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Philosophical Thought Experiments: The Case for Engel

Diego Marconi
p. 111-124


I will try to add some weight to Pascal Engel’s doubts about two claims of Timothy Williamson’s in The Philosophy of Philosophy: that philosophical thought experiments are about metaphysical possibility as opposed to conceptual possibility, and that counterfactual reasoning plays a crucial role in reaching modal conclusions relevant to arguments based on thought experiments. In the first case, I will argue that unless the notion of conceptual is understood psychologically, it is hard to tell the difference between thought experiments being ``about concepts’’, or conceptual possibilities, and their being ``about real things’’, or metaphysical possibilities. In the second case, I will argue that it not clear that counterfactuals are indispensable premises in arguments based on thought experiments, or that counterfactual reasoning has an epistemological edge over standard deductive reasoning in reaching modal conclusions.

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1 Conceptual vs. metaphysical
2 Thought experiment and counterfactual conditionals
2.0.1 Gettier’s thought experiment
2.0.2 Another thought experiment
2.1 Counterfactual reasoning and the rejection of thought experiments
3 Conclusion

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In his [Williamson 2007], Timothy Williamson produced a battery of arguments against the widespread conception that philosophy is conceptual analysis, and philosophical knowledge—if there is any—is knowledge about concepts. One of his sub-claims is that philosophical thought experiments deal with metaphysical, not conceptual possibilities [Williamson 2007, 188, 205-207]; another is that modal knowledge—knowledge of metaphysical possibilities and necessities—does not require any special faculty of modal intuition; in fact, it is the sort of knowledge we often achieve by way of counterfactual reasoning, which is itself quite an ordinary business, and “deeply integrated into our empirical thought in general” [Williamson 2007, 141]. In his article on thought experiments “in or out of the armchair” [Engel 2011], Pascal Engel objects to the first claim: he argues that Williamson has not really shown that no thought experiments bear upon our concepts or about our understanding of concepts ...

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Electronic reference

Diego Marconi, « Philosophical Thought Experiments: The Case for Engel », Philosophia Scientiæ [Online], 21-3 | 2017, Online since 30 October 2019, connection on 19 June 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/philosophiascientiae.1304

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About the author

Diego Marconi

Universitá di Torino (Italy)

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Tous droits réservés

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