In Response to: Philosophy tests

As a philosophy major from the Class of ’75, I was surprised and delighted to see my old department be the subject of the cover story in the May 16 issue. However, I found myself somewhat in disagreement with those who take the point of view that armchair philosophers just deal with intuitions, rather than empirical data.

The great American philosopher Charles S. Peirce believed that philosophy should be classified as an observational science, but one whose observations are not narrow and specialized like the traditional sciences. Rather, Peirce believed that philosophy deals with “observations such as come within the range of every man’s normal experiences, and for the most part in every waking hour of his life. ... These observations escape the untrained eye precisely because they permeate our whole lives, just as a man who never takes off his blue spectacles soon ceases to see the blue tinge.” 

I believe the intuitions of armchair philosophers often are based on the results of thought experiments. As such, they have an empirical dimension. We can accept the contributions of the new experimental philosophers who collect the kind of data that can only be accessed by getting up out of one’s armchair. However, let’s also retain a respect for the armchair philosophers whose ruminations can reach conclusions grounded in subtle observations whose empirical underpinnings may be elusive, but are still real nonetheless.

James H. Bernstein ’75