8. Corruptio optimi pessima. A Return to Tradition
A Return to Tradition
Updated August 19, 2010, 07:00 PM
Joshua Knobe is an assistant professor of cognitive science and philosophy at Yale University. He studies the role of morality in human cognition.
If you had presented this issue to the great figures in the history of philosophy – anyone from Plato to Nietzsche – I suspect that they wouldn’t even have understood what the question could possibly be. Traditionally, no one worried very much about the distinction between philosophy and psychology. Philosophers were just supposed to think, at a very broad and fundamental level, about the nature of the human condition. And, as a matter of course, they were supposed to make use of all the intellectual resources available to them, including psychology, history, literature, and much else besides.
Then, in the 20th century, something peculiar happened. Some people began to feel that philosophy should be understood as a highly specialized technical field that could be separated off from the rest of the intellectual world. So there was a growing sense that there could be a discipline of philosophy that simply ignored questions about how human beings actually think and feel and focused instead on questions that could be addressed ‘from the armchair.’ This period strikes me as an aberration, a major departure from the way in which philosophy has traditionally been understood.
I think that what we are seeing now, with the surge of interest in experimental philosophy, is best understood as a return to a more traditional understanding of what philosophy is all about. It seems misleading to describe this new movement in terms of philosophers taking ideas from psychology. Rather, what we see is a growing willingness to just ignore the whole distinction between philosophy and psychology. So these days, there is a band of young philosophers going out and conducting their own studies, collaborating with psychologists, publishing in psychology journals. (Many people in the field don’t even know which researchers are officially supposed to count as philosophers and which as psychologists.)
I find it puzzling that people sometimes regard these recent developments as somehow taking things in a radical new direction. A more natural response would be to say that they are taking things back to their old direction, back to the direction of David Hume’s immortal Treatise of Human Nature (1739), with its subtitle, “Being An Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning Into Moral Subjects.”