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Is x-phi old hat?

Peter Anstey writes…

The term ‘experimental philosophy’ has been around for a very long time. It began to appear in the titles of books in English in the early 1660s!

Early modern x-phi is not the same as contemporary x-phi, but we think that there are important and interesting connections between the two.

Steve Stich, a contemporary experimental philosopher

Steve Stich, a contemporary experimental philosopher

Early modern x-phi began as an approach to the study of nature that emphasised observation and experiment as the primary source of knowledge about the world and opposed the use of speculation from first principles and the use of hypotheses. It was a broad movement in natural philosophy (the science of nature) that soon spread to medicine, the study of the understanding, and, in the eighteenth century, to moral philosophy and aesthetics. (It is to be differentiated from the post-Kantian category of Empiricism. We’ll publish a post on this soon.)

Contemporary x-phi is a philosophical methodology that applies both scientific experiments and the tools of analytic philosophy to philosophical problems. Its main domains of application are the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of perception, and moral philosophy.

Early modern x-phi and contemporary x-phi have at least one very important thing in common. The early modern experimental philosophers were fed up with speculations and theories about the world that were based on untested or untreatable principles: contemporary experimental philosophers are also tired of philosophical arguments about, say perception, that are based on premises on people’s intuitions that are either untested or in some cases have been shown to be false by scientific experiments.

One of the first experimental philosophers, Robert Boyle

One of the first experimental philosophers, Robert Boyle

But there are also important differences between the two. For instance, early modern x-phi was an all-encompassing approach to the study of nature, a scientific method if you will, whereas contemporary x-phi is more modest in its aspirations (though some see it as supplanting traditional philosophy).

Furthermore, early modern x-phi went through various incarnations because key methodological notions such as hypothesis, experiment and confirmation were stilly being clarified. For example, for its first four decades the early moderns thought that experimental philosophy should be done using the method of Baconian natural history. The success of Newton’s Principia changed all that. By contrast, contemporary x-phi has a sophisticated and robust set of methodological practices and principles on which to proceed.

We are no experts in the new experimental philosophy, but as we explore aspects of its old incarnation in the next posts, we’d be delighted to hear your views on how it relates to its new homonym.

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