on Experimental Philosophy

Experimental philosophy is an emerging field of philosophical inquiry that makes use of empirical data—often gathered through surveys which probe the intuitions of ordinary people—in order to inform research on philosophical questions. In this exclusive interview Joshua Knobe discusses this new and exciting philosophy, its scope and its limits, and whether or not it is an elephant.

Richard Bright: You have had an effect named after you, what is it?

Joshua Knobe: The basic idea is that there are certain kinds of questions that we think of as being entirely factual – as being just straightforwardly factual questions about what actually happened in the world. Then the surprising thing is that people’s moral judgments can actually influence their intuitions about these apparently factual questions.

RB: A part of it is moral philosophy, is that the main emphasis? Or does it take a wider scope now?

JK: There has been experimental work within philosophy on an enormous range of different issues. What I’ve been interested in has to do with questions of value; questions about morality and so forth. But there has also been work in experimental philosophy on very technical questions about logic and the philosophy of language, on political philosophy, on the philosophy of race. What unites all the work being done in experimental philosophy isn’t really a certain sort of question, but rather a certain sort of method – the method of conducting experiments.

RB: This approach is what is commonly known as the empirical tradition, taken up by the nineteenth century philosophers who were more concerned with the human condition, while the philosophers of the twentieth and twenty-first century are the armchair philosophers, as we like to know them; it’s more abstract. You’ve obviously experienced pressure against this approach. Is that easing? Is it becoming more widely accepted?

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