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Experimental philosophy and Folk-psychology

Page history last edited by philosophyofsocialcognition 16 years, 3 months ago

Experimental philosophy and Folk-psychology



Experimental Philosophy is a process of philosophical deliberation based on experimental results. Experiments in folk-psychology are set up to produce results about how people interpret the actions of fellow human beings. The nature of the experiments is to present subjects with specific scenarios in which a human being is performing an action, and the interpretations and responses of the subjects are taken as the results of the experiment. Philosophers then examine the results of such experiments and hypothesize as to what the results tell us about the way we interpret each other.


Experimental philosophy is done as an alternative to deriving theory out of mere intuitions. With experimental philosophy, philosophers develop their theories around the results produced by an experiment.




In the field of folk-psychology, experimental philosophy serves as an additional tool along with neuro-physiology and evolutionary biology to help us better understand the function, structure, and content of folk-psychology in human beings.




An example of the application of experimental philosophy in folk-psychology is the debate whether moral considerations play a role in folk-psychology. Experiments around this debate involve presenting subjects with specific cases about a person’s actions, and then collecting the subjects’ interpretations of the case as results. The results are later examined by philosophers who give reasons as to how the results show whether moral considerations play a role in folk-psychology or not.




An example of a folk-psychological experiment is as follows. Subjects are asked to interpret and explain the intentions of a man who reaches for a cigarette. The responses the subjects give for this case are taken as the results of the experiment. A possible response might be, "The man is reaching for a cigarette to throw it in the garbage."




In the debate about whether moral considerations play a role in folk-psychology, Joshua Knobe (2007) uses experimental philosophy to further his view that moral considerations do in fact play a role in folk-psychology. One aspect in which Knobe uses the results of an experiment to persuade us that moral considerations affect peoples’ folk-psychology is the intentionality of an action. The experiment Knobe (2007) presents consists in asking people whether a chairman of a company intentionally harms the environment when he decides to undertake a profitable project that, as a side-effect, harms the environment. The chairman in this hypothetical case is completely indifferent about what happens to the environment, he simply wants to make profit. According to the results, the majority of the participants involved in the experiment responded by saying that the chairman intentionally harmed the environment. When presented with a slight variant of the case where the chairman’s pursuit of profits resulted in helping the environment also in which the chairman had absolutely no concern about what would happen to the environment, the participants responded by saying that the chairman unintentionally helped the environment. Although it can be argued that the results of this experiment show that moral considerations play a role in folk-psychology, it can also be argued otherwise.




Experimental philosophy in folk-psychology shows us different trends of folk-psychological concepts among different languages, cultures, and age groups. Experimental philosophy in folk-psychology is valuable to our better understanding of folk-psychology because the differences in results produced by experiments in folk-psychology give birth to new domains of inquiry. For example, why are there such differences? And is there a way to eliminate these differences in folk-psychological concepts in order to arrive at a universal account of folk-psychology?








  • Knobe, J. (2007). Folk Psychology: Science and Morals. In D. Hutto & M. Ratcliffe (Eds.), Folk Psychology Re-Assessed (pp. 157-173). Dordrecht: Springer.


- Filip Smialek,  University of Toronto

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