Arne Næss (1912-2009)
Via LogBlog I found out that Arne Næss has passed away. He was the last living associate of the Vienna Circle, an accomplished mountain climber, an influential philosopher and teacher in Norway and the founder of deep ecology.
He was also probably the first experimental philosopher. In 1938 he published a book called „Truth” as Conceived by Those Who Are Not Professional Philosophers, for which he polled 300 people with questions about their understanding of the truth concept. The book was reviewed in the Journal of Philosophy a year later by „E.N.” (Ernest Nagel?) [JSTOR link].
Among Næss’ conclusions were that there is no unique common-sense concept of truth, and that apart from jargon, all philosophical truth-theories are readily available to the laypersons. As the reviewer notes, one of the main objectives of the work was the introduction of a new method in philosophy: philosophers
should go about their job as does the experimental biologist; they should not „solve” such problems by making vague pronouncements not based upon or controllable by publicly determined facts, but should instead devote themselves to the history and logic of science as well as the psychology and sociology of research, and so discover the function of these terms in their concrete settings. (p. 79)
The book caught Tarski’s attention, who mentioned it in his famous 1944 paper „The Semantic Conception of Truth and the Foundations of Semantics” [JSTOR link], in the section called „Conformity of the semantic conception of truth with philosophical and common-sense usage”, where he wrote (at p. 360):
I happen to believe that the semantic conception does conform to a very considerable extent with the common-sense usage — although I readily admit I may be mistaken. What is more to the point, however, I believe that the issue raised can be settled scientifically, though of course not by a deductive procedure, but with the help of the statistical questionnaire method. As a matter of fact, such research has been carried on, and some of the results have been reported at congresses and in part published. [fn. referencing Næss’ book omitted]
However, Tarski’s favorable nod towards this kind of approach to philosophy has been the exception until quite recently. In the review, E.N. rightly prophesized that for the moment
most philosophers will not be prepared to undertake the sort of „dirty work” to which Dr. Ness invites them, [so] he will no doubt remain an outcast from the philosophic community and will have to find what solace he can in being a „mere” scientist. (p. 79)
I’d be curious to learn whether someone is trying to pick up Næss’ experimental work on truth, and perhaps other topics in the philosophy of logic and language (incidentally, most of the topics discussed by experimental philosophers seem to fall into metaphysics, epistemology and ethics, with the exception of the infamous cross-cultural semantics paper).
[Incidentally, Tarski would’ve been 108 today]