Category Archives: Philosophy

Wilfrid says it’s everything

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.

Disagreement And Williamson On Evidence

For whatever reason, I was reading David Enoch’s draft of “Not Just A Truthometer: Taking Oneself Seriously (but not Too Seriously) in Cases of Peer Disagreement”, when I noticed something that surprised me:

Fifth, and again following the literature here, I will focus on cases where the disagreeing peers share all the relevant evidence, and indeed where this very fact is a matter of common knowledge between them. Typical examples include a simple arithmetical calculation (what evidence could anyone possibly lack here?), philosophical debates where all concerned know of all the relevant arguments, and perhaps also moral debates of a similar nature. 

This is probably pretty obvious, but the stipulation that the two parties to a dispute share all relevant evidence has very strange consequences for anyone who accepts Williamson’s thesis (E=K) that our evidence just consists of all and only those propositions that we know.

Two parties to a disagreement might share all relevant information prior to thinking about the issue, but once they begin thinking about the issue, they’ll make various inferences, and given that they end up disagreeing, they’ll probably infer different things.  If any of those things they inferred count as knowledge, then they no longer share the same evidence.

And so, with a casual stipulation at the beginning of their papers, Enoch and most other writers about disagreement have been brushing aside one of the more prominent theses in contemporary epistemology.

Postscript: I say “brushing aside” because this isn’t strictly an incompatibility.  You can maintain E=K, discuss the topic of disagreement with the stipulation of identical evidence, and then just admit that peer disagreement is not only a little bit uncommon, but incredibly unlikely.  This is not how the discussion proceeds, and there would be reason to carefully scrutinize any paper that did proceed that way.

Putnam On Schröder And Peirce

Spurred by a footnote in Peter Sullivan’s Frege’s Logic, I wanted to find out a bit more about Ernst Schröder.  His wikipedia page included a long excerpt from a Putnam paper, exhibiting a very different perspective on the history of logic than the usual.  Putnam’s paper was published in Historia Mathematica, then reprinted in Realism With A Human Face, which is available on Gigapedia. Since I’m poorly informed about the Boolean tradition, I’ll just present a selection of quotations in lieu of commentary:

“[Begriffschrift] is astonishing because it has no predecessors: it appears to have been born from Frege’s brain unfertilized by external influences.” Michael Dummett, Frege: Philosophy of Language.

A partial, and, perhaps, a somewhat dishonorable exception is Schröder.  Clearly offended by Frege’s neglect of existing work in logic, not least his own, the general drift of Schröder’s review is that Frege, working in naïve isolation, has achieved no more than to reinvent in cumbrous and eccentric form the Boolean wheel. But Schröder was too good a logician for his irritation to have altogether hidden from him the inadequacy of that verdict…” Sullivan, Frege’s Logic, fn 24.

“I assumed that everyone realized that with the appearance of a complete “algebra of classes” the dam was broken, and (given the mathematical sophistication of the age) the subsequent development was inevitable. It seemed inconceivable to me that anyone could date the continuous effective development of modern mathematical logic from any point other than the appearance of Boole’s two major logical works, the Mathematical Analysis and the Laws of Thought.” Putnam, Peirce the Logician

A Paper Of Mine

I never did actually write anything on here about the topic of disagreement, but I wrote an essay on the subject, and this week I submitted it to Karl to finish one of my courses (ED: you ask how I submitted it to finish a course in mid-late February? That’s just how things work around these parts).  Structurally, the paper is a mess, and it falls well short of what I’d aim for in a complete treatment of the topic, but I think the ideas are not all bad.

I’m posting the paper for anyone who wants to read it.  Buyer beware.  Also, since it’s unfinished work, I’ll probably take it down at some point, when I either start revising or put the topic on the back burner.  As you might guess, it’s not to be redistributed or cited, but I’d be happy to hear comments, either here or by email.

Famine, Affluence, and Morality

I was persuaded to read Peter Singer’s essay on rationing health care by a friend’s comments, and it reminded me of a long held view that might be worth sharing. Namely, when reading Singer’s article, Famine, Affluence, and Morality, ignore the utilitarianism. Of course parts of the argument do rely on a utilitarian point of view–that I won’t deny. To understand the article as the author wrote it, you must attend to the utilitarianism. But to gain from reading the article, read it from a perspective of common sense morality (or your variant therof), and contemplate your response.

Quote Of The Day

So there’s a characteristic pseudo-self-sufficiency to concessive theory – a characteristic pseudo-completeness. (A feeling that when you’ve said all there is to say about how to be an effective leader, or an effective person, in a rather instrumental way, there isn’t anything left to be said.) There’s also a characteristic bait-and-switch quality to it, in that it is normative, so it is easier to miss that it may not be normative in all the ways that we need it to be. (John Holbo)

Who Is Responsible For Doing “Something Else”?

In his essay on the passing of many great figures of post-WWII analytic philosophy, the professionalization and specialization of philosophy, and the shift towards philosophy as a vocation, Brian Leiter discusses and rejects Rorty’s view of the field:

…Richard Rorty (1931-2007), who felt so confident that the philosophical problems of millennia –about the nature of truth and knowledge – were misguided and pointless (all cases of chmess?), that he wanted philosophers to give up on the traditions running from Plato to Hume to Hegel, to do “something else”. What the “something else” amounted to was, alas, never very clear – and why philosophers should have been thought especially competent to do it even less so. One doesn’t need to be trained in the history of philosophy, after all, to produce pablum about “liberal” patriotism, as Rorty, sadly, ended up doing. Rorty may have garnered a substantial following among those who knew little about philosophy and its traditions, but it is a safe bet that, in the era of intellectual specialisation, his actual influence on philosophy will be short-lived.

My view of philosophy doesn’t follow Rorty’s anymore, if it ever did.  I’m at most a fellow traveler so far as I suspect that the field may have an inaccurate image of what it can hope to accomplish.  And do pay attention to that “suspect…may have…” in the previous sentence.  There’s far too little that I understand to be confident about what type of philosophy needs to be done.  So when I speak for Rorty, in what follows, remember both that I’m not speaking for myself, and that I may be distorting what Rorty would’ve thought.

Those caveats aside, I’m doubt that Leiter’s charge is particularly accurate here.  Actually there are three charges: that it was never too clear what “something else was” (I agree with this–the closest I ever saw were hints in Contingency, Irony, Solidarity); that it wasn’t clear why philosophers were the ones who should be doing that particular “something else”; that Rorty’s own later writings often looked like liberal pablum (this hits close to the bone).  It’s the second charge, that current philosophers might just be ill-suited to doing work that interests me.  I’m not sure it’s as damning as Leiter thinks it is.

Of course the people who are now in philosophy departments were selected because their abilities match the work now being done, and there’s no guarantee that they’d be suited to doing something different.  But if the work being done in philosophy departments is misguided, it’s no defense to say that the people in philosophy departments couldn’t do the truly important work.  It often happens that developments in a field leave its old practitioners ill-equipped to contribute.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the genuinely important developments in logic in the early 20th century cut many people with important insights out of the philosophical conversation.  An opposite phenomenon concerns philosophers who have a great insight, but struggle to show the importance of that insight given contemporary understanding of the field (you might think of Frege’s work here).  I think it’s just uncontroversial that the skills that make a good philosopher are not always those that characterize the field at a particular moment.

Rorty certainly should’ve conceded that a lot of people who had trained as philosophers had gone into the wrong field, so that his appeals concerning what philosophers should do are only aimed at some people in academic philosophy.  Perhaps others should have been linguists, or scientists, or mathematicians, but came to believe that there were more important questions to be answered in philosophy.  Refocus philosophy on the sort of humanistic concerns that Rorty cares about, and they’d stop wanting to be philosophers (not that humanistic insight is essentially antagonistic to interest in science).  On the other hand, there are also people now in philosophy departments who have been shoehorned into doing the kind of work that has a high profile, but would be more comfortable under Rorty’s new regime.

More speculatively, I wonder how Rorty’s exact target makes a difference.  I would think that often it’s not so much the questions that philosophers are investigating per se that Rorty objects to, so much as the framing that attaches to them (but maybe Rorty rules out this reading).  There are obviously sensible questions about the word ‘know’ that we can ask, and they might be very important questions, even without philosophical motivation.  I’m confident that there are many examples of this type of obviously important questions within philosophy of science.  All that Rorty should do is deny that answering these questions gives us any particular philosophical insight.

Or perhaps it’s the case that the philosophical projects attached to our investigations of the word ‘know’ bias our research so that we can’t contribute to the important non-philosophical topics at hand.  But no matter what happens to philosophy, qua topic critiqued by Rorty, there would be fruitful research that could be done, perhaps even by current philosophers.

Leiter ends on a deflationary note†:

There will, we may hope, continue to be world-historical geniuses – “seers and prophets” as it were – but there is no special reason to look for them in academic departments of philosophy anywhere. From those departments, we may quite reasonably look for incremental contributions to understanding of our sciences, of our moral and political lives, and of our language and our mental capacities.

The question about why such prophets would be found in academic departments is hard to answer, especially if you think that Rorty never managed to articulate the kind of work that his future philosophers should do.  But that does not prove that philosophy departments should continue to go on in the same way.  Perhaps there should not be philosophy departments, or perhaps they should shrink drastically.  Philosophy departments and philosophers will always need to reflect on what makes their work have philosophical value.  Rorty’s charge is that all the current answers are bad ones.

† Being fair, Leiter is not necessarily attributing the view that seers and prophets would be found in philosophy departments to Rorty.