I am usually not very interested in second-order debates about the nature of philosophy or about the nature and goals of experimental philosophy, but a few recent posts here and there have attracted my attention (see particularly the exchange between Ron and Thomas). So, what are experimental philosophers doing? And whatever they are doing, is that philosophy?
1. One answer to these questions has been recently proposed by Joshua Knobe. In substance, he argues that experimental philosophers are studying empirical questions--how people think about intentionality, how people make causal judgments etc. To do so, they use, as they should, experimental methods. Furthermore, this counts as philosophy, because experimental philosophers address the very questions that were of interest to philosophers before the rise of analytic philosophy, i.e., of philosophers such as Hume (e.g., the role of emotions in moral judgments, how people think about causation, etc.).
Now, this is certainly a seductive move and it has considerable rhetorical power. Still, I find this a pretty unconvincing reply. Philosophers such as Descartes, Hume, and before Aristotle and Plato were certainly interested in the questions highlighted by Josh. But, they were also interested in biological questions (remember Aristotle's work on the growth of the chick), in cosmological questions (remember Descartes's Le Monde), in geographical questions (some of Kant's work), and so on, and so forth. Now, if Josh were right, by getting a PhD in developmental biology, I would be engaged in philosophy, because I would be addressing, with modern tools, the very questions that were of interest to Aristotle. But this is silly.
2. Another answer, which seems to be embraced by Thomas and Eddy, is to say that experimental philosophers bring new (and, maybe, better) tools to bear on the traditional project of conceptual analysis. Eddy and Thomas call this experimental analysis.
I don't find this project very promising. As I have argued in my Mind & Language paper, this project supposes a capacity to distinguish conceptual competence and conceptual performance. In turn, this supposes a theory of concepts. But, unfortunately, nobody knows which theory of concepts is correct.
So, what are experimental philosophers doing? And is that philosophy?
3. For what it's worth, I have a pretty clear idea of what I am doing.
Some of my work (Semantics, Cross-Cultural Style, Against Arguments from Reference, and the paper on causation by absence with Jonathan Livengood for the Midwest Studies) belongs clearly to the debunking tradition of experimental philosophy. Here is how it goes:
- Identify philosophical arguments that hang on empirical claims about folk intuitions.
- Test these claims and show that they are false.
- Evaluate the consequences of these findings for the philosophical arguments at hand.
In other papers, I am more concerned with psychological questions. The paper on the trade-off hypothesis attempts to causally explain the judgments people make. My current work on conscious mental states with Justin Sytsma is an extension of the traditional research on theory of mind. My recent cross-cultural work on the folk concept of race studies whether people's concept of race belongs to their folk biology.
Now, is this philosophy? Here's is why the answer is clearly affirmative. Current philosophy is extremely diverse. It includes formal modeling (Glymour and colleagues' work on causation, Skyrms on the social contract, etc.), logic, philosophy of language closely inspired by linguistics, philosophy of biology, philosophy of physics, etc., in addition to intuition-driven philosophy. (Much of these fields do not rely on intuitions at all. If you wonder what philosophy could be if it were not allowed to rely on intuitions, I suggest you open Philosophy of Science, BJPS, Linguistics & Philosophy, JSL, etc. ) It is likely that any characterization of philosophy that is wide enough to include all these fields will also include experimental philosophy.
To put the same point differently, consider some salient examples of philosophical works and debates that are thoroughly empirical, e.g., the debate between simulation theorists and theory theorists in the philosophy of psychology, the debate about the units of selection in the philosophy of biology, the debate about quantum information in the philosophy of physics. Anybody who wants to argue that experimental philosophy is not philosophy faces a dilemma. She might propose a notion of philosophy according to which these debates count as philosophical. But, then, the (psychological, empirical) debate about what causes people to make the judgments about intentionality they make (etc.) will also count as philosophical. There are no salient differences between the later and the former debates. Alternatively, she might say that these debates are not philosophical, maybe because they are empirical. Much of my work, then, will not count as philosophical according to this definition. But given what gets then excluded (very exciting stuff) and given what turns out to count as philosophy according to this definition (no comment), I am glad my work does not count as philosophy.