To what extent experimental philosophy is still thriving I cannot judge. The idea was not entirely new: it was presaged by Arne Næss's work in the 1950's. (See Siobhan Chapman's article "Arne Naess and Empirical Semantics".)
Experimental philosophers suggested that one might approach philosophical issues about various themes such as knowledge or moral responsibility by asking people how they would apply the relevant words in particular situations.
On the face of it, this may seem like a sound idea. Non-philosophers are often puzzled by the armchair nature of philosophical inquiry. Why do philosophers think they can simply pull the solutions to the problems of philosophy out of their own heads? On what authority do they claim to be able to decide what our words mean without checking with the rest of us?
These qualms, I would argue, are based on a misunderstanding of the nature of philosophy, of the way it differs, say, from linguistics. (In using the word "philosophy" I am referring to the type of activity commonly carried on in Western universities under that heading.) Philosophers are not concerned with making assertions about language use, but with clarifying the use we share. They are not making knowledge claims, but trying to achieve a clearer understanding about the matters that puzzle us. What makes this difficult is that we often do not have an overview of our own use. The point that philosophy is concerned with clarification rather than knowledge is not always fully appreciated by those who practise the subject. Experimental philosophy, I believe, is one expression of the failure to understand this point.
I shall try to illustrate what I mean. But first some background.
One issue that has occupied experimental philosophers are the so-called Gettier examples. A definition of knowledge that used to be largely accepted by philosophers is the following: if I am to be said to know something, what I believe must, for one thing, be true and, for another thing, I must have grounds for believing it to be true. Of course, I may have any number of correct beliefs that are just happy guesses, and hence wouldn't qualify as knowledge. That's how the thinking went. However, in 1963 the American philosopher Edmund Gettier thought up some counter-examples to the definition, by constructing cases in which one could have a correct belief, have grounds for the belief, and would still not be said to know. (Read his article.)
Here is one of his examples:
Suppose that Smith and Jones have applied for a certain job. And suppose that Smith has strong evidence for the following conjunctive proposition:
d. Jones is the man who will get the job, and Jones has ten coins in his pocket. Smith's evidence for (d) might be that the president of the company assured him that Jones would in the end be selected, and that he, Smith, had counted the coins in Jones's pocket ten minutes ago. Proposition (d) entails:
e. The man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket.
Let us suppose that Smith sees the entailment from (d) to (e), and accepts (e) on the grounds of (d), for which he has strong evidence. In this case, Smith is clearly justified in believing that (e) is true.
But imagine, further, that unknown to Smith, he himself, not Jones, will get the job. And, also, unknown to Smith, he himself has ten coins in his pocket. Proposition (e) is then true, though proposition (d), from which Smith inferred (e), is false. In our example, then, all of the following are true: (i) (e) is true, (ii) Smith believes that (e) is true, and (iii) Smith is justified in believing that (e) is true. But it is equally clear that Smith does not know that (e) is true; for (e) is true in virtue of the number of coins in Smith's pocket, while Smith does not know how many coins are in Smith's pocket, and bases his belief in (e) on a count of the coins in Jones's pocket, whom he falsely believes to be the man who will get the job.The example, no doubt, is trite as well as farfetched (more life-like examples could presumably be thought of). Anyway, the Gettier examples have been widely discussed. Is Gettier right in claiming that these are not cases of knowledge, or that in these cases the person is really justified in his beliefs? This is where x-phi comes in. In fact, experimental philosophers may approach such an issue in two different ways. (See Antti Kauppinen, "The Rise and Fall of Experimental Philosophy.") One may either try to settle the issue by establishing that all or a majority of English speakers would not (or would) apply the word "know" in this case, or one may try to show that there is no general agreement on how to describe the case.
The article ”Gender and Philosophical Intuition” by Wesley Buckwalter and Stephen Stich is an instance of the latter approach. Among other things, they discuss the following experiment: test subjects were told the below story, and then were asked, ”Does Peter really know that there is a watch on the table, or does he only believe it?”:
Peter is in his locked apartment, and is reading. He decides to have a shower. He puts his book down on the coffee table. Then he takes off his watch, and also puts it on the coffee table. Then he goes into the bathroom. As Peter’s shower begins, a burglar silently breaks into Peter’s apartment. The burglar takes Peter’s watch, puts a cheap plastic watch in its place, and then leaves. Peter has only been in the shower for two minutes, and he did not hear anything. They discuss various questionnaire studies, searching for gender bias; thus, in a Gettier-type case, they found that women were more willing than men to attribute knowledge.In this particular case, it was found that women were more willing than men to attribute knowledge to Peter. However, I shall not specifically be concerned with the writers' conclusions. What I do want to question is the relevance of this type of study (or the consensus-seeking kind) to issues in philosophy.
Why do I find this type of thought experiment problematic? For one thing, again, the story is farfetched. It is difficult to imagine ever being in a similar situation. The stage-setting seems designed to provide a richness of context, but what is missing is precisely that aspect of the context that would be relevant: the background that would show why it would matter whether Peter is said to know or not to know. What would one be doing in attributing knowledge to him? Is he somehow responsible for noticing that there had been a burglary? Should he have been on his guard?
In being asked to give a verdict, the test subjects are supposed to accept the request for an unambiguous verdict without question. Thus they are encouraged to think of questions of knowledge as concerned with the correct description of a highly complex situation, and at the same time to disregard the fact that in attributing knowledge to a person we are doing something, the significance of which depends on the actual context in which we are speaking, on the relation between the speaker, the listener, the person being spoken about and the situation.
The test just described, I would argue, constitutes a fake experiment. The writers have failed to ask a genuine question. They are guilty of what Frank Ebersole has dubbed "the classroom and blackboard fallacy", the "assumption that the special conditions for asking a question can miraculously be produced by writing an interrogative sentence on the blackboard". (Quoted by Don S. Levi, in "Ebersole’s Philosophical Treasure Hunt ", Philosophy 79 (2004), p. 305). Also, see Levi's article, "The Gettier Problem and the Parable of the Ten Coins", Philosophy 70 (1995), 5-25.)
Thus, rather than countering the problem of aprioism, an "experiment" like this one embodies the direct-insight prejudice that they were ostensibly designed to counteract, simply extending it to a larger population. More important, however, it is subservient to the idea of philosophy as concerned with the establishing of truths – which, it is assumed, the questionnaires may either confirm or disconfirm.
On the other hand, such a study fails to acknowledge the sense in which philosophical reflection is self-oriented. If we are puzzled, say, by the question how knowledge is possible or what it is to act intentionally, the puzzle arises from our attempt to understand our own use of these words (on the model of Augustine’s dictum: “What is time? If you don’t ask me, I know, if you ask me, I don’t know”). Hence whatever facts may be discovered through a questionnaire are external to our problem.
Thinking of philosophical discussion as aiming at the establishing of truths gives rise to a false dichotomy, in which it is either thought that speakers have direct access to their own use of words, or that they have to defer to the results of empirical inquiry. If we think about the aim of discussion as not being truth but clarification, on the other hand, there is no need nor room for an authoritative judgment: neither my own, nor that of the majority or of a consensus.
Rather than the traditional question: "what is knowledge?", I would contend, the route to clarity goes through asking the question "what do we do when we attribute knowledge to someone?" - the answer to this question presumably varying depending on the context of speaking. The experimental philosophers' questionnaires, however, steer our attention towards the traditional question.
When we carry on a philosophical discussion with others, everything is in fact open to view, we are as it were involved in a joint, open-ended thought experiment in which we may or may not succeed in reaching clarity concerning the problems that beset us (and, where clarity is obtained, it may turn out to be provisonal). Rather than trying to establish what does and does not make sense, we are engaged in a continuing reflection on possibilities of making sense. (This seems to be the gist of Wittgenstein’s exhortation, “Don’t think, but look!”)
In sum, then, an investigation like that described above seems to retain the problematic aspect of the idea of philosophy as an a priori form of inquiry (direct insight), while failing to acknowledge the sense in which philosophy is not empirical but reflective.