Philosophy is not always perceived as well as philosophers would like. There are public discussions of whether philosophy has any value at all (The New York Times or The Chronicle of Higher Education). Members of our own draft manifestos criticizing philosophy's contributions to the academy (see Glymour’s “Manifesto” or Thagard’s “Eleven Dogmas of Analytic Philosophy”). Presidential candidates quip we need less philosophers.
What contributes to negative opinions about philosophical research?
There are certainly a number of contributing factors. In a recent paper, John Turri and I ran some studies to investigate one potential factor. What we wanted to know was whether negative opinions are partly due to suspicion about the way philosophers conduct their research. To investigate this question, we examined how people evaluate paradigmatic features of philosophical research and compared this to how they evaluate research in the neighboring field of psychology when investigating very similar sorts of questions.
Some vignettes described a setup pretty likely to happen in philosophy, involving a solitary male researcher using thought experiments and intuition (Rodin comes to mind)
We found that people rated research featuring all the prototypical methods of philosophy lower than those in psychology. Specifically, they preferred observation to intuition, team based-inquiry to solitary-inquiry, and gender diversity among research teams. We even found evidence that greater prior exposure to philosophy might lower one’s opinion of inquiry driven by intuitions and thought experiments.
There were also some individual differences in people’s research preferences. We found a small gender effect whereby women favored observation over intuition more than men did, and tended to view a question pursued by a research team as more important than men viewed it. (Findings have since been replicated and extended by another researcher team demonstrating “Students who disliked the method of thought experiments were less likely to report wanting to continue taking philosophy classes,” Thompson, Adleberg, Sims, & Nahmias.)
We conclude from all this that the preference for observation and controlled experimentation over intuition and thought experiments may contribute to negative perceptions of philosophy in our culture and in academics.
This information also might be useful in the classroom and for thinking about training and mentorship in philosophy. For instance, fostering a research environment that allows for team inquiry, or emphasizing the many ways philosophy and evidence from experimental science are continuous or complementary might be a good strategy for attracting new students to philosophy.