New position at University of Reading: The Psychology of Philosophical Thought Experiments

May 1, 2017

In April 2017, I started a postdoctoral research fellow position at the University of Reading working on a project titled "The psychology of philosophical thought experiments". The project is a collaboration between psychology and philosophy and is headed-up by Dr Nat Hansen and Professor Phil Beaman



The primary aims of the project are to shed light on the theoretical and psychological basis of knowledge ascriptions. We adopt an interdisciplinary approach to this investigation, using empirical methods from experimental philosophy and psychology, and theoretical approaches from epistemology.


In philosophy, epistemology has traditionally centred on "armchair" or introspectionist methods of collecting evidence in support of philosophical theories. Recently, however, philosophers have begun to recognise the value of gathering and analysing the judgments of non-philosophers (in support of or against theories regarding the meaning behind expressions like "know"). Adopting an experimental approach to epistemology involves presenting non-philosophers with hypothetical scenarios and asking them questions about the scenarios that investigate their epistemic standards (for knowledge, justification, and belief). The consequences for the individual of either correct or mistaken "knowledge" is then systematically varied, allowing researchers to understand the conditions under which people are willing to say that someone knows something. For example, in previous research, participants have been asked to judge whether an individual "knows" something when the stakes of being wrong are raised.


Whilst this "experimental turn" has challenged traditional practices in epistemology, the shift has raised methodological concerns. The standard method in experimental philosophy involves asking non-philosophers to respond to complex philosophical questions. This approach has led critics to question whether non-philosophers really understand what they are being asked to do; are "ordinary speakers" failing to understand the point of the questions that they are asked in these thought experiments? Crucially, if individuals responding in these experiments cannot understand what is being asked of them, then the data generated from these paradigms may not provide valid insights into the corresponding theories that they are intending to investigate.


From a psychological perspective, this problem might be seen as a challenge to the ecological validity of standard experimental approaches to the investigation of knowledge. As such, this project will address these concerns through developing and implementing ecologically valid experimental designs to investigate theories of knowledge. Crucially, by developing experimental investigations with increased ecological validity, we aim to contribute valid and reliable empirical evidence to long-running debates in contemporary epistemology and philosophy of language concerning the interest-relativity and context-sensitivity of knowledge assessments.


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© 2017 Kathryn B. Francis

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