Philosophical Studies

, Volume 175, Issue 2, pp 363–384 | Cite as

Thought experiments without possible worlds

  • Daniel DohrnEmail author


The method of thought experiments or possible cases is widespread in philosophy and elsewhere. Thought experiments come with variegated theoretical commitments. These commitments are risky. They may turn out to be false or at least controversial. Other things being equal, it seems preferable to do with minimal commitments. I explore exemplary ways of minimising commitments, focusing on modal ones. There is a near-consensus to treat the scenarios considered in thought experiments as metaphysical possibilities (most aptly treated as possible worlds). I challenge this consensus. Paradigmatic thought experiments do not have to come with a commitment to metaphysical possibilities. In the first section, I point out difficulties with the prevailing focus on metaphysical possibilities. In the second section, I present alternative formalisations of a paradigmatic thought experiment, the Gettier experiment. Gettier’s words leave open the kind of possibilities under consideration. The standard way of spelling out Gettier’s argument uses metaphysical possibilities. One alternative proposal uses nomological possibilities. A second one uses epistemic possibilities. My modest conclusion: as long as it is not established that a thought experiment requires a commitment to metaphysical modality, one should avoid such a commitment. My preferred way of doing so is to replace the commitment to one particular formalisation by a commitment to a disjunction of alternative formalisations.


Thought experiment Possible case Gettier Modal Metaphysical Possible world Possibility Necessity Counterfactual Conditional Epistemology A priori Epistemic possibility 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institut für PhilosophieHU BerlinBerlinGermany

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