The traditional, armchair model occupies the theoretical realm of pure abstract thought. To the traditional philosopher, real-world input is an unnecessary, unseemly distraction from the business at hand. Still, even a skeptic like Princeton philosophy professor Gideon Rosen acknowledges experimental philosophy’s appeal. “The rap against philosophy has always been that there’s no method or cumulative development of results,” Rosen says. “So it’s not surprising that something came along that looked like scientific method, and people paid attention.”
In fact, empirical data has had a place in philosophy for centuries. In Experiments in Ethics, Appiah claims that experimental philosophy’s engagement with the larger world makes it “really more traditional” than what today is considered traditional philosophy. “You can do good work without an MRI, but it’s an interesting question of philosophical taste or method,” says Appiah. “How important is empirical knowledge to philosophy? I think the answer is ‘hugely’ and always has been.”
Twentieth-century “analytic philosophy,” concerned largely with scientific matters, was championed by Harvard professor Willard Van Orman Quine — who summarized his view of the unity of philosophy and science with the famous quip, “Philosophy of science is philosophy enough.” One of Quine’s graduate students at Harvard was Harman, who came to Princeton’s philosophy department in 1963 and helped foster an atmosphere of openness to empirical data.
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Imagine a particularly horrific wartime dilemma. You're a doctor tending to people in the squalid Jewish ghetto of a Nazi-occupied town, where several of your patients have come down with typhoid …