Thought Experiments and Philosophical Method

Thought Experiments and Philosophical Method


In an interview at 3:am Magazine, Richard Marshall presses Philip Kitcher (Columbia) on his criticism of a priori, thought-experiment-driven approaches to philosophy. Marshall says that a criticism of Kitcher’s view is that it “would end much typical philosophical investigation.” Kitcher replies:

Thought experiments work when, and only when, they call into action cognitive capacities that might reliably deliver the conclusions drawn. When the question posed is imprecise, your thought experiment is typically useless. But even more crucial is the fact that the stripped-down scenarios many philosophers love simply don’t mesh with our intellectual skills. The story rules out by fiat the kinds of reactions we naturally have in the situation described. Think of the trolley problem in which you are asked to decide whether to push the fat man off the bridge. If you imagine yourself – seriously imagine yourself – in the situation, you’d look around for alternatives, you’d consider talking to the fat man, volunteering to jump with him, etc. etc. None of that is allowed. So you’re offered a forced choice about which most people I know are profoundly uneasy. The “data” delivered are just the poor quality evidence any reputable investigator would worry about using. (I like Joshua Greene’s fundamental idea of investigating people’s reactions; but I do wish he’d present them with better questions.)

Philosophers love to appeal to their “intuitions” about these puzzle cases. They seem to think they have access to little nuggets of wisdom. We’d all be much better off if the phrase “My intuition is …” were replaced by “Given my evolved psychological adaptations and my distinctive enculturation, when faced by this perplexing scenario, I find myself, more or less tentatively, inclined to say …” Maybe there are occasions in which the cases bring out some previously unnoticed facet of the meaning of a word. But, for a pragmatist like me, the important issues concern the words we might deploy to achieve our purposes, rather than the language we actually use.

If the intuition-mongering were abandoned, would that be the end of philosophy? It would be the end of a certain style of philosophy – a style that has cut philosophy off, not only from the humanities but from every other branch of inquiry and culture. (In my view, most of current Anglophone philosophy is quite reasonably seen as an ingrown conversation pursued by very intelligent people with very strange interests.) But it would hardly stop the kinds of investigation that the giants of the past engaged in. In my view, we ought to replace the notion of analytic philosophy by that of synthetic philosophy. Philosophers ought to aspire to know lots of different things and to forge useful synthetic perspectives.

Lots to chew on in here, not least of which is the parenthetical—“In my view, most of current Anglophone philosophy is quite reasonably seen as an ingrown conversation pursued by very intelligent people with very strange interests. Intuitions about any of this?

(image: detail of “Girl Before a Mirror” by Pablo Picasso)

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