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Egenis · Events

One-Day-Workshop “Naturalism and Empirical Philosophy”

Workshop   29.09.2008





Organised by

The Exeter Interdisciplinary Institute and the ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society with sponsorship from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

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University of Exeter,Egenis,Byrne House,St Germans Road,Exeter, EX4 4PJ

Seminar Room, Byrne House

Event details

Rationale and research contextQuine’s and Goodman’s criticisms of the analytic/synthetic distinction in the early 1950s have had a profound influence on philosophy. For logical positivists, logical analysis had held the promise to preserve a genuine and distinctive disciplinary agenda of “first philosophy”, in spite of the demise of metaphysics. Undermining the analytic/synthetic distinction threatened this agenda. One widespread reaction to this threat, favoured by Quine, was naturalism. Philosophers turned to the natural sciences in search for a new methodology and new foundations for their investigations. Others, though a distinct minority spearheaded by Goodman, showed a preference for the social and cultural sciences. But if evolutionary biology and the cognitive sciences on the one hand (Quine’s option), and sociology and cultural history on the other (Goodman’s option) provide the answers to major philosophical questions, then it seems that no room is left for a distinctive disciplinary agenda in philosophy. Philosophers could just move over to their neighbouring departments, equipped perhaps with more sophisticated theoretical or methodological inclinations. For many, therefore, naturalism amounted to a declaration of bankruptcy of traditional philosophy.

Engaging with these problems means already to engage in a philosophical discussion, of course (De Caro & Macarthur, eds., Naturalism in Question, 2004). The challenge posed to philosophy by the sciences and humanities predates Quine’s and Goodman’s intervention by at least a century (Whewell), if it does not go back to Hume. Positivism itself can be seen as one of the many ways in which philosophers have reacted to this challenge. Pragmatism was another, French historical epistemology yet another. All these reactions share a dismissal of absolute foundations in favour of a more empirical stance. As John Dewey put it: “Philosophy foreswears inquiry after absolute origins and absolute finalities to explore specific values and the specific conditions that generate them” (The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy, 1909). Twentieth-century philosophy, in all its varieties, can be seen as an attempt to come to terms with scientific progress and to learn to live with contingency and plurality in ontology, epistemology, and ethics. More recently, this has resulted in distinct approaches to integrate philosophical enquiries with active experimentation (Knobe, ‘Experimental philosophy’, Philosophy Compass 2007), sociological surveys (Stotz & Griffiths, ‘Genes: Philosophical analyses put to the test’, History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 2004), and historical research (Steinle, ‘Experiments in History and Philosophy of Science’, Perspectives on Science 2002).

Aims and objectives In the workshop we would like to bring together philosophers who in their research rely on results from the sciences and humanities, or go so far as to undertake their own empirical research, including experiments, sociological surveys and archival studies, and who are ready to reflect on the presuppositions and consequences of this practice, as well as on the practical and conceptual challenges they face. Questions we would like to see addressed include:

  • How far does the reliance on and engagement with empirical science change the character of philosophical enquiries? Empirical research is a hypothesis-driven, essentially open-ended enterprise. Most importantly, the sciences progress, so today’s best knowledge may be seen tomorrow as mere error. Will philosophy then have to abandon its traditional aspirations and adopt a fallibilist or even relativist stance?
  • If philosophy is to rely on results from the empirical sciences, the obvious question arises, which of the sciences it should rely on, given that the unity of science is an ideal that is far from having been achieve. Does empirical philosophy entail the reductionist positions of naturalism or even physicalism? Or does the social, cultural, or intellectual life of humans take precedence over material life in determining the way we think and experience reality?
  • What is the source and role of normative claims? In the 1950s the ideal of value-neutrality in science was widely shared by philosophers and scientists alike. Half a century later, the opposite is the case. But if science isn’t neutral with respect to moral and political values, aren’t we re-introducing through the back door the very issues that naturalism was supposed to overcome? What, if any, would be the sources then for normative claims in a self-aware empirical philosophy? The values that the sciences themselves endorse, like universality, disinterestedness, or precision? Or is there a sense in which nature itself can be seen as normative?
  • What does the turn to empirical science tell us about the history of philosophy and its relationship to a world that has been profoundly reshaped by scientific and political revolutions over the past four hundred years? It was not the least the hope that philosophy would become “co-operative and cumulative” (Russell) that attracted philosophers to naturalism. Does philosophy then become just another science, or does it still have something specific and substantial to say about the sciences? How, in short, does philosophy relate to scientific progress, critically, or as a participant?
  • What concrete, practical challenges do empirically-minded philosophers face? Does the institutional structure of philosophy help or hinder empirical research? Is it difficult to find adequate funding? Should philosophers learn to work in big research teams? Will the use of empirical methodologies drive philosophers towards the extreme specialization that is characteristic of most scientific disciplines?
  • Finally, are philosophers adequately prepared to engage in empirical research? What does the naturalistic turn imply for the training of the next generation of philosophers? Should the philosophical curriculum be revised radically to account for the new range of methodologies that are employed in empirical philosophy? What should such a new curriculum include?

We expect several benefits from organizing a workshop exploring these and related questions. Unlike most existing contributions to this debate, we do not intend to tackle the related issues of naturalism and empiricism from a purely abstract point of view. Rather, we will ask philosophers who already practice a style of inquiry, which in one sense or the other may be termed “empirical philosophy”, to present a critical reflection of the pros and cons of their approach, and on the significance of the results they believe to have accomplished so far. Reliance on results from the empirical sciences, mostly in the form of some moderated version of Quine’s naturalism, has become a somewhat unquestioned premise of much analytic philosophy, especially in the philosophy of science. Engaging in an explicit discussion of the tenets of empirical philosophy will raise issues about the relation of philosophy to its neighbouring disciplines and society at large. Finally, it is hoped that bridges may be built between analytic and continental philosophy by fostering the integration of empirical approaches based on the social and historical sciences with the biological, cognitive, and physical science-based approaches that habitually fall under naturalism.


10:00 Coffee10:30 Social Science and Social Ontology(introduction: Francesco Guala, Exeter and San Raffaele)11.30 Experimental Philosophy(introduction: Edouard Machery, Pittsburgh)12:30 Lunch14:00 History in Philosophy of Science(introduction: Staffan Müller-Wille, Exeter)15:00 Coffee15:30 Experimental Philosophy of Science(introduction: Paul Griffiths, Sydney and Exeter)16:30 final discussion17:00 end

Naturalism and Empirical Philosophy Programme PDF

Naturalism and Empirical Philosophy workshop report

Further details