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.

Philosophy and the City

My friend and colleague in philosophy, Sharon Meagher, is starting up a really great project on philosophy and the city. The premise is that philosophy is at its best bound up with the public affairs of a particular place. Meagher argues that the philosophical pretense to adopt a “view from nowhere” ignores the ways in which philosophy is entangled with the problems of the world, and the problems of our own communities, increasingly large urban places. One of the innovations of Meagher’s work is the idea of a philosophical walking tour of a city. Imagine taking your students on such a tour, pausing at the places that caused major social upheaval, other places in which new social relations and ideas were worked out. Meagher’s site is still under construction, so check it out now as well as later for new ideas on how to engage philosophy students in the problems of the world.

Women, Children, and Philosophy

Why are women only 21% of faculty in philosophy compared to 41% in the humanities overall? See links on the SWIP page for thoughts on this question as well as a post on Lemmings. Here’s an additional possibility: Might it be that conventional philosophy in America styles itself more like the sciences than like the humanities? And we know how women fare in the sciences.

And of this 21% why is it when I go to academic conferences so few of the accomplished women scholars there have children? Is it that women in philosophy largely decide not to have children? Or is it the other way around — that having children with the usual division of labor makes it incredibly tough to teach, write, and travel? Is it that the women philosophers who are parents drop out of the profession more or simply can’t get away to go to conferences? There are amazing counterexamples, including two brilliant feminist theorists, one a Foucault scholar and another a Merleau-Ponty scholar each with four or more children! How do they do it? Probably with immense help from their partners, for the profession itself, and its societies, does very little in the way of providing childcare at conferences. How does philosophy compare to other disciplines? What factors make a difference?

More on the ESF Rankings

In my last post I expressed concern about the European Science Foundation’s ranking of philosophy journals, a reputational ranking that seems skewed toward a narrow spectrum of philosophy journals. The Feminist Philosophers blog has information on how to weigh in on this ranking.   The blog reports that the ESF welcomes feedback and that it has changed its rankings in the past in response to such feedback. Go here to share your thoughts.

GIGO or the new rankings of philosophy journals

It was a philosopher, Charles Babbage, who first coined the term “garbage in, garbage out,” a term invaluable in understanding that computers only work as well as what is plugged into them. And now the term is coming back full circle to philosophy, at least if one wants to make sense of the latest misbegotten ranking in philosophy: the recent ranking of philosophy journals put out by the European Science Foundation.

I found these guidelines for how the index was compiled.  It doesn’t look like a straightforward A to C grading scale. To get on the list at all, a journal has to meet the “normal international academic standards” like being peer-reviewed, etc.  C is for local regional journals. A and B are for international journals. A is reserved for “high ranking” international journals and B is for “standard” internaltional journals. That difference is worth worrying over.  Hypatia, the leading journal of feminist philosophy in the English-speaking world,  gets a B.  How the hell can that be? Also, the rankings are based upon the judgments of a small select group of “experts” and I’m sure the philosopher experts aren’t expert in continental or feminist philosophy.
John McCumber is terribly wary of this ranking, as am I. See his recent post to this effect. I have additional concerns. I think that any ranking based on the input of a select group of philosophers will only tell what that select group thinks. So it is entirelly bogus to think that this one group’s rankings say anthing beyond what that group thinks. Or, as statisticians put it, the results are not generalizable. In other words, it’s just X in, X out. As to whether X is garbage or gourmet findings, the index itself is silent.

As to who were the “inputs” for the study, note the following and think about how much they may, or may not, represent philosophy today, especiallly the burgeoning work going on in continental, pragmatist, and feminist philosophy. I thank John McCumber for compiling this list

François Recanati (Chair), Institut Jean Nicod, CNRS/EHESS, Paris (FR) (Barrry Smith,below, is also associated with the institute Nicold)


Après des études de philosophie à Paris (agrégation 1974), Récanati a poursuivi son apprentissage philosophique à Oxford, et il a étudié la linguistique à l’EHESS. Lui-même chargé de conférences à l’EHESS, il y a enseigné la pragmatique linguistique et la philosophie du langage de 1975 à 1990. En 1990 il a participé à la création du DEA de Sciences cognitives (EHESS/Paris VI/Ecole Polytechnique), dans le cadre duquel il enseigne toujours aujourd’hui.

Manuel Garcia-Carpintero, Universitat de Barcelona (SP)


Doctor in Philosophy by the Universitat de Barcelona (1988), and professor in the Departament de Lògica, Història i Filosofia de la Ciència of this university since 1984.

I am currently working on a book on reference, defending a certain form of a neo-Fregean picture from the criticism of new theorist of reference. That picture takes modes of presentation prototypically to be components of semantic presuppositions in the ordinary speech acts, like assertions, on which singular reference is involved. The book will make use of and elaborate on views which I have presented in already published papers, including views on the nature of the logical properties, on the semantics/pragmatics divide, and on the nature of phenomenal consciousness. It will also argue for the historical appropriateness of describing the view as Fregean.

Diego Marconi, Universitá degli Studi di Torino (IT)


Diego Marconi was born in Torino in 1947. He graduated under Luigi Pareyson in 1969, writing a thesis on Wittgenstein. At that time, he shared the existential-hermeneutic orientation of Pareyson’s philosophy. Later, he did graduate work at the University of Pittsburgh with Nicholas Rescher, Wilfrid Sellars, Richmond H.Thomason and others. He wrote his Ph.D. thesis (1979) on Hegel. The thesis was an attempt at tracing the origin of so called “dialectical contradictions” in Hegel’s use of language. Afterwards, Marconi has been working within analytic philosophy, which he conceives not as a doctrinal body but as a philosophical style. He wrote or edited four books on Wittgenstein (1971, 1987, 1988, 1997), edited a reader on the formalization of Hegelian dialectics (1979), and published many articles in logic and philosophy of language.

Kevin Mulligan, Université de Genève (CH)


“Born eighty years ago, Continental philosophy is on its last legs. Its extraordinary career has been helped along by an almost total absence of interest on the part of analytical or other exact philosophers in what the Australian philosopher David Stove calls “the nosology of philosophy,” the explanation of the manifold forms taken by bad philosophy….The Gallic gallimaufry and galimatias alluded to in ¶1 are symptoms of sickness from the point of view of philosophy as a theoretical enterprise.”

Barry Smith, Birkbeck College, University of London (UK)


Barry Smith’s central interests are in language and mind. His particular focus is on knowledge of language and its relation to other aspects of the mind. He has been developing a position which can do justice to both the interpretationist (Davidsonian) view of the normative nature of belief, desire and meaning and the theoretical (Chomskyan) account of our knowledge of grammar even while it accommodates first-personal knowledge of meaning and mind.

In Gender Studies, though I am unfamiliar with their work:

Gender Studies

Gregory Woods (Chair), Nottingham Trent University (UK)
Ülle Must, Archimedes Foundation, Tartu (EE)

Harriet Bjerrum Nielsen, Universitetet i Oslo (NO)
Jens Rydström, Stockholms Universitet (SE)

The Bad Boy of Philosophy

Last Friday, at age 75, Richard Rorty died. Yesterday both the New York Times and the Washington Post ran nice obituaries, highlighting his youth in a socialist family and his adulthood as a renegade philosopher who’d splashily divorced analytic philosophy in order to embrace American pragmatism. The break-up began in the 60s. “He was a restless intellectual for much of his career,” the Washington Post‘s Adam Bernstein wrote. “While editing the 1967 book ‘The Linguistic Turn,’ he expressed doubts about the idea that analytic philosophy had made great progress by recasting traditional questons about the relation between thought and reality as questions about how language manages to represent the world.”

By the late 70s, with the publication of his book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, the divorce was complete. As the Post’s obit aptly notes, “The book sought to dispense with what he considered the grandiose and fruitless attempts to seek out the foundations of knowledge and ethics—presented over the years as timeless truths. Instead he wanted to focus on what was often called a nonfoundationalist philosophy that combined teachings of Dewey, Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein.”

As someone who’d helped renew interest in the works of the American pragmatist tradition, he could have been a hero for contemporary pragmatist philosophers toiling away in colleges and universities throughout the states. But this was never the case. For nearly a decade now I’ve been a member of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, and more often than not, when his name is mentioned there, it is to discredit his views on pragmatism. It’s true that he nearly invited the epithets slung at him: relativist, provacateur, flat-footed, cynical, irresponsible, nihilistic, denier of scientific truths. He did overstate things, often it seemed just to get a rise out of people. At the same time, though, he was a central figure, especially in the 90s, in developments in political thought. Just read Habermas’s book Between Facts and Norms, and Rawls’s book, Political Liberalism, to see how he was a major interlocutor in thinking through democratic self-government.

When I was finishing up my dissertation, I had a side job as an occasional guest host for a public affairs program for the public TV station in Austin, Texas. I scheduled an interview with Richard Rorty. At the appointed hour he walked into the darkened studio, put out his hand, and said, “Hi, I’m Dick Rorty”— as if I’d respond, “Hi, Dick, I’m Noelle McAfee.” I did nothing of the kind, much too in awe of this world-renowned philosopher who had already profoundly affected my own thinking to call him by his first name. I loved his essay, “Solidarity or Objectivity,” which showed why solidarity was a much better ideal than the impossible ideal of having a view from nowhere. But I was still concerned about the political implication of his work, that there may be no basis for talking across cultural divides. If there’s no foundation for our own thinking apart from the way we are raised and the tastes we cultivate, how could we ever appeal to people from different orientations? If our own beliefs are the result of our own upbringing, and little more, how do we come to reflexively criticize and improve our own culture? In the interview, I asked him these questions, and he didn’t seem to have an answer. That might be okay for “gotcha” journalism, but I sincerely wanted to know how to answer those questions. Today they seem more pressing than ever.