Do Philosophers Just Claim To Know Things By “Intuition”

In 2012, Herman Cappelen published a book arguing that philosophers do not in fact reason by simply looking at their intuitions and declaring them to be truths. He gave a really interesting interview a year ago to Carrie Figdor at New Books In Philosophy. Towards the end I was particularly pleased to hear his criticism of the aspect of so-called experimental philosophy which has long disturbed me as superficial and wrongheaded and even naive whenever it just presents of polling people’s “intuitions” and, without critical philosophizing about what exactly their relevance is, seems to treat such opinion polls as tantamount to deciding the philosophical issue via “experiment”. The criticism of this possible interpretation of what the ex-phi people are doing is towards the end of the interview. Check out the interview. Below is a more technical description of its contents from the New Books In Philosophy page.

It’s taken for granted among analytic philosophers that some of their primary areas of inquiry – ethics, epistemology, philosophy of mind and philosophy of language, in particular – involve a special and characteristic methodology that depends essentially on the use of intuitions as evidence for philosophical positions. A thought experiment is developed in order to elicit intuitive judgments, and these judgments have a special epistemic status. Paradigm cases of this methodology include Gettier cases, in which we judge whether the subject in the scenario has or does not have knowledge, and Putnam’s Twin-Earth cases, in which we judge whether the contents of thought depend on the physical nature of a thinker’s environment. The new experimental philosophy movement also accepts this assumption, as it is premised on rejecting it by conducting real experiments (with non-philosophers as subjects) rather than thought-experiments.

In Philosophy Without Intuitions (Oxford University Press, 2012), Herman Cappelen, professor of philosophy at the Arche Philosophical Research Centre at the University of St. Andrews, argues that this assumption is simply false as a descriptive claim about the practice of contemporary analytic philosophy. Instead, a detailed look at the thought experiments shows that uses of the term “intuition” or “intuitively” are better interpreted as an unfortunate verbal tic or as a conversational hedge indicating that a claim is just a snap judgment or a bit of pre-theoretic background. What is not true, he claims, is that the judgments have bedrock epistemological status, are considered justified without appeals to experience and without inference, that inclinations to believe these judgments tend to be recalcitrant to further evidence, or that these judgments are based on conceptual competence or have a special phenomenology.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Denis Robert

    The problem is that a significant majority, if not the vast majority of philosophers ultimately use intuition, i.e. prejudice, as their ultimate guide to the validity of their views. Case in point is the current fashion of calling multiverse-based arguments against “fine-tuning” “unsatisfactory”. What does “unsatisfactory” mean if not “it offends my sensibilities”? it’s a value judgement, not a rational one. It’s nothing but a way to claim authority for something you have no real authority on. “I don’t like it, so it can’t be true”. There’s no logical argument involved, just personal preference.

    I’ve often thought that philosophy was too often the use of language and logical structure to justify one’s prejudices. This tends to be true of all academic disciplines that have “schools”. There is no “multiverse” school of science vs non-multiverse. The world of physics doesn’t split into two opposite camps that argue over what their discipline is about. There are varieties of opinions on subjects, some superficial, some more fundamental, but “Big Bang Theory” jokes about QLG vs String Theory aside, there is no such division as there is between “Continental” and “Analytic” philosophy.

    So I applaud any attempt to do away with “intuition” in philosophy. We have yet to see if it is possible to have academic philosophy that is not rooted in prejudice and politics. I for one would love to see what that would look like.

  • http://outshine-the-sun.blogspot.com/ Andrew G.

    From a recent exchange I had elsewhere:

    Other person: “First principles of logic are intuited. You cannot do anything intellectually without appeal to transcendent principles.”

    Me: “some methods of reasoning work in the sense that they produce results which are consistent with the real world. We derive basic principles of logic by looking at what
    these methods have in common and abstracting it out.”

    • http://batman-news.com Anton

      Me: “some methods of reasoning work in the sense that they produce results which are consistent with the real world. We derive basic principles of logic by looking at what these methods have in common and abstracting it out.”

      The problem being that our conception of the “real world” is fraught with philosophical baggage already. We only compare new results with the theoretical framework we’ve built to represent reality. It works, but whether it’s because our model is accurate or just self-validating is anyone’s guess.

    • http://outshine-the-sun.blogspot.com/ Andrew G.

      Reality doesn’t care about your philosophical baggage. Get the model wrong enough and your buildings fall down and your sheep don’t add up.

    • http://batman-news.com Anton

      Not that it’s presumptuous to speak for reality or anything.

    • sean samis

      Anton,

      Aren’t your conceptions of reality fraught with your own philosophical baggage? As Andrew wrote, “get the model wrong enough and your buildings fall down and your sheep don’t add up”; is the fact of a building collapse or the loss of sheep merely a philosophical position? Does reality care about your philosophical baggage?

      sean s.

    • http://batman-news.com Anton

      Aren’t your conceptions of reality fraught with your own philosophical baggage?

      My point exactly. Notice how I never talk about reality like I alone have a monopoly on it?

      As Andrew wrote, “get the model wrong enough and your buildings fall down and your sheep don’t add up”; is the fact of a building collapse or the loss of sheep merely a philosophical position?

      No, but is our knowledge of the development of life on Earth or the origin of the universe really as empirically verifiable as watching a building crumble or counting sheep? If our hypotheses and buildings jibe with the way we’ve modeled reality, we’ve validated our hypothesis, not necessarily the model.

      Does reality care about your philosophical baggage?

      You’re mistaking the knowledge we’ve gained about reality, which is a socially constructed phenomenon, with reality itself, which can only be objectified through the models we use to understand it.

      Do you have some sort of magic, unmediated access to reality that we should know about?

    • sean samis

      Re: Notice how I never talk about reality like I alone have a monopoly on it?

      Nobody here is, so this shows you don’t even comprehend what we are saying.

      Re: is our knowledge of the development of life on Earth or the origin of the universe really as empirically verifiable as watching a building crumble or counting sheep?

      Since knowledge of the development of life on Earth or the origin of the universe is very different from watching buildings crumble or counting sheep, their empirical verification cannot be meaningfully compared; and for that matter counting sheep is not meaningfully like watching a building crumble either.

      It is not necessary that our knowledge of event X be “as empirically verifiable” as event Y for our knowledge of X to be reliable.

      Further; what is the metric of empirical verification other than probability? Our knowledge of evolution, natural selection and the cosmological expansion model are sufficient to make alternatives highly improbable.

      Re: If our hypotheses and buildings jibe with the way we’ve modeled reality, we’ve validated our hypothesis, not necessarily the model.

      The model is the hypothesis if they are true to each other; if we validate the later, we validate the former. Only if the model is not true to the hypothesis could we validate the one without the other. This latter situation does not apply to evolution by natural selection nor the cosmological expansion model.

      Re: You’re mistaking the knowledge blah blah blah.

      I have no idea where that comes from. All I asked is if reality cares about your philosophical baggage. The answer is No. So if the theory is tested against reality, and passes, much of the baggage can be discounted.

      sean s.

    • http://batman-news.com Anton

      Re: Notice how I never talk about reality like I alone have a monopoly on it?

      Nobody here is, so this shows you don’t even comprehend what we are saying.

      You guys certainly do talk about reality (and what reality “cares about”) as if it’s support for your viewpoints. And since we only access reality through a method of inquiry laden with philosophical assumptions and biases, I think it’s a little presumptuous.

      For the record, I have no problem with Big Bang, species evolution, or any other mainstream scientific theory. I just wanted to point out that empirical evidential inquiry is a metaphorical construct that serves as a framework for research, not a tool to validate our personal prejudices.

    • sean samis

      Re: “You guys certainly do talk about reality (and what reality “cares about”) as if it’s support for your viewpoints.

      Reality and evidence never take sides, they just are what they are. My position is based on the evidence, nothing more, and the evidence certainly does support us. If you think the evidence does not, that is a different thing.

      Re: “I just wanted to point out that empirical evidential inquiry is … not a tool to validate our personal prejudices.

      Agreed, but then you are the one giving full reign to your personal prejudices.

      sean s.

    • http://batman-news.com Anton

      My position is based on the evidence, nothing more, and the evidence certainly does support us.

      What position are you talking about here? What evidence are you talking about? And how does the evidence support it?

      you are the one giving full reign to your personal prejudices.

      That would be true, if I had ever used reality to validate my personal prejudices. But I never did.

    • sean samis

      SooOoOOoo … you don’t know what position I’m taking yet you still find fault with it? Hmm. Sounds like an exercise of pure prejudice.

      sean s.

    • http://batman-news.com Anton

      Sean, all I meant was that I’m not sure which “position” you’re talking about. If it’s the claim that Reality and evidence never take sides, they just are what they are, how does evidence support it? And isn’t that sort of contradicting your view that “reality” never takes sides in the first place?

  • Y. A. Warren

    …and along come despots who kill all who challenge their “philosophies.”


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