On Armchairs and MRIs

In today’s New York Times Magazine, Kwame Anthony Appiah comments on the newborn philosophy movement of experimental philosophy, or “x-phi,” in which philosophers are turning to MRI machines and other laboratory technologies to help unravel philosophical quandaries. This new movement, he reports,

has rudely challenged the way professional philosophers like to think of themselves. Not only are philosophers unaccustomed to gathering data; many have also come to define themselves by their disinclination to do so. The professional bailiwick we’ve staked out is the empyrean of pure thought. Colleagues in biology have P.C.R. machines to run and microscope slides to dye; political scientists have demographic trends to crunch; psychologists have their rats and mazes. We philosophers wave them on with kindly looks. We know the experimental sciences are terribly important, but the role we prefer is that of the Catholic priest presiding at a wedding, confident that his support for the practice carries all the more weight for being entirely theoretical. Philosophers don’t observe; we don’t experiment; we don’t measure; and we don’t count. We reflect. We love nothing more than our “thought experiments,” but the key word there is thought. As the president of one of philosophy’s more illustrious professional associations, the Aristotelian Society, said a few years ago, “If anything can be pursued in an armchair, philosophy can.”

But x-phi philosophers (x-philes) are setting out to torch the armchairs, as evidenced in a YouTube video (Experimental Philosophy Anthem) that Appiah mentions. Take the question of when we think that an action is blameworthy? Why wonder abstractly when we can simply ask people what they think, just as Joshua Knobe has done? Why not set up an Experimental Philosophy Lab as Indiana University has? “More and more,” Appiah writes, “you hear about philosophy grad students who are teaching themselves how to read f.M.R.I. brain scans in order to try to figure out what’s going on when people contemplate moral quandaries. (Which decisions seem to arise from cool calculation? Which decisions seem to involve amygdala-associated emotion?) ”

What does Appiah think of this? What do I think of it? We’re both in agreement that empirical answers don’t settle philosophical questions.

You can conduct more research to try to clarify matters, but you’re left having to interpret the findings; they don’t interpret themselves. There always comes a point where the clipboards and questionnaires and M.R.I. scans have to be put aside. To sort things out, it seems, another powerful instrument is needed. Let’s see — there’s one in the corner, over there. The springs are sagging a bit, and the cushions are worn, but never mind. That armchair will do nicely.

What a great writer Appiah is! Let’s go further, though, and note that x-phi empirical work is nice work the way that the social sciences produce nice work. They observe how some people behave and think but not whether such behavior and thinking is coherent or commendable. Moreover, the presumptions and methods of such “science” still need to be reflected upon. That’s why we need philosophy of social science, not just social science. Philosophy at its best is self-reflective. An MRI machine is not.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. Noelle, I wonderif you and Appiah are idealizing philosophers a bit.

    For example, Appiah’s ending seems to me to have a problem. The clipboard, questionnaires and scans come with social scientists. I would step back from the idea that their understanding is less good than philosophers. Among other things, the vision scientists I work with often find philosophical work in related areas really flawed; the philosophers just don’t understand what’s going on. And I’ve seen recent work by well respected philosophers which is about 25 years out of date, which is an extremely long time given the amazing changes going on.

    Also, I think I’m enough of a Wittgensteinian to be uncomfortable with the idea that generally philosophers get the last say on folk practices. Sometimes yes,but then usually when non-philosophers can also see something is wrong or right.

    Further, philosophical theories often have unfortunate empirical implications and work with questionable models in a way that the sciences can and sometimes do correct.

    Well, I could go on. I think philiosphy and philosophical practices are so far from ideal, and the subject so full of biases against new ideas, that feminists are well advised to embrace the social scientists (not literally, necessarily!). They have done much more to put the man of reason in question in the dominant male community of philosophy than we feminists alone could do.

  2. I can’t wait til I move out of my little townhouse into a place big enough for a library and an ARMCHAIR
    then, my life will be complete

  3. Fwiw, I don’t thing that many of us in the x-phi community would disagree with these sentiments. We generally want to bring more science into philosophical practice, but not to displace philosophy altogether.

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