A couple of my facebook/philosophy friends shared this old post of mine a couple of days ago. The basic idea I explored in the post is whether dominant professional standards of 'philosophical rigor'--by requiring arguments to be situated in a prevailing literature, beginning with premises that others in the literature find 'intuitive'--function in a problematically conservative manner: one that effectively excludes or further marginalizes philosophical voices who are already marginalized, requiring members of marginalized groups to begin with premises a dominant majority finds 'intuitive', regardless of whether one finds that premises at all intuitive oneself. As I explained,
I think I've seen these [exclusionary] forces play themselves out in the classroom, in philosophy seminars, and in professional conferences. I've taught in classrooms, for instance, where -- after spending, say, an entire semester teaching "The Greats" on ethics, or epistemology, or whatever -- I'll assign something by a feminist, or a critical race theorist...and my students will seem so much more skeptical than they did about the "Greats". Why? Here again, my feeling is this: the students are skeptical because the things the feminist or critical race theorist are saying conflict with the received "body of wisdom" they have been steeped in. Similarly, I've sat in philosophy talks where someone -- often someone from a different background from the majority -- tries to raise an alternative point-of-view, and the "feel" in the room is something like, "Okay, can we get back to Kripke/Rawls -- the "real stuff" -- now?" Finally, I've sat in APA sessions on feminist philosophy or African philosophy, and here too a couple of things stood out to me. First, the audiences in the room were pretty homogenous, with few representatives of dominant backgrounds or philosophical viewpoints in attendance. People working within dominant traditions in philosophy, by and large, just didn't bother to even attend these sessions (at least the ones I have attended). Second, in these cases I was struck by just how unlikely it would be for many of the arguments given in these sessions to "fly" with, say, a journal referee or editor of a mainstream philosophy journal. The more I listened, the more it seemed to me that our disciplinary standards for what counts as a "good argument" would immediately rule out the arguments given as bad arguments. Why? In my view, very roughly: because the premises people were appealing to "conflicted with received wisdom." Few things could drive a person from a field more, I think, than saying to them, "Well, the premises you find attractive conflict with the premises we find attractive -- and our premises are the ones you must work with if you don't want to be an outsider."
Although I am not a member of a marginalized group myself, thinking about my post again got me thinking again about a broader issue I've discussed before: the sociology of philosophy, in particular the potentially problematic ways in which "philosophical progress" might be driven less my arguments than by sociological forces, such as "snowball effects" where an intuition (or set of intuitions) pushed by a few philosophers might lead other people to "jump on the bandwagon" with those intuitions, leading entire philosophical literatures in specific directions, not to much on the basis of argument quality, but simply as a kind of snowball, where Big Name argues X, everyone then takes X as a jumping-off point, etc.
One reason I have these concerns is that a fascinating empirical study found--in examining how the public judges the quality of particular pieces of music--that which songs are considered 'good' largely is a result of snowball effects. As I wrote summarizing the study,
A recent study shows, in a particularly striking way, just how arbitrary--and contingent--a given group's judgments of "quality" can be. In the study I just linked to, a variety of independent "online communities" were constructed to determine the artistic quality of the same 48 sets of songs. In the study, what tended to happen in each group is that (1) some small number of people would initially be attracted to some songs, (2) their being attracted to it would attract other people to it, and (3) the effect would snowball such that, in each group, there emerged a clear consensus of "which songs are best". Yet, across different groups, the same snowball effect resulted in completely different collective judgments by the end of which songs were "good." What ended up as the #1 best-rated song in one group ended up rated 42nd in another group.
Might something similar systematically happen in philosophy? A second reason I cannot help but wonder is that, ever since graduate school, I have tended to be one of those people "with the wrong intuitions"--intuitions that just don't cohere with dominant intuitions in particular literatures. For instance, as I explained in my sociology of philosophy post, I have never found the Kripkean/Millian intuitions about "the meaning of proper names" the least bit plausible. My own intuition has always been (the Wittgensteinian one) that seeking "the meaning of proper names" is a red-herring--that we use proper names in all kinds of contradictory ways, sometimes using them to refer directly, other times using them as shorthand for Russellian definitive descriptions, other times using them with a kind of Fregean 'sense' in mind (mental images), and so on. Yet, whenever I tried to argue for this in graduate school or beyond, the response I tended to get was: "those just aren't the right intuitions." And this is far from the only case where my intuitions haven't fit the dominant philosophical narrative. In philosophy of mind, a number of thought-experiements--such as Putnam's Twin Earth and Davidson's Swampman examples--set philosophy of mind on a distinctly externalist trajectory, one holding that mental content is "not in the head." Except I didn't share any of these intuitions either. It seemed clear as day to me that Swampman does have mental content in his head, that 'water' has the same mental content (e.g. "watery stuff") on both worlds, etc. Similarly, when Timothy Williamson came up with the "knowledge-first" program in Knowledge and Its Limits, I didn't share any of the motivating intuitions at all. Finally, in moral philosophy and metaethics, it is increasingly held that "reasons are primitive" and external to our motivational interests--and yet, no matter how many times people push these intuitions, I feel no force in them whatsoever.
Now, of course, I may well have the wrong intuitions. But here's the thing I'm interested in: I wonder how often philosophers simply give up in the face of such "snowball effects", leading members of the relevant literatures with the misleading impression that the intuitions that dominate their literature are widely shared. Here is why I wonder this: in many cases, I just gave up myself, and indeed, gave up really early on. For instance, although I don't share dominant intuitions in areas of philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, or metaethics--instead of trying to fight those dominant intuitions (which I quickly found to be a "losing battle", as the people evaluating my papers, at conferences or journals, were by and large people who had the intuitions I was attempting to deny!), I simply moved on to other areas of philosophy where people were more likely to share my intuitions (e.g. Kantian ethics, Rawls, etc.). But notice what this means: it means that I, quite unwittingly, appear to have systematically contributed to the kind of "snowball effect" that I'm worried about. By (1) avoiding areas of philosophy where my intuitions clash firmly with the dominant intuitions, and (2) working in areas where my intuitions cohere better with others' intuitions, I am (A) failing to prevent "intuition snowballs" in areas of philosophy I believe to be dominated by incorrect intuitions, and (B) contributing to similar snowballs in areas of philosophy my intuitions fit with better. This, in a nutshell, is why I worry so much about the sociology of philosophy: I myself seem guilty of the very kind of behavior that can be reasonably expected to lead to pernicious snowball effects--this despite the fact that I generally consider myself to be a 'nonconformist' with a penchant for defending 'wild ideas.' If I contribute to philosophical snowball effects in this way, how many others do something similar?
Offhand, it seems to me likely that I am not alone! I am not particulalrly unique--and indeed, I've come across many other people in the discipline who express similar sentiments. For instance, a couple of years ago I was at a keynote address by someone working in the Williamsonian "knowedge-first" paradigm in epistemology, and a number of people I spoke to in the audience said the same thing that I had been thinking throughout the talk (roughly: "I don't have the knowledge-first intuitions the speaker was pushing at all"). Anyway, I guess that is my first question with readers: do you find yourself avoiding debates where you don't "share the dominant" intuitions, opting instead to do work in areas where people share your intuitions? If so, this brings me to a second series of question: is this a philosophical (and perhaps moral) failing on our part? Do we have an obligation to contest intuitions in areas of philosophy we disagree with? What if we try to contest those intuitions (as I have tried myself to do at times), but reviewers in the relevant philosophical area fail to take our arguments seriously because we don't share their intuitions? Is this perhaps yet another reason to worry about the use of intuitions--and "method of cases"--in philosophy? These are just a bunch of questions rattling around my head, and I guess I'll just open them up for discussion!