Replication in philosophy, or replicating data-free studies  

Blog post by Hans Van Eyghen, Member of the NLRN steering group

The replication crisis, which arose primarily in the biomedical and psychological sciences, was both a blessing for replications and somewhat of a curse. Its lasting impact lies in the recognition for the need for replicability. Replicability is now generally seen as a way to make the impacted disciplines better and to make them more robust, allowing for quality control and independent confirmation of findings. The minor curse inflicted by the replication crisis is that replicability is sometimes regarded as a specific solution to a specific problem. Disciplines without replication crises would not stand in need of increased replicability and any push for replicability may inflict more problems than are solved. Such a sentiment is especially at work in the humanities. The humanities did not go through a replication crisis. This has left some in the humanities with the idea that replication is a fix for others. Furthermore, pushing for increased replicability in the humanities would mean importing a problem and methodology that is not theirs.  

There is no reason why studies in the humanities would not benefit from increased quality control or corroboration

While there are profound differences between the humanities and other disciplines, the key reasons for increased replicability remain the same. Quality control refers to checking whether studies are well conducted. Quality control is key to weeding out mistakes (willed or unwilled) or other reasons why any study is not up to standards. Corroboration refers to findings the same or similar conclusions while redoing the same (or a similar) study. There is no reason why studies in the humanities would not benefit from increased quality control or corroboration. An argument in favor of increased replicability, which allows for more quality control and corroboration is therefore quickly found.  

Nonetheless, some suggest reasons why increased replicability might not be feasible for the humanities. While the details vary, the reasons center around the idea that the humanities are just too different. More than other disciplines, the humanities involve interpretation. The objects of the humanities also are not just quantifiable data, but qualitative, meaningful objects or subjects. Finally, a considerable number of studies in the humanities do not involve data, analysis thereof or anything like it all. In those cases, it is not at all clear what replication would involve.  

I will focus here on the final argument, i.e. some humanities studies do not have data and therefore have no need for replicability. Replicability usually involves being clear about the data used, how it was analyzed and how conclusions were drawn. Clear examples of such ‘data-less’ studies are a priori reasoning in philosophy. A considerable number of studies in philosophy consist of reflection on arguments or questions like ‘Is knowledge justified true belief?’ or ‘Is morality objectively true?’. Attempts at answers do not rely on surveys (if one is not engaging in experimental philosophy) or empirically collected facts. Instead, philosophers tend to rely on a priori processes, like reflective equilibrium, conceptual analysis or others.  

Photo by Alex Block on Unsplash
Photo by Alex Block on Unsplash

Does lack of data exclude replicability or replication of such studies? It does not. Data-less studies can benefit from increased transparency and details as well. As most beginning PhD-students in philosophy know, it is often highly opaque how conclusions are drawn in a priori philosophy. Philosophers do tend to clearly define terms and meticulously write down arguments for why a conclusion is valid. More than often, however, philosophers are not upfront about how they analyze their concepts. Some kind of method like conceptual analysis is usually at work but the exact type of method used is often not made explicit. Philosophers also tend not to be transparent about how they arrived at their conclusions, how they came up with examples or why they started thinking about the topic in the first place. The answers to these questions may be quite trivial and uninformative, like ‘I was thinking hard for a long time’. However, in many cases, philosophers rely heavily on input during paper discussions, presentations at conferences and peer review. Often this input goes unacknowledged, or acknowledgment is limited to one note in the final paper.  

What would a replicable data-less study look like? Like other replicable studies, it would need a section on methodology where the researcher lays out the methods she used and why these methods are appropriate. Such a section will allow (younger) researchers to reconstruct how the study was brought about and do the same study again. The replicable paper will also include information on how examples were found and how conclusions were reached. It would also include information on how the research topic was altered during the course of the ongoing research and why this was deemed necessary.  

Increased replicability of data-less studies would help make the discipline more open to newcomers and other disciplines.

Increased replicability of data-less studies would help make the discipline more open to newcomers and other disciplines. This can help avoid gatekeeping and make research more available. More importantly, it would help make studies better by allowing for quality control and corroboration, which remains the central goal of replication studies.