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Joshua Knobe


Thanks for posting this. Sounds like a really interesting paper, and I very much look forward to reading it.

In the meantime, though, I just wanted to mention that I've always been puzzled by something about the kind of critique that you are responding to here. These critics are raising an objection to one quite specific thing that some experimental philosophers sometimes do, but then, bizarrely, they frame their work as though it was somehow an objection to the entire field of experimental philosophy.

As these critics rightly note, some experimental philosophers have attacked the use of intuitions in armchair philosophy. Clearly, if the critics can show that armchair philosophy does not use intuitions, they will have thereby raised an important objection to this one strand of experimental philosophy.

However, the vast majority of the actual experiments conducted by experimental philosophers have nothing to do with trying to attack the use of intuitions in armchair philosophy. They are devoted to various other projects (above all, using facts about intuitions to make positive philosophical contributions). Thus, if the critics show that existing work in armchair philosophy does not actually rely on intuitions, they will not in any way be raising an objection to the sorts of things that the various things that the vast majority of experiments in our field actually do.

It seems like the best way to get a sense of what is going on here would be to imagine how people might react if a continental philosopher raised an objection to one specific view within analytic philosophy (say, interest-relative invariantism) and then claimed to have refuted the entire tradition of analytic philosophy. Of course, if the objection itself was a reasonable one, analytic philosophers should take it seriously and try to engage with it, but before even discussing the specifics of the objection, they would try to emphasize that this objection doesn't even come close to being a refutation of their entire philosophical tradition.

Likewise for the present case. This does seem to be an interesting issue, and I am delighted that people are exploring it, but it seems crazy even to consider the possibility that objections to this one specific claim (made by certain experimental philosophers) could ever be reasonably regarded as objections to our entire field.

Jennifer Nado

I agree with you, and I do touch on this a tiny bit in the paper (though maybe not as much as I should have). I think there's at least two thoughts anti-Centrality folks might be having here - 1) if x-phi studies intuition, and intuition isn't used in philosophy, then how is x-phi philosophically relevant?; 2) there's no good prospects for giving a definition of 'intuition' that track all and only the sorts of judgments x-phi folks are interested in. Cappelen's recent article in the Rowbottom and Booth volume, for instance, has both of those threads running through it.

It seems to me that asking a 'positive' experimental philosopher to delineate a 'target' of study and justify its relationship to the rest of the field is like asking a regular philosopher to do the same - rather overdemanding and pointless. There's no good definition of philosophy - why think x-phi needs a definition along the lines of 'the empirical study of intuition' or 'the empirical study of philosophical judgment'? There's a clear sort of 'family resemblance' between what experimental philosophers of the non-critical stripe do, and what regular philosophers do. That seems to me to be enough.

I do think that 'negative' experimental philosophers have a bit more of a problem here (though a fairly easily resolvable one) - I go into that in the paper.

Joshua Knobe

Hi Jenny,

This is really a super helpful response. Just as you say, some experimental philosophers have argued that experimental work can provide evidence for some very general claim about the epistemic status of philosophical intuitions. Then critics have objected that 'philosophical intuition' does not even pick out any kind of meaningful category. In my view, this is actually a pretty good objection, which would certainly be worthy of further exploration.

However, the overwhelming majority of the experiments in experimental philosophy are *not* designed to provide evidence for some general claim about the epistemic status of philosophical intuition, and this objection therefore does not apply to the overwhelming majority of what experimental philosophers actually do. Thus, even if the objection is a good one, it is completely crazy to try framing it as an objection to our entire field.

(Just to provide a salient contrast, it actually is true that a huge percentage of the experiments in our field are aimed at understanding the underlying cognitive processes that give rise to one or another philosophical judgment. So if someone argued that there was nothing to be gained by investigating the cognitive processes underlying philosophical judgments, this person actually would be saying something that could plausibly be framed as an objection to the field as a whole.)

Eddy Nahmias

Hi Josh, I have not kept up enough with the 'meta' debates about x-phi, but am I right in thinking that there are some critics who argue that indeed "there [is] nothing to be gained by investigating the cognitive processes underlying philosophical judgments"--more precisely, they argue that there is nothing to be gained of relevance to the *philosophical* questions, but only of relevance to the *psychological* questions. People like us will think such "lines of relevance" are blurry at best, but what do you (or others) think are the best pieces defending the value of x-phi work exploring the psychological sources of philosophical intuitions (judgments, beliefs, etc.)--what Thomas and I called 'Experimental Descriptivism' when we laid out the three projects of x-phi in our 2007 piece? (Do you respond to such critiques in your X-phi as Cog Sci piece or just describe this aim of x-phi research?) And do any of these pieces explicitly discuss the 'is-ought' gap?

Joshua Knobe


Great question. I feel like this really gets to the heart of the most important metaphilosophical questions we face in experimental philosophy.

To be honest, my sense is that most of the discussions of that issue are just taking place within papers devoted to individual philosophical questions. So in papers about free will, there are discussions of the philosophical relevance of the cognitive processes underlying judgments about free will. Then, separately, in papers about epistemology, there are discussions of the philosophical relevance of the cognitive processes underlying knowledge attributions. And so forth.

But just as you suggest, it would be deeply valuable to have metaphilosophical work that takes up this issue as a problem in its own right. That is, it would be wonderful to have metaphilosophical work that further explored the general question as to the relevance of the underlying cognitive processes that give rise to people's philosophical judgments. There has certainly been at least a little bit of that. (Your paper with Thomas, the 'Experimental Philosophy Manifesto,' a few others.) However, my overall sense is that this issue hasn't yet been explored in the depth it deserves.

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