Experimental Philosophy, Ethnomethodology, and Intentional Action: A Textual Analysis of the Knobe Effect

Gustav Lymer, Olle Blomberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In "Intentional action and side-effects in ordinary language” (2003), Joshua Knobe reported an asymmetry in test subjects’ responses to a question about intentionality: subjects are more likely to judge that a side effect of an agent’s intended action is intentional if they think the side effect is morally bad than if they think it is morally good. This result has been taken to suggest that the concept of intentionality is an inherently moral concept. In this paper, we draw attention to the fact that Knobe’s original interpretation of the results is based on an abstract rendering of the central scenario (the Chairman scenario) that is significantly different from the vignettes presented to the survey participants. In particular, the experimental vignettes involve temporal and social dimensions; they portray sequences of social actions involving an agent and an interlocutor, rather than a lone agent making a momentary decision in light of certain attitudes. Through textual analyses of a set of vignettes used to study the Knobe effect, drawing on ethnomethodology, conversation analysis, and discursive psychology, we show that there are many differences between the experimental conditions besides the moral valence of the side effect. In light of our textual analyses, we discuss vignette methodology in experimental philosophy and suggest an alternative interpretation of Knobe’s original experimental results. We also argue that experimental philosophy could benefit from considering research on naturally occurring social interaction as an alternative source of empirical findings for discussions of folk-psychological concepts.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)673-694
JournalHuman Studies: A Journal for Philosophy and the Social Sciences
Issue number4
Early online date2019 Jul 18
Publication statusPublished - 2019

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Philosophy


  • Knobe effect
  • intentional action
  • textual analysis
  • ethnomethodology
  • Experimental Philosophy


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