Philosophy in the NY Times? Read on…


Maybe philosophy isn’t irrelevant after all. It’s not often that philosophy makes it into the Sunday edition of the New York Times, but behold, an article in last week’s paper written by Princeton’s own globally minded ethicist Kwame Anthony Appiah.

Idea Lab: The New New Philosophy

Suppose the chairman of a company has to decide whether to adopt a new program. It would increase profits and help the environment too. “I don’t care at all about helping the environment,” the chairman says. “I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let’s start the new program.” Would you say that the chairman intended to help the environment?

O.K., same circumstance. Except this time the program would harm the environment. The chairman, who still couldn’t care less about the environment, authorizes the program in order to get those profits. As expected, the bottom line goes up, the environment goes down. Would you say the chairman harmed the environment intentionally?

I don’t know where you ended up, but in one survey, only 23 percent of people said that the chairman in the first situation had intentionally helped the environment. When they had to think about the second situation, though, fully 82 percent thought that the chairman had intentionally harmed the environment. There’s plenty to be said about these interestingly asymmetrical results. But perhaps the most striking thing is this: The study was conducted by a philosopher, as a philosopher, in order to produce a piece of . . . philosophy.

It’s part of a recent movement known as “experimental philosophy,” which has rudely challenged the way professional philosophers like to think of themselves. Not only are philosophers unaccustomed to gathering data; many have also come to define themselves by their disinclination to do so. The professional bailiwick we’ve staked out is the empyrean of pure thought. Colleagues in biology have P.C.R. machines to run and microscope slides to dye; political scientists have demographic trends to crunch; psychologists have their rats and mazes. We philosophers wave them on with kindly looks. We know the experimental sciences are terribly important, but the role we prefer is that of the Catholic priest presiding at a wedding, confident that his support for the practice carries all the more weight for being entirely theoretical. Philosophers don’t observe; we don’t experiment; we don’t measure; and we don’t count. We reflect. We love nothing more than our “thought experiments,” but the key word there is thought. As the president of one of philosophy’s more illustrious professional associations, the Aristotelian Society, said a few years ago, “If anything can be pursued in an armchair, philosophy can.”

Read the rest here

7 thoughts on “Philosophy in the NY Times? Read on…

  1. I’ve been thinking about Appiah as an armchair cosmopolitan. There’s something hinky about it (maybe hincty too), though I can’t quite say what. I’m all for chairs and being honest about sitting in chairs. I don’t expect everybody who wants to think cosmopolitanly to go do ethnographic fieldwork, or even necessarily to fly between continents. It just doesn’t seem right though to valorize the armchair this way. Is our only choice between armchairs and surveys?

  2. Fido, I like your pro-chair platform. Clipboards are so cumbersome. I’d much prefer the flip top notebooks that you can put in your back pocket. Very “I’m an investigator.”

    Mikhail, there is of course another type of cosmopolitan, you should know, it’s your affectation! Aren’t you are always drinking them at the bar? You may know it under it’s abbreviated name: “Cosmo.”

  3. “I wonder if one can be any other kind of cosmopolitan?”

    An itenerant cosmopolitan. Not a problem for me.

    It’s like the difference between a hobo and a bum. Kant was a bum. I thought Appiah was a hobo, but maybe he’s just a bum. (Metaphorically, of course.)

    That said, I’m comfortable with my old wooden schoolhouse chair that I’ve dragged across the country a few times. I wouldn’t begrudge any thinker a favorite chair. Or a favorite potable.

  4. The iconic hobo travels around by illegally hopping on trains and carrying their belongings in a scarf held together by a long stick.

    Click Here for photo.

    A bum is your garden variety homeless person who begs for change on the same street corner, like Kant, the bum of Koenigsberg.

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