Encounters and conflicts within and between disciplines: Experimental philosophy and ethnography (1.3)

An interesting discussion has been taking place on Savage Minds titled, “Philosophers discover lost tribe in jungles of free will” by Chris Kelty. The discussion and debate that ensues there centres on the development of what some call “experimental philosophy” (with a digest available here). This movement, shortened to X-Phi, involves using quantitative research, especially opinion polling, to address certain questions in philosophy, with some additional interest in cognitive science and evolutionary biology as well. This new movement seems to have gained ground since 2000, and Kwame Anthony Appiah dubs it the “new new philosophy” in an article in The New York Times Magazine (Dec. 9, 2007). I was interested to learn that there was a philosophy calling itself “experimental,” since I thought of all philosophy as “experimental” in broad terms (with its famous thought experiments). X-Phi might do better by relabeling itself grounded philosophy, or G-Phi.


X-Phi seems to be generating a tremendous amount of controversy among philosophers, and exciting some anthropologists about the possibility that experimental philosophers might become interested in ethnography. I am not so excited, but I do see some positive developments taking shape. Appiah characterizes the movements as follows:

a restive contingent of our tribe is convinced that it can shed light on traditional philosophical problems by going out and gathering information about what people actually think and say about our thought experiments. The newborn movement (“x-phi” to its younger practitioners) has come trailing blogs of glory, not to mention Web sites, special journal issues and panels at the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association. At the University of California at San Diego and the University of Arizona, students and faculty members have set up what they call Experimental Philosophy Laboratories, while Indiana University now specializes with its Experimental Epistemology Laboratory. Neurology has been enlisted, too. More and more, you hear about philosophy grad students who are teaching themselves how to read f.M.R.I. brain scans in order to try to figure out what’s going on when people contemplate moral quandaries.


An article in Slate essentially comes out and calls traditional philosophers “wankers”, by way of Marx and Engels:

Marx and Engels once remarked that “philosophy stands in the same relation to the study of the actual world as masturbation to sexual love.”

Kelty at Savage Minds appears to agree with the X-Philes that philosophy has traditionally been conducted in an armchair within the Ivory Tower. I was also pleasantly surprised to see that Savage Minds has a sense of mission, and I don’t mean this sarcastically, I mean I honestly did not know they had anything like an unwritten or written “mission statement”. Kelty is enthused by X-Phi and states in this regard:

I think the “x-phi” attitude is part of the same zeitgeist that formed Savage Minds—the possibility of a new form of scholarly organization and interaction, of which blogs are an emblematic tool, that subverts and gets around the conservative edifice of the professionally organized disciplines, without being forced to drop out of academia.

That same spirit of course is part of the explicit purpose of Open Anthropology. I am cheered by Kelty’s statement, but as I mentioned, nowhere before did I see such a clear statement of purpose behind Savage Minds, which often struck me as “anthropologists blogging about stuff and such” rather than representing a coherent vision of why they are doing what they are doing, and if they are doing this collectively (apart from the act of blogging as such).

On the other hand, Kelty’s own essay appears to reaffirm and defend the self-conscious angst of professionally organized discplinary anthropology, namely by repeating the theme that we are being ignored, we have a contribution to make, and so forth — and certainly some of that is true. What should be embraced is the fact that in all the social sciences there are moves to open out onto one another, and anthropologists as determined borrowers of other discipline’s theories and theorists know about this from first-hand experience.

Kelty’s main complaint against the X-Philes is that they have not discovered ethnography, and have instead opted for a positivist, scientific approach. I take issue with those criticisms, and with the one-sidedly positive portrayal of ethnography.


First, there is the assertion by Kelty that anthropology is an “empirical philosophy.” I might be prepared to agree, if the idea were developed further. For now, it seems that we often have a serious problem in formulating research questions, in ways that might be remedied by more study of philosophy. By the same token, traditional philosophy could also call itself “theoretical anthropology”, so I am not sure that anything is gained from these labels, other than easy claims to parts of each other’s territory. Kelty argues that professional philosophers would never attempt this empirical approach because, “it requires all kind of commitments to the real world that are verboten in most mainstream philosophy departments.” Here is the idea of the ivory tower and the armchair, and I do not think it is a fair one at all.


First, philosophers have had many “real world” commitments, assuming that we can define what that means in a way that satisfies even a handful of people (and I hope Kelty understands that teaching should be considered a real world commitment if ever there was one). There have probably been more, and more famous, philosophers who have actively taken part in all sorts of social and political movements, than anthropologists. (In the Latin American case, are there anthropologists who led guerrilla movements, such as the philosophers subcomandante Marcos in Mexico or Abimael Guzman who, out of the Philosophy Department at Ayacucho, went on to found the Shining Path army?)

Secondly, the notion that life within the university is not a “real world commitment” is not a valid or valuable argument to make (I have critcized that idea here).

In line with the latter, the third point to make is this: is the idea here that “old school” philosophers live in some vacuum? How is that even possible? It will be a pretty interesting spin on social and cultural theory that suggests that these individuals have no life experience, have never read a newspaper, have no contact with other human beings, and so on. It’s not credible. More problematic is the kind of popular anti-intellectualism that Kelty may be unwittingly endorsing. And even more problematic is the romantic view of anthropology that remains implicit: as if we, on the other hand, have no armchair lives, we are all active and committed, out there in the trenches — also not credible.


Secondly, Kelty has a problem with X-Phi’s leaning towards “science,” a problem I do not share for reasons that I will discuss below:

what they are emeshing themselves in is something anthropology also knows all too well—the Game of Authority. X-Phi is an attempt to make philosophy convincing not only to philosophers themselves, but to cognitive scientists, neuro-scientists and evolutionary biologists—in short, to the people and pundits closest to the global mic these days, in so far as anyone listens to science of any kind.

The risk here is the tilt towards a sweeping rejection of science as such. When faced with creationists in our classrooms … I wonder what we will turn to? I do not say this as someone who has a scientific axe to grind — any reader of this blog will see my acute preference for fiction and poetry. What I don’t like is anything that sounds like methodological bigotry, that is, entrenching a prejudice against anything quantitative because that is positivist. Numbers do not make an approach a positivist one. A qualitative ethnographic approach can be, and for most of its history has been, one informed by positivist thinking. Kelty admits as much, and makes a passing reference to the critique of ethnography, but these are not concerns that are central to his essay.


In addition, it remains to be proven that the X-Philes would have much to gain from adopting an ethnographic approach. When wishing to contest what is common sense, does immersion within a micro-community offer a satisfactory answer? At best, if common, the sense could be dismissed as being common only to those of the small community. In other words, surveys have their merit, and should not be rejected out of hand. Anthropology should also be seen as “bigger” than ethnography, and actively reconceive of itself in these terms so that particular methods are not fetishized (in a way that I worry Kelty is doing). That way we can avoid problems such as speaking of an ethnography of the world-system which is, strictly speaking, so impossible that one wonders why such notions are even spoken. Likewise, when criticizing published ethnographies reviewers should avoid asking about where is the material on X, Y, and Z case studies from other parts of the world — that is not what ethnography does.

Where I do stand with Kelty is in his obvious excitement with ferment, with collaboration, with questioning, and with the rapprochement between disciplines. This will continue to the point that, probably in our lifetimes, we will have to make some hard but necessary decisions about de-disciplining the social sciences. To do that will require a more open meeting ground between the sciences and the humanities, not one over the other. In the meantime, I am all for philosophers covering the ground for themselves, asking their own questions, doing their own trials, and even reinventing the wheel if it serves the purpose of better understanding for themselves how wheels work. They can do this without being badgered by us.

In the meantime, hats off to Kelty for doing such a great job at condensing key ideas of the X-Phi debates and in stimulating such interesting discussion on his post.


Things can change quickly in blog land. Since I finished this post, I saw comments by Kelty in response to commentators that suggest a somewhat softer view of science, surveys, statistics, etc., than may be apparent from the post above. His main post itself remains as it was originally.


(A side note here — one of the interesting byproducts of this X-Phi research is the realization that, as Appiah summarizes it, “foreseen side effects of our actions are taken to be intended when we conceive them as costs incurred for a benefit.” Agreeing with writers such as Ward Churchill, I have been arguing that the notion that the U.S. does not “intentionally” kill civilians in its bombings of civilian areas, and thus is “not terrorism” is not a convincing argument. U.S. military planners know that the bombings will kill civilians, they pre-label the fatalities as “collateral damage” and prepare press briefings in advance condemning the enemy for using “human shields” — that the enemy wants to defend its neighbourhoods is dismissed — and this amounts to a logic of calculated killing, of knowing murder, and thus terrorism. One might quibble about whether the primary or secondary target is civilian.)

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