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elisa freschi

I see your point and I agree about the ambiguous results one gets out of one's intuitions concerning possible worlds, etc. (because one might mistake a language-inducted idea with a genuine, innate intuition; because you cannot use thought experiments to defeat thinkers who start from actual state of affairs, as in the case of Kant's opinion of mathematics; and so on).

Nonetheless, the article also seems to say that TXes are (just) a good way to "sell" philosophy, i.e., to make it understandable and attractive to lay people (the chief argument seems to be "the philosophy shopping experience desperately needs some glitz"). Even from this point of view, TXes should be no more than an appetizer, used to attract readers/listeners.

Moti Mizrahi

Thanks for your comment, Elisa. I think I can agree with your claim that TXes are an appetizer, not the main course. That is, TXes can be used as a hook to attract people to philosophy, but they are not the main "product" of philosophy. In the article, Vanhoenacker says that TXes are *the product* of philosophy. That is the claim I have doubts about.

P.S. Sorry for the delay in publishing your comment. I had to retrieve it from the spam folder.


I'm not sure whether I agree with the thought that TXes can help solve our PR problem. This is just anecdotal, but oftentimes when I bring up a thought experiment to my freshmen I get a look of skepticism from them. Even after walking them through something I still get a lot of students who think I'm engaging in some kind of sophistry or word play.

Of course, I will also add that some TXes seem better (more plausible? I'm not sure what the right word is here) than others.


I basically share your problems with thought experiments. And for this reason I actually think they might do more harm than good in promoting philosophy. I think most intelligent non-philosophers can quite quickly spot the relative impotence of thought experiments as modes of investigation, and if we present thought experiments as one of the primary modes of philosophical investigation we're likely to make people take philosophy less rather than more seriously. (I say 'relative' impotence because I don't think they're totally impotent or useless - as you imply in your other post, they are often good launching pads for real arguments.)

Marcus Arvan

I entirely agree with the sentiments expressed thus far. Far from being a good selling point for philosophy, I've found that ordinary people and undergraduate students find thought-experiments to be the most ridiculous and embarrassing thing about philosophy. Further, although I think a few thought-experiments are good ones (e.g. Jackson's Mary example), *I* can't help but find most of the "famous" ones pretty embarrassing myself.

Consider, for example, Searle's Chinese Room example. When I've introduced students to it, most of them seem to think it is crazy that Searle is famous for the example and that philosophers ever took it seriously to begin with. Most of my students see through it the *moment* they're introduced to it (viz. "Well, the dude *in* the Chinese room doesn't understand Chinese, but the system as a whole -- the dude in the room plus the instructions plus the inputs-outputs -- surely does!").

I just don't think we do ourselves any favors as a discipline holding up these sorts of examples as our calling-card. They just make us look silly more than anything else. If an undergraduate can figure out what's wrong with some of our "famous examples" in under 5 minutes, how do we look when we call them famous examples? We would be far better advised to sell ourselves not on the basis of snappy little examples and instead on the basis of sophisticated, well-worked-out arguments and theories that can be explained in simple and intuitive terms to the average person. A high bar, to be sure, but I think it's the bar we should aim to reach, and one we don't -- with our thought-experiments and technical jargon -- shoot for nearly enough.

Moti Mizrahi

Thanks for the comments, everyone. Looks like we have a consensus that making thought experiments the major selling point of philosophy is a bad idea. And they say there's no progress in philosophy! :)

elisa freschi

An interesting further point about TE:


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