In his article, Timothy Williamson makes a number of severe criticisms against the discipline of experimental philosophy as described by Joshua Alexander in his book Experimental Philosophy -- An Introduction. Williamson's criticisms are mainly directed at the vague definitions offered by Alexander for the terms by which he describes the scope of experimental philosophy. Another major point of criticism is the unsubstantiated claims by Alexander on the basis of which he paints experimental philosophy as a revolutionary change in the field.
The first claim made by Williamson against the discipline of experimental philosophy is that it does not fit the traditional pattern that experimental findings can aid in the study of philosophical questions (p. 1). The basis of this criticism is the very nature of the experiments conducted in experimental philosophy. Williamson (p. 1) claims that the experiments merely reveal people's views about an entity. The findings reveal the social construct of the entity as understood by lay people but not the absolute nature of the entity. Williamson (p. 2) also exposes the hollowness of the claim the experimental philosophy is a recent development. In fact, the origins can be traced to a short-lived movement in linguistics during the 1960s.
Williamson also chastises Alexander for not describing the concept of philosophical intuitions in sufficient clarity. As a staunch proponent of experimental philosophy, Alexander fails to determine the nature of philosophical intuitions from the diverse views available. Williamson (p. 2) also points out to the assumption of uniformity in Alexander's description of philosophical intuition. To account for the diversity in the population, large-scale surveys would become essential to arrive at valid conclusions about what people think. In the absence of such surveys, the findings would be too specific to be of any general application (p. 3).
Some overly simplistic assumptions made by proponents of experimental philosophy including Joshua Alexander have also been singled out for criticism by Williamson. Williamson (p. 4) points out the erroneous assumption made by Alexander in describing the difference between contextualism and subject-sensitive invariantism. Alexander points out that the extent of contextualism in knowledge is determined by the salience of the possible errors whereas subject-sensitive invariantism is determined by the stakes of the ascription. Williamson (p. 4) points out that contextualism is determined by the context of the ascriber whereas subject-sensitive invariantism is determined by the context of the subject. The experimental philosophers do not make this distinction and fail to acknowledge that they have oversimplified a crucial distinction. Williamson also points out that the experiments of experimental philosophers are not properly controlled precisely because of their being founded upon weak theoretical foundations.
Williamson also points out Alexander's failure to define conceptual competence with clarity leading to further problems with his theory (p. 5). Williamson also holds the experimental philosophers responsible for ignoring some important philosophical traditions in their search for a revolutionary change in philosophy. In particular, Williamson (p. 6) points out the rejection of hypothetical as well as real-life cases by the experimental philosophers. Experimental philosophers do not give weight to such cases on the grounds that they are culturally variable or based on philosophical intuition. Williamson (p. 7) negates this claim by the experimental philosophers by arguing that the cases from real-life are also supported by perceptual evidence such as seeing. He further attacks the assumptions of the experimental philosophers by stating that some of the statements of Alexander are based on conscious deductive or inductive argument, something that Alexander himself rejects in his book. In this way, Williamson exposes some of the weaknesses in the arguments of experimental philosophers.
In the later part of his article, Williamson criticizes some of the conventions put forward by the proponents of experimental philosophy. Some of the proposals described by the experimental philosophers would be disadvantageous to the subject. For instance, Williamson (p. 8) points out that all judgments in philosophy cannot be based on conscious deduction or inductive argument, something which has been attacked by Alexander in his book. Alexander also discusses the notion that the use of hypothetical as well as real-life examples has no relevance or validity in the arriving at any conclusions in philosophy. Williamson also attacks this point by arguing that examples cannot simply be banned by ignoring their utility to philosophical questioning.
Another area where Williamson finds an issue with the proponents of experimental philosophy is in the undue emphasis given on identifying when philosophical intuition is being applied to a question. According to Williamson (p. 8), identifying the philosophical intuition is not the object of philosophical inquiry. On the contrary, it is the identification of bias that needs to be paid attention to in any revolutionary change in philosophy. This important issue is ignored by experimental philosophy. Williamson (p. 9) then goes on to state that given the claims made by Alexander in his book, experimental philosophy does not seem capable of developing a theoretical framework to effectively identify bias in philosophical methods. On the other hand, such a theory is likely to emanate from cognitive psychology because psychologists possess the knowledge of experimental methods and conceptual understanding necessary for developing such a theory (p. 9).
Williamson (p. 8) also states that the term philosophical intuition has been applied over a much too wide canvas to extract anything meaningful about the object under study. Williamson (p. 8) also categorically states that experimental philosophy has failed to come up with at least one aspect or method that could be modified or improved upon drastically to justify the claim that experimental philosophy is a revolutionary movement in the field of philosophy.
One significant criticism made by Williamson of the claims made by Alexander is that "his arguments tend to instantiate all-purpose skeptical forms" (Williamson, p. 9). Williamson (p. 9) cites an example from Alexander's book by recounting Alexander's statement that further evidence is needed to persuade some people to accept a certain premise. This approach is unlikely to lead to any fruitful conclusion or any satisfactory culmination in the justification of the premise. The reason being that in any event there is a likelihood of some people not being persuaded by a premise. In that case, there would always be a need for providing more and more evidence until the premise has been accepted by all the members of the population (p. 10). This makes the claim of experimental philosophy subject to criticism from Williamson.
Continuing with the above criticism, Williamson (p. 10) points out the possibility of it being the fault of the interlocutor and not any weakness in the premise or in the evidence that prevents the premise from being accepted by the interlocutor. This possibility is conveniently ignored by Alexander causing Williamson to criticize this gap in the reasoning of the experimental philosophers.
At several places, Williamson criticizes experimental philosophy for overly simplifying the concepts and superficially skimming over terms that demand clear definition and explanation. Williamson further criticizes Alexander by stating the "Alexander also falls back on generic sceptical arguments in his discussion of philosophical expertise" (p. 10). For instance, he makes the claim that students tend to develop their sense of judgment so that is goes against that of the experts in the field. Williamson (p. 10) points out the triviality of this statement by arguing that such tendencies are found among students in any other field as well. Hence, it cannot be said as creating an opportunity for a revolution through experimental philosophy.
In his support for experimental philosophy, Alexander argues that the testing of theory is of little use because people are trained to make observations to support their theories. In other words, our observations tend to be "theory-laden." Therefore, the observations would verify the theories instead of helping one to identify any weaknesses in the theory. Williamson (p. 11) points out this weak claim of experimental philosophy by stating that in reality, observations do not always support the theories that underlie them. For instance, an observation might be an exception to the theory or it might not even relate to the theory that supports it.
In conclusion, Williamson's criticism of experimental philosophy can be summed up in one final criticism that experimental philosophy does not explain or justify why the testing of expertise is so urgently required here than in any other area of study.
Personal Agreement with Williamson's Views
I agree with the views of Williamson primarily because he points out to the need for rigorous discussion of important terms in the narrative presented by experimental philosophy. In particular, Alexander fails to discuss the concept of philosophical intuition in detail to provide sufficient ground for his support for an experimental approach to philosophy. He simply describes philosophical intuition as what people say or how things seem to them. Such a broad definition of the term serves to include every possible interpretation, which does not really help to determine the scope of study for experimental philosophy. I agree with Williamson when he states…