Monday, November 22, 2004

Late Night Generalizations About Philosophers' Intuitions

With all the talk of intuitions in philosophy (here's the latest installment), and particularly the fear that the intuitions of western academic philosophers may not be shared by members of other cultures, or even nonphilosopher members of the same culture, it's easy to begin to wonder about the validity of many philosophical positions, or at least how to save them from the problem of unshared intuitions. I myself think we should be skeptical about intuitions regardless of whether they're shared across members of different cultures. The reason is that no matter how hard philosophers try, and no matter how clean their intuitions are rendered through the process of making them explicit and filtering them through the sieve of social and academic review, so much of what goes into the production of those intuitions is unconscious and unavailable to introspection. The very idea that through this filtering is possible reminds me of the hubris Nietzsche remarks in his essay "On the Prejudices of the Philosophers," where he writes:
Collectively they take up a position as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cool, pure, god-like disinterested dialectic (in contrast to the mystics of all ranks, who are more honestly stupid with their talk of "inspiration"—), while basically they defend with reasons sought out after the fact an assumed principle, an idea, an "inspiration," for the most part some heart-felt wish which has been abstracted and sifted.
Perhaps Nietzsche is a bit harsh, but I can't escape the impression that philosophers' intuitions, like those Kripke and the philosophers who have followed him seem to share about things like reference (as discussed in Fodor's much-blogged about review) are, when they are made explicit, nothing more than post hoc rationalizations of the positions in which our largely unconscious and unexamined conceptual schemes place us in relation to the problems the philosophers are raising. If this is the case, then it's not surprising that members of cultures with conceptual schemes that vary in significant and relevant ways would have different "intuitions" when confronted with those problems. However, these cultural differences only hint at the real problem with intuitions, a problem which is made even more clear by the possibility of members of the same culture failing to share those of philosophers. What this implies is that philosophers' intuitions are a product of their specialized knowledge structures gained through training and reading related to the philosophical issues in question.

There's an upshot to all of this. When I changed disciplines from philosophy to psychology long ago, I used to get into heated discussions about the value of analytic philosophy with my graduate advisor. One of his most frequent remarks was that the biggest difference between philosophers and experimental psychologists is that psychologists are beholding to data. There's something naive about philosophers believing that their intuitions are somehow getting to the heart of the issues, that their intuitions are somehow direct, immediate, or otherwise unreasoned (but not unreasonable) impressions of or responses to the (often counterfactual) scenarios they explore. Regardless of how sophisticated the logical and conceptual tools they may have at their disposal, philosophers are subject to the personal and social limitations idiosyncracies that come with human cognition. And since all that philosophers are beholding to, in most cases, is their own intuitions and those of other philosophers (members of a community that shares at least some relevant knowledge structures) there's no real way to independently test the validity of philosophical positions. If you want to know how something like reference works, you go out and you look at how people use language to refer. That doesn't entail exploring one's own intuitions. Psychologists realized the ineffectiveness of this sort of introspection 100 years ago. Instead, in entails going out and systematically gathering data. It's true that scientists, too, are shackled by their cognitive makeup, but that's the beauty of data - it constrains the range of possible intuitions that one can accept, and the more data one gathers, the fewer intuitions on can reasonable accept.

Obviously there are areas of philosophy where this method won't work. For example, you can't develop a meta-ethical theory, particularly one that's meant to be normative rather than purely descriptive, by going out and looking at peoples' moral reactions to situations. In this case, your goal isn't to understand how people behave, but to come up with theories about how they should behave regardless of how they actually do. However, there are intuitions that go into any moral theory that could benefit from some good data. For instance, any descriptive or moral theory of ethics will have to take into account facts about the human mind, and how it acts in the types of situations (particularly in social situations) that ethical theorists are interested in.Thus in some cases, like theories of reference, philosophy can best be used as a sort of hypothesis-generator, which then passes its hypotheses along for empirical investigation. In other cases, like the case of moral theorizing, philosophy produces the ultimate theories, but it should use knowledge from empirical investigations to gain insight into the potential structures of moral theories. Any philosophy that relies exclusively on intuitions, however, is doomed to be little more than parlor games. As Fodor says in his review, "Is that a way for grown-ups to spend their time?"


Anonymous said...

Have you seen the Experimental Philosophy blog? They've had many discussions (see especially the "metaphilosophy" category) about the intuitions of philosophers vs. laypeople, their relative worth and role in philosophy, etc.

As I understand it, their approach is to do actual empirical research to find our what laypeople's intuitions are. Perhaps that makes them more psychologists than philosophers, I'm not sure, but it's interesting stuff regardless. (E.g. the finding that incompatibilism about free will is not the most "intuitive" position after all.)

So there may be a trend starting in contemporary philosophy towards becoming more "beholden to data".

(Also, one shouldn't overestimate the role intuitions play in philosophy, as noted by Barry Loewer in the Leiter Reports post you link to.) 

Posted by Richard

Anonymous said...

Richarc, I got very excited when I first heard about experimental philosophy a couple years ago, because I heard about it through one of Stich's papers on reference (I think it was in Cognition, maybe Cognitive Psychology), but to be honest, I'm disappointed with the approach experimental philosophers take. The reason is that I think intuitions, and self-report in general, are the wrong way to go in most areas of cognition, but especially in areas that are almost completely unconscious like language use. The best way to figure out how reference works is to look at people actually referring. I know Stich does some of that, but for the most part, that's not what you see on the Experimental Philosophy blog, or in the papers I've read by experimental philosophers in general.

Where intuitions are really, really big in philosophy is in almost any use of modal logic and counterfactual scenarios. I think this is why to those of us who are used to continental philosophy find so much of analytic philosophy silly sometimes (who really has intuitions about counterfactuals related to evil neuroscientists who change the wirings in our brains?) 

Posted by Chris

Anonymous said...

"I think this is why to those of us who are used to continental philosophy find so much of analytic philosophy silly sometimes (who really has intuitions about counterfactuals related to evil neuroscientists who change the wirings in our brains?)"

I'm not used to continental philosophy, but a big Amen to that.

I always feel like people in 'experimental philosophy' are, for the most part, just people who spend an inordinate amount of time arguing about the place of intuition in philosophy. And the 'experimental' in experimental philosophy generally just means surveys of some sort. It's like cognitive science, without the science part, and without most of the cognitive part.

But then, I tend to have a curmudgeonly view of these sorts of fads anyway.... 

Posted by Brandon

Anonymous said...

Excellent comments. I'm not as opposed to appeals to intuition, depending upon how they are used. For instance the odd examples of Gettier examples or the evil neuroscientists in the free will debate don't bother me that much, so long as we don't push them too much. The issue, as I see it, is in giving a meaning to our questions. The meaning of the question determines the answers. Of course I admit that this means that I see a lot of the debates in analytic philosophy as debates about how to take the questions, with the answers to the questions usually following fairly naturally. What is done less often is to ask what are useful ways of considering the issue. i.e. bypassing intuitions entirely.

I think that happens as well, often after people get fed up with the whole initial debate. For instance I've seen a lot of comments about the free will debate suggesting that the answers don't matter too much because they won't fundamentally change what they do. At best they may have a negative psychological effect on people who want their intuitions of freedom to be true. It's the old threat of nihilism I suppose that Nietzsche identified.

Posted by Clark

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