Some experimental philosophy are apriori, so I claim. (More carefully, the conclusions that these projects draw are apriori.) On the face of it, this claim is rather implausible. If there is one thing that is most distinctive about experimental philosophy, it is the empirical methods that it borrows from psychology, cognitive science, and other allied fields. I want to argue that, however, in order to address a common objection against experimental philosophy, proponents would do better to concede the apriority of some projects that employ experimental methods. Fortunately for them, this concession can be made because there is an important distinction to be drawn between empirical/rational and aposteriori/apriori. The upshot is that both proponents and detractors would do well to note that experimental philosophy come in both apriori and aposteriori varieties.
Here is a rough taxonomy of projects that fall under the “experimental philosophy” umbrella. First, there are projects that are not survey based, but instead involve some observation on the experimenter’s part. Josh Greene’s fMRI works are paradigmatic examples. I think it’s uncontroversial that these are aposteriori. Second, there are “debunking” survey-based projects. These projects often argue against traditional philosophy claims from diversity of opinions. The cross-cultural studies on direct reference and knowledge are paradigmatic examples. I think these are aposteriori too, though I am relatively less confident. Third, there are “positive” survey-based projects. From people’s response to cleverly-designed thought experiments, experimenters draw conclusions about folk concepts. Of this kind of projects, Josh Knobe’s works on the moral component of intentionality are paradigmatic examples. In this post, I will argue that this last kind of experimental philosophy projects are apriori.
The common objection against experimental philosophy is that the responses that they get from ordinary people, which they call “intuitions”, are nothing relevantly like philosophers’ intuitions. Perhaps the folk do not have the relevant concepts employed in philosophical discourse. Perhaps the folk do not offer their considered, reflected judgments as philosophers do. If this objection succeeds, then experimental philosophy ought not have the impact on current philosophical practice that its proponents claims that it should. These so-called “intuitions” are simply not what philosophers ought to admit as evidence for their inquiries—in the same way that the fact that people sometimes say “I don’t believe God exists, I know it!” ought not count as evidence for knowledge not requiring belief.
Now, I find this common objection against experimental philosophy rather unconvincing, but I won’t debate that here. Instead, I want to simply note a dialectical point. To successfully respond to this objection, experimental philosophers need to do enough to show that the responses they get from ordinary people are relevantly like philosophers’ intuitions. The crucial point, then, is this: philosophers’ intuitions are apriori. If ordinary people’s responses are not, then that would seem like a relevant difference. To be more explicit, we can say that the content of ordinary people’s responses are apriori. Of course, experimental philosophers’ collections of those responses, or what we might call their observations of ordinary people’s responses, are empirical and aposteriori.
As far as I understand, the conclusions that positive survey-based experimental philosophy projects draw are essentially reports of ordinary people’s intuitions. The following parallel suggests this understanding. One the one hand, a traditional philosopher finds that Smith does not have knowledge in Gettier’s Case I thought experiment, and draws the conclusion that knowledge requires some component beyond justified true belief. On the other hand, an experimental philosopher notes that people find that the chairman intentionally performed an action in the harm condition but not in the help condition, and draws the conclusion that intentionality has a moral component. The latter conclusion follows from ordinary people’s intuitions to Knobe’s thought experiments in the same way that the former conclusion follows from philosophers’ intuitions to Gettier’s thought experiments.
Now consider a distinction that Carrie Jenkins draws between empirical/rational, which are about how concepts are grounded, and aposteriori/apriori, which are about justification or warrant of a belief. She defines the term as follows (119):
(1) A way of knowing a proposition p is empirical iff it involves some epistemic use of the senses. A use of the senses is epistemic iff the role of the senses is not just that of awakening or preparing the mind so that it is ready to know things, but rather the senses play a key role in actually supplying us with the knowledge in question.
(2) A way of knowing a proposition p is a priori iff it is epistemically independent of empirical evidence; that is, there is no epistemic reliance upon any of the following: (a) immediate experiential knowledge of p; (b) inductive empirical confirmation of p; (c) inference to, or deduction of, p from propositions which are known in one of the above ways.
Hence, there could be beliefs that are empirical and apriori, if the following is satisfied: the senses play an important role in grounding the concepts relevant for the belief, but the belief itself involves only an internal examination of those concepts. (Thanks to Carrie for comment below.) Our concept of intentionality needs to be sensitive to the world, and one way for it to be grounded is being sensitive to people’s attributions of intentionality. What observations of ordinary people’s responses to the thought experiments is allow this sort of epistemic grounding, of our concept of intentionality. In that sense, the method of positive survey-based experimental philosophy is an empirical one. However, the epistemic evidence that supports the conclusion does not come from the observations of ordinary people’s responses. Instead, it comes from the content of those responses, which, if they are to be relevantly like philosophers’ intuitions, are apriori. Hence, the kind of experimental philosophy that I characterize as positive and survey-based could be reasonably called both empirical and apriori.
(Williamson seems to have a similar point in mind as Jenkins when he dramatically claimed that there is no genuine distinction between the apriori and the aposteriori. However, I think that Jenkins’s way of putting it allows us to see a useful distinction while recognizing it as being different from the empirical/rational distinction.)
If what I have said is right, then there is an important distinction for both proponents and detractors of experimental philosophy to recognize. While all experimental philosophy projects are empirical, some are aposteriori but others are apriori. Debating methodologies of philosophy should involve more than debates about methods. The status of epistemic evidence matters too.
I should confess that, although I’ve taken a rather confident tone, I’m quite unsure about the conclusions I draw in this post. I would be really curious in hearing what other people think. Moreoever, have similar things been said elsewhere? The “psychologizing of evidence” discussion appears relevant, but I don’t know much about it. I did notice that in his 2007 critique of experimental philosophy, Sosa has a footnote about how the debunking projects are different from the positive projects, in terms of their attitudes toward philosophical intuitions.
Update 08/02/2009: See also Jonathan Ichikawa’s Bibliography on Intuition, especially the section on “non-skeptical experimental philosophy”. The skeptical/non-skeptical distinction may be more apt than the distinction I’ve tried to draw in this post.
Update 12/04/2009: For another attempt, from a slightly different perspective, at driving a wedge between the positive and negative programs of experimental philosophy, and critique of the positive program, see Joshua Alexander, Ron Mallon, and Jonathan Weinberg’s “Accentuate the Negative“, forthcoming in Review of Philosophy and Psychology. I learned about this paper after the blog post, and I would recommend people who stumbled here to look there too.
Update 01/17/2010: For an even more ambitious project that argues all experimental philosophy are apriori, see the abstract on “Experimental Philosophy and Apriority” by Jonathan Ichikawa over at the Arche Methodology Blog. (Sorry I’m a bit late on this.)