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.

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