Does Studying Philosophy Develop Special Skills That Improve One’s Intuitions?


A new study suggests the answer to that question is “no.” Rather, according to the study’s authors, what explains why the intuitions about particular cases of those who’ve studied philosophy differ from others is simply that they’ve been taught the standard interpretation of those specific cases, while the others have not.

[The Traveling Salesman Trolley Problem, via Trolley Problem Memes]

In “The influence of philosophical training on the evaluation of philosophical cases: a controlled longitudinal study,” which was published recently in Synthese, Bartosz Maćkiewicz, Katarzyna Kuś and Witold M. Hensel (University of Warsaw) report on a longitudinal study they conducted over three and half years on the changes in the intuitions of undergraduate philosophy students (compared with others) about several philosophical thought experiments.

Their data, they say, does not fit well with what they call the “expertise assumption,” that is, that “formal training in philosophy leads to the development of cognitive skills that improve the ability to make credible case judgments.” They consider three versions of such an assumption, and hold that their results are at best compatible with just the weakest version:

According to the Method Model, the student masters a general method of philosophical thought experimentation applicable to any area of philosophy. This model predicts that increased proficiency at philosophical thought experimentation informs all philosophical case judgments regardless of subfield. We found no such pattern in our data. In fact, all observed changes in case judgments were restricted to specific areas of philosophy.

This would seem to support the Subfield Model of philosophical expertise. However, the Subfield Model also predicts that changes in discipline-related cognitive skills affect all case judgments in the relevant subfield and our data indicate otherwise. For example, in the domain of moral philosophy, we found significant changes in responses to the Violinist and the Frankfurt case during and after the second year, when the students were required to take a two-semester course in ethics, but we observed no changes in judgments regarding the Experience Machine.

Thus, the only model that comports with our data is the Restricted Expertise Model, which predicts that cognitive skills involved in making case judgments are highly specific, affecting only some of the judgments relevant to a particular subfield or even concept. 

This model is very weak, however. It would be supported even if each case judgment turned out to be affected by a separate cognitive skill. This is a problem because, intuitively, the ability to consistently make a single kind of case judgment hardly deserves the name of a skill. Since we found no persuasive evidence for a robust carryover effect—meaning that no cognitive skill acquired within a particular period seems to have had a significant impact on judgments about cases not discussed in class—we have to consider the possibility that formal training in philosophy does not improve the ability to make such judgments…

What’s the alternative to the expertise assumption? The authors write:

The weaknesses of an expertise-based account of our findings suggest that perhaps a better explanation of the data is possible that does not appeal to the assumption that variation in the curriculum influences case judgments via acquired cognitive skills. We believe that there is such an alternative explanation that fits well with the data, though it cannot account for all our observations. This alternative explanation says that most of the changes we have observed did not result from the students’ deploying new cognitive skills, but from the fact that they simply adopted specific beliefs endorsed by their teachers. This is not to say that philosophy instructors are bent on preserving textbook consensus or indoctrinating their students. Rather, in many classes, the student is required to know the canonical analysis and interpretation of certain thought experiments, and, having learned what they are, may simply adopt the corresponding beliefs without much deliberation.

In sum, in light of our data, it is a plausible supposition that, when it comes to making case judgments elicited by philosophical thought experiments, professional philosophers do not have any special skills distinguishing them from laypeople. The significant difference between the two populations is that philosophers have accepted the “standard” interpretation of a number of philosophical thought experiments whereas the folk have not.

You can read the whole study here.

[via Josh Knobe]
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

21 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
dwjmcf
dwjmcf
2 months ago

Are they generalising from undergraduates to professional philosophers? That would be weirdly unrigorous.

A "professional"
Reply to  dwjmcf
2 months ago

You can click through to read the whole article…

I, for one, don’t see any (minimally charitable) reading of their argument, in which they’ve attempted to generalise from undergrads to minted PhDs/”professionals”.

Last edited 2 months ago by A "professional"
nobody
nobody
Reply to  A "professional"
2 months ago

“The participants were undergraduate students of philosophy and undergraduate students of cognitive science at the University of Warsaw, Poland. The sample of cognitive science students was used as a matching control group in order to evaluate the confounding effects of age and education…. Our control group was not perfect. Ideally, the students from the control group should not take any courses in philosophy. Unfortunately, this was not the case. The cognitive science program includes some elements of philosophy, which is common for all undergraduate programs at the University of Warsaw. The students are required to take a short introductory course in philosophy in the second semester, followed by obligatory courses in philosophy of language (where both Gödel/Schmidt and Twin Earth are discussed) and philosophy of mind in the third semester.”

“…professional philosophers do not have any special skills distinguishing them from laypeople”

I don’t see how they came to this conclusion. The article reads more like a spite piece than an actual study. They’re comparing two sets of students within philosophy and non-philosophy streams, but they both have a background in philosophy and neither represents an expert, and yet further, neither represents a lay person.

Bartosz Maćkiewicz
Bartosz Maćkiewicz
Reply to  nobody
2 months ago

1) I am sorry that it reads as a “spite piece” in your eyes. We presented detailed discussion of different accounts in the current debate of philosophical expertise, and I think that we represented it fairly. We also explicitly stated which view underlies the conclusions that we make, namely that it already develops during philosophical studies, and gave some reasons for adopting this account. They might not be convincing to everyone, and that’s ok.

I don’t really understand the problem with the sample used in the study. Everyone has *some* background in philosophy, for example, due to primary and secondary education. It is unavoidable in this kind of research. This is an empirical longitudinal study with two matched samples. The sample of CogSci students was used to control for potential effects of education in general and other confounding variables. A nice thing about using CogSci students as a control is that we more or less know their philosophical background, can disclose it to the reader, and can take that into account when interpreting the results.

Kris Rhodes
Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Bartosz Maćkiewicz
2 months ago

//Everyone has *some* background in philosophy, for example, due to primary and secondary education.//

Depending on what you mean by background, I may have bad news for you about schools in the US.

Patrick Rano
Patrick Rano
Reply to  Bartosz Maćkiewicz
1 month ago

Hey there. I would be curious whether these students are trained in analytic philosophy, or continental? Could you let us know the approach taken at the University. Also in future, it would be good to try and study this in different environments, to determine if the philosophic tradition makes a difference.

Certainly as an analytic philosophy student, I was introduced to ways of breaking down problems into parts and solving the parts that I don’t think are used so much in the continental tradition, where often unclarity can be considered a virtue.

dwjmcf
dwjmcf
Reply to  A "professional"
2 months ago

What do you make of this then? “… in light of our data, it is a plausible supposition that, when it comes to making case judgments elicited by philosophical thought experiments, professional philosophers do not have any special skills distinguishing them from laypeople.”

A "professional"
Reply to  dwjmcf
2 months ago

That it is a plausible supposition, not a generalization from a sample? I would expect them to say that the onus of argument is on the objector to make the case that graduate/early career study is sharply discontinuous with undergraduate study in philosophy, in a relevant way to (empirically demonstratively) cultivating special skills. As it stands, their conclusions are about empirical fruits of study in philosophy, and they’re here drawing an argumentative inference, not generalization.

Last edited 2 months ago by A "professional"
Bartosz Maćkiewicz
Bartosz Maćkiewicz
Reply to  dwjmcf
2 months ago

Several proponents of so-called “expertise defense” are claiming that at least some developments occur at the stage of undergrad education (for example, Williamson claims something like that). Of course, it does not align completely with the notion of expertise developed in psychology. These issues are discussed in the paper in Section 2.1, and we are completely aware of this potential problem and we know that generalizations should be limited here.

Thalassopoeia
Thalassopoeia
2 months ago

Clearly the research done to reach this conclusion was not reliable but it is not so implausible that the fundamental intelligence of academic philosophers does not change over time but rather that they are simply better read within their field — like every other academic. I hope someone else will undertake this research in a more responsible manner. As it stands we have no positive reason to accept the conclusion, but that’s no reason to put a moratorium on further inquiry into this hypothesis (provided it is reliable).

Joshua Angstadt
Joshua Angstadt
2 months ago

Well… I can understand this outcome. The study of philosophy, may not insinuate the capacity of any individual to philosophically approach a problem themselves. Anyone who operates in a computational manner will respond like a data base. This, the test would be accurate. Those who are familiar with certain philosophies will be able to respond, due the philosophy. However, a novel response acquires more than this. One must maintain the wisdom of our ancient father’s, while at the same time, being able to produce their own thoughts. This insinuates a higher level of conscious participation. Something we have been losing in our education system!

Ralph
Ralph
2 months ago

Um, the study involved philosophy students not professional philosophers. A professional philosopher will have a much more suffisticated approach to analyzing a conceptual problem, identifying the relevant premises and paradigms involved, and seeing where competing conceptual frameworks are inconsistent or do a better job of evaluating the problem within a given context. In the end, a professional philosopher will understand how to analyze complex conceptual frameworks and construct complex conceptual frameworks. What do you mean by “intuitions” and “problems?” Is the problem ” how can Johnny best open the peanut butter jar” or is the problem “given the neural dependence of all known mental phenomena, is the idea if an immaterial mind plausible?” Perhaps the researchers were such poor philosophers they did not realize the difference between an appeal to authority and the proper use of inductive and deductive reasoning.

Thomas Nadelhoffer
Reply to  Ralph
2 months ago

Hmmm. I don’t share your confidence in philosophical expertise. See here:

http://www.faculty.ucr.edu/~eschwitz/SchwitzAbs/Stability.htm

Thalassopoeia
Thalassopoeia
Reply to  Ralph
2 months ago

*sophisticated

Meme
Meme
Reply to  Ralph
1 month ago

“Perhaps the researchers were such poor philosophers they did not realize the difference between an appeal to authority and the proper use of inductive and deductive reasoning.“

“Ralph’s Labyrinth” (trademark pending): the fallacy of committing a fallacy (ad hominem) when accusing someone else of a fallacy (conflation) in which a fallacy (appeal to authority) is mixed up with good reasoning.

Last edited 1 month ago by Meme
Steve
2 months ago

I don’t like the experimental design. Surely you can just compare LSATs for this statistic

Thalassopoeia
Thalassopoeia
Reply to  Steve
2 months ago

Philosophy majors do best on the LSAT because they are the only students who must study propositional logic as part of their coursework. The hardest section of the LSAT is the logic games section which must be completed swiftly and accurately using shorthand… formal logic. Philosophy majors don’t do better on the LSAT because they have developed special intuitions or cognitive capabilities, they do better because they have prior exposure to material that is new to virtually anyone else.

Double A
Double A
Reply to  Thalassopoeia
1 month ago

The way most good LSAT takers “draw the game” for the logic games is nothing like propositional or anything from formal logic. You won’t get very fair trying to represent the games in lambda calculus or something like that.

Current Grad
2 months ago

This study is very interesting, but I’m having trouble understanding what the relevance of this study is to philosophical research. Giving yes/no answers and credences to thought experiments is certainly something we do sometimes, but it’s far from the most important aspect of our philosophical practice. Any expertise we have should surely be in formulating arguments and reasoning? (I’m sympathetic to arguments that the expertise of philosophers is lower than is often thought on that metric too; but that’s a different question.)

Chris Scambler
Chris Scambler
2 months ago

Of course this is just one study, and of course it is not the final word. But we should be open to the possibility that it suggests is actual. If correct it would need to be taken very seriously. There’s no need to be defensive. We need to know more.

As to the generalisation from undergrads to professionals: there’s a sense in which it is besides the point. If all we are teaching is what to say about these cases, we (the professionals) really need to shake up our methods of teaching.

But I personally think we should take the generalisation seriously: if this is indeed all we are inculcating, I think we should immediately inspect the possibility that this is all we in fact have.

Last edited 2 months ago by Chris Scambler
JLincoln
JLincoln
2 months ago

For what it’s worth, I’m struggling a little with understanding the motivating claim for this study: that philosophers have ‘atypical’ intuitions. As though studying philosophy would be enough to alter the kind of background epistemic processes and biases that are used to fuel intuitions, which seem to be less rationally derived or considered by virtue of them being intuitions (a general critique of moral intuitions applies here I think, but I’m not sure).

The results of this study don’t surprise me much given how ethics folks aren’t better at being ‘ethical’ than the layperson. But, if philosophy is about frameworks for understanding X and jumping between frameworks to gain some perspective on X (and there is more to this, I know, I’m not making a hard claim here about what philosophy is or isn’t in a strong way) we might expect that these results are merely indications of how philosophy uses framing exercises and that, as instructors and practitioners, we might wish to think about ways we could adjust our practices to be more inclusive OR more critical.

Just a thought. 🙂