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March 05, 2006


I love it! Experimental philosophy! I can now test for the existence of an external universe by whacking Lackman upside the head with a two-by-four.

There is a habit among people to believe that if they've never heard of something that it doesn't exist. And this has always excited the popular press.

So unless some new techniques come up to strengthen the not so new empirical approach it will fizzle but hopefully bring some book contracts and tenure to someone.

Meanwhile if you talk philosophy with the public there will be some new Alice In Wonderland features to what they "know."

Sounds like a win/win situation to me.

X-PHI! The X stands for "extreme"! If you stuff a cat in a box for a day and do not know if it is alive or dead, can it still DO THE DEW?


Experimental Philosophy Yglesias on Lachman

Here I think some of the comments more interesting that Matt's post.

Epistemology Embodied

Lindsey Beyerstein's take on Quine

Experimental Philosophy The Blog

But really, isn't the material world just the manifestation of an ad hoc fractal feedback loop conjecture to which we have all objectively consented to. Damn, if I could just do Trig problems the rest of my life.

If you think about it, it's only in very special cases that answering a question involves asking what most people think the answer is.

Keynes talked about stock market investment in this way.

From A Random Walk Down Wall Street by Burton Malkiel:

Keynes described the playing of the stock market in terms readily understandable by his fellow Englishmen: It is analogous to entering a newspaper beauty-judging contest in which one must select the six prettiest faces out of a hundred photographs, with the prize going to the person whose selections most nearly conform to those of the group as a whole.

Velleman on Experimental Philosophy

Joshua Knobe on the blog "Garden of Forking Paths" responds to George Velleman's criticism on "Left2Right" of Lackman's article in Slate. Whew. Didn't include all the sublinks which can be followed from the first.

Appears there is a subgroup of philosophers who call themselves "Experimental Philosophers" or "X-Phi" and believe they are doing something new, or new in emphasis or degree, and are encountering opposition from some traditional philosophers. On two of the blogs the X-Phi posse were apparently not so offended by the Lackman article.

It seems the X-Phi is based on the assumption that all of modern philosophy proceeds along the lines of Ayn Rand's Objectivism. Since pretty much nobody with any common sense takes Rand seriously, this seems like a bad assumption. In addition the X-Phi approach to understanding modern philosophy would be to actually talk to philosophers in order to find out how they work, an approach that would immediately show that X-Phi is just another name for what people already do.

hilzoy, although I had been there been before thru Beyerstein's and Weatherson's personal blogs, IIRC, today I arrived at the garden thru a set of forking paths. I was just surfing. Delete this and 7:02 if you like.

Bob -- it's fine. I'm on their authors' list in my other capacity, though iirc I've never actually posted there.

thanks hil for the post and bob for all the links. It will take a while to digest, but I did want to play devil's advocate here for a minute and hope that hil will be gentle with me. I was tempted to comment at the forking paths blog until I read the last comment, so I'll just stay here, thank you very much.

Setting aside the gee whiz quality of the Slate article, I see a parallel in this (assuming that there is a x-phi movement and there are serious people involved with it) with the rise of corpus linguistics.

Quick and grossly inaccurate sketch. Linguistics originated in philology, which was studying classical languages, and it was Franz Boas, a German linguist who immigrated to the US, who argued that unwritten languages had the same depth and complexity that classical languages did, so it came to be that a linguist researched a language (preferably undescribed) in order to describe it. This is why many linguistic departments are affiliated with anthropology. This changed with the 'Generative revolution", where it was argued that a linguist must use their own intuition to determine what is grammatical and what is not, and then construct the rule system that best describes the utterances. Much arguing occured. However, while this was going on, a small group of linguists argued that one should take a corpus and analyze that because intuitions might be misleading. In some ways, this is the resurfacing of the anthropological linguistics ideal (where you would find a speaker of a language that was undocumented and collect a group of texts from them and from that group, you would make a dictionary and a grammar)

As the power of computers grew, the possibility of easily collecting texts made it possible to churn thru previously unimaginable amounts of data and reaffirm and disconfirm previously posited patterns and discover previously unnoticed patterns. If taken this way, corpus linguistics did not invalidate previous linguistics, but it supported some conclusions and disconfirmed others.

I see a parallel here, though the differences are that in x-phi, the data is only elicited (some corpora are sets of elicited data, hence you have to randomize, add distractors, blah blah blah) and the answers to posed problems may not actually reflect what people would really do. But it seems that the complaint that x-phi found the same thing that Frankfurt did is a problem of reporting rather than of something inherent with x-phi.

Again, I understand that the rantage is directed a lot at the reporting (and having read countless article that makes idiotic claims about linguistics, I agree with this aspect wholeheartedly) but I wonder why the notion itself is applicable only to a small subset of problems rather than a wider range. For example, on the problem of informed consent, does it reflect some bedrock foundational truth or does it arise from a consensus mechanism? If it arises from a consensus mechanism, does the presence of a minority opinion invalidate it? Or is the minority opinion invalidated?

X-phi seems to be an attempt to systematize intuitions. Of course, we wrestle with this all the time, and if someone says 'well, I knew this guy who...', we have to evaluate that anecdote to determine how applicable it is. But as such, it seems to be something that is useful. Of course, if it does catch on, one is going to have to do stats in order to get a philosophy degree, but that's what has happened in a lot of linguistic programs, so perhaps this is just a misery love company post ;^)

lj: gentle is my middle name. Sometimes. Sort of ;) Anyways: I really meant to be attacking more the article than x-phi itself, about which I don't know very much. (I mean: as I said, I know people who do empirical work in, say, bioethics, but they don't as far as I know think of themselves as part of something called x-phi, or even 'experimental philosophy'. )

I think one difference between phil. and linguistics is that linguistics is (as far as I know) clearly supposed to be about the study of languages, and so at least one use for empirical data is fairly clear: take languages as data, and study them. It's less clear in philosophy: what the data are, or might be, is contested, and varies by sub-field. (What would the data for symbolic logic be?)

In ethics in particular, the role of 'intuitions' is itself contested (one more problem with the article: it completely obscured this, and made it sound as though all we do is sit around with our intuitions.) It isn't clear to a lot of people that they play anything like the role the article suggests. And people disagree about how they come into play. A few candidate roles:

(a) intuitions tell us about the meanings of crucial terms. If most people say that moral responsibility presupposes free will, then that tells us something about what free will is (or: what 'free will' means.) People then split about how close one should stick to popular meanings: do we just catalog popular beliefs, and if they are inconsistent, say 'oh well, I guess nothing corresponds to this concept', and throw up our hands? Or is revision OK, and if so, how much?.

(b) intuitions play something like the same role in ethics that observations play in science: they are the data, and our role as theorists is to systematize them.

More or less everyone accepts a third role: intuitions as useful starting points for thinking, starting points that can be revised or completely rejected if need be.

I tend to accept some loose version of (a) as regards language (roughly: you don't get to go completely Humpty-Dumpty with the language, but revisions, if duly noted, are fine), and to reject (b) (in ethics.)

Another thing about intuitions about language in philosophy: we tend to use them most within what was called 'ordinary language philosophy', which argued (roughly) that a number of philosophical problems were the result of misuses of language. In ordinary language philosophy, the phenomena under discussion were a lot less complex than I'd imagine the ones linguists study are. They also don't involve technical terms. What they are are: our sense of what, in a non-technical concept, one might say on a given occasion. (E.g., is it grammatical/appropriate/a twisting of language to say this?)

Opponents of ordinary language philosophy asked, when it was first introduced: but don't we need to do careful empirical studies to determine what people do in fact say? And the answer the OL philosophers gave was: no. We are talking about how people who are fluent in a language use it, and we are not making extremely complicated or technical points. We ourselves are fluent in English, and if we are not competent to say how our language is used, then polls would only multiply the number of non-competent people whose opinions would be registered.

(Here it matters that the intuitions were, in fact, pretty straightforward. To use one example: 'you don't ask whether an action was done voluntarily unless you believe that there is something untoward about it.' For instance, if you and I were walking somewhere, I would not (non-ironically) turn and ask you whether you were walking voluntarily, absent some reason (that armed man at your house...) to think you might not be, or something odd about the way you were doing it (you are walking with your feet encased in cement, or completely naked, or in some other state that really makes me wonder what exactly you are up to.

Like I said, not the sort of complicated question that seem to call for a poll. Also not the sort of question mentioned in the article.)

In the third to last para. of my last comment: for this:

our sense of what, in a non-technical concept, one might say on a given occasion.

substitute this:

our sense of what one might say on a given occasion, using a non-technical concept in an ordinary way.

-- Grammar deserted me.

Eh. Mu. Gawd.

Look, I'm a firm believer (recent convert, as it happens) in writing about things that one knows a little bit about. Don't know squat? Do some research. Apparently Lackman's indulging in "experimental writing", wherein one attempts to see if one can get paid for random egestions of thought. Wonder how it turned out?

I know next to nothing about philosophy, yet I still recognize this as a sort of alphanumeric steaming dungheap. If only the old joke about Descartes held true...

Commenting, on the other hand, I'm quite comfortable engaging in while ignorant. As evidenced by...well, by pretty much everything.

Hilary, thanks for the heads-up on the experimental philosophy blog; and, moreover, thank you for the thoughtful post. I think to some extent you're responding to things in the article that aren't in our research: in particular, we nowhere claim that either the cases we use, nor the philosophical theories they may or may not be relevant to, are our 'discoveries'. It would be more accurate to say that our discoveries are just who does or doesn't share the judgments about the cases in question.

As for the role of intuitions in philosophical theorizing, I don't really know bioethics at all (and would love to know more about what kind of empirical work goes on there), but in much of so-called "core" metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of language, they are still very much deployed as a source of evidence. Look at the literature on knowledge, or causation, or indeed much of the free will literature, and intuitions are absolutely key, and in something very like the "b" role that you mentioned. (Though perhaps they often are appealed to evidentially, but without the further metaphilosophical idea that what philosophy does is systematize them.)

Jonathan -- as I wrote in the comments on your blog, this is more about the annoying article than about your work. I know about intuitions in philosophy; part of the problem, I guess, is that I have never had much use for them in the (b) role myself. I think they're a good starting point, and that they play the role I described in ordinary language philosophy; they also play a good stage-setting role (as in: most people think X and Y, but X and Y are inconsistent; what to do?)

I think their role in the free will literature is a bit more complicated, unless you're talking about e.g. Double, whose view, as I understand it, boils down to: there is nothing that meets the ordinary criteria for freedom, so let's just throw up our hands. Whereas I tend to think that that discovery, if true, marks the point when philosophical argument ought to start.

Thanks for the comment, hil. You can bump into a lot of philosophy in linguistics, but it's not organized, so I'm sure there are lots of holes. With Ordinary Language Philosophy, we obviously get a heaping dose of Austin (who is more like a linguist than a philosopher, I think), though I was a bit surprised because I recall Dennett saying that OLP was dead (though Dennett might be to philosophy what Pinker is to linguistics, I guess)

whoops, slight addendum:
there are a lot of holes (in my knowledge of the field)

lj: ordinary language phil. is not done much any more, so Dennett is right there. It's just one of the places where intuitions have one of their strongest claims to legitimacy (and also one in which the 'why not poll people?' argument came up explicitly, and was, imho, pretty conclusively knocked down (for that specific use) by Stanley Cavell.

I really wish I had seen this earlier. What a terrific take-down. Thanks.

If anything, your last bit goes too easy on the idiot writing the piece. His final paragraph -- it's hard to imagine anything stupider.

Your analogy "physicists are astonished to think that space and time might not be absolute" -- that's a relatively new idea in physics. It's more like, "cosmologists are amazed at the new theory that the earth might not be the center of the universe."

that's a relatively new idea in physics

Heh. Hehe.

Hilzoy, have you read Lakoff & Johnson's book _Philosophy in the Flesh_? I'm curious how you see it.

"lj: ordinary language phil. is not done much any more, so Dennett is right there."

It's possibly a good idea, when discussing linguistics, philology, language, and philosophy, to spell out "philosophy" as "philosophy," rather than to abbreviate it as "phil.," although possibly I'm the only person who for a microsecond has twice had to process "philology or philosophy?" I figured it wasn't worth mentioning once, but seeing it again, and then a third time in "ordinary language phil.," I mention the thought in passing.

Does Dennett have a poor reputation in philosophy circles? I'd be curious to know a bit more as to your perspective.

Sorry Gary, but I thought that since I spelled it out once, I thought that it might be sufficient and then I got worried about abbrevating it. Normally, I would have then just gone with OLP (that's what often is done in linguistics, to the point that the major journal in the field will take an author's name like Smith and on all subsequent uses, simply use the letter S as in 'S's main concern in this chapter is...') but I thought that might be too brief, so I partially spelled it out. If it does come up again, I'll try to remember that.

Does Dennett have a poor reputation in philosophy circles? I'd be curious to know a bit more as to your perspective.

I'm not sure if this is addressed to me, because I'm not really in philosophical circles (except this one, of course ;^) but I get the impression that Dennett is to philosophy as Pinker is to linguistics. Pinker is a respected linguist (in the Chomskyan tradition, which I don't agree with, but that's neither here nor there), but as a popularizer, he glosses over some real differences to suggest that his view is correct and everyone else is wrong. Part of it is jealousy, I suppose, but linguists also have in mind the case of Hayakawa, who was also a popularizer, and went on to being a demagogue. His potential counterpart, in terms of being a 'public'linguist, was a wonderfully kind human being by the name of Dwight Bolinger, and the two of them passed away within a few days or weeks of each other, and Geoffrey Nunberg had a piece of NPR's Fresh Air (here at the bottom) that closed with this

I don't know why Bolinger's popular writings never got the wide
audience that Hayakawa's did. It may be that he lacked Hayakawa's gifts as
a controversialist. It would be hard to imagine him interrupting somebody
he disagreed with, much less pulling the plug on them. Nor was he much of a
hand at the keening derision of the pop grammarians. He did the best he
could with civility and good sense, and I suppose he won as large a
readership as he could have reasonably expected. Maybe every age gets the
linguists it deserves.

This is not to say that Dennett (or Pinker!) are related to Hayakawa in outlook or temperament, it's just that I instinctively distrust popularizations. And I suppose I am in that ever so common trap of saying 'if it's popular, it can't be good'.

I really enjoy reading Dennett, but the "bright" idea is precisely the idiocy that seeks to make one side cry uncle and ill befits a person trying to work through questions, and is more like a person enamored of winning an argument. I tend to think that he might be right in the abstract, but in terms of changing minds, it merely marginalizes.

As a bit of synchronicity, there is a kerfluffle over the fact that Michael Ruse sent William Dembski a private email exchange between he and Dennett (one link is here that should provide a gateway) I'm not saying that Dennett is in the wrong at all in this, but it seems to me that he doesn't realize that he can make the same arguments that he does within the philosophy community to the public at large. I think it is a sin of intellectual hubris, so I now wonder if his books slight those who disagree with him (though some of them, like Fodor, I'm right with Dennett)

I suppose that referencing a spat where I think Dennett is basically in the right is a pretty bizarre way of complaining, but I am convinced of the fact that one's greatest strength is generally one's greatest weakness. For any popularizer, the ability to make things popular is one of those things.

Here's the Guardian's account of the Ruse-Dennett spat. It doesn't note that the reason it got out was that (according to Ruse) he forwarded to a group of people who then passed it on the Dembski, who put it on his blog.

Hilzoy, what's the name of your book? Given the quality of your writing here, I imagine it's pretty good (and on a topic I find fascinating).

Fraser: ask Slarti first: he tried to read it, and I don't know if it worked. Here's a link.

About Dennett: he's a really good philosopher.

I haven't actually gotten that far into it, I'm afraid. I have this tendency to get stuck when there's a part I don't understand or disagree with. Probably I ought to go through the whole thing a few times, taking notes, and then start asking questions. The wife's taking one of the kids to Eastern Europe next week, so maybe I'll order out a lot so I don't have to cook or clean, and make it a project. Abby's in bed by 8, so I could probably give it a few hours a day.

This all depends on me completing the installation of new baseboards in the kids' playroom by then. I'm seriously tempted to get myself a power miter box, because the manual kind simply doesn't cut very straight. Even if you've got one that's good quality. That and an air compressor and air nailer, but that would mean dishing out about $600 for the lot. Still, it'd cut the time I spend on such projects in half or better. New baseboards were put in because I ripped the old ones out to put in laminate flooring, which we got such a good deal on that blowing the savings on tools should be a gimme.


I wasn't very impressed by Dennett's "Darwin's Dangerous Idea." It had a slightly juvenile air of "I know I can prove that religion is a load of bollocks if I just try really, really hard!" to it and without the depth to back it up.

There was a lot of web discussion recently when Leon Wieseltier reviewed a Daniel Dennett book. Beyerstein supplies a linklist.

Blogs on Wieseltier on Dennett

Creaturely over Preacherly

The PZ Meyers thread at Pharyngula had a lot of discussion of Daniel Dennett, if you care to sift thru 100+ comments to find it. :)

A lot of it was to the effect that Dennett in his popularizing mode tends to an overly simplistic materialism and reductionism. I think.

"If you read this and know Frankfurt's work, the idea of presenting this as a revelation is a bit surreal."

For the record, the investigators in this study quite explicitly reference Frankfurt's work; their aim was, in part, to see whether a Frankfurtian perspective was manifested in their subjects' attributions of responsibility. The investigators believe that a responsible answer to this question could not be given prior to systematic empirical investigation.

For those inclined to read the study, it is authored by Woolfolk et al., and is forthcoming in Cogntion. A preprint is available by following the appropriate link in the article on "experimental philosophy" now posted on the Leiter Reports.

John Doris

I suppose the rich vein of Wiener (and related) jokes (ref: the previous comment) has already been thoroughly mined out. Or at least anointed with mustard and consumed.

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