In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Thought Experiments

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks and Popular Works
  • Anthologies
  • Special Journal Issues
  • Historical Analyses

Philosophy Thought Experiments
by
James Robert Brown, Michael T. Stuart
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • 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, including what kinds of thought experiments there are, what roles they play, and how, if at all, they work. This last question has been the focus of much of the literature: How can we learn something new about the world just by thinking? 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 rival alternative accounts. There is still 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. Arcangeli 2017 and Stuart, et al. 2018 provide recent overviews of the issues. Brown and Fehige 2019 offers a periodically updated survey of thought experiments and the literature on it. Otherwise, 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. Horowitz and Massey 1991 is one of the first works stimulating the current interest in thought experiments. Brown 2011 (originally published in 1991) is an early work with many examples. For German readers, Cohnitz 2006 and Kühne 2005 both offer extensive coverage of many topics. Häggqvist 1996 is a critical survey, with an emphasis on modal considerations. Rescher 2005 and Sorensen 1992 both cover a variety of issues and provide many examples.

  • Arcangeli, Margherita. “Thought Experiments in Model-Based Reasoning.” In Springer Handbook of Model-Based Science. Edited by Lorenzo Magnani and Tommaso Bertolotti, 463–495. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-30526-4_21E-mail Citation »

    An overview of the recent literature on thought experiments, with a focus on model-based reasoning.

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

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203847794E-mail Citation »

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

  • Brown, James Robert, and Yiftach Fehige. “Thought Experiments.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2019.

    E-mail Citation »

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

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

    E-mail Citation »

    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.

  • Gendler, Tamar S. Thought Experiment: On the Powers and Limits of Imaginary Cases. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2000.

    E-mail Citation »

    A revised version of Gendler’s PhD thesis, which discusses the role of imagination in thought experiments that use “exceptional cases” to generate new knowledge. Focuses on three case studies: Galileo’s falling bodies, Theseus’s Ship, and Parfit’s fission thought experiment concerning personal identity. Provides four separate and useful bibliographies.

  • Häggqvist, Sören. Thought Experiments in Philosophy. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1996.

    E-mail Citation »

    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. Proceedings of a conference held at the Center for Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, 18–20 April 1986. Savage, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1991.

    E-mail Citation »

    Stems from a conference at the University of Pittsburgh in 1986 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 online.

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

    E-mail Citation »

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

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

    E-mail Citation »

    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.

    E-mail Citation »

    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.

  • Stuart, Michael T., Yiftach Fehige, and James R. Brown. “Thought Experiments: State of the Art.” In The Routledge Companion to Thought Experiments. Edited by Michael T. Stuart, Yiftach Fehige, and James R. Brown, 1–28. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2018.

    E-mail Citation »

    Provides an overview of the literature with examples, and a brief history of the philosophy of thought experiments.

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