Intellectual Humility & Cultural Diversity in Philosophy

Philosophy is not a discipline noted for intellectual humility. Plato insisted that in an ideal state the king should be a philosopher. Descartes maintained that philosophy is the root from which all the sciences grow. And the Logical Positivists dismissed religion, morality, aesthetics, and political theory as “meaningless nonsense.” Though the lack of intellectual humility in these views is blatant, we believe that there may be another enormously important and largely unrecognized departure from intellectual humility running through much of Western philosophy.

From Plato to the present, philosophers have relied on intuitions about cases as an important source of data. Typically, the philosopher will set out a hypothetical example and pose a question involving a philosophically important concept. Here are two examples:

  1. An acquaintance who asked you to store his weapons asks you to return them after having lost his mind. Would it be morally wrong for you to refuse?
  2. A man believes that it is 2:00 p.m. because he has just glanced at the clock in the town square and the clock says 2:00 p.m. The man is correct; it is 2:00 p.m. However the clock is broken. It always says it is 2:00 p.m. Does the man know that it is 2:00 p.m.?

When there is little disagreement among philosophers, it is assumed that philosophers’ intuitions about cases are both universal and reliable. Thus philosophers’ intuitions can be used as evidence in philosophical arguments. Contemporary philosophers often make claims about “our” intuitions, and what “we” think about cases, where it is clear that “we” is intended to denote not just the philosopher and a few like-minded colleagues, but almost all thoughtful people.

Over the last decade, however, the newly emerging field of “experimental philosophy” has posed a challenge to the claim that the professional philosophers’ intuitions about philosophically important cases are universal. Rather, in a growing number of studies, it has been shown that people in different cultural groups – Asians and Westerners, males and females, people of high and low socio-economic status, people with different personality types, people of different ages, people with different native languages, etc. – have different intuitions about cases designed to explore what people think about knowledge, morality, free will, consciousness and other important philosophical issues. Several studies have suggested that professional philosophers may be a demographic group whose intuitions about cases differ systematically from the intuitions of non-philosophers in their culture.

This project will conduct the largest and most systematic study of philosophical intuitions in different cultural groups ever undertaken. Collecting data in more than 15 countries around the world, we will seek to determine the extent to which philosophical intuitions really do differ cross-culturally. When the data are in, we will assemble an international conference, web-cast live and open to people around the world, to debate their implications. Do they show that philosophers should make major changes in their standard methodology? If so, what changes are appropriate to accommodate cultural differences in philosophical intuition?


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