The idea of using experiments to address philosophical questions has provoked heated debate in many areas of philosophy. However, if there is one area in which this approach has been completely uncontroversial, it is the field of formal semantics. This field unites researchers in philosophy and linguistics in an interdisciplinary attempt to make progress on semantic questions. The field has always understood itself as an empirical one, and researchers within it have basically welcomed the arrival of experimental techniques with open arms.
Just in the past few years, philosophers working in formal semantics have authored or coauthored experimental papers on vagueness (Egré et al., Ripley), the relationship between semantics and pragmatics (Chemla, Homer & Rothschild), conditionals (Cariani & Rips), generics (Prasada, Khemlani, Leslie & Glucksberg), modals (Knobe & Szabó; Knobe & Yalcin), the language of probability (Yalcin), gradable adjectives used for color (Hansen & Chemla) and aesthetics (Liao & Meskin), presupposition projection (Chemla & Schlenker), the determiners ‘most’ (Pietroski et al.) and ‘many’ (Egré & Cova), and much, much more. Clearly, the field as a whole is moving very strongly in an experimental direction.
Just to highlight one example of some of the amazing work that’s been going on these days, I thought it might be helpful to discuss a new experimental paper from philosopher Justin Khoo (MIT).