Current Issue

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

Professor Sarah-Jane Leslie *07
Professor Sarah-Jane Leslie *07

Thus was born the “Knobe effect,” which summarizes that people are moralizing creatures who are far more likely to assign blame for bad things than credit for good things. Knobe has done further research delving into questions of free will, determinism, and the philosophical processes that are involved in triggering emotional versus rational responses when it comes to passing judgment.

The Knobe effect, which he uncovered while still a graduate student at Princeton, frequently is referenced in election years to explain the effectiveness of negative political advertising. It also made Knobe a star and one of experimental philosophy’s most visible figures. He is writing a book about experimental philosophy that he hopes will evoke the image of an armchair going up in flames.

Not everyone is convinced. “If you had put this to philosophers before the advent of experimental philosophy, you would have seen this same contrast,” Gideon Rosen says. “Sure, you can go out and do surveys to confirm it. But those intuitions are interesting and available without doing surveys. Even if Knobe had never done an experiment in his life, he could have written a paper about this with the same significance. My hunch is that philosophers are good at channeling the judgments ordinary people would make.”

Maybe, maybe not. Anthony Appiah, who was one of Knobe’s dissertation readers at Princeton, thinks that such surveys can only enhance the process of philosophy.

“The question isn’t if you could come to the same conclusion without experiments,” says Appiah, “but do the experiments move us ahead in different ways or faster than sitting around reflecting? I think it would be hard to argue this ­hasn’t helped stimulate new questions. The test will be 10 years from now, what we’ve learned by then.”

Another common attack on ­experimental philosophy is that because most experiments involve asking the opinions of people not trained in philosophical thinking, the results are not valid. It’s “folk philosophy,” what ordinary people think of as philosophy, rather than the real thing.

“[In] some of these surveys, it’s unclear why the results are relevant to philosophy,” Rosen says. “So why jump through hoops? Why not just discuss substantive questions of right and wrong with people who have been trained to think about hard cases?” Nonsense, says Stich.

“The whole ‘expertise defense’ [of armchair philosophy] says it doesn’t matter what the man on the street thinks about intuitive knowledge, moral permissibility, or intentionality, because he’s not an expert,” Stich says. “Philosophers claim to be the only experts capable of producing philosophical intuitions. But are they? Do you have to have six years of graduate training at a prestige university to be philosophically savvy?”

In recent years, Stich has been doing survey experiments to see if philosophers have systematically different intuitions from ordinary people (which conceivably would render professional philosophers’ judgments less universal than the ­discipline claims). Early indications are that they do, Stich says. But while those philosophers’ “right” intuitions might win over similarly minded peers on a tenure committee, does that give them the weight of inherent truth? Experi­mental philosophy amounts to a generation saying, not so fast. Ultimately, the debate seems to come down to who owns philosophy and even truth — a closed society of experts, or everyone?

“Truth does not belong to philosophy but to all of us,” says Appiah. “How ordinary people use it is part of the accounting, even if they’re deploying it in ways that may be slippery and incoherent. Language and the mind are both messy, and so is the world.

“Reality,” Appiah says, “is never tidy.”

David Menconi is a music critic and feature writer at the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.

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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