In this installment of Thinking the Present we talk with Joshua Knobe, one of the founders of something called Experimental Philosophy, or XPhi. He currently holds the position of Associate Professor in the Program in Cognitive Science and the Department of Philosophy at Yale University. Knobe hangs with a fairly unique crew for a philosopher, as evidenced by the primer to Experimental Philosophy offered by the comedian Eugene Mirman, and the XPhi music video made by Alina Simone, who, aside from being a talented writer and musician, is also Knobe’s wife. 

Michael Schapira sat down for a conversation with Knobe in Brooklyn, where they were joined by Jon Lawhead, a doctoral student in Philosophy at Columbia (as well as a popular teacher and owner of a fantastic set of glasses), and Tim Ignaffo, a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he also runs a Philosophy Outreach program that brings philosophy to middle schools across New York City. The group discussed Knobe’s unique perspective on the practice of philosophy today, how the Pixies might have influenced this perspective, and how “the Knobe effect” got its moniker.

Today, we’ll feature the first part of their discussion. We’ll follow up with the second half on Wednesday.

Schapira: How did you come to experimental philosophy?

Knobe: When I was an undergraduate, I was doing lots of work in psychology with a graduate student. We would write psychology papers, and five of them were published in psychology journals. But at that time I also had the sense that what I really cared about was philosophy, and I was doing psychology as a hobby. I had this tremendous fear of academia, so what I decided was “I’m going to leave college after I graduate, get various jobs that would keep me alive, and I can continue to philosophize on my own time.” So I had jobs working with homeless people, translating things from French and German, and even teaching in Mexico for a while, but the whole time I was still writing philosophy. In particular, I was influenced by figures like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, so [I] wrote on similar themes because that was my idea of what philosophy was like. Eventually, though, I got sick of writing philosophy just on nights, weekends, or at lunch, so I applied to grad school to pursue it as more than just a hobby.

At that point, this strange thing happened: a philosopher named Alfred Mele replied to our psychology paper about intentional and unintentional behavior. He went through the various claims that we were making and said, “That seems right, and that seems wrong.” But then he said, “One thing that I think is really right about their view is the idea that our understanding of what it means to do something intentionally is purely psychological. It doesn’t have anything to do with the moral status of what we are doing.” Mele had pointed to this and said that this was not only a presupposition of our work, but a true presupposition. This made my Nietzschean alarm bell go off and I said, “Wait, that’s got to be wrong.” It had never even occurred to us to think that moral factors could have a role in whether you do something intentionally. Then I said, “Okay, we’ve got to show that this is wrong,” so I went back to handing out questionnaires in the park. But now I was going to consider it as doing philosophy, as opposed to psychology.

Schapira: Have you always had this impulse to experiment on everything?

I guess I do have a slightly annoying tendency to look at everything in these empirical terms. I feel like the only thing I don’t think of that way is my daughter. With her I can only say, “Wow, you’re so cute!” It’s like this one island of total failure to apply empirical methods in my life. I just deal with her on this purely emotional level, and I’m totally unable to see the scientific side of things.

Lawhead: I guess biology is difficult to surmount. We’re not programmed to look at our children in that way.

Absolutely. But getting back to experimentation, there is maybe something more to say about experiments. There is a traditional way of doing philosophy that is very empirical. If you look at, say, 19th-century philosophers, they were very interested in empirical questions and tried to go about answering them the best they could. A lot of times, they looked to historical information, using facts from history to test their hypotheses. John Locke was very interested in reports at what was going on in other cultures to test his ideas. I began studying philosophy by reading these figures, so I just assumed that this empirical tradition was just how you do philosophy.

But in 21st-century academic philosophy, there is a weird turn away from some of these more traditional philosophical questions. Now philosophers might say, “We don’t care what human beings are really like. We just care about abstract questions, say, in logic or metaphysics.” In a way, I see Experimental Philosophy as a return to the traditional way of doing philosophy, in the same way that you’d see in Marx, Feuerbach, Nietzsche, or Mill.

Ignaffo: Do you feel any professional pressure against Experimental Philosophy, or do your colleagues generally support it?

Well, I have a slightly strange job at Yale, which makes it difficult to answer [these] questions directly. In recent years, there were a bunch of undergraduates who were annoyed by these distinctions among the disciplines. Each, separately, would appeal the university to create an individually designed major that allowed them to do cross-disciplinary work in philosophy, psychology, linguistics, and so forth. At some point, the university realized that the number of students with individually-created majors were becoming greater than most [other majors] on campus. So they created an interdisciplinary program in cognitive science that connected people from psychology, philosophy, linguistics, neuroscience, and anthropology. Originally, all these faculty were in their various departments and cross-listed with cognitive science, but eventually there was so much interest from students in the program that it got a line of its own to hire a professor not in these separate disciplines, but in cognitive science. That is my job, so to the extent that I was rigidly aligned with any one of these particular departments I wouldn’t even be correctly fulfilling my job.

Schapira: Are you the first of your kind then?

Hopefully not the last, but I am the first.

Schapira: What sort of people originally started to take on this new/traditional approach to philosophy?

There were a bunch of people who started taking this new approach at roughly the same time. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but it led each of us to be inspired by others and kept us all moving.

A really important figure was Shaun Nichols, who was at Rutgers and now is at the University of Arizona. There was also Josh Green, who was a fellow graduate student at Princeton. We were all in New Jersey at the same time, so there was this kind of Jersey axis of all these people looking at these kinds of questions in the same way. I feel like there was maybe a kind of spirit at that time, one of rebelliousness or a certain kind of indie outlook.

Schapira: Were you guys drawing inspiration from the New Jersey music scene at the time? Were some of these experiments inspired by the Feelies?

When I was a graduate student I was working really closely with Shaun Nichols, and often when we’d be facing a question of, “What we should do?” we would look to the Pixies for inspiration. Sometimes when we’d be thinking of doing something, Shuan would ask, “Well, what would Black Francis say?” He was like a sort of angel on our shoulder — or, I don’t know whether it was an angel or a devil. There was this sense of conscience [telling us] that we shouldn’t just be doing something that would advance our careers professionally, but that would have a kind of spirit or a certain soul to it.

Schapira: Did you want your work to have more of a cultural impact than philosophy usually has?

We didn’t have the thought in any way that anyone would care about what we were doing. In fact, I really had the exact opposite opinion. All of the work that I had been doing in the previous four years, before I went to graduate school, was never shown to anyone. I would write these things and then just put them in my desk drawer; so not only did they have no cultural impact, but they didn’t even have the impact of anyone ever reading them. So I definitely wasn’t thinking of philosophy in that way, as something whose importance [was] in its consequences.

The area in which maybe broader cultural things did affect us was in trying to work on things that would really, in some sense, matter. You had this idea that you see in the Brooklyn indie rock scene, of collaboration and supportiveness — like in the way that, if you go to a show, you see each band encouraging you to stay for the next band. We had the same sort of spirit. Instead of just squabbling with each other, we were each trying to encourage and help out each other. So you’d always see people who disagreed about these questions we were investigating going out of their way to help the people with which they disagreed to do their best work.

Ignaffo: In 2011, the Philosophical Gourmet voted not to include Experimental Philosophy in its areas of expertise for two reasons: first, they think it is unclear in its boundaries. Second, they think it is a methodology, and not an actual area of specialty. Do you have any reactions to either the embrace of or resistance to Experimental Philosophy?

I feel like people outside of philosophy would find it hard to understand the nature of disagreement in philosophy. Disagreement in philosophy is this very strange phenomenon. Say you’re involved in a political debate: you have this sense that each side is trying to crush and defeat the other one. Philosophers have a very different way of disagreeing. If you read a philosophy paper that disagrees with another philosophy paper, the philosopher will start out by trying to give the most charitable interpretation of what the other might say, and then offer objections. But then they even do their best to think of how the person might respond to those objections, and so forth. A lot of people disagree with Experimental Philosophy and think it is a mistake, but the way in which they think it is a mistake is completely different from just the normal, human way of thinking something is a mistake. It’s such a charitable, reasonable way of thinking something is a mistake.

You could see that, in some way, there is a debate about whether Experimental Philosophy versus more traditional approaches is the right one. But the referees of that debate are the people in the more traditional approaches, so all the successes we have are when they declare us to be successful. All the papers that get published in journals are because people of this more traditional approach are accepting them in journals, and all of the people getting hired are being hired by people using these more traditional approaches. There is some sense of many people thinking it’s a mistake, but in this very unusual way where they think, “You know, those guys are doing something interesting. Let’s give them a try.”

Lawhead: A lot of people have a tendency to characterize philosophy by a methodology: what it means to take a philosophical approach is to approach a question in a particular way. But you have a very pluralistic conception of how philosophy can contribute to different things. In virtue of that, is the kind of thing that you’re doing philosophical? Would there be a difference if we called what you are doing “Cognitive Science with a sensitivity to foundational, philosophical issues” as opposed to “Experimental Philosophy?” Do these questions of terminology even matter?

Well, that last thing you said seems like the right answer. But I think, broadly, there is some consensus of what it means to approach things from a philosophical perspective. For example, one of the areas I work on is how people understand other minds. Many of the kinds of questions that people address in psychology about these issues are very specific, and sort of technical. So, for example, one of the main issues that people are interested in now is [that] when people are thinking about other minds, they show activation in both the right temporal-parietal junction and in the medial-prefrontal cortex, but there seems to be differences between what’s going on in [each of] these brain regions. So what is the difference? That’s a very interesting question, but not the kind of question that you’d think of as a philosophical question.

But then, there are other kinds of questions that you might want to ask — they are something like: this capacity we have to understand other people’s minds, what is this capacity? How should we understand it? Is it something kind of like what we do as scientists, when we are scientifically trying to figure out other people’s minds, or is it something radically different from that? Insofar as we’re asking these kinds of questions, it feels, broadly, that we are doing something different. We’re not asking questions that fall clearly on the psychology side of the philosophy/psychology divide, but that are sort of at the intersection of the two.

Schapira: Changing subjects a bit, you had a book release party at a bar a couple of years ago with Eugene Mirman doing comedy and your wife playing music. 

Eugene had some funny definition of philosophy. He was like, “What is philosophy?” And it involved something that always begins with an attempt by depressed Jews to do something.

Schapira: How do you talk to people about your work who might have had a sour experience of philosophy in college, because maybe they “didn’t get it?”

I feel like a lot of people are initially drawn to certain kinds of questions that you see in the history of philosophy. You read Plato and he says there are three parts of the soul, and that these parts of the soul are in tension with each other, which is in some way guiding our moral behavior. You might wonder, “Is that true?” But you go to philosophy classes and they say that insofar as you are wondering whether that is true, then you are not really doing philosophy. You might think, “Oh no, maybe these questions that Plato is asking are not even philosophical questions.” But I feel like people are naturally drawn to those questions, the questions that I see populating the history of philosophy. Insofar as you can reconnect with that history — people are just naturally interested.

Currently, I’m working on a project [about] what it means to understand the true self, a project about how our way of understanding people changes when we think of them as a body, and a project questioning how our moral judgments transform our way of seeing the world. When I tell people about these kinds of projects they don’t seem irritated or bored by them.

Schapira: So when you’re talking to your wife or her friends, who are not philosophers, these projects make sense to them?

For whatever reason, especially my wife’s friends. My wife has never really been interested in philosophy, but her band mates will come to me and say, “I read that thing you wrote, and it’s really interesting…”