The Situationist

Archive for March 9th, 2008

Quick Introduction to Experimental (Situationist?) Philosophy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 9, 2008

In 2006, Slate’s John Lackman wrote a fine introduction to the then-nascent movement within philosophy known as “experimental philosophy” or “X-Phi”:

Philosophers have ignored the real world because it’s messy, full of happenstance details and meaningless coincidences; philosophy, they argue, has achieved its successes by focusing on deducing universal truths from basic principles. X-phi, on the other hand, argues that philosophers need to ask people what and how they think. Traditional philosophy relies on certain intuitions, presented as “common sense,” that are presumed to be shared by everyone. But are they? For example, can people be morally responsible for their actions if they don’t have free will? Many philosophers have assumed that all sane people would of course say no. Experimentalists don’t assume. They ask. Recently, they presented the following scenario to two groups:

* * *

Bill and his wife were flying home from vacation with their friend Frank, who was having an affair with Bill’s wife, as Bill knew. Kidnappers injected Bill with a drug that forced him to obey orders, then told him to shoot Frank in the head, which he did.

* * *

They told the first group that Bill wanted Frank dead and so grieved little for him. To the second, they said that Bill hated what he’d done. Both groups were then asked if Bill deserved blame for Frank’s death. Traditional philosophers have argued that Bill shouldn’t be blamed in both cases because it’s common sense that moral responsibility requires free will. But, in fact, the first x-phi group did blame Bill in the scenario in which he welcomed Frank’s death. Similarly, groups praised a hypothetical involuntary organ donor, even though he had no choice but to give. This doesn’t prove that you can have moral responsibility without free will. But it does vaporize a traditional philosophical objection to that view—that it lacks common sense.


Experimental philosophy is also challenging such basic philosophical notions as “intentional action.” What do we mean when we say that someone did something intentionally? Most philosophers assume that we’d all agree that this is a question of the actor’s state of mind. Experimentalist Joshua Knobe of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill asked college students: If a businessman interested only in profits knowingly harms the environment, should we say he did so intentionally? The students answered yes. Yet if the same businessman knowingly helped the environment, they said no. Apparently, intentionality depends not just on an actor’s state of mind, but also on the outcome he or she produces. And also on skill—the ability to carry out one’s intention. If you hit a bulls-eye your first time playing darts, did you do it “intentionally”? It turns out that the most common answer is yes if you keep regularly hitting the target and no if you don’t. Outcome trumps skill, though, when it comes to determining intentionality. Say a man tries to shoot his aunt, misfires, but is lucky and hits her anyway. Most people will say he killed her intentionally, even though he didn’t really have the skill to. It’s enough that he wanted to. Hijackers with experimental drugs, land-despoiling executives, aunt killers—what’s not to like about x-phi?

Although X-Phi certainly has its critics, it has only gained in strength and legitimacy since Lackman’s article, and the lines between this new brand of philosophy and cognitive psychology have faded into what appears to be a healthy, interdisciplinary blur. A recent “Call for Papers” summarized the field this way:

Over the last decade, philosophers have started using experimental and quasi-experimental methods to obtain data that are relevant for philosophical controversies. Surprising results have been obtained for a large range of topics, including intuitions about reference, intuitions about free will and responsibility, and the relation between judgments of causation and moral judgments. Meanwhile, psychologists are increasingly paying attention to aspects of our folk theories that directly bear on philosophy, such as the nature of folk explanation, the nature of causal judgments, the processes underlying moral judgments, the folk concept of race, and the nature of imagination. This movement, unified by a common desire to apply experimental methods to philosophical issues, is known as “experimental philosophy.”

There are several first-rate blogs devoted to the approach, including Experimental Philosophy and The Garden of Forking Paths (both long-term members of our blogroll). For a helpful introduction to this burgeoning field by one its more prolific contributors, take a look at the bloggingheads video of John Horgan‘s interview of Joshua Knobe. (Don’t be fooled: the image below is, unfortunately, not a video. It’s a picture of a video. The actual video is here.)


Posted in Experimental Philosophy, Philosophy, Video | 2 Comments »

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