Xphi, Intuitions & the ‘Big Mistake’

Dr James Andow ‑Lecturer in Moral Philosophy — University of Reading

(This post is based on a sec­tion of a longer paper that has since been pub­lished. You can access the full art­icle here)

This is a pretty simple post. I want to put the record straight about exper­i­ment­al philosophy.

We exper­i­ment­al philo­soph­ers are often painted as the loy­al ser­vants of the armchair-bound monarch—going out into the world to see what’s hap­pen­ing and report­ing back with use­ful inform­a­tion to fur­ther the master’s pro­jects. Some accused us of plot­ting to usurp the mon­arch and toss the throne into the flames. We truth­fully denied this. We’re not attempt­ing to over­throw. But that doesn’t mean we’re com­pletely happy with the situation.

I think of myself as more like an unruly baron—unhappy with the master’s plans, and put­ting into motion a cam­paign to diver­si­fy pub­lic investment.

(Okay, the meta­phors got a bit out of hand there.)


I real­ised that the record needed set­ting straight when think­ing about a recent debate. Here’s a com­monly made claim about philo­soph­ic­al methods,

“Philosophers use intu­itions as evidence”

And here’s a com­monly made claim about exper­i­ment­al philosophy,

“Experimental philo­soph­ers help by using empir­ic­al tools to exam­ine people’s intuitions”

Suppose you thought the first claim was false. Well then you’d surely think exper­i­ment­al philo­sophy was in a bit of a bind giv­en the truth of the second claim. If philo­soph­ers don’t use intu­itions, then surely exper­i­ment­al philo­sophy is premised on a big mis­take (if it is all about examin­ing intu­itions). That’s the argu­ment Herman Cappelen has recently giv­en (in his 2012 and 2014). Cappelen thinks philo­soph­ers don’t use intu­itions as evidence—I am not going to ques­tion that here—and that con­sequently exper­i­ment­al philo­sophy is all a big mistake.

Cappelen (2014) con­siders a response exper­i­ment­al philo­soph­ers might make:

“Okay, so let’s grant that philo­soph­ers don’t use intu­itions. Here’s the thing, exper­i­ment­al philo­soph­ers were nev­er talk­ing about intu­itions. Sure they used the term ‘intu­itions’ but let’s not get hung up on that. Experimental philo­soph­ers were talk­ing about these oth­er things, BLAHs, and philo­soph­ers do use BLAHs as evidence.”

Cappelen then has a response to this, but I don’t want to get into it.

This dia­lectic involving Cappelen and his oppon­ents just strikes me as odd. Both sides seem to accept that exper­i­ment­al philo­sophy is premised on the idea that philo­soph­ers Φ and exper­i­ment­al philo­sophy can help them Φ better.

But I don’t see things that way. Check my pub­lished work and you per­haps wouldn’t guess. I’ve often writ­ten as though I thought this was the case too. However, I’m pretty clear deep down. Experimental philo­sophy is not premised on the idea that philo­soph­ers com­monly pur­sue some pro­ject which exper­i­ment­al philo­sophy can further.

The premise of exper­i­ment­al philo­sophy is not that philo­soph­ers Φ and exper­i­ment­al philo­sophy can improve their Φ‑ing, but rather that philo­soph­ers don’t ψ but should. Some caveats are appro­pri­ate here. Probably not all of them should (cer­tainly not all the time) and it mightn’t be the only thing exper­i­ment­al meth­ods are good for philo­soph­ic­ally speak­ing. Nonetheless, philo­soph­ers should ψ. We don’t want to give the mon­arch new tools to pur­sue the same old pro­jects. We want the mon­arch to pur­sue some new dif­fer­ent projects.


What are these pro­jects which exper­i­ment­al philo­sophy wants to use empir­ic­al tools to fur­ther? What is it to ψ? It is to try to make sense of the way we think about philo­soph­ic­ally inter­est­ing things like mor­al­ity, freewill, etc.—how we think, not simply what.

Of course, I don’t deny that we exper­i­ment­al philo­soph­ers gen­er­ally under­stand sur­vey responses to indic­ate what our par­ti­cipants think—participants ‘intu­itions’ if you like that sort of lan­guage. However, the reas­on we are inter­ested in this is largely not because philo­soph­ers use intu­itions as evid­ence. The aim is to use care­ful manip­u­la­tion to get a bet­ter under­stand­ing of how par­ti­cipants are thinking—their ways of under­stand­ing the world, their ways of com­ing to think what they think.

Don’t believe me? Read the web­site (link)!

“…exper­i­ment­al philo­soph­ers actu­ally go out and run sys­tem­at­ic exper­i­ments aimed at under­stand­ing how people ordin­ar­ily think about the issues at the found­a­tions of philo­soph­ic­al discussions”

Many philo­soph­ers will be ask­ing, ‘What then? … When does that con­trib­ute towards some philo­soph­ic­al pro­ject with which I am famil­i­ar?’ And that’s my point. Experimental philo­sophy isn’t valu­able only inso­far as it fur­thers the pro­jects philo­soph­ers cur­rently have. It’s try­ing to do some­thing new … or at least some­thing non-current.

Don’t believe me? Read the manifesto!

In the mani­festo, Knobe & Nichols describe a famil­i­ar approach accord­ing to which what people think about some­thing is con­sidered philo­soph­ic­ally rel­ev­ant only inso­far as it sheds light on the thing itself (their example is caus­a­tion) and continue

“With the advent of exper­i­ment­al philo­sophy, this famil­i­ar approach is being turned on its head. More and more, philo­soph­ers are com­ing to feel that ques­tions about how people ordin­ar­ily think have great philo­soph­ic­al sig­ni­fic­ance in their own right… we do not think that the sig­ni­fic­ance of [intu­itions about caus­a­tion] is exhausted by the evid­ence they might provide for one or anoth­er meta­phys­ic­al the­ory. On the con­trary, we think that the pat­terns to be found in people’s intu­itions point to import­ant truths about how the mind works, and these truths—truths about people’s minds, not about metaphysics—have great sig­ni­fic­ance for tra­di­tion­al philo­soph­ic­al ques­tions.” (Knobe and Nichols 2008, 11–12)

Our dis­sat­is­fac­tion is not that philo­soph­ers use intu­itions as evid­ence but fail to use the best tools. Our dis­sat­is­fac­tion is with a dis­cip­line which is largely no longer inter­ested in mak­ing sense of the ways that ordin­ary people think about philo­soph­ic­ally inter­est­ing things.

Still don’t believe me?! Again, read the manifesto!

“It used to be a com­mon­place that the dis­cip­line of philo­sophy was deeply con­cerned with ques­tions about the human con­di­tion. Philosophers thought about human beings and how their minds worked… On this tra­di­tion­al con­cep­tion, it wasn’t par­tic­u­larly import­ant to keep philo­sophy clearly dis­tinct from psychology …

The new move­ment of exper­i­ment­al philo­sophy seeks a return to this tra­di­tion­al vis­ion. Like philo­soph­ers of cen­tur­ies past, we are con­cerned with ques­tions about how human beings actu­ally hap­pen to be… we think that many of the deep­est ques­tions of philo­sophy can only be prop­erly addressed by immers­ing one­self in the messy, con­tin­gent, highly vari­able truths about how human beings really are.” (Knobe and Nichols 2008, 3)

And little has changed since the mani­festo. Here are Buckwalter & Systma in their intro­duc­tion to the forth­com­ing Blackwell Companion to Experimental Philosophy:

“Contemporary exper­i­ment­al philo­soph­ers return to these ways of doing philo­sophy. They con­duct con­trolled exper­i­ments, and empir­ic­al stud­ies more gen­er­ally, to explore how we think about those phe­nom­ena … This work helps us to under­stand our real­ity, who we are as people, and the choices we make about import­ant philo­soph­ic­al mat­ters that shape our lives.” (Buckwalter and Systma, forthcoming)

Of course, exper­i­ment­al philo­soph­ers do use the word ‘intu­itions’ a lot, and we do some­times attempt to jus­ti­fy our meth­ods in pre­cisely the terms that Cappelen accuses us of doing (i.e., our work is rel­ev­ant because philo­soph­ers use intu­itions, and we invest­ig­ate intu­itions so, …). My dia­gnos­is of this is that it is the unfor­tu­nate res­ult of a mis­guided sales tac­tic in try­ing to peddle exper­i­ment­al philo­sophy to the mainstream—we’re just not hip­ster enough.

What does all this mean for the charge that exper­i­ment­al philo­sophy is based on a big mistake?

Well, if exper­i­ment­al philo­sophy were based on a mis­take, the mis­take wouldn’t be what Cappelen thinks it is. Experimental philo­sophy isn’t try­ing to help out with the pro­jects philo­soph­ers cur­rently have—or at least isn’t only doing that. So the mis­take (sup­pos­ing that there was one) can’t be try­ing to fur­ther a pro­ject which philo­soph­ers don’t have.

What does all this mean for exper­i­ment­al philosophers?

As should hope­fully be clear, I don’t think my con­cep­tion of exper­i­ment­al philo­sophy is par­tic­u­larly nov­el among exper­i­ment­al philo­soph­ers. But the mes­sage didn’t get to folks like Cappelen for whatever reas­on. Not every­one will think that is a prob­lem. I do. What’s the solu­tion? Maybe we need to be a bit more hip­ster (and stop try­ing to peddle to the main­stream), or be more pub­licly unruly as bar­ons or … okay, I’ve lost myself in my meta­phors. In any case, we should per­haps redouble our efforts to get that mes­sage across. (Watch me blog!)



Buckwalter and Systma (Forthcoming). A Companion to Experimental Philosophy, Blackwell.

Cappelen (2012). Philosophy Without Intuitions, OUP.

Cappelen (2014). X‑phi without intu­itions?, in Booth and Rowbottom (eds), Intuitions, OUP.

Knobe and Nichols (2008). An Experimental Philosophy Manifesto, in Knobe and Nichols (eds) Experimental Philosophy (Vol.1), OUP, pp. 3–14.