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Hi Marcus,

I can't speak to whether people with the "wrong intuitions" are being boxed out of debates about meaning and knowledge, but as far as metaethics, I have to say that I just don't buy it. For the debates surrounding the reasons [conceptual] primitivist thesis that the concept of a reason is unanalyzable, or the reasons [metaphysical] primitivist thesis that the property of being a reason is unanalyzable, or the reasons [fundamentalist] thesis that facts about reasons are normatively fundamental, have just been heating up, such that it strikes me as a little defensive and insecure of you to even claim that "it is _increasingly_ held that 'reasons are primitive'" - as though everyone is jumping on some kind of bandwagon and not letting you on it. Sure, a few Big Names have suggested that they accept views that resemble kinds of primitivist theses when they even bother to disambiguate them as I did above, but a number of philosophers that don't have named chairs in departments have already taken serious issue with such suggestions _in print_. So, I'm not at all convinced by your example that this is happening in metaethics.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Eugene: Those are fair points, and indeed, I have been pleased to see critiques of reasons-fundamentalism seem to pick up steam. That being said, I have a few thoughts in reply.

First, I don't think there's any need to make the critique personal. Perhaps there is some defensiveness in my position [though I wouldn't put it that way--see below]. But I don't see why it is necessary to suggest that I'm "insecure", etc. Perhaps I am just a bit frustrated by what I take to be undermotivated positions in a given literature become 'dominant' positions in that literature--arguably due to sociological forces.

Second, although there have indeed been some trenchant critiques of reasons-fundamentalism recently, I see two problems here: [1] the critiques seem to me "too successful"--pointing out clear problems there always were with the reasons-fundamentalist view to begin with [hence my frustrations with the view having been taken as seriously as it is to begin with]; [2] in my view, there clearly has been a snowball effect with 'reasons-ology' [a massive literature has sprung up over the past decade on the view], ever since Scanlon's "On What We Owe to Each Other"; [3] I think a similar snowball happened in metaethics with moral realism.

Part of why I worry about a snowball effect here is that I distinctly remember discussion going around when Scanlon's book came out--and I remember so many people saying very skeptical things about his reasons-fundamentalism, claiming in open conversation that his reasons fundamentalism was undermotivated. Hence, my surprise that the view came to be so predominant, generating an entire "reasons" literature.

In short, I think you make legitimate points. Perhaps I overstate the extent to which snowballs have happened in metaethics. I'm not sure. From my vantage-point several such snowballs have occurred: [A] reasons fundamentalism, [B] moral realism, and [C] reasons externalism. But perhaps our disagreement here stems from our differing estimations of the arguments for these views.

Philosophy Adjunct

'If I contribute to philosophical snowball effects in this way, how many others do something similar?'

I can't say how many others but I do it, and I know other people who do. We should also consider the extent to which we are forced to do this by the powers that be in the profession. How much professional self-preservation is involved in avoiding such debates. Given that for a significant portion of philosophers `having the wrong intuition' is equivalent to `being a moron', and one's professional fortunes rest to a inordinately large extent on one's reputation for genius, this would seem to be a considerable factor.

One piece of anecdata; as an undergraduate one of my fellow students was a brilliant guy who went on to graduate studies at Oxbridge, where he won a couple of prizes for best paper. He then won a prestigious fellowship at an Ivy League university. He earned these squarely, the guy is awesome. However, he defended a position no one found `intuitive', and no one took him seriously, despite his pedigree. After a few years of trying he eventually ended up giving up on research entirely, and took an obscure teaching job. I don't know how `crazy' his ideas are, it's not my area, but he would have serious arguments to back them up, because he was that kind of philosopher. I think this is a loss

'Is this a philosophical (and perhaps moral) failing on our part?'


The more time I spend in the profession the more I am struck by how little the profession even tries to live up to its self-conception. Philosophers are the smartest, most critical, most rigorous (see, they get the highest GRE's of all the humanities!), the philosophical life is the most reflective and self-aware, Queen of the Sciences (and also the noble under-laborer) etc., etc. This, in my opinion, breeds complaisance and intellectual laziness (and pompousness), and a tendency to think that one is infallible. This is both a philosophical failure, because one does not live up to one's intellectual standards and conception of one's discipline, and a moral failure because one fails to live up to one's self-assumed obligation to be `the smartest person in the room'.

`Is this perhaps yet another reason to worry about the use of intuitions--and "method of cases"--in philosophy?'


As though one needed another reason. In the sense I understand the word as being used here `intuition' means something like `seems true to me'. What reasonable person would take this as any kind of serious evidence? (I mean, c'mon! :) ). Accepting intuitions as serious evidence for anything is just another symptom, in my view, of the cult of genius (rather than a community of reason) we are a part of. It comes down to accepting that some people are just better truth detectors than others. And that's all there is to it.

Intuitions are often important beginnings to serious thought; things seem a certain way and you look into it, sometimes your intuition is confirmed and sometimes you come to a counter-intuitive conclusion. The very fact that we speak of counter-intuitive conclusions, or positions, seems to me (!) evidence that intuitions are things that have to themselves be justified and argued for. Much like the statement of a theorem is not a proof an intuition is not an argument, and I at least was brought up philosophically to believe that it is arguments, reasoning, and explanation that we care about (and are so good at). (This is my view, of course, and if you have a different intuition I am afraid I am not willing to debate you on the matter :) ).

An historical side question I would like to know the answer to is, when did intuitions become evidence? It seems quite a recent thing.

It seems to me (for what that is worth) that this reliance on intuition and the kind of inward-looking snowballing adverted to here is a serious harm to the discipline. I have had some exposure to other disciplines, mostly scientific ones, and my sense is that people outside philosophy think it is an intellectual ghetto. At best they find it a source of intellectual entertainment, at worst they are just downright contemptuous. My opinion is that the lack of objective disciplinary standards is at least in part responsible for this. By objective I mean some agreed upon and (relatively) impersonal standards by which to measure when something is good philosophy. All we have at the moment (at least in my philosophical neck of the woods) is reputation for smartness, which is determined almost entirely by a Higher Up blessing you thus. (How many of you have been at a talk where some nobody asks a question which the speaker dismisses contemptuously and then a Higher Up asks the same question and the speaker poops their pants?) Our reliance on intuitions as evidence is a manifestation of this. (Another small piece of anecdata: I went to a big conference once where I was shocked to see that the words "I'm afraid I don't share your intuition" were the kind of *devastating* objection that made people tremble. WTF?)

Again, for what it is worth, it seems to me that the reliance on intuitions is a symptom of the deeper sickness of the gross power imbalance in the profession. The philosophical one-percent is just as disconnected from the philosophical ninety-nine percent as are the moneyed-political one-percent from the rest of us. The elites have set up the system to their own benefit, they sell the myth of fair opportunity and competition while the system is rigged in their favor and that of their chosen servants, they live in a bubble/echo-chamber, they are contemptuous of the Lower Downs, they control `public' opinion, and set the terms of debate, etc. This is just the kind of structure which leads to a tendency to think of one's pronouncements as infallible and not in need of argument simply because you think they are true and your position is itself evidence of that truth.

Marcus Arvan

Philosophy Adjunct: Thank you for your very detailed, thoughtful comment. It's [somewhat] good to see that I'm not alone. Perhaps the more these issues are brought out into the open, the more we can all do to improve things--though, as you do note, there are arguably strong sociological forces at work in favor of the status quo.

I suppose I'll just close my comment with this: If these are your concerns, you may find my forthcoming book of interest--as I [A] argue in it that moral philosophy in particular systematically suffers from the problems you mention, and [B] defend a new methodology for ensuring that it is not merely based on how things "seem" to people. Of course, I'll be curious to see how the critique and new methodology are received--but I figured I'd at least point out that, moving forward, I'm at least actively trying to publish work on these methodological issues [rather than continuing to keep playing into the same problems].

In any case, thanks again for your comment!

Joe Dewhurst

@Philosophy Adjunct: James Andow has a very recent paper partially addressing the question you ask about when intuitions came to be so dominant. He also has some other very interesting papers on intuitions in philosophy. The paper can be found here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/meta.12127/full

I have nothing substantial to add, other than that I share the concerns expressed by Marcus. I don't think intuitions are completely irrelevant, but there are definitely risks associated with letting them dominate our philosophical methodology.

Derek Bowman

I look forward to seeing what alternative you offer in your book, Marcus, because I really don't see how we can get away from using intuitions (in the sense of "intellectual seemings") in philosophy. We can come up with various theoretical machinery for hiding our intuitions and pretending we're not relying on them, but I don't see how we're going to get past them.

And this use of intuitions is not a new development in philosophy - all of Plato's dialogues start off with such intellectual seemings. Yes, we don't simply rest content with such seemings, but it is only by way of inconsistencies with further intellectual seemings that those arguments progress.

That's why "I don't share your intuition" can be a devastating objection to a particular paper. Every paper, and every argument, has to have a starting point. If someone isn't on board with that starting point, then that argument is pretty much shot. That might be a nice occasion for a further inquiry into the starting point - why does it seem so obvious / what reasons can we provide for it? But at the Q&A session it's a little too late to deliver another paper.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Derek: Thanks for your comment. Although I don't want to give the game away before the book comes out (and, obviously, I hope you choose to read it!), the basic thrust of its methodological component is *not* that we should do away with intuitions in their entirety (which, as you note, seems impossible). Rather, I argue--utilizing several epistemic principles--that only a *very* small subset of intuitions have epistemic value, and that there are clear principles we can (and must) use if we want philosophy to track truth, as opposed to merely how things "seem" to different people. In the process, I argue that we can use those same principles to definitively undercut a variety of common "philosophical moves" (e.g. unprincipled intuition mongering of the sort that is very, very common).

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