Experimental philosophy

Experimental philosophy is an emerging field of philosophical inquiry[1][2][3][4][5] that makes use of empirical data—often gathered through surveys which probe the intuitions of ordinary people—in order to inform research on philosophical questions.[6][7] This use of empirical data is widely seen as opposed to a philosophical methodology that relies mainly on a priori justification, sometimes called "armchair" philosophy, by experimental philosophers.[8][9][10] Experimental philosophy initially began by focusing on philosophical questions related to intentional action, the putative conflict between free will and determinism, and causal vs. descriptive theories of linguistic reference.[11] However, experimental philosophy has continued to expand to new areas of research.

Disagreement about what experimental philosophy can accomplish is widespread. One claim is that the empirical data gathered by experimental philosophers can have an indirect effect on philosophical questions by allowing for a better understanding of the underlying psychological processes which lead to philosophical intuitions.[12] Others claim that experimental philosophers are engaged in conceptual analysis, but taking advantage of the rigor of quantitative research to aid in that project.[13][14] Finally, some work in experimental philosophy can be seen as undercutting the traditional methods and presuppositions of analytic philosophy.[15] Several philosophers have offered criticisms of experimental philosophy.


Though, in early modern philosophy, natural philosophy was sometimes referred to as "experimental philosophy",[16] the field associated with the current sense of the term dates its origins around 2000 when a small number of students experimented with the idea of fusing philosophy to the experimental rigor of psychology.

While the philosophical movement Experimental Philosophy began around 2000 (though perhaps the earliest example of the approach is reported by Hewson, 1994[17]), the use of empirical methods in philosophy far predates the emergence of the recent academic field. Current experimental philosophers claim that the movement is actually a return to the methodology used by many ancient philosophers.[10][12] Further, other philosophers like David Hume, René Descartes and John Locke are often held up as early models of philosophers who appealed to empirical methodology.[5][18]

Areas of research


The questions of what consciousness is, and what conditions are necessary for conscious thought have been the topic of a long-standing philosophical debate. Experimental philosophers have approached this question by trying to get a better grasp on how exactly people ordinarily understand consciousness. For instance, work by Joshua Knobe and Jesse Prinz (2008) suggests that people may have two different ways of understanding minds generally, and Justin Sytsma and Edouard Machery (2009) have written about the proper methodology for studying folk intuitions about consciousness. Bryce Huebner, Michael Bruno, and Hagop Sarkissian (2010)[19] have further argued that the way Westerners understand consciousness differs systematically from the way that East Asians understand consciousness, while Adam Arico (2010)[20] has offered some evidence for thinking that ordinary ascriptions of consciousness are sensitive to framing effects (such as the presence or absence of contextual information). Some of this work has been featured in the Online Consciousness Conference.

Other experimental philosophers have approached the topic of consciousness by trying to uncover the cognitive processes that guide everyday attributions of conscious states. Adam Arico, Brian Fiala, Rob Goldberg, and Shaun Nichols,[21] for instance, propose a cognitive model of mental state attribution (the AGENCY model), whereby an entity's displaying certain relatively simple features (e.g., eyes, distinctive motions, interactive behavior) triggers a disposition to attribute conscious states to that entity. Additionally, Bryce Huebner[22] has argued that ascriptions of mental states rely on two divergent strategies: one sensitive to considerations of an entity's behavior being goal-directed; the other sensitive to considerations of personhood.

Cultural diversity

Following the work of Richard Nisbett, which showed that there were differences in a wide range of cognitive tasks between Westerners and East Asians, Jonathan Weinberg, Shaun Nichols and Stephen Stich (2001) compared epistemic intuitions of Western college students and East Asian college students. The students were presented with a number of cases, including some Gettier cases, and asked to judge whether a person in the case really knew some fact or merely believed it. They found that the East Asian subjects were more likely to judge that the subjects really knew.[23] Later Edouard Machery, Ron Mallon, Nichols and Stich performed a similar experiment concerning intuitions about the reference of proper names, using cases from Saul Kripke's Naming and Necessity (1980). Again, they found significant cultural differences. Each group of authors argued that these cultural variances undermined the philosophical project of using intuitions to create theories of knowledge or reference.[24] However, subsequent studies have consistently failed to replicate Weinberg et al.'s (2001) results for other Gettier cases [25] Indeed, more recent studies have actually been providing evidence for the opposite hypothesis, that people from a variety of different cultures have surprisingly similar intuitions in these cases.[26]

Determinism and moral responsibility

One area of philosophical inquiry has been concerned with whether or not a person can be morally responsible if their actions are entirely determined, e.g., by the laws of Newtonian physics. One side of the debate, the proponents of which are called ‘incompatibilists,’ argue that there is no way for people to be morally responsible for immoral acts if they could not have done otherwise. The other side of the debate argues instead that people can be morally responsible for their immoral actions even when they could not have done otherwise. People who hold this view are often referred to as ‘compatibilists.’ It was generally claimed that non-philosophers were naturally incompatibilist,[27] that is they think that if you couldn’t have done anything else, then you are not morally responsible for your action. Experimental philosophers have addressed this question by presenting people with hypothetical situations in which it is clear that a person’s actions are completely determined. Then the person does something morally wrong, and people are asked if that person is morally responsible for what she or he did. Using this technique Nichols and Knobe (2007) found that "people's responses to questions about moral responsibility can vary dramatically depending on the way in which the question is formulated"[28] and argue that "people tend to have compatiblist intuitions when they think about the problem in a more concrete, emotional way but that they tend to have incompatiblist intuitions when they think about the problem in a more abstract, cognitive way".[29]


Recent work in experimental epistemology has tested the apparently empirical claims of various epistemological views. For example, research on epistemic contextualism has proceeded by conducting experiments in which ordinary people are presented with vignettes that involve a knowledge ascription.[30][31][32] Participants are then asked to report on the status of that knowledge ascription. The studies address contextualism by varying the context of the knowledge ascription (for example, how important it is that the agent in the vignette has accurate knowledge). Data gathered thus far show no support for what contextualism says about ordinary use of the term "knows".[30][31][32] Other work in experimental epistemology includes, among other things, the examination of moral valence on knowledge attributions (the so-called "epistemic side-effect effect"),[33] of the knowing-that / knowing-how distinction,[34] and of laypeople's intuitions about lying, improper assertion, and insincerity.[35][36][37][38]

Intentional action

A prominent topic in experimental philosophy is intentional action. Work by Joshua Knobe has especially been influential. "The Knobe Effect", as it is often called, concerns an asymmetry in our judgments of whether an agent intentionally performed an action. Knobe (2003a) asked people to suppose that the CEO of a corporation is presented with a proposal that would, as a side effect, affect the environment. In one version of the scenario, the effect on the environment will be negative (it will "harm" it), while in another version the effect on the environment will be positive (it will "help" it). In both cases, the CEO opts to pursue the policy and the effect does occur (the environment is harmed or helped by the policy). However, the CEO only adopts the program because he wants to raise profits; he does not care about the effect that the action will have on the environment. Although all features of the scenarios are held constant—except for whether the side effect on the environment will be positive or negative—a majority of people judge that the CEO intentionally hurt the environment in the one case, but did not intentionally help it in the other. Knobe ultimately argues that the effect is a reflection of a feature of the speakers' underlying concept of intentional action: broadly moral considerations affect whether we judge that an action is performed intentionally. However, his exact views have changed in response to further research.

Predicting philosophical disagreement

Research suggests that some fundamental philosophical intuitions are related to stable individual differences in personality. Although there are notable limits,[39] philosophical intuitions and disagreements can be predicted by heritable Big Five personality traits and their facets. Extraverts are much more likely to be compatibilists,[40][41] particularly if they are high in “warmth.”[42] Extraverts show larger biases and different patterns of beliefs in the Knobe side effect cases.[41][43] Neuroticism is related to susceptibility to manipulation-style free will arguments.[44] Emotional Stability predicts who will attribute virtues to others.[45][46][47] Openness to experience predicts non-objectivist moral intuitions.[48] The link between personality and philosophical intuitions is independent of cognitive abilities, training, education, and expertise.[49] Similar effects have also been found cross-culturally and in different languages including German[50] and Spanish.

Because the Big Five Personality Traits are highly heritable, some have argued that many contemporary philosophical disputes are likely to persist through the generations. This may mean that some historical philosophical disputes are unlikely to be solved by purely rational, traditional philosophical methods and may require empirical data and experimental philosophy.[51]


In 2006, J. David Velleman attacked experimental philosophy on the blog Left2Right, prompting a response from its defenders on Brian Leiter's blog.

Antti Kauppinen (2007) has argued that intuitions will not reflect the content of folk concepts unless they are intuitions of competent concept users who reflect in ideal circumstances and whose judgments reflect the semantics of their concepts rather than pragmatic considerations. Experimental philosophers are aware of these concerns,[52] and acknowledge that they constitute a criticism.

Timothy Williamson (2008) has argued that we should not construe philosophical evidence as consisting of intuitions.

Other experimental philosophers have noted that experimental philosophy often fails to meet basic standards of experimental social science. A great deal of the experiments fail to include enough female participants. Analysis of experimental data is often plagued by improper use of statistics, and reliance on data mining. Holtzman argues that a number of experimental philosophers are guilty of suppressing evidence. Yet, in lumping together all people's intuitions as those of the 'folk,' critics may be ignoring basic concerns identified by standpoint feminists.

Some research in experimental philosophy is misleading because it examines averaged responses to surveys even though in almost all of the studies in experimental philosophy there have been substantial dissenting minorities. Ignoring individual differences may result in a distorted view of folk intuitions or concepts. This may lead to theoretical and strange fictions about everyday intuitions or concepts that experimental philosophy was designed to avoid akin to creating the fiction that the average human is not a man or a woman, but the average of a man and woman (e.g., the average person has one ovary and one testicle).[53] This criticism is not unique to experimental philosophy but also applies to other sciences such as psychology and chemistry, although experimental philosophers may lack the training to recognize it.

Problem of reproducibility

In a series of studies published in 2012[54][55][56] and later peer-reviewed,[57][58][59] Hamid Seyedsayamdost showed that some of the most famous results in experimental philosophy were not reproducible. This work gave rise to a focused attention on reproducibility in experimental philosophy. Several philosophers have carried out independent replications and to date all have confirmed Seyedsayamdost's results.[60][61][62]

Some of the areas covered in this debate include the instability and malleability of philosophical intuitions, determinism and moral responsibility, cultural diversity, gender differences and socioeconomic diversity. A large amount of research also focused on epistemology as Stephen Stich argued early on that findings reported by him and co-authors suggested that long practiced methods in philosophy had to be discarded, famously noting that in light of their findings a "reasonable conclusion is that philosophy's 2400 year long infatuation with Plato's method has been a terrible mistake."[63] Since publication of Seyedsayamdost's papers, Stich and collaborators have reversed their research direction on this question.[64]

The reason for these problems in experimental philosophy is not entirely clear. A parallel with experimental psychology is likely.[65]

However, the most recent study shows that many central findings in experimental philosophy are reproducible. A team attempted to replicate 40 of the most influential experimental philosophy studies and found that 70% replicated.[66]


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Further reading

External links

Batavian Society for Experimental Philosophy

The Batavian Society for Experimental Philosophy (Dutch: Bataafsch Genootschap voor Proefondervindelijke Wijsbegeerte) is a Dutch learned society residing in Rotterdam.

Brebis Bleaney

Brebis Bleaney CBE FRS (6 June 1915 – 4 November 2006) was a British physicist. His main area of research was the use of microwave techniques to study the magnetic properties of solids. He was head of the Clarendon Laboratory at the University of Oxford from 1957 to 1977. In 1992, Bleaney received the International Zavoisky Award "for his contribution to the theory and practice of electron paramagnetic resonance of transition ions in crystals."

He was best known to generations of physics students for the standard undergraduate textbook on electromagnetism, Electricity and Magnetism, co-authored with his wife Betty.

Dr Lee's Professorships

The Dr Lee's Professorships are three named statutory professorships of the University of Oxford. They were created in 1919, and are named after Matthew Lee (1695–1755) who had endowed three readerships at Christ Church, Oxford, in the 19th century.

Erasmus Smith's Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy at Trinity College Dublin

Erasmus Smith's Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy at Trinity College Dublin is a chair in physics founded in 1724 and funded by the Erasmus Smith Trust, which was established by Erasmus Smith, who lived 1611–1691.

From 1724 to 1847 the chair had a mathematical and theoretical orientation, with many holders being also mathematicians, and several such as Bartholomew Lloyd (1822) and James MacCullagh (1843) having previously held the Chair of Mathematics. Then in 1847 the University Chair of Natural Philosophy (1847) was founded and took on the applied mathematics and theoretical physics role, while Erasmus Smith's Professorship became the chair of experimental physics.

Francis Simon

Sir Francis Simon (2 July 1893 – 31 October 1956), was a German and later British physical chemist and physicist who devised the gaseous diffusion method, and confirmed its feasibility, of separating the isotope Uranium-235 and thus made a major contribution to the creation of the atomic bomb.

Frederick Lindemann, 1st Viscount Cherwell

Frederick Alexander Lindemann, 1st Viscount Cherwell, ( CHAR-wel; 5 April 1886 – 3 July 1957) was a British physicist and an influential scientific adviser to the British government from the early 1940s to the early 1950s, particularly to Winston Churchill. He advocated the "area" bombing or "strategic bombing" of German cities and civilian homes during the Second World War by falsely stating data to Winston Churchill from a study on the psychological impact of Germany's Birmingham Blitz and Hull Blitz on the local populations. He also doubted the sophistication of Nazi Germany's radar technology and the existence of its "V" weapons programme.

Gerard F. Gilmore

Gerard Francis Gilmore FRS FRAS FInstP (born 7 November 1951) is Professor of Experimental Philosophy, in the Institute of Astronomy, at the University of Cambridge. His research has centred on studying stars in the Galaxy to understand its structure and evolutionary history.

Henry Power

Henry Power FRS (1623–1668) was an English physician and experimenter, one of the first elected Fellows of the Royal Society.

Hypotheses non fingo

Hypotheses non fingo (Latin for "I feign no hypotheses", "I frame no hypotheses", or "I contrive no hypotheses") is a famous phrase used by Isaac Newton in an essay, "General Scholium", which was appended to the second (1713) edition of the Principia.

Here is a modern translation (published 1999) of the passage containing this famous remark:

I have not as yet been able to discover the reason for these properties of gravity from phenomena, and I do not feign hypotheses. For whatever is not deduced from the phenomena must be called a hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, or based on occult qualities, or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy. In this philosophy particular propositions are inferred from the phenomena, and afterwards rendered general by induction.

The nineteenth century philosopher of science, William Whewell, qualified this statement, as, he said, "it was by such a use of hypotheses, that both Newton himself and Kepler, on whose discoveries those of Newton were based, made their discoveries". Whewell stated:What is requisite is, that the hypotheses should be close to the facts, and not connected with them by other arbitrary and untried facts; and that the philosopher should be ready to resign it as soon as the facts refuse to confirm it.

Jacksonian Professor of Natural Philosophy

The Jacksonian Professorship of Natural Philosophy is one of the senior chairs in Natural and Experimental philosophy at Cambridge University, and was founded in 1782 by a bequest from the Reverend Richard Jackson.In 1782 the Reverend Richard Jackson of Tarrington, Herefordshire, and a former fellow of Trinity College died, leaving a fifth of the income from his estate to the head gardener of the university's physic garden and the remainder to found the Professorship of Natural and Experimental Philosophy that now bears his name. His will specified the details of the professor with much precision, including that preference should be given to candidates from Trinity and men from Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Derbyshire and Cheshire, and that any holder must search for a cure for gout!

The will also stated that his lectures should promote "real and useful knowledge" by "showing or doing something in the way of experiment upon the subject undertaken to be treated," and its early holders consequently tended towards the experimental end of the field, such as chemists and engineers. More recently, it has been decided that the professorship should permanently be associated with physics.

The first holder of the position was the mathematician and chemist Isaac Milner, elected to the post in 1783.

One result of the bequest was that a building was erected to allow public lectures for the professor, as well as the professor of botany. It was the University's first building to be specifically designed for the teaching of science.

John Theophilus Desaguliers

John Theophilus Desaguliers FRS (12 March 1683 – 29 February 1744) was a French-born British natural philosopher, clergyman, engineer and freemason who was elected to the Royal Society in 1714 as experimental assistant to Isaac Newton. He had studied at Oxford and later popularized Newtonian theories and their practical applications in public lectures. Desaguliers's most important patron was James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos. As a Freemason, Desaguliers was instrumental in the success of the first Grand Lodge in London in the early 1720s and served as its third Grand Master.

Oxford Philosophical Club

The Oxford Philosophical Club refers to a group of natural philosophers, mathematicians, physicians, virtuosi and dilettanti gathering around John Wilkins FRS (1614–1672) at Oxford in the period 1649 to 1660. It is documented in particular by John Aubrey: he refers to it as an "experimental philosophical club" run weekly by Wilkins, who successfully bridged the political divide of the times. There is surviving evidence that the Club was formally constituted, and undertook some projects in Oxford libraries. Its historical importance is that members formed one of the major groups that came together in the early 1660s to form the Royal Society of London.

Wilkins was Warden of Wadham College, and the circle around him is also known as the Wadham Group, though it was not restricted to members of the College. It included William Petty, Jonathan Goddard and John Wallis from the 1645 group in London.The term Oxford Philosophical Society may refer to this club, or at least two later societies.

Paolo Radaelli

Paolo Giuseppe Radaelli, FInstP (born 11 October 1961) is an Italian physicist and academic. He is the Dr Lee's Professor of Experimental Philosophy (Physics) at the University of Oxford and a Professorial Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford.

Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy

The Plumian chair of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy is one of the major Professorships in Astronomy at Cambridge University, alongside the Lowndean Professorship (which is now mainly held by mathematicians). The chair is currently held at the Institute of Astronomy in the University. The Plumian chair was founded in 1704 by Thomas Plume, a member of Christ's and Archdeacon of Rochester, to "erect an Observatory and to maintain a studious and learned Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy, and to buy him and his successors utensils and instruments quadrants telescopes etc."

Trustees were appointed, and statutes drawn up by Isaac Newton, John Flamsteed and John Ellys. The first Professorship was awarded in 1707 to Roger Cotes, a former student of Newton, and the stipend was increased in 1768 by Dr Robert Smith, the second Plumian Professor.

Robert Dixon (priest)

Robert Vickers Dixon, D.D. (born Dublin 22 October 1812; died Armagh 14 May 1885) was Archdeacon of Armagh from 1883 until his death.

Dixon was educated at Trinity College, Dublin and ordained in 1839. He was a Fellow of TCD from 1838 to 1853; and Rector of Clogherny from then until 1883.

He became Erasmus Smith's Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy at Trinity College Dublin in 1848.

Roger Cowley

Roger Arthur Cowley, FRS, FRSE, FInstP (24 February 1939 – 27 January 2015) was an English physicist who specialised in the excitations of solids.

Shaun Nichols

Shaun Nichols is a professor in the Philosophy department at the University of Arizona.

Thomas Plume

Thomas Plume (1630 – 20 November 1704) was an English churchman and philanthropist, and founder of a library which still exists today. The Plume School in Maldon, Essex, is named after him.

William Mitchell (physicist)

Sir Edgar William John Mitchell, CBE, FRS (September 25, 1925 – October 30, 2002) was a British physicist, professor of physics at Reading and Oxford, and he helped pioneer the field of neutron scattering.Born in Kingsbridge, Devon, England, he studied physics at Sheffield University, which had become an important centre for research in radar and defence communications. In 1946 he took up a research position with Metropolitan-Vickers, leading to a secondment to Bristol University, where Nobel laureate Nevill Mott was head of the department. After gaining his PhD, he took a position at Reading University in 1951, becoming professor of physics in 1961, and later dean of science and deputy vice chancellor. In 1978 he became Dr Lees professor of experimental philosophy at Oxford University and head of the Clarendon laboratory.He was also a skilled administrator who served in many public capacities. He became chairman of SERC in 1985, at a time of conflict between the British government and higher education over funding and independence. He was vice-president of the European Science Foundation from 1989 to 1992 and president of CERN in 1991. Mitchell was also a member of the SEPP Board of Science Advisors.

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