In This Article Thought Experiments

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks and Popular Works
  • Anthologies
  • Historical Emphasis
  • Computer Simulations
  • Intuition
  • Literary Fiction
  • Mathematics
  • Biology, Chemistry, Economics, History, Pedagogy, and Theology
  • Critiques
  • Culture, Race, and Gender Differences
  • Miscellaneous and Amusing Pieces

Philosophy Thought Experiments
by
James Robert Brown
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0143

Introduction

Thought experiments are performed in the imagination. We set up some situation, we observe what happens, then we try to draw appropriate conclusions. In this way, thought experiments resemble real experiments, except that they are experiments in the mind. The terms “thought experiment,” “imaginary experiment,” and “Gedankenexperiment” are used interchangeably. There is no consensus on a definition, but there is widespread agreement on which are standard examples. It is also widely agreed that they play a central role in a number of fields, especially physics and philosophy. There are several important questions about thought experiments that naturally arise, but one of these is central: how can we learn something new about the world just by thinking? The question is especially pressing in the context of a prevailing empiricism. The answers range from “We don’t really learn anything new” to “We have some sort of a priori insight into how nature works.” In between there are a great variety of alternative, rival accounts. There is no consensus; debate is wide open on almost every question pertaining to thought experiments.

General Overviews

There has always been some interest in the nature of thought experiments, but it is only in recent years that it has become a popular topic of philosophical interest. The early works from the current period may be the best place to start, since they provide lots of examples and have tended to set the agenda for subsequent discussion. Brown and Fehige 2008 offers a periodically updated survey of thought experiments, while Brown 2011 provides an early work with many examples. For German readers, Cohnitz 2006 and Kühne 2005 both offer extensive coverage of many topics. Haggqvist 1996 is a critical survey of many topics, with an emphasis on modal considerations. Horowitz and Massey 1991 is one of the first works stimulating the current interest in thought experiments. Rescher 2005 and Sorensen 1992 both cover a variety of topics and provide many examples.

  • Brown, James Robert. Laboratory of the Mind: Thought Experiments in the Natural Sciences. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2011.

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    An early work with several standard examples and a taxonomy classifying the different forms they take. The author argues for a rationalistic, or Platonistic account of thought experiments, claiming that in some (but not all) we have an a priori access to the abstract realm of laws of nature. Originally published in 1991.

  • Brown, James Robert, and Yiftach Fehige. “Thought Experiments.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2008.

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    A survey of the major issues with a comprehensive bibliography, periodically updated.

  • Cohnitz, Daniel. Gendankenexperimente in der Philosophie. Paderborn, Germany: Mentis, 2006.

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    Presents an argument for the usefulness of thought experiments in philosophy. Extensive discussion of different theories of modality to defend thought experiments in philosophy for different purposes, much like conceptual analysis.

  • Haggqvist, Soren. Thought Experiments in Philosophy. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1996.

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    A critical discussion of the early rival accounts of thought experiments. Especially concerned with the relation between thought experiments and modal notions (necessity and possibility).

  • Horowitz, T., and G. Massey, eds. Thought Experiments in Science and Philosophy. Savage, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1991.

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    Stems from a conference and contains several excellent and influential articles on a wide range of topics. It is currently out of print, but fortunately, a PDF of the whole book is available for free at the Pittsburgh Archive.

  • Kühne, Ulrich. Die Methode des Gedankenexperiments. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2005.

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    The most comprehensive study of the history of inquiry into thought experiments from Kant to the Brown-Norton debate. Noteworthy are the chapters on Orsted and Einstein. Argues that Orsted’s notion of thought experiment is hopelessly confusing and that Einstein, contrary to widespread belief, did not like the method of thought experiments.

  • Rescher, Nicholas. What If?: Thought Experimentation in Philosophy. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2005.

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    A general and less specialized discussion of thought experiments, includes several historically famous examples. Explores the distinctions between thought experiments and real experiments.

  • Sorensen, Roy. Thought Experiments. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

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    Very wide-ranging. Covers a great many topics in both philosophy and the sciences, and provides a great many examples and deep insights on many issues. One of the author’s central claims is that thought experiments are experiments that merely have not been performed. Develops a theory of the epistemic power of thought experiments in terms of Darwinian evolution.

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