In Memoriam: the X-Phi Debate

Death2001 Tamler Sommers in The Philosopher's Magazine:

About a year ago I was asked to write an accessible magazine article about experimental philosophy. The piece, as I conceived it, would begin along these (somewhat histrionic) lines:

The controversial new movement called experimental philosophy – “X-phi” as it has come to be known – has generated both excitement and hostility in the philosophical community. Questions abound: Is experimental philosophy the wave of the future or just a passing fad? Can probing for the intuitions of the “folk” tell us anything about philosophical truth? Are philosophers qualified to conduct empirical studies, or should this be left to the psychologists?

And so forth. But I couldn’t do it. I could not get myself to write an essay about the general debate over experimental philosophy. At the time, I had no idea why it was so difficult, but I think I do now. Debates are interesting when there is more than one reasonable position to hold. A debate about whether a particular instance of hate speech should be protected by federal law might be interesting. A debate about the value of freedom of expression laws in general is not. On the question of the general value or viability of experimental philosophy, there is only one reasonable position. This makes it an exceptionally boring debate, and who wants to write about that?

That said, many smart people perceive the disagreement on this issue to be legitimate. Experimental philosophy has received a great deal of attention in scholarly journals and the popular media. Often the topic of these articles is precisely what I claim is a non-issue – the value of experimental philosophy as a movement. And here I am writing about this same topic yet again. But I am not going to provide another argument for an obvious position. Instead, I’m writing this as an obituary – an obituary for the so-called controversy about experimental philosophy, and an attempt to diagnose how it lived as long as it did.

Actually, I might be a little late to the game. The recent installment on experimental philosophy in the New York Times blog forum “Room for Debate” (August 19, 2010) was if not an obituary then a strong signal that the issue was on life support. The blog featured perspectives from six philosophers, both “for” and “against” the new movement. The only problem was that they all seemed to agree about the subject under discussion. The unanimous verdict was that experimental philosophy, as a matter of principle, could offer important insight on deep philosophical problems. Room for debate? There didn’t seem to be any.