Experimental philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-P063-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved November 18, 2018, from

2. Diversity in intuitions

Philosophers often seem to presuppose that when they contemplate concepts like knowledge, meaning and responsible, they are reflecting on concepts that are shared not only by other philosophers, but by the broader population. So the problems generated by such philosophical concepts are also supposed to resonate with virtually everyone. But is this empirical assumption true? Are the concepts and conceptual judgements of philosophers, themselves a rather narrow cross-section of humanity, representative of all of humanity? Experimental philosophers have begun to explore this assumption in different domains.

For some philosophical thought-experiments, we find people across a wide range of cultures making the same judgements. For instance, most people in most cultures maintain that it is wrong to push an innocent man in front of a trolley to save five other innocents (Hauser et al. 2007). However, there is growing evidence of diversity in intuitions for some other important cases. For instance, using probes modelled upon classic thought-experiments concerning knowledge and meaning, experimental philosophers found strikingly different patterns of responses from Chinese and US students (Machery et al. 2004); Weinberg et al. 2001).

If different cultures have different everyday concepts of knowledge and meaning, then the project of characterizing everyday concepts needs to attend far more closely to the role of culture in shaping these concepts. Furthermore, where there is cultural diversity in philosophical concepts, this might threaten the idea that the philosophical concepts express something culturally universal; it makes conceptual analysis in these domains look more like a special form of ethnography.

In addition, experimental evidence suggests that even within cultures, there might be important differences. Many studies in experimental philosophy elicit diverse responses even within a culture, socioeconomic group or gender. This raises the possibility that there are systematic individual differences on philosophically significant intuitions, perhaps even correlated with personality type (see e.g. Feltz and Cokely 2009; Nichols and Ulatowski 2007).

When we take seriously the idea that fundamental diversity is at work for certain philosophically central concepts, across (or even within) cultures, some suggest that a serious rethinking of philosophical practice is at hand (Mallon et al. 2009). At the very least, such diversity curtails our ability to take certain philosophical intuitions as a shared starting point for philosophical discussion.

Citing this article:
Mallon, Ron and Shaun Nichols. Diversity in intuitions. Experimental philosophy, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-P063-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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