Botany Building, Parkville Campus, University of Melbourne, 2016. Photographer: Jamie Coutts

Paul-George Arnaud

Paul-George Arnaud (PhD in Philosophy, 2021) ‘Philosophy and the Method of Cases: Three Interpretations’

The method of cases is an approach to philosophical theorising that involves the use of thought experiments to evoke intuitions for the purpose of evaluating philosophical claims and theories on the basis of their fit with these intuitions. Although there is a widely shared view that this method plays a central and distinctive role in philosophical inquiry, traditional accounts are increasingly met with scepticism following several decades of critical scrutiny. The recent surge of interest in methodology and metaphilosophy has also brought with it exciting new ways of understanding and pursuing philosophical work. Among these, conceptual engineering and metalinguistic negotiation seem to have produced the most enthusiasm. These alternatives conceptions of philosophy raise new questions concerning whether the method of cases still has a place in philosophy, and present new possibilities for understanding it.

This thesis outlines and evaluates three interpretations of the method of cases and its role in philosophy. The first is a traditional interpretation, according to which the intuitions evoked by philosophical thought experiments are used in the first instance as evidence for or against descriptive semantic claims about shared concepts or linguistic meanings. I will refer to this interpretation as ‘Conceptual Analysis’. The second is a normative metalinguistic interpretation, according to which philosophers use the method of cases in arguments about how philosophically interesting concepts or expressions should be used in various contexts. I will refer to this interpretation as ‘Revision’. The third interpretation analyses the method of cases from the perspective of cultural evolutionary theory. It claims that philosophical work using the method of cases reliably contributes to the refinement of our linguistic tools, not through intentional normative evaluation like conceptual engineering, but by influencing the cumulative cultural evolutionary processes that produced these tools in the first place. I will refer to this interpretation as the ‘Innovation View’.

These interpretations will be evaluated in respect to their ability to rationally explain philosophical practice with the method of cases. This is important because, the method of cases has a very long history and seems to play an important role, more or less directly, in many if not most philosophical arguments. Without a satisfactory explanation, we may not be able to avoid the conclusion that much of this work is epistemically deficient.

Supervisors: Dr François Schroeter, Dr Laura Schroeter