Philosophers' linguistic expertise: A psycholinguistic approach to the expertise objection against experimental philosophy

Synthese 200 (1):1-33 (2022)
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Abstract

Philosophers are often credited with particularly well-developed conceptual skills. The ‘expertise objection’ to experimental philosophy builds on this assumption to challenge inferences from findings about laypeople to conclusions about philosophers. We draw on psycholinguistics to develop and assess this objection. We examine whether philosophers are less or differently susceptible than laypersons to cognitive biases that affect how people understand verbal case descriptions and judge the cases described. We examine two possible sources of difference: Philosophers could be better at deploying concepts, and this could make them less susceptible to comprehension biases (‘linguistic expertise objection’). Alternatively, exposure to different patterns of linguistic usage could render philosophers vulnerable to a fundamental comprehension bias, the linguistic salience bias, at different points (‘linguistic usage objection’). Together, these objections mount a novel ‘master argument’ against experimental philosophy. To develop and empirically assess this argument, we employ corpus analysis and distributional semantic analysis and elicit plausibility ratings from academic philosophers and psychology undergraduates. Our findings suggest philosophers are better at deploying concepts than laypeople but are susceptible to the linguistic salience bias to a similar extent and at similar points. We identify methodological consequences for experimental philosophy and for philosophical thought experiments.

Author Profiles

Eugen Fischer
University of East Anglia

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