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« What are we talking about when we speak about "making philosophy more inclusive"? | Main | Rethinking journal reviewing standards -- a rough first pass »

03/26/2014

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Marcus Arvan

Moti: thanks for raising good issues. I don't think there are ways for philosophy to do without intuitions. We have to begin somewhere! But I think there are legitimate appeals to intuitions and illegitimate ones. What's the difference?

Here's a rough first pass. When I was in graduate school and we went through all of Kripke's examples against descriptivism (e.g. the Godel case, etc.), I was shocked. I was essentially told that Kripke's arguments were killer, and that his cases "refuted" descriptivism. "That's interesting", I thought. I didn't share the intuitions! The way I saw it (I had a Wittgensteinian upbringing), we can use names however damn well we please. I can *use* "Godel" to refer to the referent of a definite description, or I can simply use the name as a rigid designator. I think natural languages are flexible in this way -- that we can (and do!) play many different language games -- and thus, that is crazy to seek "the meaning" of proper names.

And, lo and behold, when X-phi people study Kripke cases, it turns out that *some* people have the Kripke intuitions, and others don't. What does this show? I think it shows that the Wittgensteinian view I found attractive was right. Proper names just *don't* have a single meaning. We can -- and different people do -- interpret them in different ways. Our minds treat proper names, like all other things, as "cluster concepts." Some of our brains favor certain parts of the cluster (names=rigid designators), and others of us have more desciptivist "weightings" in our neural networks.

So, what is the meaning of a name? The *multitude* of intuitions -- as exemplified in X-phi -- shows, to the contrary of the Kripkean intuition monger, that there just *isn't* one set of intuitions that "gets it right." Each set of *different* intuitions contains part of the truth: we can, and do, use names in multivaried ways.

So, intuitions can play a role in philosophy. Just not the bone-headed role they have often played.

Marcus Arvan

Quick follow-up on your first bullet-point. I think the role of intuitions gives philosophy a bad rap in another sense (one indicated by my experience with Kripke cases as a grad student).

When your philosophy professor holds up a given intuition as "the correct one" and you, as a student, don't have that intuition at all, philosophy can look really, really silly -- as a matter of professors just arbitrarily deciding for themselves "what is plausible."

I had this experience with *my* students for a number of years when teaching standard "refutations" of subjective and cultural relativism in moral philosophy. I found that my students were entirely unimpressed by the "refutations" -- that they found the "refutations" as essentially begging the question in favor of moral realism.

And, you know what, I came to *agree*. I came to see that a lot of *elementary* moves in moral philosophy seem to me like blatant intuition mongering, and that this is no way to do moral philosophy.

If we want to be taken seriously by people outside of our field -- and actually, just be good philosophers! -- we need to stop fooling ourselves. "Our intuitions" are no way to go. It makes us look silly, because not everyone *has* the same intuitions on just about any case. The key to doing good philosophy is actually realizing this, and seeing that the *diversity* of intuitions is the place to begin. This, at any rate, is what I think I learned from the Kripke case. The *diversity* of intuitions shows that philosophers have been asking the wrong question! The question isn't: what is "the meaning" of a proper name? The question is: what are the *possible MEANINGS* of proper names? (What language games can we, and do we, play with them?)

Moti Mizrahi

Hi Marcus,

Thanks very much for your comments. We are generally in agreement here but I wonder if you could say a bit more about what you mean when you write:

"I don't think there are ways for philosophy to do without intuitions. We have to begin somewhere! But I think there are legitimate appeals to intuitions and illegitimate ones."

When you say that "intuitions can play a role in philosophy" do you mean an evidential role? If so, isn't the diversity and idiosyncrasy of intuitions a serious problem for any conception of intuitions as evidence?

Moti Mizrahi

Marcus, I think you make an important point in your second comment when you write:

"When your philosophy professor holds up a given intuition as 'the correct one' and you, as a student, don't have that intuition at all, philosophy can look really, really silly -- as a matter of professors just arbitrarily deciding for themselves 'what is plausible'."

Even more harmful, perhaps, philosophy can look really hard and impenetrable to students who do not share "the correct intuitions." If the professor says that they should think that p, and they don't, students might think that they "don't get philosophy" or develop "phil anxiety" as a result. In that respect, we might even be scaring students away from philosophy by discussing thought experiments in class and telling them what are "the correct intuitions" they should have.

Anthony Carreras

Moti: Great post. This issue hits very close to home for me, as I feel every semester that a majority of my students leave my class with this relativist view of philosophy. I have tried to fight this by stressing the hell out of arguments (I now teach a lot more logic than I used to in my Intro to Phil class), but so far it is unclear to me how much success I've had with this. I think what many of my students realize (correctly!) is that arguments eventually run out. You can keep asking that the premises of arguments be supported by arguments themselves, and eventually you wind up with premises that express basic intuitions, which they think are subjective.

Question for you: What are the more objective things that philosophical theories can be tested against in areas other than philosophy of science? For instance, what more objective thing than intuitions do you think philosophical theories about (say) knowledge or the good or personal identity can be tested against?

Moti Mizrahi

Hi Anthony,

Thanks very much for your comment and for sharing your experience.

As for your question, I think that philosophical theories can be tested against scientific knowledge. That is, if a philosophical theory is inconsistent with the relevant science, then that is a serious problem (much more than being inconsistent with intuition). Here are two examples I have discussed with my students which you might find useful:

1. God and neurotheology: http://thinkjustdoit.blogspot.com/2012/04/phi-3000-god-helmet.html

2. Free will and neuroscience: http://thinkjustdoit.blogspot.com/2013/12/phi-1000-is-your-free-will-if-you-have.html

Brad Cokelet

Hi Moti,

I think it is dangerous to model philosophic methodology on scientific methodology. At the least, I don't think we should leave *unquestioned* the idea that to reflectively improve one's beliefs and practices one must aspire to achieve some sort of objective or impartial point of view, which is well modeled by science (or a certain conception of it that is popular).

Sure, this is one way to understand philosophy and the form of reflective, rational inquiry it should deploy to help us improve our beliefs, but it is not the only one. I hope you will wholeheartedly agree!

My own thought here is that maybe we should put this issue more at the forefront of intro courses and then link it to questions about the intellectual aspirations of the humanities and the way that these may benefit individual people and communities.

Moti Mizrahi

Hi Brad,

Thanks very much for your comment. I do agree that this is just one way to test philosophical theories.

I would like to point out, however, that *formally* there is hardly a difference between testing philosophical theories against intuitions and testing them against scientific knowledge. That is:

T --> P (given relevant background assumptions)
~P
∴ ~T

Where T is a philosophical theory and P is any prediction or consequence that is derived from T. In common philosophical practice, P is based on intuitive judgments about hypothetical cases, e.g., “if knowledge is JTB, then Smith knows that….” But it doesn’t have to be. In principle, P could be anything we would expect to be true if T were true.

Brad Cokelet

Hi Moti,

I agree that thinking about cases is a valuable thing to do, and that it can guide our thinking about which theory to adopt or develop (given healthy worries about the reliability of thought experiments, etc).

A couple of further thoughts:

(1) Sometimes theoretical reflection gets us to change our intuitions and this seems to be less common or different than what happens in science.

(2) The science model, and your post, *seems* to suggest that we should aim to have views and philosophic theories that best fit *widespread* or *shared* intuitions and perhaps, ideally, that our theory will be confirmed by the intuitions of those who are in some way untainted by theory. These are among the contentious ideas I think we should ask students to critically question.

Marcus Arvan

Moti: thanks for your reply.

You ask: "When you say that "intuitions can play a role in philosophy" do you mean an evidential role? If so, isn't the diversity and idiosyncrasy of intuitions a serious problem for any conception of intuitions as evidence?"

This was the point of my comment. I think it only raises a problem for *some* conception of intuitions of evidence -- namely, intuition mongering, where one person "pushes" an intuition as evidence when others don't share the intuition. This is what too much of philosophy has involved, and I entirely agree with you: insisting on *your* intuitions (or those of your friends') is a poor evidential practice.

So, for instance, imagine people defending something else this way -- for instance, eyewitness testimony. One person says, "I think eyewitness testimony tends to be accurate" and another person says, "I don't think so at all." If either person simply moves forward with *their* intuition, they're an epistemological moron (or, at least, irresponsible). Their intuition isn't good evidence in part because someone else in a similar position *doesn't* have the same intuition. This is the kind of intuition mongering you have railed against -- correctly, I believe -- in some of your published work.

But here is another way of understanding the situation. The very *fact* that people do not share the same intuitions is evidence that we should look *elsewhere* for better evidence. So, for instance, in the case of eyewitness testimony, we say: "Let's do some scientific research. Maybe that will clear it up!" And indeed, it has. We now know, empirically, that eyewitness testimony is bad evidence.

Diverging intuitions can be evidence that there is some *further* empirical or philosophical fact that explains that intuition divergence. This was also my point with the case of proper names. The *fact* that we have different intuitions is evidence for something *else* (besides the individual intuitions): namely, that we can (and do) use proper names in a multiplicity of ways.

In other words, I do think intuitions can be philosophically helpful -- provided we do not engage in intuition mongering (insisting on one intuition *over* another), but instead move from the plurality of intuitions to an understanding of *why* there is a plurality of intuitions. In this way, I believe a corpus of intuitions -- intuitions "on both sides" of a debate -- can, as an entire body, point us in a positive direction (as a body of evidence that a phenomenon -- e.g. "the meaning of proper names" -- is a lot more complicated than any *single* intuition recognizes).

Make sense? Intuition mongering=bad. Understanding what lies behind a system of divergent intuitions=good evidence (of a certain kind of conceptual complexity).

Moti Mizrahi

Hi Brad,

Thanks for the follow-up comment. I actually think that worries about the reliability of thought experiments warrant a skeptical conclusion about the evidential role of intuitions in philosophy. So, I would argue that intuitions should not play any evidential role in philosophy, even if these intuitions are widely shared, except perhaps in the limited sense that Marcus has articulated (i.e., as evidence that we need evidence other than intuitions).

Hi Marcus,

Thanks very much for the clarifications. We’re cool! :)

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