7/01/2008

committing armchairs to the flames

I have an avid spectator's interest in experimental philosophy, and do not pretend to expertise. I've recently seen, on email lists and blogposts, announcements for an experimental philosophy workshop called Armchair in Flames? It looks like an interesting conference; but a thought popped into my head about the title, which refers to the X-Phi anthem (performed here ).

Experimental philosophers take themselves to be committing the philosophical armchair to the flames, because (in part) they do surveys of the person-in-the-street's view on various philosophical topics. They thus test whether what professional philosophers say is commonsensical really is common sense, or rather some sort of idiosyncrasy or professional deformation.

But I just wanted to remark that this is only one way of committing the armchair to the flames. Another, which has been the dominant outlook in philosophy of science for the last few decades, is to discount heavily or even completely any deliverances of so-called common sense or intuition, and instead lean heavily or even completely upon the deliverances of mature sciences in formulating philosophical positions. This outlook was unequivocally in full effect in the department where I got my PhD, among faculty and students alike.

So in short, the experimental philosophers don't have a monopoly on casting armchairs into the flames -- the philosophers of science have been stoking that fire for a while already.

8 Comments:

At 1/7/08, Blogger Bryan said...

Thanks for pointing this out Greg. Handing out surveys certainly isn't the only way to torch the chair. I assume the X-philers wouldn't throw out much of theoretical physics -- or all of pure mathematics, for that matter ("armchair-ish" though it may be).

As a side note, I'm happy to report that the "outlook" you draw attention to is still in full effect in the department where you got your PhD (among faculty and students alike). ;)

 
At 7/7/08, Blogger Zvi Biener said...

Just for the record, let me quote an authority who wanted to commit the armchair to the flames centuries before the current crop of x-phiers, Sir Isaac Newton (who sometime speaks of himself in the third person):

"Metaphysical certainty is founded on ideas, ideas and all true philosophy are founded on phenomena & Newton begin from phenomena. [Leibniz] contends that ideas must not be deduced from phenomena but formed with closed eyes and from dreams of this kind."

Naturalism as a road to experimental philosophy is venerable, and Newton, of course, is one of the first self-dubbed "experimental philosopher"!

 
At 7/7/08, Blogger Greg said...

Hi Zvi --

Quick further question: do you know when and where the phrase "the experimental philosophy" appeared? I know Locke, Boyle, Wren, and some others formed The Experimental Philosophy Club in 1649; are any earlier instances attested? (There was a little discussion of this on the experimental philosophy blog recently.)

 
At 8/7/08, Blogger Jonathan said...

Hi Greg,

Just wanted to note that at least some x-phi types are pretty much in agreement with you here, i.e., those of us (like me) who are involved in what sometimes gets called the "negative program" in x-phi. Ron Mallon gave a great talk at the pre-SPP Experimental Philosophy Workshop along those lines. So you've hit something more like a fault line within x-phi, than a contrast with it.

Btw, in the spirit of self-promotion: Steve Crowley & I have some thoughts on the relations between x-phi and phil of sci here:
http://www.indiana.edu/%7Eeel/The%20X-Philes.pdf

 
At 8/7/08, Blogger Greg said...

Hi Jonathan --

I was actually thinking about our conversations during your visit out here last year while I was typing this up. I was trying to cover the work you and your allies do in my description; maybe I didn't do so.

Maybe this is a misrepresentation of your position, but I thought it was something like 'Surveys show that intuition judgments are seriously unstable. Therefore, not only are the armchair intuitions of philosophers not reasonable givens in any investigation, but in many cases neither are the survey results of certain X-philes.'

That still seems to me a fundamentally different kind of project than e.g. 'I have this metaphysical question about time. Let's assume the general theory of relativity is true. Can I make any progress with my metaphysical question?' The philosopher of science simply takes the mature scientific theory as a datum. I had the impression that you were more interested in generating/ discovering new data. Or am I mistaken?

 
At 8/7/08, Blogger Zvi Biener said...

Alan Shapiro has a paper on Newton's use of `Newton's "Experimental Philosophy"' in Early Science and Medicine 2004. I remember him having a breakdown of the term's usage, but I don't remember the details.

 
At 13/7/08, Anonymous Justin said...

"This outlook was unequivocally in full effect in the department where I got my PhD, among faculty and students alike."

Some of us do both! Often scientists don't care about the issues and arguments occupying philosophers, meaning that sometimes if you want to do empirically informed philosophy you have to do the empirical work yourself.

Pitt HPS: We don't need no water, let the #$%&! burn.

 
At 29/8/08, Blogger Jonathan said...

Hi Greg,

Your impression seems accurate. One way of putting the difference here might be that the way of doing philosophy of science that you mention (& of which I heartily approve) is a matter of taking one's own armchair and leaving it out on the curb. It abandons the armchair, but doesn't take it on as it might be say upon elsewhere, e.g., in epistemology.

But the negative xphi project I have in mind is more like ripping all the armchairs out of people's houses & starting a huge bonfire with them, which we will dance around, painted blue as Picts, while drinking massive quantities of mead & singing praise to the All-Father.

Or something like that.

 

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