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May 19, 2010



A fascinating story! Anglo-American philosophy was founded on the bet that we can and should stop doing philosophy-- that the dead ends and false questions of the philosophical tradition must be cleared away so that we can go out into the world and understand it without notions. Does the advent of "experimental philosophy" herald the long-awaited success of this project? Alas, it does not; x-phi represents not an attempt to move beyond philosophy toward the world, but an ill-thought-out hope that asking randomly selected people for their opinions (sorry, "experiment") might somehow resolve the questions that Anglo-American philosophers have manifestly failed to answer on their own.

As you point out, the staggering provincialism of those who are trying to carry through this project bodes ill for its success. That the "discoveries" of experimental philosophy are all things that most educated people outside academic philosophy now take for granted is embarrassing enough; what's more shocking is how thoroughly unable philosophers are to put down their notions and look at the things they now for whatever reason wish to see. Both the questions they ask and the form their inquiry takes guarantee the futility of their efforts; one cannot discover anything new about moral intuition by posing a ridiculously contrived thought experiment to people who would be well justified in wondering why you care about it, but more generally very little can be discovered about either culture or intuition through this sort of "experiment."

Is there anything at all to be learned or gained from this sad, confused discipline? I can't agree that experimental philosophy is headed anywhere productive on its own; the sorts of questions it seems to want answered are posed with a thousand times more sophistication and intelligence in departments of literature, history, anthropology, sociology and psychology every day. To my mind, the trajectory of Anglo-American philosophy from the positivists to the experimentalists is best read as a fable of empiricism: absolute faith in "the facts," taken far enough, will make you unable even to see the facts. You're quite right that historically, philosophy cannot be defined by a specific set of concerns; perhaps we could instead define it as the intuition, in any subject, that although the world is very complicated, well-grounded concepts and well-asked questions will make it a great deal clearer. In other words, "data" is important, but thought even more so. From this perspective the connection between the roots of Anglo-American philosophy and its latest trend becomes clearer: analytic philosophers stopped being able to understand the world because they stopped doing philosophy.

David M. Frank

Really enjoyed this piece. Glad to see someone bringing up Robert Boyle in a discussion of x-phi.

However, you make a mistake when you report the "findings" of Stich et al. According to them, Westerners are more likely than East Asians to accept the causal-historical account:


Justin Smith

Thanks David, but yikes, that is one major gaffe! I don't know how I let that obvious switching of the two theories' names slip past. I've written to my n+1 editor to correct it for posterity, but let this stand as my public acknowledgment of it. This doesn't have any impact on the criticism, of course, which I still believe is rock-solid, but it does make me want to stand in the corner with a dunce cap for a few hours.

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