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Philosophy’s Future as a Problem-Solving Discipline: The Promise of Experimental Philosophy

11 July 2011


Scientists often reach provisional agreement solutions to problems central to their disciplines, whereas philosophers do not. Although philosophy has been practiced by outstanding intellects for over two thousand years, philosophers have not reached agreement, provisional or otherwise, on the solution or dissolution of any central philosophical problem by philosophical methods. What about philosophy’s future? Until about 1970, philosophers were generally optimistic. Some pinned their hopes on revolution in methodology, others on reform of practice. The case for gradual reform still finds articulate advocates in philosophers like Michael Dummett and Timothy Williamson, but many philosophers today suspect that perennial disagreement may be inescapable. I consider three explanations for the inescapability of perennial disagreement—Richard Rorty’s relativism, Colin McGinn’s skepticism, and Nicholas Rescher’s pluralism—and find each wanting. I argue that a better explanation is the resistance of philosophers to commit, as scientists do, to formulating testable theories and collecting data to help decide between competing theories. I close by proposing that experimental philosophy, a movement still in its infancy, holds the promise of reuniting philosophy with science and moving philosophers closer to agreement on the solution of its central problems.


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