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May 16, 2012

Vol. 112, No. 12


Philosophy tests

These thinkers take philosophy to the ­streets

By David Menconi
Published in the May 16, 2012, issue

Princeton is ground zero for experimental philosophy, and Gil Harman its father
Princeton is ground zero for experimental philosophy, and Gil Harman its father

Most philosophers practicing x-phi are relatively young. Depending on a given university’s emphasis or politics, you’re as likely to find them in a psychology department as in the philosophy department. They are less given to absolute pronouncements, and more likely to accept the notion that long-held beliefs about human intuitions of right and wrong might not be as universal as we’ve been led to believe.

“When I talk to people about experimental philosophy and how it got started, the answer is that it all began in New Jersey with a group of people moving this forward at the same time,” says Joshua Knobe *06, one of the field’s leading lights.

Depending on whom you ask, experimental philosophy is either an exciting breakthrough or a trendy, tragic dead end. The latter opinion is popular among scholars like Oxford philosopher Timothy Williamson, who asserted in an address to the Aristotelian Society: “If anything can be pursued in an armchair, philosophy can.” In a 2010 essay in The New York Times, he denounced experimental philosophy as “imitation psychology” and the work of “philosophy-hating philosophers.”

The traditional, armchair model occupies the theoretical realm of pure abstract thought. To the traditional philosopher, real-world input is an unnecessary, unseemly distraction from the business at hand. Still, even a skeptic like Princeton philosophy professor Gideon Rosen acknowledges experimental philosophy’s appeal. “The rap against philosophy has always been that there’s no method or cumulative development of results,” Rosen says. “So it’s not surprising that something came along that looked like scientific method, and people paid attention.”

In fact, empirical data has had a place in philosophy for centuries. In Experiments in Ethics, Appiah claims that experimental philosophy’s engagement with the larger world makes it “really more traditional” than what today is considered traditional philosophy. “You can do good work without an MRI, but it’s an interesting question of philosophical taste or method,” says Appiah. “How important is empirical knowledge to philosophy? I think the answer is ‘hugely’ and always has been.” 

Twentieth-century “analytic philosophy,” concerned largely with scientific matters, was championed by Harvard professor Willard Van Orman Quine — who summarized his view of the unity of philosophy and science with the famous quip, “Philosophy of science is philosophy enough.” One of Quine’s graduate students at Harvard was Harman, who came to Princeton’s philosophy department in 1963 and helped foster an atmosphere of openness to empirical data. And one of Harman’s faculty colleagues at Princeton was someone he’d known when both were undergraduates at Swarthmore College, psychology professor John Darley.

In the 1960s, Darley did a series of groundbreaking psychological studies that yielded up the “bystander effect.” Also known as “Genovese syndrome,” after Kitty Genovese, who died after her cries for help went unanswered when she was stabbed in New York City in 1964, it holds that the probability of a bystander offering help in an emergency is inversely proportional to the number of other bystanders present, because each person is less likely to assume responsibility for taking action.

Still, it would take another generation for practicing philosophers to start doing research and attempting to interpret the results philosophically. You can trace much of the current wave of experimental philosophy to a single class first offered at Princeton in the spring of 2000, “Ethics: Philosophical, Psychological and Cognitive Science Perspectives,” taught jointly by Harman, Darley, and Rutgers philosophy professor Stephen Stich *68.

“For a decade before that, it had been a very depressing world out there,” says Stich. “People working in moral psychology had little understanding of the philosophical literature, while people working in philosophy had no acquaintance with the empirical literature.” The class brought together people in each discipline who were committed to understanding what people in the other discipline were doing, Stich says, and the result was “the birth of a new and now-burgeoning interdisciplinary domain — real moral psychology, as I like to call it.”

Enrolled in the class, an updated version of which will be offered next fall, were students both of philosophy and of social psychology, the science of how people’s behaviors, emotions, and thoughts are influenced by the presence or absence of others. The class was so successful that a form of it exists to this day as the Moral Psychology Research Group, or MPRG. An assemblage of 21 academics from philosophy and psychology, the MPRG meets twice yearly, most recently last month at Purdue University.

MPRG members include Stich and Harman; Shaun Nichols, a student of Stich at Rutgers and author of a landmark experimental-philosophy survey about cultural differences in the intuitions of Westerners and Asians; Victoria McGeer, a philosophy professor at Princeton’s University Center For Human Values who studies crime, punishment, and “restorative justice” (a method of brokering agreements between criminals and victims); and two Princeton alumni named Josh: Knobe, at Yale; and Joshua Greene *02, who teaches at Harvard.

Excerpt: Gilbert Harman discusses morality
Philosophy professor Gilbert Harman discusses morality with Daisy Radevsky ’13 of the
Princeton Philosophy Review. For the full interview, visit
Post Comments
2 Responses to Philosophy tests

Edward C. Mendler '47 Says:

2012-05-14 12:33:15

A worthwhile (if superficial) beginning. I am writing a book that broaches some aspects of the subject.

Justin Schwartz '79 Says:

2012-05-22 09:22:52

I just concluded a philosophy of law class that featured many of the usual suspects -- Mill, Rawls, Nozick, etc. -- with a unit on experimental studies of justice, both U.S. and cross-national. Two tendencies emerged from the studies we studied: 1) common-sense views about justice are incredibly confused and incoherent, and 2) interestingly, Rawls' difference principle is about the least-preferred option by almost anyone anywhere, gathering about 2 percent support at most. I thought that 2) was pretty interesting as a result. Gil, glad to hear you are looking at the data now. High time philosophers did.
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