philosophy, experimental
Philosophers often make claims about people’s intuitions regarding particular cases. Experimental philosophy aims to put these claims to the test using standard empirical methods.

Since the earliest days of analytic philosophy, it has been a common practice to appeal to intuitions about particular cases. Typically, the philosopher presents a hypothetical situation and then makes a claim of the form: ‘In this case, we would surely say....’ This claim about people’s intuitions then forms a part of an argument for some more general theory about the nature of our concepts or our use of language.
One puzzling aspect of this practice is that it so rarely makes use of standard empirical methods. Although philosophers quite frequently make claims about ‘what people would ordinarily say,’ they rarely back up those claims by actually asking people and looking for patterns in their responses. In recent years, however, a number of philosophers have tried to put claims about intuitions to the test, using experimental methods to figure out what people really think about particular hypothetical cases. This approach is sometimes known as experimental philosophy.
Although experimental philosophy is a relatively new approach, it has seen an explosion of interest in recent years. Thus far, research has focused on four main areas:
  • A series of studies have been concerned with cross-cultural differences. Asian subjects appear to differ from Americans both in epistemic intuitions (Weinberg, et al. 2001) and in intuitions about the reference of proper names (Machery, et al. 2004).
  • An ever-growing mountain of research indicates that moral considerations can affect people’s application of certain folk-psychological concepts. So, for example, it appears that people’s intuitions about whether or not a behavior was performed intentionally can be affected by their beliefs about the moral significance of the behavior itself (Knobe 2003a; 2003b; 2004; Knobe & Burra forthcoming; Nadelhoffer forthcoming a; forthcoming b; Malle forthcoming; McCann 2004; Sverdlik 2004).
  • It has often been claimed that people are ‘natural incompatiblists,’ i.e., that people feel that an agent cannot be morally responsible for a behavior if that behavior was causally determined. A number of recent studies have challenged this claim. Thus, it has been shown that people think an agent can be responsible for a behavior even if that behavior was predicted by an all-knowing Laplacean computer (Nahmias, et al. 2004) and that, as long as the agent truly wanted to perform the behavior, people will regard her as responsible even if she was ineluctably compelled to perform it (Woolfolk, et al. 2004).
  • A number of studies have examined people’s meta-ethical intuitions. It has been shown that young children are generally objectivists (Nichols & Folds-Bennett 2003), that relativists still make the usual moral/conventional distinction (Nichols 2004), and that people are willing to ascribe moral beliefs even to agents who have no corresponding motivation (Nichols 2002).

Experimental philosophy remains a controversial approach. On one hand, it seems that the use of naïve subjects allows researchers to get access to intuitions that are not corrupted by theoretical preconceptions. On the other, it may be felt that naïve subjects do not understand what is at stake in the cases they are asked to evaluate and that their intuitions may therefore not be sensitive to the full array of relevant considerations. Offering a compromise between these two perspectives, Alfred Mele (2003) suggests that experimental philosophy may be useful in those domains where we are particularly concerned with the intuitions of the folk (e.g., in moral philosophy) but not in areas where we seem to have a sophisticated theory that leaves the folk behind (e.g., in the philosophy of physics).
The field of experimental philosophy is still in its infancy. With any luck, discussion of these issues will grow increasingly nuanced and complex in the years to come.
Joshua M. Knobe