Helen de Cruz (Saint Louis University)
Philosophers enjoy telling stories. Sometimes the stories are very short, but they can be long and detailed as well, for example in the form of utopian narratives by More, Cavendish and others. Why do philosophers invent such stories, and what do they want to accomplish with them? I will argue that existing accounts of thought experiments (notably by John Norton, Daniel Dennett, Tamar Gendler and others) cannot easily explain the range and variety of thought experiments.
In my view, philosophical thought experiments are not merely prettily dressed up arguments. Neither are they only mental models or intuition pumps. Rather, thought experiments help us through a variety of tools that fictions employ to get rid of certain biases and preconceptions, and thus to look at a philosophical idea with a fresh perspective. This include evoking certain moods and emotions including wonder, surprise, skepticism, as well as imaginative sympathy. I will argue that these techniques make philosophical fiction useful both for the audience, as well as for the inventor of the story. As illustrative examples, I will discuss Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy Ibn Yaqzan (a long-form thought experiment) and Mengzi’s child at the well (a short-form thought experiment).
Part of the 2021-2 London Lecture series: Expanding Horizons.