Two Ideas About Philosophers’ Use Of Intuitions


James Andow (Reading) has a very interesting post up at Imperfect Cognitions about how philosophers use intuitions. As he notes, and as everyone acknowledges, philosophers use intuitions. And, as everyone knows, reliance on intuitions has come under intense criticism, increasingly so during the past four decades. But how fair is the general criticism of philosophy that it relies too much on intuitions?

Andow breaks that latter point into two claims:

  1. Philosophers use intuitions as evidence.
  2. Philosophers use intuitions as evidence in a way that other academics do not.

He says: “If (1) and (2) are right, philosophy might seem to be in a particularly sticky situation. Why? Because, there are various experiments which suggest that such intuitions are unreliable.”

But are they? He continues:

So, should we grant (1) and (2)? In my research I have questioned (2), the idea that philosophy is special in its use of intuitions. In two recent papers (here and here), I have presented evidence that both the extent of the use of the word ‘intuition’, and the way it is used, are surprisingly similar when comparing philosophy and other disciplines. I think this puts pressure on the idea that philosophy is special.

What would that mean for philosophy’s sticky situation? If it means anything, one might think, it will not involve getting philosophy off the hook so much as putting everyone else on the hook too (unless intuitions in their fields are shown to be more reliable). If intuitions are unreliable, it is little solace to philosophers that they are not alone in relying on intuitions as evidence.

But, in fact, that is not quite the picture that emerged from my research. As well as questioning (2), my research has also led me to question (1), the idea that the primary use of intuitions is as evidence. Examining the ways academics use ‘intuition’ has led me to the idea that one of the main uses to which academics put intuitions is to help explain theories rather than to provide evidence for them… 

If—and it is a big ‘if’ as yet—that is right, there is now a very interesting question to ask. Is everyone off the hook? Does it matter that intuitions are unreliable? Insofar as intuitions, unreliable though they may be, are only used in explaining theories rather than as evidence, it is very tempting to think their unreliability does not matter to the same extent.

Wassily Kandinsky, "Circles in a Circle"

Wassily Kandinsky, “Circles in a Circle”

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