On the Role of Intuitions in Philosophy


I have to confess that I do not know (in any sense of the term) what the role of intuitions are in philosophy. In the realm of epistemology, the recent work of Michael Bishop and J.D. Trout has called into question the value of some of those intuitions philosophers so dearly treasure. I suppose I’m actually willing to say that intuitions matter more in certain branches of philosophy (epistemology) than in others (say, ethics), while still maintaining that, all things considered, intuitions count for very little. On the practical side: we obviously employ our (philosophical) intuitions regularly as a kind of first wave of criticism for a view. At the very least, I think that most philosophers take intuitions to provide prima facie evidence for accepting or rejecting a given view.

So here is a case from a paper entitled “A Defense of the Use of Intuitions in Philosophy,” available on Ernie Sosa’s web site.
I believe it comes from some of the studies cited by Weinberg, Nichols, and Stich’s “Normativity and Epistemic Intuitions”:

It’s clear that smoking cigarettes increases the likelihood of getting cancer. However, there is now a great deal of evidence that just using nicotine by itself without smoking (for instance, by taking a nicotine pill), does not increase the likelihood of getting cancer. Jim knows about this evidence and as a result, he believes that using nicotine does not increase the likelihood of getting cancer. It is possible that the tobacco companies dishonestly made up and publicized this evidence that using nicotine does not increase the likelihood of cancer, and that the evidence is really false and misleading. Now, the tobacco companies did not actually make up this evidence, but Jim is not aware of this fact. Does Jim really know that using nicotine doesn’t increase the likelihood of getting cancer, or does he only believe it?


Thoughts? Intuitions? Knowledges?


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4 Responses to “On the Role of Intuitions in Philosophy”

  1. Lamont Says:

    I used to think I understood the goal of experimental philosophy; I no longer think I do. If the purpose of these experiments, as Weinberg, et al sometimes say, is to get philosophers to stop straightforwardly relying on their intuitions to settle problematic cases like the one mentioned above, fair enough. That’s a great idea.

    If, however, the goal is to tell us that philosophically informed intuitions are unreliable *simply because* those who do not study philosophy have different intuitions, this is a non sequitur. If philosophers cannot rely on informed intuitions, the field is fairly useless. Imagine a physicist whose intuitions on causality differ from those of Joe on the street. Is the physicist to worry merely because Joe has different intuitions?

    Maybe I don’t understand part of the “Ethno-epistemology” paper; but it sure looked like Weinberg, et al. wanted us to worry about this.

    By the way, if you look through the archives on the X-phi blog, you can find a discussion in which John Weinberg excoriates me for claiming that X-phiers need not do real science.

  2. Travis Says:

    I hesitate to write this as clearly as I could so let me post a hypothetical and assure you that one of the main authors in this field would agree with the point:

    The “appropriate” or “acceptable” uses of intuitions does NOT include the intuitions of philosophers working on a theory of justification, even when that justification is sought in a moral matter. In other words, if S drags R from a burning car, fearing that the car will explode, and in the process paralyzes R, was S justified in his action, given that cars do not, in fact, explode after accidents. S’s justification is that he sees it on TV all the time (consider him rolling a die, dragging R in the case that the die result is positive if that hasn’t pushed your intuitions far enough). Now, Strategic Reliabilism, for instance, may say that there were available better Reasoning Strategies (RS) for determining whether we ought to drag the body, and we can even grant that S knows them. Now the question is: was S justified? I don’t see how X-phi can answer that question. It has been suggested, I assure you, that we ask ANTHROPOLOGISTS about what people take to be justification and find our answer there.

  3. Travis Says:

    Upon further reading, Lamont, I see the point of your second paragraph now. That’s a fantastic point. It does seem as if Stich leans that way. Does seem like a real issue for him.

  4. Lamont Says:

    By the way, I attended a talk on Friday dealing with personal identity and responsibility. During the discussion session a woman (whose name I do not know, sorry) noted that science fiction-type intuition pumps, if they were actually to happen, would cause us to revise or abandon many of our moral judgments. I suspect the same is true in many other fields. The upshot is that these intuitions may not do what we hope they do.

    The suggestion gives one pause. Apparently Susan Wolfe has written on a book on ethics (maybe, I forget) without intuitions. There are some discussions of this general issue here: http://gfp.typepad.com/the_garden_of_forking_pat/2004/06/on_revising_our.html

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