This isn't a serious question of philosophy, but more about philosophical style.

For example: Nagel's Bat and Searle's Chinese room & Frank Jacksons's Knowledge argument are all thought experiments in the analytical tradition.

Is this a gesture (of fellowship) towards the experiment in scientific practice? Certainly we have such experiments in scientific discourse (as opposed to practice) Maxwell's demon, Schrödinger's cat & Turing's test.

Are there similar such Gedankenexperiments in continental philosophy?

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    What is Laurie Paul's "'Wizard of Oz' room" thought experiment? Where can I read about it? Jun 1, 2013 at 12:57
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    @Dorfman: Dennis's answer on *epistemic transformative experiences' to my question about understanding has a link to Lauries Pauls thought experiment. It was my idea to give it that name though (seeing that it didn't have one), referring to the point in the film 'Wizard of Oz' where Dorothy lands in Oz and as she steps through the door the film goes from black & white to colour. Jun 1, 2013 at 14:54
  • @Dorfmans: My mistake, its actually Frank Jacksons Knowledge argument. Laurie Paul made a similar argument. Jun 1, 2013 at 19:51

2 Answers 2


I hope to read answers that directly address your concern, namely, continental philosophy. I'd like to give an off-target answer, but which may address your speculation:

Is this a gesture (of fellowship) towards the experiment in scientific practice?

As the relevant entry states, thought experiments in philosophy are much older than analytic philosophy and arguably older than modern science itself. So, the latter are instances of thought experiments outside of (preceding) analytic philosophy. And it is very difficult (read: impossible) in those cases to argue that they are "gestures of fellowship towards the experiment in scientific practice" since they are preceding it temporally.

We can take at least two routes from here. We may claim that

  1. it is actually anachronistic to claim that thought experiments existed before the modern practice of scientific experiment. (This somewhat implies that modern philosophical thought experiments are a spin-off of scientific ones.)

  2. modern examples of thought experiments (both in the sciences and in philosophy) are a development of a reasoning device which can be found in the history of ideas before modern times.

I would be inclined to agree with the latter, but by circumscribing the claim to thought experiments in traditional branches of philosophy, i.e.: thought experiments by medieval theologians are pretty close to thought experiments in contemporary analytic philosophy, both in their content and in their function(s). Under this premise, one can safely claim that thought experiments do not have a 'scientistic' bias.

Dominik Perler has done a wonderful job in recent times studying the role of thought experiments in medieval philosophy/theology. You might want to have a look at his

  • "Thought experiments: the methodological function of angels in late medieval epistemology" in: Angels in Medieval Philosophical Inquiry: Their Function and Significance, Ashgate 2008.

… Unfortunately, some key articles by Perler are in German. Here's a talk in German discussing the methodological role of thought experiments in medieval philosophy by the way of examples in three topics: metaphysics of individuation (Thomas Aquinas on cannibals resurrecting on judgement day); phil of emotions (Dun Scotus on wolfs in sheep's 'clothes' spreading fear); and epistemology (Ockham on an omnipotent God intervening in human cognition).

(It is more difficult – I think – to assess the relation between philosophical thought experiments and scientific ones… there are, of course, interesting limit cases. Even more difficult is the relation between thought experiments and concrete experiments.)

  • Nice answer. Would you include Platos use of myth - say the ring of Gyges - as an example of the same phenomena? May 31, 2013 at 4:11
  • I had to look that one up in order to remember it. It seems that is is widely referred to as a thought experiment, but I'd need to think about it. The suppositional context is definitely there, but I am not sure that the function is the same.
    – DBK
    May 31, 2013 at 18:19
  • I'd be curious to see whether Aristotle uses similar devices. I expect he does somewhere, and probably more naturalistically than Platos use of myth. Jun 1, 2013 at 4:02

Are there similar such Gedankenexperiments in continental philosophy?

The first one that comes to mind is Sartre's Le Regard (The Look). It is a very concrete thought experiment I would say (i.e. one that you could encounter everyday), which is very typical for existentialist philosophy; it is 'rooted' in everyday experience. It is, however, not an easy one and I would recommend reading his Being and Nothingness (you'll probably need a companion to fully understand all of his ideas). It will take a while to get through it, but it's worth it. I will try to summarise the thought experiment in a brief and concise manner, however, I do think it's full value only becomes apparent once you know more about Sartre's work.

Stage 1: alone

Imagine you are alone in the park. What do you observe? Lifeless objects (the grass, the tree, a bench,...); (être-en-soi: "being-on-itself") In this stage, you are the centre of a world; not just the spatial centre, it is more than that: the quality of things are merely what they appear to be in your eyes.

Stage 2: human being who does not see you

A human being enters the park, you see him but he does not see you. This man, however, does observe certain things just like you did in stage 1. He sees the trees, the grass,... He is, just like you in stage 1, a centre of a world. He sees certain things you see as well, for instance a tree. In other words, the fields of vision of you and the man intersect. Sartre calls this "disintegration", which can be defined as a decomposition of your world. However, during this phase, the decomposition is still controllable, since the things that have a reference to him, but that reference is also part of your world.

Stage 3: human being who sees you

In stage 2, the man was the object of your perception. Now, that man sees you. You become the object of his perception (and you're aware of it). You are, in other words, objectified by the man (être-pour-autrui; "being-for-someone-else"). This is not just his business, it affects you as well. During this look, the other one disappears as an object for you. It's not that you can't see him anymore, it's just that you cannot observe him anymore (his look conceals his eyes). The other now has the power over us: he can "define us". Are you ugly? Only if he thinks you are! Are you smart? Only if he thinks you are! etc. From this moment onwards, we can feel ashamed (this can only happen when we are objectified by another human being). This is what Sartre means by "hell is other people", contrary to how he is often misquoted (it is not a misanthropic statement!).

Is this a gesture (of fellowship) towards the experiment in scientific practice?

I wouldn't say so, at least not in this case. Sartre's existentialist philosophy's main concern is our subjective experience rather than objective factors that influence us. I consider it a way to make things clear to the reader; to understand and imagine things from his own, subjective conciousness.

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    You don't think that it looks more like that Sartre is examining closely an observation rather than an enacting an experiment? One of the differences between this situation and the ones above is that they are not every-day occurances. May 30, 2013 at 21:39
  • I concur with @MoziburUllah. This is a close account of (a particular) phenomenological experience, not a Gedankenexperiment. The latter is usually not concrete and actually disconnected from "everyday experience" so that crucial elements of the situation described can be fine tuned for the sake of the argument. (This claim surely needs more qualifications.) Anyway, this example is nonetheless interesting, because it forces one to explicate what the characteristics of a thought experiment are.
    – DBK
    May 31, 2013 at 2:33
  • I ought to have said it did make me think a little more as to what a gedankenexperiment was, as at first consideration I was inclined to accept @ChaosAndOrder's example. May 31, 2013 at 2:43
  • I agree with both of you; it is probably not entirely correct to call it a Gedankenexperiment, and it's indeed more a close phenomenological account of an (everyday) experience. It made me think a little more about what a thought experiment actually is.
    – Ben
    Jun 1, 2013 at 22:12

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