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Josh Shepherd

Hi Josh,

I'd distinguish the methods of x-phi from the motivations for using them. Certainly the methods are something of a break from tradition, and also from more recent conceptual analysis. Further (as Nadelhoffer and Nahmias argue), some seem to have motivations in line with those of conceptual analysts - they do studies to see if their preferred analysis of some concept is supported by the folk.

I think some do have the motivations you and Smith describe (return to the grand tradition of curiosity about the world). I - just to answer your question - got involved in x-phi originally not out of hate for old-school philosophy but because I found some of the questions raised by the x-phi pieces I read engaging.

But I wonder about the following issue. You maintain that we *should* see x-phi as a return to a certain tradition. Is this because you think that conceiving of x-phi in this way (as opposed to challenging conceptual analysis, or engaging in it by performing studies) will generate different and more fruitful studies? Or do you think this is an accurate interpretation of the movement as it has developed thus far?

Peter B. Reiner

I think it is a bit like steampunk

David Rose

When discussing experimental philosophy it is sometimes confusing to see
it being discussed as a new movement and as a return to tradition. But I
think that if we think of experimental philosophy as the co-location in
the same body as (i) philosophical naturalism and (ii) the practice of
cognitive science, then we can move toward making sense of these two
seemingly conflicting descriptions of experimental philosophy.
Intellectually there
doesn't seem to be anything particularly novel about (i) and (ii). If one
looks to figures in the early formation of psychology, one sees people who
satisfy both (i) and (ii). One might think though that sociologically
experimental philosophy is somewhat recent (the idea being that
*philosophers* doing both (i) and (ii) is what truly makes experimental
philosophy novel). But, cognitive science does have a history and thus it
seems like the methods used aren't really new (or at least not any more
recent than the emergence of cognitive science). Also, philosophers have
done (ii) well before experimental philosophy. One thing though is that,
as a sociological matter, (i) and (ii) are more *widespread* than they've
ever been in the past. So, it seems that there
may not be anything particularly novel about experimental
philosophy intellectually but, sociologically it seems that the
widespread co-location of (i) and (ii) is somewhat novel. When saying in
description of experimental philosophy that it is both new and a return to
tradition, it seems that one takes the conjunction of (i) and (ii) to
account for the novelty. But experimental philosophy is only new sociologically, in the
sense that it is more widespread than ever before.

Taylor Murphy

Please excuse the length, the latter half is a quote.

I am skeptical of it being a return to earlier philosophy in a certain sense. It seems to be in a way a reincarnation of a more recent sort of experimental program throughout the 1950s. It is very suspiciously similar to “the empirical philosophy” program at the "Oslo School" of philosophy, associated with Arne Naess and Herman Tennessen, which empirically tested the claims about what we would say that philosophers had been making, and questioned philosophers’ authority on such claims, etc. Similarities include its empirical methodology, motivation and what it is reacting to (untested empirical claims, empirical analysis of things like ‘voluntary’ or ‘free will’), and criticisms of it as being irrelevant to philosophy or not actually philosophy but social science also featured. This work on empirical philosophy was largely ignored and forgotten because a fair amount of the real work was in Norwegian.

The reasoning was that meaning was determined by 'what we would say', especially from Oxford philosophers, so why not go out and test how these words are used? They studied "free enterprise," “voluntary” and "free will" as well as a whole host of other philosophical notions. One of the chief criticisms is against "revelation" in semantics, by which philosophers think they have some privileged access to the truth of “what we would say.” On the contrary, why not study this empirically!

Nowadays, it seems that we just have a conceptual version of a remarkably similar motivation, at least by some philosophers. Instead of looking at what people would say to get at meaning, we look at intuitions to get at the concept, using experimental procedures and scientific methodology. Philosophers question the use of intuition in philosophy, where philosophers think they have some privileged access to intuitions about concepts. On the contrary, why not study this empirically!

Except nowadays, there's much better methodology, which can actually develop into a research program around concepts like ‘intentional’, and it is of more general interest and so on. And of course, much has changed since the 50s. Still, I think the fact that experimental philosophy has appeared in philosophy before, and shares some very deep features of experimental philosophy, should give us pause. Maybe in both cases, philosophers were trying to get back to an earlier conception, but it didn’t seem so last time.

Forgive the length, but here’s some quotes that bring out some of the similarities in motivation.


An Attack Upon Revelation in Semantics by Campbell Crockett. The Journal of Philosophy Vol. 56, No. 3, Scandinavian Number (Jan. 29, 1959), pp. 103-111

This voluminous work, certainly the richest production coming from the Oslo Group, is a striking example of a determined effort to apply empirical scientific procedures to the clarification of a traditiolnal philosophical problem, i.e., the problem of the freedom of the will.

Mr. Herman Tonnessen is perhaps the most vigorous of all in the fight against revelation in semantics. We are told that the ''most usual" procedure in analyzing a linguistic expression is for the analyst to ask himself and sometimes a few others what the expression means and then to record the answer. This "cathedra" procedure is characterized especially by the fact that it submerges the amazed reader in a true Amazon flood of results of the supposed brainwork of the thinker, while the activity in itself with admirable discretion and heroic self-forgetful reticence is shrouded in a stubborn silence heavy with profound thoughts.

T0nnessen, on the contrary, has undertaken an empirical study of the terms "type," "typical," "typisk," etc., beginning with a collection of occurrences of these terms in philosophical and scientific literature. He also has collected occurrences from ordinary discourse. By studying the contexts within which these words appeared, questionnaires were constructed and submitted to a large number of people. As a part of a combined sociological and semantical study, he investigated the use of "private enterprise' in a similar fashion. Again, questionnaires were constructed and submitted; and a panel of Norwegian semanticists evaluated them, presenting hypotheses concerning the stock uses of "private enterprise" in contemporary Norwegian society.


Naess complains that Oxford Philosophers are committed to a kind of empiricism that presupposes systematic research and yet they rely upon deduction and intuition Naess: "In contemporary philosophlical literature questions are raised and answered whieh admittedly are empirical. Why not try to test the answers by procedures used in contemporary science?"


“Vindication of the Humpty Dumpty attitude towards language” Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy Volume 3, Issue 1 & 4, 1960, Pages 185 - 198 Author: Herman Tennesen

None the less, the following passage is found in Strawson's "On Referring" (p. 330):

“Now suppose some one were in fact to say to you with perfectly serious air: 'The king of France is wise.' Would you say, 'That's untrue' ? I think it's quite certain that you wouldn't.“

Strawson is wrong: Of about 1,500 informants tested in some recent experiments no one seemed to act in accordance with Strawson's predictions.


Tennessen, Herman (1965) 'Ordinary language in memoriam', Inquiry, vol 8

What should we say? Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy Volume 2, Issue 1 & 4, 1959, Pages 265 – 290

Eddy Nahmias

Taylor, I remember coming across this pre-"x-phi" x-phi research when we started doing our studies on free will, but I can't remember if I ever found any work in English that summarized what they found when they surveyed people about 'free will' (or 'voluntary'). Do you know if there is any such work?

Joshua, I'm with you, at least to the extent that we understand x-phi as entirely continuous with 'empirically informed philosophy' or 'phil cog sci', but I think there are aspects and aspirations of both the positive and negative programs in x-phi that are not so obviously continuous with such work. (I'll leave my assertion ambiguous and uncompleted...)

Joshua Alexander

Hi Josh,

I often talk about experimental philosophy as breaking with tradition, but don't see any tension between talking this way and recognizing that "philosophy has been concerned throughout almost all of its history with questions about how ordinary people actually think and feel and that the experimental philosophy movement is simply seeking a return to this grand tradition". If I understand the idiom correctly, it means to move away from how things are usually done. And, I think that we can agree that experimental philosophy is moving away from the way that things are usually done in analytic philosophy, which is the tradition in question. To put the point in terms of the question that you posed, retro movements by their very nature break with (some) tradition by returning to another.

Damian Szmuc

Hi everybody,

looking for different views about the issue of breaking with tradition, I've found a very interesting work (going to be) done by philosophers at New Zealand, called "Early Modern Experimental Philosophy" (which can be found here:

Fortunately, I would like to say, some people share the opinion that (our days) X-Phi is concerned with topics and methods (of course not including surveys and cognitive psychology standards, but) discussed by the most prominent philosophers of modern philosophy. My usual remark is Hume, but that's just one example.

What's your opinion?

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