Intuitive Bedrock and the Philosophical Enterprise (guest post by Dale Dorsey)


The following guest post* is by Dale Dorsey (Kansas) and appears here via a special arrangement with Oxford University Press and the OUP Blog, at which it is also posted.


Intuitive Bedrock and the Philosophical Enterprise
by Dale Dorsey

Imagine a person who spends their entire life sitting on the couch watching and rewatching Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. He does nothing else, gains no education, no relationships with other people, no family, no friends. But he, nevertheless, loves his life, he values everything about it. He is constantly offered the opportunity to do something different, and never chooses to do so. Indeed, his choices are not the result of a lack of information or imagination—he understands perfectly well what it would like to do something else. But he so loves watching the movie that he is simply unconvinced that any alternative would be better for him.

Is this person leading a good life, at least for his own sake? Many are tempted to say “no”. After all, this life is not at all well-rounded, it maintains no knowledge or genuine appreciation of the beautiful, does not engage rational capacities (beyond, say, the bare minimum required to rewind a VHS tape). But others say “yes”. After all, what more is required for the good life for a person that they value it highly, perhaps under conditions of full information?

It seems we may have reached “intuitive bedrock”. In so many areas of inquiry (though, perhaps, not all), philosophical argument ends up bottoming out in a mere clash of intuitions, of considered judgments. But what happens now? Because these considered judgments will help determine the content and structure of our philosophical theorizing, to determine (once and for all) what the good life is for a person (or whether we should be descriptivists or causal theorists of reference, or whether justified true belief counts as knowledge or not, or—if Lewis Carroll is to be believed—whether modus ponens is a valid rule of inference) we—or so it would appear—need to settle which of these intuitions are the right ones.

To put my cards on the table, this seems like an impossible task. Indeed, it’s a task that seems (almost by definition) outside the bounds of philosophical argument. After all, if philosophical arguments (sometimes) bottom-out in intuitive bedrock—Hellraiser good!; Hellraiser bad!—that’s where the tools of philosophical argument seem most impotent. But if this task is impossible, I wonder whether philosophers really ought to conceive their overall project as one that would require it. After all, we only need to settle which intuitions are the right ones if we are in the business of deciding whether, e.g., objectivism or subjectivism about well-being is true. But there’s an alternative. Rather than seeing ourselves as answering the “big questions”, as it were, we see ourselves as exploring how to construct alternative theories, what such theories must take on board, their relations and interconnections without settling which account of the “big question” is the right one. To borrow a metaphor from Ryle (though to somewhat different effect) we might think of the product of philosophical inquiry as a map or road atlas: a clear account of which routes one might take through logical space, without settling which route is the “right one”. (This need not commit to there being no right answer—just that it’s not the task of philosophical inquiry to determine what it, in fact, is.)

Thinking of philosophy in this way has some benefits, I think. First, it provides a more compelling account of philosophical progress. Take hedonism, for instance. This classic theory of well-being stands no closer to refutation or general acceptance than when it was first introduced. But while we may be no closer to consensus on whether hedonism is true, we have discovered a number of important features of the view (it can be both objective and subjective), differences in how to express it (sensory versus attitudinal), concepts of which hedonism may be an adequate conception (moral hedonism, axiological hedonism, prudential hedonism), important verdicts hedonism may take on board (the experience machine). If this sort of thing is what we’re up to, we’re, as it turns out, pretty good at it.

Second, and to me most important, if we think of the philosophical enterprise in this way, the ultimate task of philosophy becomes fully collaborative. If I’m a welfare subjectivist, the success of the project at which the objectivist is engaged need be no threat to the success of my project. After all, we’re all working together to develop the most complete “atlas”. The fact that, when we reach bedrock, I go subjectivist and you go objectivist need not entail that we are philosophical adversaries.

There may be drawbacks; after all, we might be very interested in whether objectivism or subjectivism is true. Giving up the pursuit of the right answer may be disappointing. But I suggest we kick the tires on an alternative, which seems to me a natural result of reflection on the phenomenon of intuitive bedrock. But even if it isn’t, it is up to philosophers how to understand what they’re up to—indeed, up to each individual philosopher. My hope is that thinking of philosophy as a kind of atlas-drawing means that we’re better at our jobs, we see ourselves as working together, and we approach philosophical inquiry much more often in a constructive and collaborative spirit.

mid cent mod chairs

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Antti Kauppinen
Antti Kauppinen
5 years ago

I’m no scholar, but it sounds like you conceive of us engaging in something like dialectical as opposed to demonstrative argumentation in Aristotle’s sense (see e.g. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-logic/#DiaArgArtDia). I think that’s an attractively modest way to think of what we do, although I’m myself inclined to think that while we can’t demonstrate the truth of ‘intuitive’ premises of the sort you mention to those who disagree, we may still be entitled to take them to be true. Maybe the rule should be that unless we can compellingly show to (rational, informed) doubters that our assumptions are true, we should regard philosophical theorizing from their assumptions as equally worthwhile as our own, even though we have sufficient reason to believe that their conclusions are false (as is the case with hedonists!).Report

John Turri
5 years ago

Hi Dale,

Thanks for an intriguing post! I’m all in favor of more collaborative sentiment and mutual appreciation.

Why do you think that we have reached intuitive bedrock in the example you describe? It seems to me that you’ve just scratched the surface. People could be filling in potentially relevant details differently (e.g. how he ended up with this set of preferences). The description includes claims that cannot strictly speaking be true if this person is a normal human, so people might be accommodating those claims differently (e.g. what is included in “he does nothing else” or “his entire life”?). The description also includes claims that people might not actually be accepting (e.g. he values *everything* about his life, he understands the alternatives *perfectly*). Then there is the question, “Is this person leading a good life, at least for his own sake?” which, to me at least, is hard to understand.

All of these things can and, I suspect, do affect people’s reaction to the case. Simply reflecting on the case or observing what others report will not reveal what is responsible for our intuitions (or considered explicit judgments). Indeed, it might not reveal even the content of our intuitions (judgments).

I can see value in collating and systematizing intuitions. But I think this task would be valuable primarily in those instances where the inputs are (fairly determinately specified) intuitions we actually have, especially if the goal of correctly answering the underlying question is set aside.

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Dale
Dale
5 years ago

Hi all,

Some good food for thought. Unfortunately I’m getting ready to travel internationally with a toddler today so I’ll have to take a rain check for a few days on substantive replies! (I realize this sounds very unsatisfactory.)Report

Dale Miller
5 years ago

I think you’re right that there are cases in which people have conflicting intuitions and in which philosophical arguments can’t break the impasse. However, one way to respond to situations in which large numbers of intelligent and reflective people have different intuitions is to look for ways in which they can all be accommodated. This won’t always be possible, but it seems to me that an account of what well-being consists in is one place where they can. I’ve come around to an “ecumenical” theory of well-being: Other things being equal, experiencing more pleasure makes your life go better for you. So does the satisfaction of your desires. So does knowledge, achievement, and perhaps other “objective” features of lives. Of course, people with different intuitions will disagree about how much weight to attach to the different constituents of well-being. But surely if large numbers of intelligent and reflective individuals have been attracted to a particular view about what makes a human life go better for the person living it then that’s a strong prima facie reason to believe that this view captures at least a part of the truth. (Additionally, many of the arguments against particular theories of well-being, like the experience machine objection to hedonism, seem at most to be objections to a given theory’s claim to be the whole truth.)Report

Dale
Dale
5 years ago

Hi all,

Thanks for the comments (and patience!).

In response to John and Dale, I’m perfectly happy to admit that maybe in this case and in cases like it intuitive bedrock hasn’t really been reached. And there may be some ecumenical approaches that will satisfy many. But what happens when someone says, “Look: knowledge just doesn’t count for anything. It’s all pleasure”, and so forth. You provide them cases, they reject the intuitions, and on and on. I don’t really know what to say to this person, despite my efforts to be ecumenical. They’re just denying that there’s any part of the truth in a certain theory. Maybe there’s something psychological involved; maybe they’re bullheaded. But intuitive bedrock of this kind strikes me as possible, and indeed frequent.

In response to Antti, I think what you say is broadly correct, except that I guess I’m even less committed. In other words, I don’t think we need to take any of the bedrock starting points to be true to be engaged in a project that qualifies as part of the philosophical enterprise. For instance, I think a Kantian moral theory is a bit bonkers on its face, I just don’t share the starting points. But I think I can contribute to the way in which Kantian theories can go, how they can be constructed, not taking those starting points as accepted but by figuring out what would happen were one to take them as true. Perhaps this is actually closer to what you were suggesting now that I type it out.Report

Dale Miller
Reply to  Dale
5 years ago

I agree that there may be nothing more to say to this person. But isn’t the question what direction to take in your own work? My suggestion was that in at least this one case there might be an alternative to abandoning the ambition of answering the big question and settling for simply working out what forms the different possible answers might take, namely concluding that a view that “honors” the two or three views that each seem so clearly intuitively right to many people actually is the right answer to the big question (even though many people will remain partisans of one narrow view or other). Report

John Turri
Reply to  Dale
5 years ago

Dale D.,

I feel like we might be talking past one another. When you say, “Maybe there’s something psychological involved,” do you mean something psychological other than a “bedrock intuition”? Because, as I understand that phrase, it is a purely psychological category. It’s basically saying that a very specific psychological process produced the relevant intuition.

I agree that if someone just keeps flatly denying something, that can be puzzling. I’m not sure why anything should be said to this person, though, or how their intransigence plausibly bears on how inquiry (/theory construction) should proceed.Report

Heath White
Heath White
5 years ago

I don’t think there is anything _wrong_ with mapping out conceptual territory. I like doing it, myself. But I don’t think it follows that one ought to abandon the “big questions.” For a couple of reasons.

One, a lot of people care about big questions. Not a lot of people care so much about mapping out conceptual territory. The proposal to map out territory _as opposed to_ attempting to answer big questions may mean the enterprise is more collaborative, but it is of interest (I would say legitimately) to many fewer people.

Two (related), the motivation to map out conceptual territory is generally driven by an interest in the big questions. There is a reason we have a pretty elaborate conceptual map for hedonism and not for, say, the semantics of ‘pot roast’. If nothing else, it is a lot easier to process arguments of the form “P, Q, therefore R” than arguments of the form “….; therefore P&Q is inconsistent with ~R.”

Three, while analytic philosophy has historically taken the appeal to intuition to be a kind of bedrock, this seems methodologically mistaken to me. Intuitions come from somewhere, not necessarily open to introspection. When we hit conflicting intuitions, the right course is to develop a (possibly empirical) theory of what causes them. You can then evaluate those (competing) theories and that will give you some idea about the rational force of the intuitions. Details would take too much space for a blog comment, of course.Report