The Knobe Effect

Knobe Melodye in Child's Play:

As an avid reader of Language Log, my interest was recently piqued by a commenter asking for a linguist’s eye-view on the “Knobe Effect”:

“Speaking of Joshua Knobe, has any linguist looked into the Knobe Effect? The questionnaire findings are always passed off as evidence for some special philosophical character inherent in certain concepts like intentionality or happiness. I’d be interested in a linguist’s take. If I had to guess, I’d say the experimenters have merely found some (elegant and) subtle polysemic distinctions that some words have. As in, ‘intend’ could mean different things depending on whether the questionnaire-taker believes blameworthiness or praiseworthiness to be the salient question. Or ‘happy’ could mean ‘glad’ in one context but ‘wholesome’ in another, etc…”

Asking for an opinion, eh? When do I not have an opinion? (To be fair, it happens more than you might expect).

But of course, I do have an opinion on this, and it’s not quite the same as the one articulated by Edge. This post is a long one, so let me offer a teaser by saying that the questions at stake in this are : What is experimental philosophy and is it new? How does the language we speak both encode and subsequently shape our moral understanding? How can manipulating someone’s linguistic expectations change their reasoning? And what can we learn about all these questions by productively plumbing the archives of everyday speech?

For those who are not familiar, Joshua Knobe is an up-and-coming ‘experimental philosopher’ at Yale, and is well-known for his experimental work looking at how we interpret a person’s actions depending on linguistic context. The idea underpinning his approach is that we can better understand philosophical concepts if we look at how people use and respond to them in practice. Many of these experiments focus on intentionality : i.e., in what contexts do we say that a person acted intentionally, and in what contexts unintentionally? Based on these findings, Josh wants to claim that he has discovered something ‘deep’ about the nature of theory of mind, intentional action, and moral judgment. But has he? I’d argue that he’s discovered something about how we use certain words and what we take them to mean. Is that deep? Perhaps! Read on — and you tell me.

There is one thing I’d say first though, which is that while Josh’s approach is widely taken to be innovative or revolutionary, it’s almost certainly not. Wittgenstein proposed this method of investigation in the 1930′s, and Chomsky roundly denied that linguistic research could tell us anything about these kinds of ‘philosophical’ questions in the 1960′s, in response to an enthusiastic outburst by Zeno Vendler.