From philosophy to science - science disconnects from philosophy
One way of reading the history of philosophy is to see it as the progressive detachment of inquiries, once encompassed in philosophy, from the parent subject to form separate, independent inquiries. This happened to physics, to psychology, to linguistics, even to geology, geography, and meteorology. These new subjects support, as distinct from philosophy as ordinarily understood, specialist and often highly technical vocabularies, laws, counterfactuals, equations, hypotheses, predictions and retrodictions and crucially experiments. Not all of these are completely missing from philosophy but the new offspring incorporate and sophisticate them to a much higher degree than philosophy now does or ever did. Once an inquiry acquires a sufficient set of such features, it ceases to be a part of philosophy. ('Sufficient' is unavoidably vague and it is not for philosophy to decide what is sufficient.)
From philosophy back to science - philosophy reconnects with science
Philosophy itself has changed, and not just by the loss of the new sciences. In the 1950s and 60s there was a widespread view of philosophy as conceptual analysis, the kind of activity that could be conducted in an armchair and required no specialist knowledge. Philosophy hived itself off in a kind of self-exile from experimental science. This is no longer the case as Kwame Anthony Appiah explains :
There are all kinds of ways in which experimentation has been brought
to bear in our discipline. For decades, of course, philosophers of mind have
been working closely with their peers in psychology and psycholinguistics
and computer science; there has been an effort to ground the philosophy of
language, too, in more naturalistic theories of the mind (an effort to which
my first two books belong). Philosophers who work on consciousness
can tell you all about Capgras Syndrome and research in various forms of
neurologically induced agnosia.
The relevance of empirical research tends to be more hotly contested
in the obviously normative reaches of moral theory. But here, too, the
"renewed incursions" have been hard to miss. Over the past decade, for
instance, there's been a debate between virtue ethicists and critics armed
with findings from social psychology?in particular, empirical evidence for
what's called "situationism." These critics draw on decades of research
suggesting that much of what people do is best explained not by traits of
character but by systematic human tendencies to respond to features of
their situations that nobody previously thought to be crucial at all.18
Situationists think that someone who is, say, reliably honest in one
kind of situation will often be reliably dishonest in another. Back in 1972,
experimental psychologists had found that, if you dropped your papers
outside a phone booth in a shopping mall, you were far more likely to be
helped by someone who had just had the good fortune of finding a dime
waiting for them in the return slot. Ayear later, John Darley and Daniel Batson
discovered?this is probably the most famous of these experiments?that
Princeton seminary students, even those who had just been reflecting
on the Gospel account of the Good Samaritan, were much less likely to
stop to help someone "slumped in a doorway, apparently in some sort of
distress," if they'd been told that they were late for an appointment. More
recently, experiments showed that you were more likely to get change
for a dollar outside a fragrant bakery shop than standing near a "neutral
smelling dry-goods store."
Many of these effects are extremely powerful: huge differences in
behavior flow from differences in circumstances that seem of little or no
normative consequence. Putting the dime in the slot in that shopping mall
raised the proportion of those who helped pick up the papers from 1 out of
25 to 6 out of 7; i.e., from almost no one to almost everyone. Seminarians
in a hurry are six times less likely to stop like a Good Samaritan.20 Knowing
what I've just told you, you should surely be a little less confident that
"she's helpful" is a good explanation next time someone stops to assist
you in picking up your papers, especially if you're outside a bakery!
Philosophers inspired by situationists have argued that this reality is at
odds with the conception of human character that underlies virtue ethics.
For when virtue ethicists ask us to be virtuous, they typically mean that
we should have, or cultivate, persistent, multitrack dispositions to, say, act
compassionately, or honestly. Their situationist critics object that we're
simply not built that way?that character, as the virtue ethicists conceive
it, is about as real as phlogiston. Crudely put: If there's no such thing as
character, then the project of a character ethics?a morality centered on
virtues? is a waste of time.
In recent years, however, philosophers have done more than draw upon
research by experimentalists in other disciplines. The recent currency of
the phrase "experimental philosophy" often refers to research that, in the
mold of Arne Naess, has actually been conducted by philosophers.. .often,
as with Naess, on nonphilosophers. Much of this work is in a continuation
of the project of conceptual analysis.24 If conceptual analysis is the analysis
of "our" concepts, then shouldn't one see how "we"?or representative
samples of us?actually mobilize concepts in our talk? So one strain of
this work seeks to elicit and tabulate intuitions people have about various
The use of such scenarios, or thought experiments, is a hallmark of
philosophy. Yet the newer philosophical experimentalists seem to have
noticed that many thought experiments in philosophy were, so to speak, at
a double remove from reality. Not only were the scenarios unrealized, the
claims about how we would respond to those scenarios were also simply
asserted, rather than demonstrated.
Recall Hume's Missing Shade of Blue argument. If a man had never
encountered a particular shade of blue, and is now presented with a
sequence of deepening shades, absent that one, will he notice the gap
and be able to imagine the unseen shade? Hume, the great empiricist,
writes, "I believe there are few but will be of opinion that he can." That
has been the usual protocol. We conjure a scenario, and then announce
that, in such case, "it would be natural to say" X, Y, or Z. (In the empirical
spirit, I should report that, when I typed the phrase "it would be natural
to say" into Google's Book Search, it happily returned, as its top search
results, passages by Gilbert Ryle, Peter Strawson, Max Black, and Bertrand
Most thought experiments are unrealized for good reasons. With the
stroke of a pen, Frank Jackson can summon up in imagination Mary, the
scientist raised in a world without color. Actually raising such a scientist,
however, would be arduous, time consuming, and costly ... and likely to
get bogged down in human subjects review committees. Any attempt
to reproduce Judith Jarvis Thompson's thought experiment about the
comatose violinist would run into protests from the musician's union. Yet
the other part?finding out what people would think when contemplating
such scenarios?can be expeditiously and inexpensively done. So why not
remove at least some of the thought from our thought experiments? (Kwame Anthony Appiah, 'Experimental Philosophy', Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 82, No.
2 (Nov., 2008), pp. 7-22 : 13-16.
Kwame Anthony Appiah, 'Experimental Philosophy', Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 82, No.
2 (Nov., 2008), pp. 7-22.
W.V.O. Quine, "Epistemology Naturalized." In Ontological Relativity and
Other Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), 82-83.
Timothy Williamson. "Armchair Philosophy, Metaphysical Modality and Counterfactual Thinking" (Presidential Address). Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 105, 1 (2005): 123.