Sunday, March 23, 2008

Ordinary language and experimental philosophy.

I'm teaching on Ryle tomorrow, hence why this comes to mind. But it strikes me that there's a parallel between the methods of ordinary language philosophy and the current movement in so-called "experimental philosophy".

Ordinary language philosophy, insofar as I understand it, held that the task of philosophy was to investigate how the folk use words and then critically assess this use. Contradictory uses should be repaired, confusions clarified, and so on. But, to borrow Ryle's metaphor, the philosopher is to folk use of language as the cartographer is to the folk understanding of local geography. That is, principally, the philosopher is to figure out how the folk understand things, and then do some cleaning up around the edges.

I'm not sure how this is different to what experimental philosophers are doing. Now, two hedges. First, I know that experimental philosophy is really pretty diverse, so not everyone who calls themselves an experimental philosopher will be caught in this net. Second, I know that experimental philosophy doesn't just look at how language is used. But, the way experimental philosophers investigate and try to systematize intuitions regarding things like moral praise and blame strikes me as on all fours with ordinary language philosophy. That is, experimental philosophers still see philosophy as a kind of logical cartography: sketch out what people already understand and then clean it up as need be.

This leaves no room, I think, for particularly interesting philosophy. Sometimes the folk are just plain wrong, and we can come up with good arguments to show that they are wrong. Treating philosophy as cartography seems to me to leave philosophers unable to say such things. The folk are taken as infallible unless and until the folk contradict themselves or otherwise violate theoretical virtues (e.g., simplicity, fecundity). Truth, particularly of normative matters, seems to drop out of the picture.

It also, oddly, lets science off the hook. It's not clear to me why anyone even reasonably well-versed in philosophy of science could take seriously the claim that experimental methods are unbiased means of accessing folk understandings of anything. Data are always going to be laden with theory, and data will never force any particular theoretical conclusion.

It's not that experimental philosophy is useless. Indeed, empirical data are extremely useful to philosophy. This is a line I want to push when it comes to ethics. There are, for example, too many crude moral relativists around who are wholly ignorant of the rich anthropological literature on universal or near-universal moral norms. But empirical investigations are never going to replace good argument; and the pretension that they could strikes me as committing the same sins as ordinary language philosophy 50 some-odd (some very odd) years ago.

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