Sunday, December 09, 2007

Philosophers don’t observe, experiment, measure and count ...

... or, do they? Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has a delightful essay in NYTimes on the latest fad -- the new new thing -- in philosophy: X-phi or experimental philosophy. Every paragraph there is worth excerpting, but I have to limit myself to just two:

Not only are philosophers unaccustomed to gathering data; many have also come to define themselves by their disinclination to do so. The professional bailiwick we’ve staked out is the empyrean of pure thought. Colleagues in biology have P.C.R. machines to run and microscope slides to dye; political scientists have demographic trends to crunch; psychologists have their rats and mazes. We philosophers wave them on with kindly looks. We know the experimental sciences are terribly important, but the role we prefer is that of the Catholic priest presiding at a wedding, confident that his support for the practice carries all the more weight for being entirely theoretical. Philosophers don’t observe; we don’t experiment; we don’t measure; and we don’t count. We reflect. We love nothing more than our “thought experiments,” but the key word there is thought. As the president of one of philosophy’s more illustrious professional associations, the Aristotelian Society, said a few years ago, “If anything can be pursued in an armchair, philosophy can.”

But now a restive contingent of our tribe is convinced that it can shed light on traditional philosophical problems by going out and gathering information about what people actually think and say about our thought experiments. The newborn movement (“x-phi” to its younger practitioners) has come trailing blogs of glory, not to mention Web sites, special journal issues and panels at the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association. At the University of California at San Diego and the University of Arizona, students and faculty members have set up what they call Experimental Philosophy Laboratories, while Indiana University now specializes with its Experimental Epistemology Laboratory. Neurology has been enlisted, too. More and more, you hear about philosophy grad students who are teaching themselves how to read f.M.R.I. brain scans in order to try to figure out what’s going on when people contemplate moral quandaries. (Which decisions seem to arise from cool calculation? Which decisions seem to involve amygdala-associated emotion?) The publisher Springer is starting a new journal called Neuroethics, which, pointedly, is about not just what ethics has to say about neurology but also what neurology has to say about ethics. (Have you noticed that neuro- has become the new nano-?) In online discussion groups, grad students confer about which philosophy programs are “experimentally friendly” the way, in the 1970s, they might have conferred about which programs were welcoming toward homosexuals, or Heideggerians. Oh, and earlier this fall, a music video of an “Experimental Philosophy Anthem” was posted on YouTube. It shows an armchair being torched.

The YouTube video of the X-phi Anthem is here. A blog devoted to this field is here.

And oh, did I mention the American-style attack ad on Immanuel Kant?


  1. Anonymous said...

    This article once again underscores the distinction between a "Professor of Philosophy" such as Anthony and a "Philosopher who lived in his philosophy" such as Bergson. The author fails to address the most important question often being addressed in a broad sense-Scientists
    always focus on-the "How" question. When Philosophers asks "Why" then there is a conflict between those two diciplines. What those arm chair philosophers forget is that in real sense Science in s under the proof of Philosophy. The dictionary definition of philosophy is "Love/Study of Wisdom". Those who makes a distinct separation between disciplines fails to remember even this basic point. Bergsons "Introduction to Metaphysics" is good starting point.