Skip to Navigation Skip to Content Skip to Search Skip to Site Map

Experimental Philosophy and Early Modern Ethics: Turnbull and Fordyce

Alberto Vanzo writes …

Experimental philosophy is often portrayed as an exciting or controversial new development in philosophy. Yet, some have claimed that the practice of experimental philosophy is traditional and that it ‘began to flourish’ in the early modern period. Is it true that the practices and methods of current-day experimental philosophy is a traditional philosophical practice?

To shed light on this question, I will focus on George Turnbull, David Fordyce and (in my next post) David Hume. As Juan has shown (e.g. here and here), these authors stressed that their ethics derives from ‘plain uncontroverted Experiments’ and ‘reasoning from experiment’. Do Turnbull and Fordyce ethics adopt the practices and methods of current-day experimental philosophers?

Two practices are especially relevant to this question:

  • Experimental philosophers object to the practice of developing philosophical arguments on the basis of intuitions, without assessing how widely those intuitions are shared and whether they are influenced by factors such as ethnic background, gender, or philosophical training. Accordingly, experimental philosophers engage in systematic investigations of people’s intuitions.
  • More broadly, experimental philosophy can be characterised as the practice of systematically relying on empirical evidence in attempting to answer philosophical questions.

There are two reasons to think that Turnbull’s and Fordyce’s ethics is not an early instance of experimental philosophy.

1. The buck-passing strategy

Much of Turnbull’s and Fordyce’s ethics depends on their account of people’s feelings and behaviour. For instance, Fordyce outlines the passions that people experience at various stages of their lives: infants’ affection for their parents, children’s ‘Love of Action, of Imitation’, and so on. In support of his portrayal of human passions, Fordyce writes:

Whether this historic Draught of Man … be just or not, is a Matter, not so much of Reasoning, as common Sense and common Experience. Therefore let every one consult his Experience of what he feels within, and his Knowledge of what is transacted abroad, in the … World in which he lives; and by that Experience, and that Knowledge, let the Picture be acknowledged Just, or pronounced the Contrary.

Here and elsewhere, instead of detailing their observations, Turnbull and Fordyce appeal to a generic ‘common experience’ and pass the buck to their readers, inviting them to consult their own experience. This may be construed as a merely rhetorical move, or as an appeal to their readers’ intuitions. Either way, it is a far cry from experimental philosophers’ systematic provision of actual, specific experiences in support of their claims.

2. Thought Experiments

Turnbull and Fordyce often rely on intuitions elicited by thought experiments. They invite their readers to imagine a scenario and ponder a question, to elicit a judgement that is used as evidence for a philosophical claim. For instance, Turnbull asks his readers to imagine that someone paid them to have a sentiment of approbation for an instance of ‘villany’ or ‘treachery’. Would this bribery be successful? Turnbull expects his readers to answer that it wouldn’t, because they cannot bring themselves to have sentiments of approbation for such actions.

This is the procedure that armchair philosophers adopt when they appeal to intuitions in support of their claims. Like armchair philosophers, Turnbull and Fordyce take it for granted that, by reflecting on given cases, readers will elicit the very same judgements that their own reflection has elicited. They assume that people’s moral intuitions are uniform. They never suggest that an empirical inquiry might be necessary to confirm this assumption. In fact, Turnbull and Fordyce display little interest for cross-cultural moral divergences.

In sum, Turnbull’s and Fordyce’s appeals to a generic common experience and their armchair reliance on intuitions make them unlikely predecessors of current-day experimental philosophers. In my next post I will turn to Hume. Which other early modern moral philosophers should I focus on to establish if experimental philosophy is a traditional philosophical practice? I would appreciate your suggestions in the comments or via email.

2 thoughts on “Experimental Philosophy and Early Modern Ethics: Turnbull and Fordyce

  1. Alberto,

    This is a truly fascinating issue, and I am delighted to see that you are pursuing it in this admirably rigorous fashion. I am definitely very much looking forward to seeing any further work you do on this topic.

    The information you provide here on early modern moral philosophy is extraordinarily interesting and helpful. However, I would like to propose a friendly amendment to your description of contemporary experimental philosophy.

    It is indeed the case that a few studies in contemporary experimental philosophy have explored questions about factors such as ethnic background and gender, but if you take a look at the body of experimental research generated by the field as a whole, I think you’ll find that this topic occupies a very, very, very small percentage of what we have been doing. Just to give a rough sense for what I have in mind, a quantitative analysis finds that only 1.3% of all studies in experimental philosophy involve contributions to the ‘negative’ program that aims to show that intuitions are unreliable, and evidence about these specific factors (ethnicity, gender, etc.) is just a subset of that 1.3%. (See section I of the paper at

    What is most distinctive about contemporary experimental philosophy is not so much the emphasis on these specific factors but rather the emphasis on understanding the underlying psychological processes that gives rise to people’s intuitions. So when it comes to asking whether contemporary experimental philosophy is continuous with this approach we find in early modern philosophy, the key question, I think, is whether these historical figures had specific views about the psychological processes that generate people’s moral intuitions.

    When it comes to that topic, however, I would definitely want to defer to your scholarship. So, what do you think?

  2. Thank you Joshua, it is very interesting that so few studies in experimental philosophy contribute to the negative programme. Like current-day experimental philosophers, Turnbull and Fordyce had a theory on how people’s moral intuitions are generated. They held that those intuitions depend on a dedicated moral sense. But, unlike experimental philosophers, Turnbull and Fordyce did not develop that theory on the basis of an empirical study of the patterns in people’s intuitions.