Philosophers used to combine conceptual reflections with practical experiment. The trendiest new branch of the discipline, known as x-phi, wants to return to those days. Some philosophers don't like itby David Edmonds / March 1, 2009 / Leave a comment
Katja Wiech is a cheerful young German researcher who is fascinated by pain. She’s discovered many things—for example, when devout Catholics are given electric shocks while looking at a picture of the Virgin Mary they feel less pain than atheists do when administered the same unpleasant treatment.
She works in a set of rooms at the end of a maze of corridors in the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. In one room sits a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. The magnet of this machine is so powerful it can seize a mobile phone from your hand,sending it flying through the air.
Her subjects lie flat on the scanner’s bed, their head inside its white tube. A computer by their feet provides various stimuli—images, questions and so on—and is operated from an adjacent room divided off by a glass screen. The noise is very loud. There’s a panic button if her subjects freak out.
Wiech is a neurologist. But here’s the strange thing: she is working with philosophers. The caricature of a philosopher is of an otherworldly professor sitting in a comfy armchair in an Oxbridge college, speculating on the nature of reality using only his or her intellect and a few books. This has some basis in reality. Chemistry requires test tubes, history needs documents. In recent years, the main tool of the philosopher has been grey matter. The subject’s evolution can be painfully slow, tiptoeing forward from footnote to footnote. But not always. Every so often a new movement overturns the orthodoxies of received opinion. We might just be entering one of those phases.
A dynamic new school of thought is emerging that wants to kick down the walls of recent philosophy and place experimentation back at its centre. It has a name to delight an advertising executive: x-phi. It has blogs and books devoted to it, and boasts an expanding body of researchers in elite universities. It even has an icon: an armchair in flames. If philosophy ever can be, x-phi is trendy. But, increasingly, it is also attracting hostility.
Philosophers have always been informed by scientific research, history and psychology. Indeed, most of the giants of pre-20th century philosophy combined empirical and conceptual studies. Some drew on the research of others, while René Descartes and John Locke performed their own experiments; this was a time when science had not entirely split from philosophy. David Hume mixed…