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Experimental Philosophy: An Old Name for an Even Older Method

Posted in Friendly Philosophy

Experimental Philosophy, Old and New

Modern philosophy begins, in many ways, with what was known as “experimental philosophy” — the name given to the work of Galileo and Bacon.

Recently, a new group of philosophers lead by Joshua Knobe have adopted the same name for what they do. They begin by collecting data about what non-philosophers think about issues, and use this as their starting point for philosophizing about those issues.

What they are doing is at least what Aristotle called collecting the “endoxa,” and perhaps also “preserving the phenomena.”

Collecting Endoxa and Preserving Phenomena

Drawing on the work of Pritzl (see n. 3, below), we can say that the endoxa, for Aristotle, are the “received opinions,” the “how things appear to people,” or “the phenomena as reported by people.” The endoxa come in three varieties:

  1. the opinions of the many,
  2. the opinions of the wise, and
  3. the opinions of the wisest.

Then, drawing on the work of both Pritzl and Owen (see n. 3, below), we can say that a good theory, for Aristotle, is one that saves the appearances/preserves the phenomena: it harmonizes all three categories of endoxa about the topic at hand with each other and with how things appear to the investigator him- or herself (after his or her own investigation).

That is, you have to come up with a theory that takes a stand on what the truth is about the issue, and that explains how, if that is the truth, it would be at least reasonable for the many to think what they do about the issue, the wise to think what they do, and the wisest of the wise to think what they do.

My Assessment

I, for one, think Aristotle’s method (as described by Pritzl and Owen), is a fantastic way to think about what a philosophical theory should do.

What the current group of experimental philosophers are doing is collecting the first of Aristotle’s categories of endoxa: the opinions of the many. I’m not familiar enough with their work, however, to say whether they then go on to collect the other two categories, and then develop theories that “save” all the phenomena on the issue.

However else they might differ from Aristotle, their method at least begins in an Aristotelian manner. The original experimental philosophers wouldn’t like this — rebels against the Aristotelian hegemony as they were — but I think starting with Aristotle is usually wise.


1. On Galileo as experimental philosopher, I linked above to John Elliot Drinkwater BethuneLife of Galileo Galilei: with illustrations of the advancement of experimental philosophy, from 1832.

2. On Bacon as experimental philosopher, I linked above to the twelfth of Voltaire‘s Letters on the English.

3. My discussion of endoxa and saving the appearances comes from Kurt Pritzl, “Opinions as Appearances: ‘Endoxa’ in Aristotle,” Ancient Philosophy 14, no. 1  (1994): 41–50; and G. E. L. Owen, “Tithenai ta phainomena,” in G. E. L. Owen, Logic, Science and Dialectic: Collected Papers in Greek Philosophy, ed. Martha Nussbaum (New York: Cornell University Press, 1986), 239–51. I hope I have not misrepresented their work. Fr. Pritzl was one of my professors at The Catholic University of America, and is greatly missed.

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