Thursday 22 November 2018

Philosophy Within its Proper Bounds

Edouard Machery is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh, the Director of the Center for Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh, and a member of the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition (University of Pittsburgh-Carnegie Mellon University). 

His research focuses on the philosophical issues raised by psychology and cognitive neuroscience with a special interest in concepts, moral psychology, the relevance of evolutionary biology for understanding cognition, modularity, the nature, origins, and ethical significance of prejudiced cognition, the foundation of statistics, and the methods of psychology and cognitive neuroscience. He also works in metaphilosophy, and he has been involved in the development of experimental philosophy. Here, he introduces his new book on philosophical methodology.

Philosophy Within Its Proper Bounds has four main goals. The first three are negative: I argue first that the method of cases that is so important to some parts of philosophy (roughly, the use of thought experiments) should not be used because it elicits unreliable judgments. Second, because the method of cases plays an irreplaceable role in getting knowledge about metaphysical necessities, this unreliability supports a restricted kind of modal skepticism. 

Many metaphysical necessities and possibilities that are pivotal to resolve fundamental philosophical issues (physicalism, the reduction of causation to some form of counterfactual dependence, compatibilism, etc.) are beyond our epistemic reach. Third, I conclude from this modal skepticism that these fundamental philosophical issues (which I call “modally immodest”) should be set aside and that philosophical ingenuity should be redirected in more modest, but ultimately more important directions. The positive goal of Philosophy Within Its Proper Bounds identifies one of these directions: the analysis and engineering of concepts, psychologically understood. 

Why shouldn’t philosophers use the method of cases? Experimental philosophers and psychologists have studied the judgments lay people and (to a smaller extent) philosophers make in response to the kind of cases used to gain the relevant modal knowledge. They have found that these judgments often differ among demographic groups (people in different cultures, men and women, etc.) or that trivial changes in the presentation of these cases (e.g., slight changes in their wording) impact judgment. These two types of effects are the empirical basis of the three arguments developed against the method of cases in Philosophy Within Its Proper Bounds: Unreliability, Dogmatism, and Parochialism. 

Having dismissed the method of cases and the modally immodest issues that require this method, Philosophy Within Its Proper Bounds defends a new form of conceptual analysis and conceptual engineering. In contrast to traditional forms of conceptual analysis, concepts are taken to be psychological entities, analyzing them does not deliver a priori knowledge, and conceptual analysis often requires some empirical methods. 

So understood, conceptual analysis matters for several philosophical projects, in particular for the traditional therapeutic project of philosophy. Conceptual analysis helps philosophers identify concepts that are in some sense or other invalid. In addition to conceptual analysis, philosophers ought to engage in conceptual engineering (which I call, following Carnap) “conceptual explication”; reform the concepts that happen to be, for epistemic or non-epistemic reasons, deficient.

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