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David Morrow

Well said, Moti. Whether a particular philosopher is idiosyncratic is an empirical question -- one that x-phi tries to answer. There are two other empirical questions in the neighborhood:

(1) If I were actually in situation S, would I actually say what I now think I would say when I imagine myself in S? This is hard to test, of course. We can't go launching runaway trolleys at people to see what bystanders say.

(2) Even if I am not idiosyncratic and I would say that P in S, what features of S would lead me to say that P? The point of appealing to philosophical intuitions is frequently to support that claim that P is true when Q is true (e.g., it is wrong to harvest a patient's organs to save others when the patient has not consented). But if my intuition that P is caused by the truth of R, not the truth of Q, then the intuition doesn't support the claim that P is true when Q is true. This is something that x-phi can sometimes address.


I think you two might be missing Williamson's point.

Whether or not he's right, I think the claim he's making is that for *any* P (whether P is a "philosophical" claim or not), when we say that P, we would say that P, and we would also say that it seems to us that P. So unless you intend to argue for an extremely general skepticism about, well, everything, you can't target the "method of relying on intuition" since that would undermine all judgments--not just philosophical ones.

Now it can still turn out that experimental philosophers have shown that many of particular values of "P" for which philosophers have said "it seems to me that P" are ones where their judgments are idiosyncratic. So I don't think anything Williamson says should (even by his lights) cast doubt on the idea that experimental philosophy can rightly put us on the lookout for idiosyncrasy in our judgments. What it can't do, according to Williamson, is undermine the "method of relying on intuitions" since by Williamson's lights, that's just the "method" of making judgments, which is unavoidable.

Marcus Arvan

Daniel: fair enough -- but in that case it seems to me that Williamson's critique is something of a straw man. I mean, I'm not exactly a rabid reader of the experimental literature, but I can't recall many (or really, any) experimental philosophers claiming we should do away with intuitions. Rather, the claim is that we should use experimental philosophy to help figure out *which* intuitions are and are not idiosyncratic, and therefore, epistemologically legitimate to appeal to in philosophical argument. If, as you suggest, Williamson's objection *isn't* lodged against the latter research program, then it seems to me he's objecting to something that few (if any) experimentalists have ever claimed.

David Morrow

Thanks, Daniel. That does help me see Williamson's point more clearly. But I'm still not impressed by it.

I don't think that skepticism about intuitions in philosophy leads to general skepticism. In science, for example, it matters that arguments rest on judgments that anyone (with the proper training and equipment) would make in that situation-- i.e., judgments that are not idiosyncratic. I'm not a philosopher or historian of science, but my understanding is that resting scientific knowledge on such repeatable observations was a cornerstone of the development of modern science. (Moti, what say you?) Likewise, in "everyday" situations, we're making judgments about things for which we have *good reason* to think that we're not idiosyncratic. I think that philosophers often assume their own non-idiosyncrasy without adequate evidence; my evidence for this is that x-phi seems to show substantial variation in intuitive reactions.


Williamson makes the point more fully here:



I'm inclined to agree with Marcus's and David's replies to my comment. That is, even if X-Phi results cannot lead to a very general skepticism about the method of relying on intuitions in philosophy (cause there is no such thing, or at least no such distinctive thing), particular results concerning judgments about particular subject matters can raise legitimate, local skeptical worries. Finding out that, when it comes to certain topics, even the judgments of professional philosophers are subject to order effects, or are influenced by the presence of fart smell, seems to me that it ought to lead us to reconsider our judgments *concerning those topics*.

Still, I think there's something right about Williamson's critique. If local worries like the ones above are all that you can get from X-phi, the "burning armchair" motif is a bit much. Moreover, there's a degree to which results like those above are old news; we already knew that philosophers disagree a lot on many topics, so they can't all be right, so philosophers' judgments concerning those topics can't be extremely reliable as a class. I'm not sure what's added by the fact (to the extent that it is a fact) that the judgments are also subject to order effects, or differ along ethnic/socioeconomic lines, etc.

Moti Mizrahi


Here's what's added by the fact "that the judgments are also subject to order effects, or differ along ethnic/socioeconomic lines":

Intuitive judgments are influenced by factors (e.g., order effects, framing effects, etc.) that are *irrelevant to the truth (or falsity) of the judgment*.

David Morrow

Daniel, I agree that the "burning armchair" is "a bit much." To elaborate on what Moti said about order effects, etc., I think such effects relate to Question (2) from my first comment: When intuitions are sensitive to irrelevant factors, it's much harder to draw inferences from intuitions about unusual cases because we can't be sure what feature(s) of the case make us judge that p. This is especially problematic when we try to build a philosophical case by asserting that p must be true if we are to make sense of the pattern of our intuitions across various cases.


I take it that the reason we are troubled when we learn that our judgments are sensitive to irrelevant factors has to do with reliability; judgments that are sensitive to factors that are irrelevant to the truth of the judgment are not generally reliable.

My point was just that widespread disagreement concerning some topic is already enough to establish that judgments concerning the topic are not reliable, taken as a class. So whether evidence of unreliability comes from order effects/socioeconomic stuff/etc., or from disagreement (which is old news), it's worrisome.

None of what I said was supposed to suggest that we shouldn't be worried about relying on judgments about weird cases. It's just to point out that we already knew that there's usually a lot of variance in how professional philosophers respond to weird cases, and that disagreement alone is enough to give us pause, even without the (interesting, worthwhile to know about) evidence about order effects/socioeconomic stuff/etc.

jonathan weinberg

Nice catch, Moti! And I am in pretty much complete agreement with how David has been expressing things here.

Daniel, I think one way of thinking about the restrictionist arguments here, is as a kind of dilemma: if one does not already think that we have evidence enough from the track-record of philosophy to give pause, then this is added evidence for such pausing; if one does think that such pausing is well-evidenced already, then even better, x-phi offers resources to go beyond such a pause, and to take active measures to start figuring out where and how we can do better.

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