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Putting Philosophy To The Test
by David Menconi
Josh Knobe has comfortable seating in his philosophy department office at Yale University—a small couch somewhere between a love seat and a sofa in size. It is most decidedly not, however, an armchair, which might seem a trivial distinction. But in Knobe’s world, one’s position on armchairs can be a matter of grave import.
“Yeah, it’s a couch rather than an armchair,” says Knobe, ’96. “So there’s room for two, and that’s important. You don’t just sit there alone and think about something. You sit and talk to someone about it.”
For the past century or so, philosophy has primarily entailed solitary ruminations to puzzle out deep truths about the nature of human existence—questions about reason, knowledge, values, free will. Philosophy can seem like a lonely ivory-tower vigil, but the old school holds that sitting and thinking is still the best way to do it. As one prominent philosopher put it a few years back, “If anything can be pursued in an armchair, philosophy can.”
But Knobe is one of the leading lights of a new field called experimental philosophy, or “x-phi” for short. These scholars use the tools of social science—they devise questionnaires, go out and conduct surveys, gather data—and then try to figure out what philosophical truths they reveal. At times, experimental philosophy looks no different than social psychology. (It is perhaps telling that Knobe has office space in both the philosophy and psychology departments at Yale.) It’s a lot more likely than conventional philosophy to be a collaborative effort, too. When experimental philosophers disagree over something, Knobe says, the default response is for them to try to work together.
[read more: Stanford Magazine]