Joshua Knobe continues our fiftieth issue seriesIt used to be considered a commonplace that the discipline of philosophy was centrally concerned with questions about the human condition. Philosophers were supposed to think deeply about the relationship between reason and the passions, about the origins of religious faith, about how people come to understand their world. Such an inquiry obviously leaves us immersed in all the messy, contingent facts of actual human existence, but it was traditionally assumed that these contingent facts were deeply relevant to philosophical questions. Philosophers were supposed to advance controversial claims about what human beings were really like and then draw out the implications of such claims for the fundamental questions of human existence.
The most exciting development in recent philosophy, I think, is the reemergence of this traditional understanding of what philosophy is all about. Philosophers are once again pursuing questions about how human beings really think and feel, and they are once again suggesting that such questions might be deeply relevant to broader philosophical issues. But today’s philosophers are going after these issues using a somewhat different methodology. The aim now is to make progress on the traditional questions of philosophy using the rigorous empirical methods of cognitive science. Hence the emergence of the new field known as experimental philosophy.
At the heart of this new field is the idea that we can make progress on many of the age-old questions of philosophy – about ethics, politics, language – if we can come to a better understanding of the way people’s minds work. To aid in this endeavour, experimental philosophers actually go out and conduct experimental studies that examine the way people think about various matters of philosophical importance. So an experimental philosopher doing research on love might start out by conducting a series of experimental studies to get a better understanding of how people actually think and feel about love. Then, armed with these new empirical results, the philosopher would try to draw out implications for broader philosophical issues. This basic approach has already yielded surprising discoveries in a broad array of philosophical domains: free will, morality, knowledge, consciousness, even logic.
I feel a bit silly describing the rise of experimental philosophy in such dramatic terms, but it really has been something of a revolution. The field only came into existence a few years ago, and in that brief time, there has been an explosion of new research. There are now hundreds of published papers, an ever-growing array of conferences and special issues, discussions in mainstream media outlets like the New York Times and the BBC. If present trends continue, experimental philosophy might well turn out to be one of the most exciting fields in this next decade too.
Experimental Philosophy, eds. J. Knobe & S. Nichols (Oxford University Press, 2008)
Joshua Knobe is assistant professor of philosophy at Yale University
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