The Freedom Center and Fall 2022 FC Talks series presents Adrian Blau (King’s College London).

Adrian has published 10 journal articles and book chapters on the methodology of history of political thought. He edited the first ever textbook on political theory methods: Methods in Analytical Political Theory (Cambridge University Press, 2017). He is currently working on the methodology of thought experiments in political philosophy. Adrian has published several articles and chapters on Hobbes’s political theory, and is writing a book called Hobbes’s Failed Science of Politics and Ethics. His PhD research was on normative aspects of electoral systems and he still works and publishes on democratic theory and practice.

Thought experiments are often criticised, but their use is inevitable and desirable. Conceptual thought experiments help us test and potentially refine definitions. Normative thought experiments help us test and potentially refine principles. Why? Because definitions and principles are general propositions which already entail the variables found in relevant thought experiments. ‘Do as you like as long as you don’t harm others’ means that you can give yourself a tattoo or juggle with chainsaws as long as you don’t harm others. Whether or not the person who states the normative principle has thought of tattoos or chainsaw-juggling, the principle includes these situations, and we can use such situations to think through the general proposition. It remains an open question as to how much work thought experiments can do, whether ‘counternomic’ thought experiments (which violate physical laws of nature) give us useful normative ideas for real human situations, and whether strange or self-indulgent thought experiments are more annoying than useful. But in general, thought experiments are a desirable and inevitable part of political philosophy, philosophy more generally, and indeed any discipline where one seeks to test a definition with examples.