy.

One intriguing answer to that question might be that the point of experimental philosophy for philosophy is to help us see that philosophy is not conceptual analysis. So if we didn’t know whether philosophy was conceptual analysis, then, for example, finding out that people’s intuitions vary widely about what names refer to might help convince us that the conceptual analysis hypothesis is a bad metaphilosophy for the philosophy of language. But suppose you are already convinced that philosophy isn’t conceptual analysis. What point then, would there be for philosophers in the continued collection of data about people’s intuitions? Perhaps the best answer is “none” and this can be brought out by a reassessment of the analogy between philosophy and natural science. Scientific observation in, e.g., chemistry, isn’t collected by simply surveying the folk as to what they’ve observed about chemicals. The observations that scientific theories answer to are made by trained experts following procedures that are themselves highly informed by the bodies of theory the procedures are designed to test. An analogous view of philosophy casts it as the formulation of theories in light of judgments made by experts. In neither case should the snap judgments of non-experts count for much more than as data for a science of the snap judgments of non-experts.

Fig. 1. Socrates. Just standin’ around. Thinkin’. Not surveying the intuitions of all the slave-boys in Athens.

12 Responses to “What is the point of experimental philosophy if philosophy isn’t conceptual analysis?”

  1. Tom Polger says:

    What about the snap judgments of experts? Or the considered but nevertheless armchair judgments of experts?

    And what of the dispute withing x-philosophy regarding what they are accomplishing?

    These questions about methodology are interesting ones. I’d be curious to hear what people think are the most interesting recent works—interesting whether right or wrong, I suppose—on the topic. I’ll start by suggesting Tim Williamson’s paper, “Armchair Philosophy, Metaphysical Modality, and Counterfactual Thinking,” from Proc. Aristotelian Society. WIlliamson has the idea that our capacity for armchair reasoning is an instance of a general capacity for “dealing with” couterfactuals, a capacity whose applications are not uniquely (or even mainly) philosophical.

  2. Very interesting post, Pete! I’d say a large part of philosophy just is articulating and developing our folk notions; so I’d reject the line that you draw (for the purposes of this post) between philosophy and the cognitive science of folk-philosophy. However, philosophers need to be clearer that this is what they’re doing. Too often they think they’re discovering deep metaphysical facts about the world that somehow exist independently of our concepts!

    This is perhaps clearest in ethics. If we’re not looking to develop and articulate our folk notions of right and wrong, what the heck *are* we doing?

  3. Maybe we can look at the issue in the light of another distinction, between theory and comprehension.
    Generally one needs facts to in process of building theories. But can philosophy be about building theories? Isn’t the idea of philosophy to clearly explicate some necessary relations between concepts? How can it if it is theory, it is in the nature of theories that they are based on speculation, and fallible.
    On other side one has mathematics (and parts of physics), where the of concepts are comprehended in their necessary relations. I would think that philosophy should be in this group.
    But maybe there is place for experimental philosophy even if we agree that philosophy should be in this second group…
    There are examples from history of math where some conjectures are believed to be proved, only to be discovered for the proof to be invalid after many years. And you don’t need to show how the proof is invalid, one can just show a specific case, where the theorem is wrong (e.g. for certain numbers it doesn’t hold). So, while theorems might not be theories in science, still because of the limitations of our mental powers, they might end up being wrong.
    So, analogously the x-philosophy can have value of showing some “philosophical-theorem-proof” wrong, merely by showing that for a specific case/fact the theorem doesn’t hold. (of course for this one doesn’t need special field of experimental philosophy, such input can be taken for any other field be it science or from life-experience in general).
    Staying with the analogy with mathematics little more, it can be said that even the theorem isn’t theory, a conjecture is very much like a scientific theory. Probably one needs to see some regularity in multitude of specific cases, in order to get the idea about some conjecture.
    So, x-philosophy can be useful in this way too. It can provide facts which are useful for building philosophy-conjectures, even if we accept that philosophy must deal just with necessary relations (as math), those should be proved (or whatever is the corresponding notion in philosophy) rigorously.

  4. Richard Brown says:

    Wow, my first blog posting! Hello Blog-o-sphere!

    One thing that comes to mind (though I don’t think I believe this) is that if folk psychology is a theory that we apply automatically (I’m looking at you Weisberg) then it is natural to think that the folk are experts in this theory. On would then be very interestd to know what their intuitions were as that would be the equivelent of asking the theoretical physicist what they thought about strings or quarks. It then would be a fun excercise to point to the places where this theory conflicts with our more objective psychological/moral theories. You could then have a nice argument about whether the folk always get it right or not, like for instance this comming Thursday ;^)

    One might even think that it is super important to find out what the folk think because that is the data that you are supposed to feed into a Lewis style functional definition of the theoretical terms that appear in the folk theory. That people sometimes get it wrong is no problem because there is soooo much data in our definition it doesn’t really matter if the odd datum is false.

    Lastly it might be important to know what the folk think because that provides constraints on plausible theory construction (if one is allergic to the Lewis style definition of theortical terms stuff). It is often said by the likes of Fodor and Rosenthal that psychological theories need to preserve as much of common sense folk psychology as possible. In fact one way to read Fodor is as saying that they can’t be wrong when it comes to the existence of the propositional attitudes. Rosenthal as well has always maintained that though we may modify some aspects of folk psychology it is in bulk correct. In fact Kant makes the same claim in the Groundwork. He says that peoples’ inuitiions about morality are generally pretty good and it is the responsibility of a moral theory to capture them and provide theoretical support (in his words to ‘proceed from common cognition to the determination of its supreme principle’ p5) as well as show how this theory was already put to use in common cognition.

    So it seems that, possibly at least, philosophers should be very interested in experimental philosophy. Or as Pete has already said, at least some philosophers should be; I just don’t think that conceptual analysis (providing necessary and sufficient definitions for concepts in terms of more basic ones) is what is at issue here.

  5. Pete Mandik says:

    Tom: Thanks for pointing out the Williamson paper. I took a look at it and found it pretty helpful. I had a similar reaction to his “‘Philosophical ‘Intuitions’ and Scepticism about Judgement” which is relevant to these topics as well. (Both are available http://www.philosophy.ox.ac.uk/members/twilliamson/index.htm” rel=”nofollow”>here if anyone else is interested.) Another thing I think worth reading while thinking of philosophical methodology is Michael Friedman’s “Philosophical Naturalism (http://galileo.fcien.edu.uy/philosophical_naturalism.htm” rel=”nofollow”>link.) Re: the methodological questions you raise, I’d raise further questions as to what counts as being in the armchair. One option is that it involves theorizing that makes no attempt to answer to experimental work. Another option is that it involves theorizing by someone who does not himself or herself engage in experimental work. Of the two, only the former strikes me as particularly suspicious.

    Eric: I think that there’s a lot that you say that I can agree on. I’d agree that much philosophizing involves articulating concepts. And I’d agree that the concepts in question are ours. What we might be disagreeing on, though, is the utility of certain kinds of surveys of the so-called folk. I don’t think that what makes a concept ours is that it emanates from the mythical untutored hunches of the common man or woman. I do think that theoretical work by experts that involves conceptual innovation has a right to be regarded as belonging to us. They are our experts after all. I like your example of ethics and agree that it illustrates how the subject matter must in large degree reflect what we think, that it is importantly about what we think. I might disagree, though, on whether employing the techniques of experimental social science is the best way to probe for that. Other ways to find out what people think on ethical matters can involve having them deliberate on it, engage in reflective debates, vote, and even write treatises.

    Tanasije: I tend to have a pretty loose view on what counts as a theory: any set of sentences counts. (I’m reminded here of a Monty Python sketch of someone who announced their new theory on dinosaurs. The theory was: “Dinosaurs were really really big.”) So I don’t think any difference between philosophy and other intellectual disciplines is going to come down to which ones are exclusively theory making. However, there are distinctions to be made, or better, differences in degree to be spelled out, concerning which disciplines are more engaged in theoretical work, where what this means is work that is more involved in adjustments in theory and less involved in experimental collection of data for which to test the theories. Within physics, then, we see a division (or difference in degree) between theoretical physics and experimental physics. I like the view put forward by Quine and others that any philosophy worth doing is an intellectual activity indistinguishable from really theoretical science. An analogy between philosophy and math like the one you put forward can be similarly spelled out in terms of their highly theoretical nature. What I don’t see, though, is how this kind of analogy between math and philosophy is going to help make x-phi look worth the effort. You mention events in mathematics where things were proved wrong. But what was the nature of the proof? It was, I would think, the result of some pretty serious theoretical work, and not the collection of a body of experimental data. And when mathematics does receive input from experimental portions of the sciences, (as when some area of math receives renewed interest when new empirical applications of it are discovered) the experiments in question aren’t about people’s intuitions regarding mathematical concepts.

    Richard: I don’t see how your readings of Rosenthal, Fodor, and Kant don’t entail attributing to those philosophers a commitment to the existence of conceptual truths. And if that is indeed what they are committed to, then wouldn’t conceptual analysis be what’s at issue here after all? If before studying the mind, we had to survey the folk on their intuitions on how to apply concepts like beliefs, desire, etc, so that we could plug the results into a Lewis-style functionalist theory that guaranteed that we were really studying beliefs, desires, etc, wouldn’t we be engaged, then, in using folk intuitions to discover the analyses of those concepts?

  6. Let me try to explain with example what I meant about the analogy of math and philosophy.
    Let’s suppose that someone works on the conjecture that all numbers of form 2n + 1 are always prime if n is a power of 2, and give a very convoluted proof.
    In showing that the conjecture doesn’t hold, one can show that the proof is not valid, by pointing to a mistake in the proof, but one can also show that the proof must be wrong, by pointing that 232+1 is not prime number.
    So similarly in philosophy, one can provide convoluted argument of some general philosophical claim. But to disprove it, one doesn’t have to show that the argument goes wrong at some place, but to show that there is some example (with an immediate intuitive value?) that goes against the claim.
    As I said though, those kind of simple intuitions don’t have to come from specific field of x-phi… It can come from other (scientific) fields whose method might be more compatible with working with experiments, say cognitive science, linguistic, physics and so on.

  7. Oops, that was supposed to be 2^n+1, and 2^32+1 in the previous comment. Somehow the html tags for superscript got stripped off.

  8. Tom Polger says:

    Pete: Maybe this year’s SPP spurred you to think about this stuff, as it did for me. With quite a bit of experimental philosophy on the program, and more than a few psychologists claiming results with philosophical implications (e.g., the baby metaphysics work)… and this in stark contrast with the renewed vigor for conceptual anaylysis in other philosophical circles… I started to wonder more and more about what one can say for philosophical methodology.

    In fact, it made me think about it so much that I plan to teach a graduate course on this topic next spring: methodology, naturalism, conceptual analysis, x-philosophy, etc. So my prompt about papers was in part self-interested, as I am still thinking about what sorts of things I should include.

  9. Pete Mandik says:

    Tom, yeah it was the SPP (and the SSPP) that got me kicking this around, although there was quite a bit of discussion of this sort of thing at the Neurophilosophy conference in Pasadena a year ago. One funny thing that came up at that conference (and the related workshops) was a bunch of people with training in both philosophy and experimental science with surprisingly little interest in the kinds of experiments the x-phi-ers are pumped about. (to be fair, there were a lot of people there interested in them too.) But, yeah, the SPP stuff was really excellent, and I especially enjoyed the stuff by the psychologists that seemed to overturn a lot of what science-friendly “naturalistic”-philosophers thought.

    Your course sounds pretty cool and I’d be interested in what ever else you come up with. Have you seen Stich’s webpage for a similar course? That’s where I got the lead on the other Williamson paper.

    I’ll be posting further stuff on methodology and metaphilosophy, I predict. Stay tuned.

  10. Thanks for your response, Pete! I agree that we shouldn’t replace Kripke with a poll. They shine different kinds of light. I’m all for a big tent and pluralistic chaos. Lots of little Brain Hammers?

  11. B Leier says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t the point of philosophy to shew the fly the way out of the fly bottle? I’ll be pissed if that’s not it, ’cause it’s really easy to remember.

  12. Timothy Scriven says:

    On the whole conceptual analysis thing I’d make an analogy with words and phrases. something like “Intutions” define what we mean by words and “free will” for example is just another word. If intutions were meant to be about something outside of language then studying the folks intutions would be next to useless but if intutions about certain types of propositions ( i.e free will) make the propositions true or false ( rather than the truth concerning these propositions confirming or disconfirming intuions). In other words in many ( but not all) philosophical areas the folk thinking something makes it true. In these areas then the job of philosophers is to come up with the simplest consistent theory which saves as much of the folks intutions as possible. In other areas we should be more worried about things like coming up with the simplest, consistent theory which legitimizes scientfic practice ( arguably the debate over universals and nominalism is like this).