The Development of Experimental Philosophy

A recent survey of publications in experimental philosophy provides a picture of the field’s growth and range.

In “Twenty Years of Experimental Philosophy Research,” published recently in MetaphilosophyJincai Li (Normal University) and Xiaozhen Zhu (Guangdong University) take a bibliometric look at X-phi.

They write:

X-phi has undergone roughly four developmental stages over the past two decades, namely, the initiation period (2000–2005), the development period (2006–2010), the expansion period (2011–2015), and the plateau period (2016–2020). Although works in the first period had paved the way for later development of this experimental approach to philosophical inquiries, the key umbrella term “experimental philosophy” did not come into widespread use until 2006. Since then, it has remained at the center of heated discussion. Over the next fifteen years or so, x-phi evolved from negative research programs with the slogan of “burning the armchair” to the more positive and interdisciplinary projects that embrace more armchairs, becoming a fascinating part of the broad enterprise of cognitive science. This characteristic change of x-phi is showcased in part by the wide array of research topics covered in this area and in part by the diverse academic journals that host the scholarly output on these topics. 

Let’s turn to the data. Here’s a look at x-[hi’s growth, in terms of numbers of publications, since 2000:

Annual number of publications in x-phi in all categories, 2000–2020. (From “Twenty Years of Experimental Philosophy Research” by Jincai Li and Xiaozhen Zhu.)

The most popular of x-phi’s subfields is ethics, Li and Zhu find, followed by epistemology and philosophy of mind:

Number of experimental works in each subcategory published in the period 2000 to 2020. (From “Twenty Years of Experimental Philosophy Research” by Jincai Li and Xiaozhen Zhu.)


In which journals is x-phi typically published? Philosophical PsychologyReview of Philosophy and Pyschology, and Mind and Language lead the list, report Li and Zhu:



1 Philosophical Psychology 84
2 Review of Philosophy and Psychology 66
3 Mind and Language 50
4 Cognition 43
5 Synthese 42
6 Philosophical Studies 36
7 Cognitive Science 26
8 Journal of Business Ethics 24
9 Journal of Cognition and Culture 20
10 Philosophy Compass 19
11 Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 18
12 Consciousness and Cognition 17
13 Analysis 16
14 Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 15
15 Behavioral and Brain Sciences 14
16 Episteme 13
17 Metaphilosophy 13
18 Journal of Consciousness Studies 11
19 Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology 11
20 Australasian Journal of Philosophy 10
20 Erkenntnis 10
20 Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 10
20 Noûs 10

The authors also provide a list of the thirty most “influential” publications in experimental philosophy, using citation rates adjusted to take into account the “time effect of publishing”. Their metric, “relative citation rate” (RCR) is arrived at by dividing the number of citations of a work by the average citations of any paper in the same year it is published. Here are the top ten from that list:

1 The Essential Moral Self Nina Strohminger and Shaun Nichols Journal article 2014 Cognition 491 23.38
2 The Affective Dog and Its Rational Tale: Intuition and Attunement Peter Railton Journal article 2014 Ethics 243 11.57
3 Philosophy Within Its Proper Bounds Edouard Machery Book 2017 Oxford University Press 254 11.55
4 The True Self: A Psychological Concept Distinct from the Self Nina Strohminger, Joshua Knobe, and George Newman Journal article 2017 Perspectives on Psychological Science 240 10.91
5 Folk Moral Relativism Hagop Sarkissian, John J. Park, David Tien, Jennifer Wright, and Joshua Knobe Journal article 2011 Mind and Language 222 10.57
6 Atheists and Agnostics Are More Reflective Than Religious Believers: Four Empirical Studies and a Meta-Analysis Gordon Pennycook, Robert M. Ross, Derek J. Koehler, and Jonathan A. Fugelsang Journal article 2016 PLoS ONE 214 9.30
7 Estimating the Reproducibility of Experimental Philosophy Florian Cova, Brent Strickland, Angela Abatista, Aurélien Allard, et al. Journal article 2021 Review of Philosophy and Psychology 120 9.23
8 Expertise in Moral Reasoning? Order Effects on Moral Judgment in Professional Philosophers and Non-Philosophers Eric Schwitzgebel and Fiery Cushman Journal article 2012 Mind and Language 428 9.11
9 Nothing at Stake in Knowledge David Rose, Edouard Machery, Stephen Stich, Mario Alai, Adriano Angelucci, et al. Journal article 2019 Noûs 76 8.44
10 The Role of Conscious Reasoning and Intuition in Moral Judgment Fiery Cushman, Liane Young, and Marc Hauser Journal article 2006 Psychological Science 1370 7.83

In discussing their findings, Li and Zhu say that “To move out of the plateau stage and make further progress in a sustainable manner, experimental philosophers need to expand their research territory and upgrade their tool kits.” You can read the whole article here. Discussion welcome.

Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Kenny Easwaran
1 year ago

Is there a simple explanation of how they operationalized the concept of “experimental philosophy paper” to get the counts? I would think there are at least some vague cases where it’s unclear whether it’s experimental philosophy or straight up behavioral or cognitive psychology (some of Tania Lombrozo’s work on how people think about belief and explanation seems very similar to experimental philosophy to me, though I probably wouldn’t classify it as such), and probably some vague cases on the other end where people are asking philosophical questions about the methodology of experimental philosophy without actually running experiments.

Sergio Tenenbaum
Sergio Tenenbaum
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
1 year ago

Yes, I had the same question. I thought the Railton paper fell on the latter category, but I might be misremembering.

Reply to  Sergio Tenenbaum
1 year ago

I was taken aback by the inclusion of Railton’s paper. It’s a lovely paper, and it certainly *discusses* experimental philosophy, but I wouldn’t call it a work of experimental philosophy in its own right.

Joshua Knobe
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
1 year ago

I hope the authors of this paper will join the conversation themselves — and it will certainly be very helpful to hear their thoughts on all of these issues — but the answer to this particular question seems to be pretty clear from the description of the methods within the paper itself.

What they say there is that the criterion they used to decide whether or not a given paper counts as experimental philosophy is whether or not that paper was listed within the “experimental philosophy” section in PhilPapers.