Thursday, January 17, 2008

Why are our intuitions supposed to have some sort of privileged epistemic status?

I'm not an epistemologist, and my first pass through epistemology as an undergrad mostly left me confused. But I've had this question for a while now: What's so cool about our intuitions? Why is it, in (analytic) philosophy, that if something goes along with our intuitions, it provides some evidence to believe that it may be a more plausible? I noticed last semester that Kripke uses intuitions to get some good work done in Naming and Necessity, and I've heard a couple different professors use intuitions as a basis for some theory they're attempting to advance.

One interesting point is that the "intuitions" that we're supposed to have aren't always shared by everyone, especially non-Westerners. The article I linked to discusses this point in the context of "experimental" philosophy. Specifically, the bottom of page one and the top of page two.

At any rate, I just need someone to explain to me why intuitions do so much work for philosophy. It doesn't seem that other fields (like medicine) would accept people's intuitions as readily, and rightly so. Intuitions can be wrong, and I certainly wouldn't accept someone's intuitions as evidence when it comes to my health or something like that.

Also, it seems to me that such emphasis on intuitions only makes sense given some sort of foundationalist epistemology. At any rate, kindly remove me from the cave on this issue. Thanks.


Christopher Hom said...

Timothy Williamson doesn't think they should:

arezoo said...

First of all, I think "intutions" are the only things that we at hand to start with. If we ignore our intution about meaning ,for instance, and the way we understand it in our daily life then what else do we have to appeal to in order to start analyzing meaning?
In Philosophy, I guess we use our intutions as primary data, we analyze them, and sometimes we correct them. They provide us with the first step.(It is somethig like Popperian conjecture and refutation process, we keep them as far as we do not have any better candidate) This is very similar to what people in medicine do. They ask their patients about their feelings, any unusual sympthoms and then they go on to do more diagnosis. The patient might have illuison or lie to doctors as well as we might have "wrong" intutions but it is just the starting point. Moreover, what medical doctors do is much more shaky in a way since they base their diagnosis and their cures on previous data gathered by statistics. (remember induction is not reliable)
And the last point is, this tradition in philosophy began with ordinary language philosophers like Wittgenestein in "Investigations".(Chris knows that better) They did not want to have a normative discipline in philosophy, rather they tried to give a better understanding of our common use of languge, as an example. In phil of science, we appeal to scientists intution , the same for mathematicians in Phil of math and competent speakers in Phil of lan ,etc.

What is your suggestion to start with as data for philosophy if it is not intutions.

Than said...

I have no problem starting from intuitions at the outset and correcting them as we go. Sometimes the only way we can even get off the ground is to start by assessing what we commonly think about a problem. I read the first couple pages of the article Chris linked to, and it's already helping me clarify what I was thinking. My worry is stated by Williamson in the first page of his article rather bluntly:
"When contemporary analytic philosophers run out of arguments, they appeal to intuition." My worry is that intuition is often pulled out when we have run out of other options, and it is supposed to give us some kind of evidence to move to the next step. Why does intuition get this privilege?

So, starting from intuitions and correcting them is one thing. But when it comes to using intuition later on in the game as a sort of trump card, I feel skeptical. I also agree with Williamson that intuitions seem like an odd device for analytic philosophy, which prizes rigor and precision. Intuition is a vague, ill-defined concept so far as I can see. But I would love for someone to rid me of my skepticism. If I'm any kind of a philosopher, I'm still a novice one, and would love to make liberal use of intuition as I run out of arguments for something.

arezoo said...


I have a question, If we get rid of intutions what do we have to analyze?!(or to start with). For instance, we want to know how communication works or what meaning is, what else do we have except our intution about meaning to work with?
And to me, the more people sharing the same intution, the more reliable they are . We will keep them untill we get to a contradiction, a new intution or etc.
I like to know what is philosophy if it is not analyzing our intutions?

Mark Scala said...

Here's another paper that might be useful on this subject:

From the abstract:

After giving a rough sketch of several major features of epistemic intuitions, this article reviews the history of the current philosophical debate about them and describes the major positions in that debate.

Than said...


I think you missed the point I was trying to make, so read my last post again. Also, thanks to Mark for the article. It looks like a very good read.

Mark Diep said...

Sorry it has taken me so long to add a comment here. My email is messed up. But this is intuition stuff and I would like to say something about it. I struggle with the same questions, but I don’t devote enough time to it as I should. Anyway.

Intuition as a trump card:
Than, can you give the excerpt from Kripke or at least provide the argument that you think he is using intuition to back up?

But let me try to say something about this. This is what I have concluded. (Note, I’ve only skimmed through the Williamson article. It’s 45pgs!!! And I only discovered it tonight.) Using intuition as a premise in one’s argument is fine as long as the intuition is a *shared* intuition. If somehow, the reader does not agree with the intuition, the burden is on the reader to give their argument for why the intuition is wrong. However, since intuitions utilized in philosophical arguments are often ones that are shared by many philosophers, it would be hard to argue why the intuition is wrong. (In fact, my best epistemology paper argues against one intuition that is shared by almost ALL philosophers. I’ll see how successful I am with that paper. So far, mixed reviews.) Nevertheless, one’s justification for the use of intuition as a premise in an argument is often backed by the common acknowledgement.

It’s common for philosophers to say, “that premise sounds right to me, so I will not argue for this.” This may sound like intuition. So, I’m not sure if you’re referring to this, Than. But let me say something about this as well. Sometimes assumptions are ok. I mean that’s how we get the ball rolling when we argue. But even if assumptions are embedded in the arguments, again, the burden is on the reader to show why the assumptions are wrong. Again, many times the assumption is one that *seems* like many philosophers would agree. (For example, one premise in a famous Evil Demon argument against reliabilism is that if you and I have the same brain, and you and I have the same belief, then if I’m justified in my belief, so should you. The assumption there is if you and I have the same brain, you and I should have the same status in our beliefs.)

But if the original question, Than, is in regard to using intuition as a conclusion, I would like to read the passage or argument(s) you’re referring to.

As for “experimental” philosophers (XPhil), these guys are also working under the premise that intuition is important in philosophy. However, they differ from contemporary philosophers in that they believe that many intuitions utilized in philosophy wrong (or perhaps more weakly, suspect). I will not try to give their argument for what intuition is (they start with the Kripke-Putnam semantic externalism that I am completely confused with), but I can *try* to say why they think it is wrong. Their basic working question is: how reliable are our intuitions? We use it every day (during philosophical and non-philosophical hours). An experiment done by Weinberg/Nichols/Stich ("epistemic normativity") reveled that intuitions *vary* across culture and socioeconomic lines. Furthermore, another paper (not by them) showed that intuitions are dependent on which case one considers first. Thus, I may be more likely to attribute knowledge to a case before I consider Gettier examples first than if I had thought of Gettier examples first. This again shows intuition is *variable*. Thus, it seems that much work needs to be done before we can properly use intuition in philosophy. Oh course, this conclusion brought on many objections, but I won’t get into it. In fact, I don’t know if I can even follow it.

Maybe this is what your complaint is as well, Than.

Anyway, I hope what I wrote is clear (I hardly did any editing), and I hope it helps.

Trodgers said...

The reconstruction of a problematic use of the intuitions runs thus:

1. We use intuitions as the (sole) input to inform our theories about, say, epistemology.

2. We create a theory to help us solve new problems that may arise, cases that we have not as yet considered.

3. We seek to bring the theory into wide reflective equilibrium with our intuitions, because there are going to be times when the two clash.

4. In reality, when there is a clash between theory and intuitions, we ditch the theory or rework it so the intuition is preserved.

See Jaegwon Kim's statement, which Mike Bishop and JD Trout call the Stasis Requirement:

"Although some philosophers have been willing to swallow skepticism just because what we regard as correct criteria of justified belief are seen to lead inexorably to the conclusion that none, or very few, of our beliefs are justified, the usual presumption is that our answer to the first question [What conditions must a belief meet if we are justified in accepting it as true?] should leave our epistemic situation largely unchanged. That is to say, it is expected to turn out that according to the criteria of justified belief we come to accept, we know, or are justified in believing, pretty much what we reflectively think we know or are entitled to believe."