X-phi, Intuitions and the ‘Big Mistake’

6 May 2015 | Dr James Andow (University of Reading)

This post is based on a section of a longer paper that has since been published. The full article is also be accessible.

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!

“…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.