Philosophical Thought Experiment as a Genre?

June 18, 2009

A recent post by Brian Weatherson over at the Arche Methodology Project Weblog raises an interesting idea: can philosophical thought experiments be treated as a genre like, say, science fiction? This idea is also explored in Jonathan Weinberg’s article “Configuring the Cognitive Imagination” in New Waves in Aesthetics. Weinberg spells out the idea, without endorsing it, on page 214:

Yet, what if philosophical thought experiments were a genre—at least in the sense that engaging in them successfully requires mastery along the same lines as I have sketched for the mastery of literary genres? There are rules to engaging properly with a hypothetical scenario, after all. To make just some of the more obvious generalizations about our imaginative practices with thought experiments: one should embellish as little as possible; generally it is a practice conducted in an affectively `cool’ manner; and our inferential systems must often be brought to bear in this particular sort of imaginative project as well. And there are surely other, and more subtly articulable, rules for the proper performance of thought experiments still to be detailed.

While I was initially attracted to the idea—especially given my interest in imagination, fiction, and genre—I now think that it won’t do, on the more interesting interpretation. Roughly, the idea is to treat philosophical thought experiment as a genre relevantly similar to other genres of fiction. I have two worries with the idea, interpreted thus. In this post, I’ll press the first worry: we engage with philosophical thought experiments relevantly differently from the way we engage with fictions in other genres.

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