Alexander, Weinberg and the problem of intuition

By Aristophanes

In the essay “Analytic Epistemology and Experimental Philosophy,” Joshua Alexander and Jonathan Weinberg present a defense of experimental philosophy that challenges the role intuition plays in normal philosophic analysis.

Experimental philosophy is the idea that philosophic study should not be devoid of empirical justification in the form of real-world experimentation. For Alexander and Weinberg, this includes directly testing the reliability of intuitions, or common assumptions by which philosophical thought experiments are often judged.

One cannot rely on intuitions as justification for an argumentative claim without knowing first that such intuitions are indeed accurate enough to count as evidence in the first place, they say. Because much of philosophy is by nature argumentative, this would impose a harsh restriction on proper philosophic methodology.

The advice is often ignored. In some cases where philosophic arguments begin with a certain intuitive belief the following work then attempts to explain, Alexander and Weinberg’s worry is never even considered.

In other words, if traditional arm-chair philosophy wants to employ intuition in its methodology, it must necessarily make use of experimental procedures beforehand in order to verify the usefulness and accuracy of such intuitions — if such a thing is even possible. Traditional philosophy commonly utilizes intuition in its methodology. According to Alexander and Weinberg, then, traditional philosophy is highly dependent upon experimental philosophy, making this non-traditional study necessary for the arm-chair philosopher to truly succeed.

For Alexander and Weinberg’s experimental philosophy, a key goal is to determine whose intuitions can be relied upon as evidence. In their essay, they consider three responses: intuition solipsism, intuition elitism and intuition populism.

The two philosophers tackle intuition solipsism first, the response to which they are the most critical. Intuition solipsism, in brief, is the idea that when a philosopher depends on her own intuition as evidence, she does so on the basis of only that single, personal intuition. It does not matter if the philosopher’s intuition is representative of any larger group, as is the case with intuition elitism and intuition populism.

This view may sound incredibly odd, and it is strange, at least insofar as it is highly unpopular. Alexander and Weinberg allege there is little evidence to believe that when philosophers use their own intuitions in their studies, they do so independently of that intuition’s ability to represent a larger class of intuitive claims in general, even if this isn’t explicitly stated.

Further, Alexander and Weinberg also say intuition solipsism is simply incompatible with the argumentative practice of much of philosophy.

“If the appeal to intuitions is to make sense as part of an argumentative practice, then the evidentiary status of intuitions needs some foundation,” they say. “In general, this foundation would have to arise either from the intuition’s being shared with one’s interlocutors, or from one’s having some recognizable privileged authority with regard to the intuition in question. Neither type of foundation can be determined from a solipsistic perspective.”

An argument relying solely on the intuitions of the arguer herself would do a poor job of convincing anyone of its conclusion. Thus, intuition solipsism fails, Alexander and Weinberg say.

Alexander and Weinberg argue that intuition solipsism is an incomprehensible justification for using an intuition in argumentative philosophy, and, based solely on the nature of argumentative philosophy alone, I find it hard to disagree.

The two alternative options of intuition elitism and intuition populism still remain, and it is here that Alexander and Weinberg begin to dial back their critique. Neither view can be defeated by the same reasoning that defeated intuition solipsism. It is easy to understand why both appeals could be used persuasively in an argumentative context, they say.

First, let’s explore intuition elitism, or the idea that we can use intuitions as evidence when they represent a limited class of trained thinkers. In this case, we will take that class to be of the group professional philosophers. The argument here is that these men and women alone, through years of practice and study, possess the honed intellect and intuitive accuracy required for philosophic reliability.

Thus, when philosopher A publishes his paper, relying on his own intuition X as evidence for a certain claim within, he does so only because philosopher B would, most likely, also hold an intuition similar to intuition X under the same circumstances, as would philosopher C and so on and so forth.

Alexander and Weinberg explore several possible justifications for the mode of intuition elitism. One such possible justification involves the technical nature of philosophic investigation. Only those trained to understand such complex language and argumentative forms can rightly hold reliable intuitions, proponents say. This understanding is not common enough amongst the general populace, whose intuitions only reflect an understanding of ordinary concepts, and so their intuitions are not worthy of evidentiary status. However, professional philosophers, who are trained to understand such complex, technical ideas, do have the requisite understanding necessary to form accurate intuitions, and so we can trust their intuitions — and these alone — as evidence for our argumentative claims.

However, Alexander and Weinberg are critical of this view.

“Philosophical practice is not concerned with understanding the nature of knowledge (or belief, freedom, moral responsibility, etc.) in some technical sense, but of knowledge as the concept is ordinarily understood outside of strictly philosophical discourse and practice,” they say. “If it were concerned only with the technical sense of the concept, it would be divorced from the concerns that led us to philosophical investigation of the concept in the first place and its verdicts would have little bearing on those initial concerns. As such, large and central swaths of philosophical practice must be concerned with the ordinary concepts.”

If we are primarily concerned with ordinary concepts, we have no reason to appeal to the intuitions of the technicians in particular, they say.

On this point, I mostly agree with the analysis of Alexander and Weinberg, although an issue does arise in considering whether the common folk are really forming their intuitions from the same basis as professional philosophers if they have hazier understandings of the terms used within, even if both of the two groups are given identical, word-for-word prompts. This could be addressed, I suppose, with a properly prepared, adequately explained experiment, however, and there are other things to consider besides, such as the nature of the intuitions themselves when we are assured that the information, when finally processed by both groups, is identical. Thus, my concern seems more practical than philosophical.

Another possible justification for intuition elitism would be to argue that philosophers are better able to attend to relevant features of a thought experiment than are the common folk, simply because they are practicing philosophers.

Alexander and Weinberg do not argue directly against this justification, but maintain a sort of neutral skepticism. To justify intuition elitism in this way, they say, one would have to compose a separate argument to explain philosophers’ supposed superiority over the common folk. Alexander and Weinberg do not think that an adequate argument for this has yet been given.

Alexander and Weinberg share this point: “One might argue, for example, that philosophers spend more time thinking about the relevant concepts than do non-philosophers and their expertise at producing correct intuitive judgments is a product of this sustained reflection. But, even granting that philosophers do spend more time thinking about the relevant concepts, it is not clear what conclusion can be drawn.”

Is intuition a skill that someone can hone through training? Perhaps, but, like Alexander and Weinberg, I also see no reason to assume so unequivocally without a full and proper argument in support.

Additionally, Alexander and Weinberg consider a final justification in which it is argued that philosophical expertise in intuition-making has already been demonstrated. If philosophers have a better track record of epistemic success than the common folk, the argument goes, wouldn’t that prove their intuitions should be considered more accurate and reliable?

Alexander and Weinberg believe this to be an open question. There is nothing to suggest that philosophers have actually enjoyed greater epistemic success than non-philosophers, even if such a thing could be demonstrated.

On this point, Alexander and Weinberg play the science card: Aren’t most scientists non-philosophers? Don’t they enjoy great success in their explanations and predictions? Even if the answer to the last question is not a resounding “yes,” it would still be difficult to argue that philosophers clearly demonstrate greater epistemic success than do scientists, they say.

Further, Alexander and Weinberg also consider mathematicians as another epistemically successful group of non-philosophers.

“So, on assumption that philosophy is to be done by surveying the intuitions of the epistemically successful, we would suggest that philosophers may not be too near the front of that survey queue,” they say.

Personally, I take issue with this dichotomy between philosophers and non-philosophers. I don’t believe the divide is so distinct. Don’t scientists use intuition in their own way, at least in forming hypotheses and deciding in which direction to originally point their experiments? If they use intuition in a similar way as philosophers, are they not also philosophers-in-part?

Further, why compare the epistemic success of those who don’t employ intuition in their methodology, such as mathematicians, with those who do? The knowledge-searching processes seem much too dissimilar to readily compare their success rates against one another. After all, the primary purpose is to compare one group of intuiters (philosophers) against another (the common folk), not to compare intuiters against non-intuiters.

As such, even though I disagree with Alexander and Weinberg’s supposed method of defeating this final justification for intuition elitism, like them I believe the question of philosophers’ relative epistemic success remains an open one. Just as Alexander and Weinberg, I’m willing to leave the option of intuition elitism on the table for now.

Finally, we reach intuition populism, the idea that a philosopher relies on his intuition because it is representative of a broad, common class including both philosophers and non-philosophers — what epistemologists refer to as “the folk.” Here, Alexander and Weinberg say very little, instead using their prior arguments against the certainty of intuition elitism to levy some support for intuition populism. They are still hesitant to declare a clear winner, though.

“We do take the points rehearsed against intuition elitism above and the failure of the intuition elitist to establish the preconditions of their approach to point in favor of intuition populism,” they say. “Nevertheless, for our purposes here, we are content to leave the question open whether standard philosophical practice is better understood in accordance with intuition elitism or intuition populism.”

Alexander and Weinberg end this section of their essay by asserting that, regardless of whether intuition elitism or intuition populism is chosen, the practice of relying on intuitions in philosophy must necessarily stand upon the shoulders of experimental philosophy, the very method by which those intuitions can only be held as reliable evidence in the first place.

But this favoring of intuition populism also seems problematic. Don’t we know that even simple intuitions differ among individuals at an alarming frequency? Don’t we know that they differ based on a wide array of factors, including, but not limited to, different cultures, levels of education, present environment, psychological state, emotional mood and so on? How can we look to something so alarmingly erratic as our standard for making use of intuitive claims?

This lead us to Alexander and Weinberg’s description of the two broadly drawn views within the intuition-judging side of experimental philosophy: the proper foundation and restrictionist views.

The proper foundation view alleges that statements of intuition distribution are testable, empirical claims. Before beginning the traditional philosophic analysis of a certain study, one must test the intuitions that are to be used in that study in order to determine a suitable reliability. By doing this, one can determine precisely what the intuitions shared between the common folk and professional philosophers — or of the group of philosophers alone, if one prefers — really are. Thus, experimental philosophy under the proper foundation view works as a necessary supplement to traditional philosophy.

The restrictionist view, on the other hand, uses the same methods of the previous view to challenge, as opposed to support, the suitability of using intuitions as evidence. Proponents of this view look at experimental evidence and conclude intuitions are, in general, not reliable enough to be used as evidence in a philosophic study.

Restrictionists point to the variability of intuitions not only across different groups and cultures, but also within individuals depending on the environment in which a thought experiment is posed. For example, Alexander and Weinberg cite studies in which individuals’ intuitions are seen to change depending on what order a string of thought experiments is presented.

The argument of restrictionists seems much more acceptable than the argument of proper foundationalists. The data clearly show intuitions are swayed by factors external to the thought experiments themselves. In this case, too many changing variables creates an unwieldy data set for us to properly employ in our philosophic analysis. This matches our earlier examination of the three modes of intuition — namely, solipsism, elitism and populism — and our mostly-agnostic conclusion as to which could be properly relied upon.

Therefore, leaning on the side of caution, we should accept the restrictionist argument and largely avoid the use of intuitions in our philosophic investigations.

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