Monday, March 04, 2013

Armchair philosophy (3)


Montaigne's armchair

When I criticized “armchair philosophy” in my last two blogs, I meant the kind of philosophizing that looks more like groundless imagination than well-founded reflection. There is nothing against imagination in philosophy, of course, and imagination can be very useful when considering a certain problem or question. What I reject is that assumptions of imagined cases are unrealistic, and this is what often is the case. It can be said that philosophy begins where science ends, and that they are in line with each other. My criticism is then that too many philosophers forget this, which makes philosophy deficient and unprolific in the long run. That’s just why I so often refer to research results in these blogs: In order to give my analyses of who we are and what we do a solid foundation.
One point of view sees armchair philosophy as philosophy by “somebody who is a complete know-it-all, usually a douchebag or self-declared intellectual. They always feel the need to seem intellectually superior to others, by continuously arguing about any subject they see in media, conversations, etc. and quoting themselves as experts on the subject.” They stick to their opinions, even when confronted with contrary facts, and they feel a need to comment on everything, even “where careful analysis is needed”. (www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=armchair%20philosopher&defid=4816655) If this were the only correct view of armchair philosophy, there would be no place for armchair approaches in philosophy. More relevant here is what the Wikipedia says about it, which sees armchair philosophy as “an approach to providing new developments in a field that does not involve the collection of new information but, rather, a careful analysis or synthesis of existent scholarship.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armchair_theorizing) And that’s what academic philosophers often do:  trying to bring progress in the field under discussion by means of intuition, intelligent imagination, theoretical insight, and the like. That’s why, as Timothy Williamson says, “[a] striking feature of the traditional armchair method of philosophy is the use of imaginary examples” (http://www.philosophy.ox.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/1300/Aristotle.pdf). But just this “armchair thinking” has met opposition and led to a new philosophical movement, called “experimental philosophy” or “X-Phi” for short. According to this approach philosophical reasoning must be based on experimental data, philosophical questions can be answered by experimental data, conceptual analysis can be aided by experimental data. But can experimental data lead to philosophical answers, even to that extent that we could better burn our philosophical armchairs? (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tt5Kxv8eCTA for this). I don’t think so. Maybe we can answer some philosophical questions by means of the X-Phi approach, but it doesn’t alter the fact that we need armchair analysis in order to raise the questions that we want to answer in an experimental way, to mention one thing. In a certain sense, it can be defended that actually all philosophy is armchair philosophy. Nevertheless, the X-Phi approach has a point, and as so often, the truth is somewhere in the middle, I think. Albert Einstein, one of the biggest geniuses that ever lived on earth was typically an armchair scientist. But weren’t also Einstein’s conclusions to a large degree founded on the analysis of experimental results? The same must also be expected from armchair philosophers: At least that their analyses and argumentation have a sound factual basis. Otherwise they will result in mere speculation and fantasy. Also an armchair needs a floor to stand on.

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