“Gettier” Intuition Across Cultures

No doubt many of you will have seen this by now, but for those who have not:

Noûs has just published a truly amazing study on this topic by a team of experimental philosophers (Machery, Stich, Rose, Chatterjee, Karasawa, Struchiner, Sirker, Usui & Hashimoto), and I think this new study gives us a much better understanding of the relevant empirical facts. The researchers presented two different Gettier cases to participants in the United States, Brazil, India and Japan, yielding a total sample size of 521 participants.

I post this because it is relevant to earlier conversation here on the relevance of experimental philosophy for comparative philosophy and Indian philosophy. In particular, Anand Vaidya writes, reflecting on the relationship between the three,

Thus: If the question is: how should classical Indian philosophers modify their practice and research in light of these ideas and new ways of engaging things? I would say: don’t worry. Nothing here changes classical Indian philosophical practice. However, if the question is: Can classical Indian philosophers contribute to a new enterprise that will help present important ideas from the tradition to the public and to other parts of academia? I would say: absolutely.

And on experimental philosophy informing comparative/Indian philosophy, Stephen Phillips notes in the comments:

Similarly, what people say about Gettier problems in Delhi or Hong Kong does not seem to me to be nearly as relevant for a philosophic theory of knowledge as the pramANa theories of classical thinkers, which were ironed out over generations. Probably intuitions about perception or inference or testimony as possibly erroneous would emerge in the course of contemporary interviews, and indeed one can find non-factive usages in the epics and elsewhere in Sanskrit literature. But, to speak about NyAya, philosophers had their intuitions shaped by a theoretical inheritance upon which they then built, intuitions that came to restrict an understanding of genuine perception, inference, and testimony to that which is true. A contemporary theory of knowledge needs to heed such educated intuitions if it is not to be hopelessly ethnocentric but not the uneducated intuitions reported by anthropologists.

Perhaps readers who have read the article (I have not yet) might have something to add to this discussion?

(Cross-posted at my personal blog.)

About Malcolm Keating

Malcolm Keating is Assistant Professor of Humanities (Philosophy) at Yale-NUS College, Singapore.

6 thoughts on ““Gettier” Intuition Across Cultures

  1. Here’s a gem of a sentence from the article: “An important limitation of another sort is that in all the studies we have cited, the vignettes and the questions were presented in English, and except for Turri (2013), all participants were resident in the United States, Canada or Britain.”

    Yup, that’s totally cross-cultural there. Intuitions are so similar across cultures that no matter which 21st-century English-speaker you pick they will totally think the same thing, no matter whether they live in the United States, Canada or Britain! That settles the matter once and for all, then: there’s a unified human nature across cultural and linguistic boundaries and we can just go back to speaking universally and ignoring cultural diversity because science has established empirically that it doesn’t really matter.

    [Lately I have been trying to avoid being too snarky in responding to others’ positions, but with this one I really can’t help myself.]

    • Ah, my problem: these authors are aware that that’s a bad thing, so the proper targets of that snark are the previous studies. Reading further, I see they did try to interview people in Bengali and Japanese, which is essential. And that is where things get interesting, because a lot more concepts are packed into the different words for “to know” – on p8 in particular, showing that they got different results based on the different semantic range of jñā derivatives. Which is just as we should expect. A concept like “knowledge” does not translate easily about cultures, and there is some question in my mind as to whether Gettier cases are really just about the semantics of that word rather than a substantive theory.

  2. Hi Malcolm Thanks for putting this up. I did see it, and I have not had time to read the article. However, this term in my seminar on classical Indian and western forms of skepticism and knowledge I have decided that I am going to get into the experimental vs. comparative issues quite seriously. I hope to post up my view on this new study after that. As a quick comment though, I can say the following:

    It looks to me like it might be useful to try and see this study in comparison to the prior study and as a stepping stone for what is to come. I think that the really useful stuff that might be accessed through these kinds of studies, at least about knowledge, are not yet quite there. However, I suspect that something can be found by this method that is interesting. In addition, I recently published a paper in Comparative Philosophy called “Public Philosophy: Cross-Cultural and Multi-Disciplinary”. In this piece I argue that the combination of comparative philosophical analysis along with experimental results and analytical reasoning could yield for an overall better product philosophically. I think what is absent in this study is that we don’t really get a wider lens where we can see the background philosophical views against the experimental results. But I suspect that as out of the purview of the authors’ intent. In my paper I discuss the Gettier result from the 2001 study in relation to background philosophical information, as well as with an analytical eye to what might also be in play.

    More to come!

  3. This is clearly a very fruitful area for further inquiry, and I am delighted that you are pursuing it here. I am sure there is a great deal to be gained from further interaction between comparative philosophy and experimental philosophy.

    As Anand rightly notes, a 2001 study found that participants from Asian cultures tended not to have the standard Gettier intuition. However, the key finding in that study was based on a sample of 23 participants from East Asian cultures and 23 from South Asia. Three different subsequent papers tried to follow up on that initial result, and all three obtained the opposite result, showing instead that people from Asian cultures do indeed tend to have the standard Gettier intuition. In this most recent paper, the researchers have a sample of 521 participants, and they again find a result that diverges from the one obtained in the 2001 paper.

    The researchers who conducted the original study have very nobly changed their minds on this topic in light of the empirical data, in a way that really seems like a model of how genuine scientific research should proceed, and it would probably be a good idea for us to follow their lead and begin exploring the philosophical implications of the results obtained in these subsequent studies.

    I should also note that a whole raft of subsequent studies (many from the comparative philosopher Hagop Sarkissian) have found pretty amazing degrees of cultural universality in other philosophical intuitions. There seems to be a striking amount of cultural universality in intuitions about free will, moral relativism, the true self, moral luck, the doing/allowing distinction and many other topics besides. It would be wonderful to have further interaction between experimental philosophers and comparative philosophers on these topics!

    • One of the things we need to be careful about, even when these studies are done relatively responsibly, is how much cross-cultural patterns reflect some presumed universal human nature, and how much they reflect modernization and/or Westernization. A contemporary middle-class Japanese will go through an education and live in a society much more like that of a contemporary middle-class American than like that of an 18th-century Japanese. And many of the Japanese terms she thinks with will be neologisms coined to translate Western terms.

  4. Here is a link to my talk in New Zealand on the comparative and experimental philosophy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-4ZQctbW6Q

    I try to be historically accurate, and critical of some work in comparative philosophy and experimental philosophy. I also try to show how analytic, comparative, and experimental philosophy might work together fruitfully.

    Joshua you might remember the 2007 conference in Australia that we both were at. The core topic was experimental philosophy meets conceptual analysis. I mention and discuss the conference here.

    I hope this at least somewhat engaging, and useful.

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