How To Talk About Intuitions

In discussions about philosophical method, the word ‘intuition’ is a dangerous thing, because almost no one specifies what they mean by it. The exception is philosophers writing on the nature of intuitions as a specific philosophical problem, but this work does not seem to have much effect on wider discussions.1 The result is confusion. At the extreme, writers will say that a particular argument doesn’t depend on intuition, when all they mean is that it does not rely on a sui generis faculty of rational intuition.

At some level, the issue is terminological. I doubt anything about ordinary language or philosophical use settles a precise definition of “intuition” that would be relevant to metaphilosophical questions. I tend to favor something like Mark Lynch’s definition from “Trusting Intuitions” as the one which best captures the category relevant to philosophical practice and allows us to produce interesting generalizations.2 Still, what’s more important than using a particular conception is being explicit about the conception you’re using and being aware of the various alternatives.

Another problem is widespread denial about how much intuitions are used in a particular subfield. You’ll often hear someone say that their field doesn’t make heavy use of intuitions, but instead either takes ordinary beliefs as “a reasonable though revisable starting place” or tries to say something about the consistency of various claims.

The first defense sometimes comes from philosophers who somehow think that relying on the reliability of ordinary belief on a particular topic isn’t an appeal to intuition (it typically is), which brings us back to the first problem about explicitness.

But the bigger issue is that there’s a peculiar tendency to ignore the role of intuitions unless they’re the sole source of support for a high-profile claim. So the trolley problem literature gets tarred for reliance on intuition because major premises of arguments are defended by direct appeal to intuition. In contrast, if you make sure to argue for each of your premises without ever saying that they’re “intuitive”, you’re ok, never mind how many times those arguments relied on intuition. Call it epistemic money-laundering. So long as the appeal to intuition is small enough that you don’t have to mention it in your paper’s abstract, no one notices the crime.

Perhaps the thought is that those appeals to intuition, being both offhand and arguments for the subsidiary premises, can just be dispensed with. Philosophers do take a lot of shortcuts and a lot of false assumptions for the sake of simplicity. But as a mere shortcut, intuitions are suspect. No one ever shows how they could be dispensed with, whereas you occasionally see someone come along and explain how an example works if you don’t assume that the world is made up of indivisible atoms.3 There’s a reason for that: without intuitions we would have no idea how to argue for most philosophical claims. Unless every essential part of your argument can be made without appeal to intuition, your entire argument relies on intuitions. If the issue were merely that appeals to intuition were not perfectly reliable, showing that large parts of your argument were free from intuition would help.4 But the issue is that in many areas of philosophy, it is unclear how intuitions could be any kind of tool for discovering the truth, even a fallible one. If that is the case, it’s no better to have rely on one intuition than it is to rely on a thousand. There is no partial credit.

The second defense, that philosophers are just finding inconsistencies, is really a bit silly. Given a large enough body of claims, formalized definitions, etc, you might have logical incompatibilities between them. But that will not be the typical case. In general, when philosophers prove that two claims are incompatible, they do not formalize the derivation of an inconsistency in some innocuous logical system.5 Instead, a philosopher will prove that p and q are inconsistent in virtue of subsidiary assumptions about what would be true given p or q, and how are those assumptions defended? By appeal to intuition. As you get further and further away from the main claims of the paper, the less obvious an appeal to intuition will be flagged as such–perhaps a claim will just be called implausible, without any reason given. Epistemic money laundering appears yet again.

The solutions are obvious, though they require work. First, when you talk about intuitions, specify your understanding of what they are. More importantly, have examples at hand of how various philosophers do or don’t rely on intuitions in their work. This requires looking both at the big picture of how a particular philosophical investigation proceeds, as well as at the arguments of particular papers. Even showing that a particular paper does not make essential use of intuitions would not suffice, unless that paper is self-contained, not relying on assumptions from the literature that are themselves defended via appeal to intuition.

Though getting such a detailed picture of how intuitions appear in philosophy is a major undertaking, I can’t imagine any other way to understand the evidence we rely on in philosophy. And short of getting a grip on that question, I don’t see any way to do philosophy properly.

1 Though I can’t endorse much that he says about the topic, give Tim Williamson credit for being a model of explicitness here.

2 Briefly, I think Bealer’s definition has almost no instances, making it trivial that philosophers don’t rely on them, Sosa’s definition is too general, making it impossible to get any traction on the question of whether philosophical appeals to intuition are reliable. I think Lynch’s definition has just the right level of generality that it could support each of the following claims:

  • philosophers do use intuitions, and this is an important aspect of their practice
  • it’s not a foregone conclusion that all philosophy must rely on intuitions in a bad way
  • you can say that while we’re going to have to rely on some epistemological intuitions, most metaphysical intuitions are bunk, and that their subject matter is an important part of the explanation why

3 Perhaps a bad example. It’s surprising how often it matters that the world isn’t made of atoms. But at least people try in that case! In contrast, no one even tries to make arguments without appeals to intuition.

4 I wonder if this is a bad by-product of experimental philosophy. Because there have been so many papers examining the ways in which intuitions might be biased, subject to order effects, and so on, some philosophers think those are the primary worries about intuitions. Those are serious issues for a well regulated practice of appeal to intuitions. But they’re entirely beside the point if you cannot establish that there is any prima facie reason to believe our intuitive beliefs bear any connection to the truth. Experimental philosophy often seems to show that intuitions are like eye-witness reports. My worry is that they may be like the deliverances of self-titled clairvoyants (since I’m apparently forgetting my philosophical folklore, I don’t mean the accurate clairvoyants you get in thought experiments).

5 Yes, you do find exceptions. But they’re rare.

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