requiem for certainty

Further thoughts on Pragmatist Philosophy and Experimental Philosophy

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Following up on some earlier thoughts about Appiah’s book about X-Phi where I made the case that the pragmatists and the experimentalists (x-phi-ers) have more in common than has thus far been explored.  Now I want to air a point of possible divergence.  The divergence, in short, is that experimental philosophy wants to use experiment to help resolve certain pressing philosophical issues whereas pragmatist philosophy presses experiment into service for two somewhat different reasons: a) to help resolve pressing social-cultural problems, b) to help transform philosophy itself so that it may take these more socially-culturally attuned problems as its subject matter.

Experimental philosophy thus far seems to have been conceived as an attempt to bring experimental or empirical inquiry to bear on specifically philosophical problems. Knobe and Nichols say they are “proposing another method (on top of all the ones that already exist) for pursuing certain philosophical inquiries” (2008, 10). The idea seems to be that experimentation helps philosophy better realize its predefined aims, not that it helps philosophy better redefine those aims. According to this view of experimental philosophy there is a distinct set of problems that are ‘philosophical’ in nature and which we philosophers ought to devote ourselves to addressing. Experimenting is meant to better help us pursue questions that “seem to lie at the core of what is ordinarily regarded as philosophy” (2008, 13).

Contrasts the pragmatists.  They endorsed what may turn out to be a quite different view of the importance of interdisciplinary experimentation.  Their view is that the idea of a distinctive set of problems that are the special purview of philosophy is the phantom of a pernicious professional parochialization.  Hence the distance separating Rorty’s grave doubts about the discipline from Appiah’s inspired confidence in the future of philosophy.  But a more positive way of bringing these pragmatist doubts to bear is to employ them as the motivation for reviving philosophy along different lines than that engendered by professional hyper-specialization.  Rorty may have rarely expressed a confidence in the future of philosophy, but Dewey did so frequently and ambitiously.  Although Rorty was prepared to allow a hyper-specialized philosophy to burn itself out of existence, Dewey sought to recall philosophy to what he regarded as its true vocation: “Philosophy records itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men” (1917, MW10:42).

It was Dewey’s view that though there may be no isolated pasture in which only philosophical flowers bloom, there are yet pastures wide and far that we philosophers can graze in and with definite benefit.  In urging us to graze widely, it is a rigid fencing off of our thought that Dewey above all protested.  He did not protest against the very idea of philosophy but only against the pretentious and unsustainable idea that philosophy might be able to grow its own flowers for itself without a care as to whether anyone else finds them beautiful.  Dewey worried that such a vision of philosophy would be reduced to “chewing a historic cud long since reduced to woody fibre” (1917, MW10: 47).

I suspect (though perhaps it is merely wishful thinking on my part) that the experimental philosophers are presently unsure about their metaphilosophical reasons for urging interdisciplinary experimentation.  On the one hand they may see these as sources of professional legitimation that will enable them to better perform a set of philosophical tasks that only philosophers have a say in constructing.  On the other hand they may see these as intellectual instrumentalities that might yet enable them to widen the constituency of philosophy by constructing a philosophical practice that is more worthy of the attention of the average person, not to mention the average academic and the average undergraduate.  It is not clear yet which path experimental philosophy will pursue.  But it is clear that pragmatist philosophy offers ample resources to experimental philosophy along only one of these paths.


Written by Colin Koopman

September 14, 2008 at 7:16 pm

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