Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Culturally Variant Intuitions

A session at the recent APA Pacific on “Multicultural Epistemology” (featuring Jason Stanley and Edouard Machery, among others) has got me thinking about culturally variant intuitions. Recent evidence from experimental philosophy has indicated that respondents in East Asian countries tend to have different reactions than their Western counterparts to cases such as “The Magistrate and the Mob,” or Kripke’s Gödel scenario. A recurring question at the APA session concerned what these differences ought to mean for philosophers working in the given areas. Stanley argued that rather than refuting a prevalent methodology that begins from philosophers’ intuitions about cases, cultural variances simply provide us with a wider data set to be explained. Machery in turn presented his research-in-progress suggesting that cross-cultural intuitions about Gettier cases exhibited far more similarity than previous work by experimental philosophers has suggested.

Culturally variant intuitions can be used as a premise in an argument for making philosophy more cross-cultural. If there is evidence that not everyone reacts to a well-known case in the same way we do, we should be hesitant of using our own intuitions about these cases in support of the view we think is correct. Learning how members of culturally distinct traditions respond to these problems is necessary if we want the views we defend to have truly universal appeal.

Is this a convincing argument? Critics of experimental philosophy have argued, for instance, that the existence of culturally variant intuitions is no big deal, since philosophers already know from talking to their colleagues and students that their own intuitions are not universally shared. How significant is this objection? Are there other potential uses of culturally variant intuitions in comparative philosophy?

April 27th, 2014 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Comparative philosophy, Empirical Studies, Methodology | 32 comments

32 Responses to Culturally Variant Intuitions

  1. Brian Bruya says:

    I think you are correct about culturally variant intuitions being useful “as a premise in an argument for making philosophy more cross-cultural.” I’d like to learn more about what work is being done along this line with regard both to contributing to the premise and to promulgating such an argument.

    • Tim Connolly says:

      Thanks for this comment, Brian. From what I can tell, some of the work in experimental philosophy supports the premise and some does not. E.g. the research by Machery et al. on reference found cultural divergence, whereas their research on knowledge and justified true belief did not.

      As far as the argument goes, I don’t know of anyone who has argued from culturally variant intuitions to the need for more cross-cultural philosophy. The differing intuitions are used rather to support skepticism about a methodology that takes our own intuitions as the basis of the view we defend. What is more, the experimental philosophers seem interested mainly in how laypersons in other cultures respond to well-known cases, rather than in studying philosophers from those cultures.

      • Tim Connolly says:

        . . . but it seems to me the argument can be made! I am just thinking of what the intermediate steps might be.

      • hagop sarkissian says:

        That all sounds right to me. So far as I can tell, the more such experiments show divergence, the more they will push the field toward grappling with two questions: to what extent (if at all) do certain questions in philosophy collapse to ethno-philosophy, or culture-bound philosophy, or local philosophy? One reading of Rawls’s career trajectory is that as his thinking developed he realized the extent to which his original theory of justice was culture-bound, thus leading to a greater relativism in his later writings and a much thinner notion of justice (e.g. The Law of Peoples). Experimental philosophy might show that in certain domains (e.g. value theory, epistemology), theory construction must refer to intuitions that are culture-bound, thus limiting the scope or ambition of theories in these domains. If this is right, then it’s unclear how it promotes cross-cultural philosophy other than admitting that philosophy cannot aspire to universality.

        Another avenue is to argue that cultures with different intuitions than ones that philosophers share are simply wrong. Anecdotally, this was Kripke’s response when told that East Asians have different intuitions in Godel type thought experiments about reference. That’s a massive bullet to bite and I don’t find it appealing.

        A third response is to go Stanley’s route (as you describe it) and take diverging intuitions as legitimate and thus have a greater data set of intuitions with which to theorize. This meta-philosophical approach has, to my knowledge, not been explored in the literature, but it’s fruitfulness can’t be ruled out. On the face of it, though, it seems unclear how you could build a theory of rightness when you include judgments of both P and not-P as equally valid reference points.

  2. Amod Lele says:

    “Critics of experimental philosophy have argued, for instance, that the existence of culturally variant intuitions is no big deal, since philosophers already know from talking to their colleagues and students that their own intuitions are not universally shared.”

    If that objection is taken seriously, it seems to undercut the majority of analytical ethics as it is done in practice.

    (IMO, that is not a bad thing.)

  3. Bill Haines says:

    I’m inclined to suppose that the idea that moral intuitions (such as could be reflected and measured in simple surveys) are culturally invariant has never had significant currency among Anglophone philosophers (unless on theological grounds). But I could easily be forgetting something, and I’m not up on the latest developments.

    I would imagine that the general idea that moral intuitions vary with culture has been generally accepted among philosophers and other educated people for a very long time—perhaps in all times and places where the fact that human cultures differ widely has been recognized. Herodotus and Montesquieu are conventionally credited with bringing the fact of cultural variety to the attention of the community of moral thinkers of their times; it’s something one can forget when one is in a strong dominant culture without easy access to other cultures. Once the fact of deep variety in cultural practices is recognized, I suppose the fact of variation in moral intuitions goes pretty much without saying.

    Kripke’s use of intuition in the argument about ‘Gödel’ is an appeal to our linguistic intuitions about the meanings of names. That is, it is a more or less direct appeal to (our knowledge of) our language. I suppose the general point that linguistic categories and hence linguistic intuitions vary somewhat from language to language is universally taken for granted, though there is controversy about how natural is this or that linguistic category (such as “personal name”).

  4. Bill Haines says:

    1

    I wonder whether the surveys ask not only “Do you think one should run over the one person tied to the track, or the five?” but also “Is this view of yours an intuition [by which we mean ___] , or not?”

    2

    The practice of appeal to “intuitions” in moral philosophy originates, I think, from the fact that a large part of our thinking about morality must take the form of uncovering and resolving prima facie contradictions among the things we think we believe. We have various convictions at various levels of abstraction, and we try to articulate these in words, and it is pretty easy to find prima facie contradictions. If we think it’s not easy, any pal Socrates can easily set us straight. Also, some of our views we recognize as held on the basis of other views; the rest we do not so recognize (at least not right off). These latter are perhaps the “intuitions.” The imperative to avoid self-contradiction then requires me to attend to my intuitions. I think all this is how a good teacher in Ethics 100 should initially describe the appeal to “intuitions.”

    The imperative to avoid self-contradiction requires me to attend to my intuitions; it does not in the same way require me to attend to yours. But because many moral intuitions are widely shared, we can think together through many of the knots our intuitions and other views land us in.

    3

    There may be other reasons to attend to moral intuitions and try to reconcile them with theory. For example, respect for one’s close associates and for people in general, such as is more or less morally required, implies some degree of respect for their moral views, intuitive or otherwise.

    Further, some of us may have theories, or bits of theory, about how moral intuition (reliable moral sensibility) is possible, and how it works, and these theories or bits are likely to imply that the intuitions of people other than oneself have some authority. (Defeasible authority, of course, since intuitions do disagree.) Here is a discussion of some work I have done on how moral intuition could work: http://warpweftandway.com/2013/08/21/dao-123-toc/#comment-56552

    4

    There is also room, at least in principle, for the view that the moral intuitions current in some kinds of culture are in general less authoritative for us than the moral intuitions current in other kinds of culture. Here are some crude examples of kinds of ways in which one might hold that view:

    a. One might hold that moral feelings in any given placetime are more reliable insofar as there is a well-developed tradition, in that placetime, of free and open discussion of moral views and other views relevant to moral questions.

    b. One might hold that the moral feelings in placetime X are less authoritative for people in placetime Y insofar as the basic conditions of life in the two places are different. (This point does not apply to authority in arguments aimed only at universal moral theory.)

    c. One might hold that the moral feelings in placetime X are less authoritative insofar as the practices in X are bad.

    • hagop sarkissian says:

      With regards to you (2), Bill, I’d guess that the growth of ‘reflective equilibrium’ strategies (originating mid 20th century with Rawls) has much to do with the importance of intuitions as well. Having our theories and considered judgments gel with one another, etc. So in moral theory we try to accommodate and explain (or explain away!) strong intuitions we have.

    • Bill Haines says:

      Hi Hagop,

      Is that different from what I was saying in 2?

      I think, for example, that in his main theory of justice, Rawls is trying to harmonize thinking within the democracies whose culture’s judgments he’s weaving. He’s offering his account as a proposed harmonization of the intuitions of his audience. He’s not claiming to say to anyone outside that group, “Here’s what our judgment generates, so you ought to give it weight.”

      Maybe he should; see my 3.

  5. Paul R. Goldin says:

    I think it’s a pretty significant fact that intuitions vary across cultures–one that makes me more hostile than ever to those canned thought experiments with the fat man and the trolley.

    • hagop sarkissian says:

      Curious (genuine question): What’s the source of the hostility, Paul?

      • Paul R. Goldin says:

        I’d have to give you an answer that annoyed another philosopher I just discussed this with, but it is an honest answer to your question: natural scientists would ridicule the notion that truths about the universe ought to be intuitively plausible. Our species didn’t evolve in such a way as to be able to intuit truths about the universe with any reliability.

        From there, the conversation proceeded in unfruitful directions, but that remains the basis of my hostility.

        • hagop sarkissian says:

          Hmmm… I, too, would ridicule the notion that truths about the universe ought to be intuitively plausible, but I guess I’d want to know what we’re talking about when we say ‘truths of the universe’. Take the trolley cases you mention. Experimental psychologists and philosophers who use that case do so in order to better understand the nature of moral judgment in human populations. I don’t know whether that counts as a truth of the universe. I think it’s more accurate to say that such experiments present us with controlled observations and data points, and that in the aggregate they allow us to build theories of human moral cognition, generate predictions, and then continue to test them. That sounds like a reasonable enterprise to me. In fact, I don’t know how else to get at detailed models of human cognition in the absence of such experiments.

          Armchair philosophy can provide us with observations (Mengzi’s child in the well) but experimental methods far outstrip such small anecdotes.

          • Paul R. Goldin says:

            OK, if you’re using people’s reactions to the fat man and trolley examples in order to gauge moral judgment in human populations, that’s fine. (There are some methodological issues, e.g., how reliable are survey responses, but those are not unfamiliar.) If you’re using intuitive reactions to such examples as a basis for an ethical theory, however, that’s very different and amounts to little more than dressing up one’s intuitive prejudices in fancy clothing.

        • hagop sarkissian says:

          For some reason I can’t reply to your last reply. But I suppose we’re in agreement that intuitions can’t support a theory on their own, but to tell you the truth I have no idea how one can build any theory concerning value (e.g. ethics, aesthetics) without appealing to at least some intuitions. It seems inevitable that when we are trying to come up with a theory of what is good, right, or beautiful, we will be appealing to intuitions somewhere along the way.

          • Paul R. Goldin says:

            That’s fair, but then you have to accept that whatever “theory” you advance doesn’t necessarily apply to anyone but yourself. Maybe ethicists can accept that qualification, but I always get the feeling that they pretend to far more–that intuitive plausibility is an indication that they’re on the right track toward a more general theory.

            Philosophers worry more than specialists in other fields about whether their theories are intuitively plausible, and I have some empirical data to support this assertion: just Google the phrase “intuitively plausible,” and look at the hits you get. A huge percentage of them come from philosophy papers; typically the author starts by saying that such-and-such a position might initially come across as intuitively implausible, but he or she will defend it regardless. No one in any other field really gives a damn whether a position is intuitively plausible.

          • hagop sarkissian says:

            The theory doesn’t need to be acceptable only to the philosopher himself, but to any person who shares enough of the core intuitions (whatever they may be) along with the other theoretical reasons advanced. I agree that this will end up being less than universal in scope, as many of us will have fundamentally different intuitions in some cases. But it need not be restricted to the philosopher himself. It’s an empirical question how widely shared intuitions are, but on the plausible assumption that values and upbringing shape our intuitive responses we should expect widely shared intuitions that allow theories to have broad appeal.

            I hear you about philosophers’ preoccupation with intuitive plausibility, and you’re right that it may be more prevalent than in other disciplines. One thing I’ll say in response is that philosophy today is sometimes characterized as the discipline that continues grappling with questions and problems for which there are no settled methods of getting answers. When such methods are agreed upon and widely used, and we can generate predictions and make observations (like in physics) then appeals to intuition will be wholly unnecessary. But when it comes to at least some areas of philosophy, it seems like starting with intuitions is the burden we bear for asking questions that have thus far yielded no answers.

  6. Amod Lele says:

    I’d also like to note just how inaccurate the term “intuition” is to describe the judgements in question. Some thoughts on the matter from my blog.

    • Paul R. Goldin says:

      @Hagop It won’t let me reply to you at this point either, so I have to start a new margin.

      Re your first paragraph: the whole point of this thread, as I understand it, is that intuitions are not as widely shared as (some) philosophers have implicitly assumed they are. Some intuitions may be hard-wired into the human brain. Many others, it seems, are culturally constructed.

      Re your second paragraph: as an outsider, I have to tell you my impression that philosophers always seem to convey that they’re inventing the wheel. Philosophers are by no means the only set of people who are asking questions for which there are no settled methods of getting answers, as you put it. People in literature, art, and music do this every day. The problem, as I see it, is that philosophers have been unwilling to accept that they’re in the same class as those poor drudges in literature, art, or music; on the contrary, they’re constantly trying to compare themselves to mathematicians or other grand theorists, and advance correspondingly pretentious theories. I’d be much less hostile to the philosophers’ habit of relying on their intuition if the greater purpose weren’t to propose some kind of allegedly universal theory of right and wrong.

      • hagop sarkissian says:

        I see. So I think this brings us back around to your initial comment. If I understand you correctly, then it seems as though you should be all for what’s been labelled ‘experimental philosophy’ (the topic of Tim’s initial post), for part of what motivates that movement is to show precisely how what philosophers normally take as universal and necessary are really, at base, particular and contingent. Experimental studies help to show how intuitions can systematically differ and how they can do so in a theoretically motivated way (i.e. based on well-grounded reasons as to why we should expect to find diversity).

        So I can both see why you might be hostile to trolley problem type cases if philosophers construct them from the armchair in order to elucidate contingent intuitions that they then purport to have universal applicability. But if that’s what you object to, then it seems to me you should be in favor of the experimental philosophy movement, which aims to keep the universalistic and overreaching aspects of philosophical theorizing in check by testing philosophers’ intuitions using controlled experiments (of the kind that Machery, myself, and many others are doing).

        Hope that’s helpful. And, more importantly, I hope you get to hang out with some cooler, less pretentious philosophers! 🙂

        • Paul R. Goldin says:

          Yes, I’m sympathetic to experimental philosophy and have gotten very annoyed with the armchair style. Sorry if I didn’t make that clearer.

          • Brian Bruya says:

            I just read this exchange between Hagop and Paul with great fascination. Paul, I’d like to push you a little bit on your impatience with philosophers’ use of intuitions. You say that there are lots of fields where people are inquiring into questions for which there are no settled methods of getting answers, and then you bring up literature, art, and music as examples. Are you suggesting that these fields do not employ intuitions in pursuing answers, or are you saying that they simply don’t appeal to them in an explicit way? I’m trying to understand what methods they use that you would prefer philosophers use instead of emphasizing intuitions. None come immediately to mind.

            I sympathize with your viewpoint in that I find some Western philosophical intuitions (metaphysical free will, for instance) implausible, and yet I often find myself coming back to reflect on whether a position sits right with me–intuitively. I don’t, of course, stop there, but the process plays an important role in the process of inquiry, and I don’t think philosophers generally stop at intuitions, so I’d like to know more about the content of your beef.

            On one hand, intuition sounds a bit retro in this age of the scientific method and advanced technology. On the other hand, when we realize that inductive proofs, and even deductive proofs, eventually rest on assumptions about their canons of acceptance (a la Gödel’s incompleteness theorems), we see that in the end it all comes down to intuition. An intuition is what seems to us to be right, not simpliciter, but given all the evidence and cognizant of the inherent underdetermination of evidence and the canons of reasoning used to assess evidence. Think of Occam’s razor, so often appealed to in science–applying that is an instance of intuition. Think of how many iterations are necessary in an induction before one considers something to count as proven–intuition. Think of the paradigms that surround and inform the theories we use to interrogate phenomena–intuition. Think of the basis of the varying standards of statistical significance that are set in the social sciences and how these are used as the threshold for what counts as evidence–intuition. Think of the basis of the judgement of how well a student has written a paper–intuition. I wonder if the reason philosophers are so caught up in intuition is that in a non-foundational world, intuition is really the final appeal. That’s not to say that intuition is all we have to go on, just that if you want to get to the bottom of things, as philosophers do, the role of intuition must be reckoned with.

            You may argue that there are certain facts that are counterintuitive and which we nevertheless hold to be true, thus proving that intuitions are not the court of last resort; for instance the cause of the sun “rising” isn’t the sun rising at all (as we would think intuitively) but the earth’s rotation and its axis’ orientation vis-a-vis the sun. Fair enough, but why do we accept our observations and extrapolations about the earth’s rotation? Eventually, it is because the scientific method just seems to work. Does it really work? We can’t be sure, but it is now a part of our modern intuitive framework, and so that’s what we go by. The sun “rising” is no longer a genuine intuition for the modern educated person. There are better and worse intuitions, and philosophers are open about interrogating them (some of them).

            I’m a fan of experimental philosophy, but even experimental philosophy is grounded in intuitions about what counts as evidence and how much evidence tells us. That said, it would seem essential to try to refine our intuitions to the greatest extent possible. That’s what Hagop was getting at, I think. For instance, I may think that I am entirely objective when evaluating resumes of job applicants. I would have the intuition of the objectivity of my judgements. However, after taking an implicit bias test, I realize that my intuition of objectivity in the circumstance may be flawed. This realization is an advance. But it hasn’t eliminated my use of intuition, only refined it–adding a feeling that I should be more reflective when evaluating personnel. And then down the line, my intuitions, by the use of some certain methods (?), may be improved.

            The Stanford Encyclopedia has a nice article on intuition and its role in philosophy. It starts out by positing a basic contradiction: p and not-p. This proposition (that p and not-p are true simultaneously and in the same way) should be understood by the reasonable person as unacceptable on the face of it. For instance, let’s say that my (only) car is safe in my garage right now, and it is sunk at the bottom of the Huron river right now. Why do we recoil at the possibility that this proposition might be true? Intuition.

            Is this intuition culturally constructed? Hindu philosophers generally accepted the possibility of a proposition being both true and false (dialetheism).

            The thing to remember about the word “intuition” is that it has two distinct senses (that overlap). One sense is as an uninformed, unconstructed, naive belief. The other sense is as a belief that has followed a process of reasoning that cannot be or has not yet been entirely or adequately articulated. Reasoning is, in this sense, intuitive. Consider the classic syllogism: Socrates is a man; all men are mortal; therefore, Socrates is mortal. Why do the first two premises necessarily lead us to the conclusion? This process is, itself, intuitive. So when a philosopher says that something is intuitively plausible, it doesn’t mean that no thought has gone into it, just that before one explicitly lays out the arguments, one’s quick and dirty reasoning (with all that is built into it) can accept it as true.

            This use of “plausible intuitions” is, I think, relatively recent and is a bow to a more and more widely accepted non-foundationalism. It is candid. As you note, philosophers are not stopping with these intuitions but, rather, starting with them. I also think that the same happens in all of the fields you mention; people in other fields just do not, or do not need to, make it explicit.

  7. Paul R. Goldin says:

    @Brian: There’s a lot going on in your post, so I’ll try to address as much as I can.

    First, the major difference between the use of intuition in philosophy and literature, art, music, etc., as I tried to state above, is that people in those latter fields don’t try to formulate universal theories; when they do appeal to intuition (as they inevitably must), it’s with the obvious understanding that such appeals are entirely subjective. To the extent that philosophers seem to be stunned by the finding that “intuitive” responses vary across cultures, they evidently expected that such appeals might not be entirely subjective.

    More importantly, when you can state that “The sun rises” is intuitive and “The sun doesn’t really rise after all” is also intuitive, I think it’s a good sign that the words “intuitive,” “intuition,” etc. are too thick and hairy to satisfy the analytical purposes demanded of them. If ALL judgment is to be declared “intuitive,” the word loses any and all meaning. Yes, insofar as they don’t believe that truths are revealed to us by an omniscient source, natural scientists rely on intuition to judge theories about the world. But they do so on a level that is radically different from just scratching one’s navel and saying, “Yeah, let the trolley run over the fat man,” and the language does need to account for this difference. Most crucially, scientists constantly challenge their own intuitions and revise them insofar as they cannot be reconciled with experimental data, with the result that most current theories about the universe would be considered wholly counter-intuitive by anyone who is not scientifically literate.

    Whenever I make this point, philosophers accuse me of spouting scientist dogma. So be it, I’m afraid, because the alternative is to pretend that all judgment is equally intuitive–and THAT is a highly counter-intuitive position to take.

    • Brian Bruya says:

      Thanks for the clarification, Paul. So what about when folks claim that literature and the arts aim to convey universal truths? Is that a claim that you would dispute, or would you say that such universal truths are importantly distinct from philosophical theories?

      Although I’m not as skeptical as you about the possibility and value of introspection, I stand on the same side of the fence as you when it comes to the desire to find ways to move beyond its limitations. I have a paper coming out soon about getting at the notion of agency by beginning in the objective instead of the subjective.

      Have you seen this paper by Schwitzgebel on introspection?http://www.faculty.ucr.edu/~eschwitz/SchwitzPapers/Naive1.pdf

      • Paul R. Goldin says:

        Now there’s a nineteenth-century idea! It’s a blast from the pre-pluralist past. People who claim that the arts aim to convey universal truths are, at a minimum, applying a loose definition of “truth.” But from an aesthetic point of view I’d object to the very pretense. If we’re considering the lines in a Botticelli painting (for example), I’d get very nervous if a critic were to declare that its value lies in conveying universal truths, because that sounds like a political rather than an aesthetic statement. Is it a slippery way of claiming that there is one ultimate standard of beauty? And that it was realized in Renaissance Italy? I’m allergic to all such insinuations. Nazis made similar claims about Wagner, after all, which have poisoned the reception of his work to this day.

        NOT TO MENTION that the value of art is inseparable from its appreciation (Dewey was one of many to point this out), and interpretations of art can and do vary widely. So if you’re committed to the idea that art conveys universal truths, you’ve immediately committed yourself to the notion that some interpretations are right and others wrong. I’ve long since stepped off the bus by the time it gets to that creepy station.

        • Bill Haines says:

          Hi Brian,

          I’m not sure how introspection is at issue. Is appealing to intuition—what one is inclined to believe, or what one’s sensibility inclines one to believe—more introspective than is appealing to laboratory observations one might make with one’s faculty of vision—what one sees? Maybe asking myself what I’m inclined to think about this or that case, like asking myself what I seem to see, is introspection. Being asked by someone else, as in the surveys, would be pretty much the same thing, yes? The reports in either case are reports of the thing one is inclined to believe, not reports of the felt quality of the inclination.

          Maybe what you have in mind is cases where one is in real doubt about what answer to prefer? So that one must sit down, roll one’s eyes back and feel oneself out. I think the usual practice in anglo philosophical argument is not to place reliance on what we say in that kind of case—or only to place reliance on the fact of difficulty, as Bernard Williams does in the case of Jim and the Indians. Maybe I’m wrong about that?

          Hi Paul,

          Are you now saying that literature as you see it does not address the kind of question people often cite in defining philosophy: big (universal, basic) questions we lack established methods for?

          Granted, it’s one thing to deny the arts aim to convey universal truths, and another to deny that they aim to work toward understanding that is either properly universal or at least not particular.

          Aristotle says “The distinction between historian and poet … consists really in this, that the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be.” From this he argues that poetry aims at general understanding (the “on-the-whole”—sometimes translated as “universal”—as opposed to particular cases) and is therefore “more philosophical” than history. The idea, I think, is simply that the events in fiction are not to be taken as literally claimed; rather they are to be taken as representative of much more general visions.

          Admittedly, even for a one-liner, that’s strikingly pedestrian and narrow on Aristotle’s part (especially since the “poetry” he knew was full of the impossible, from Gorgons to talking dogs).

          … interpretations of art can and do vary widely. So if you’re committed to the idea that art conveys universal truths, you’ve immediately committed yourself to the notion that some interpretations are right and others wrong. I’ve long since stepped off the bus by the time it gets to that creepy station.

          Not even Aristotle thought literature aims only to propose or advocate a vision of life or some part of it. But I don’t think this argument about interpretations supports the claim that literature normally does not do that at all.

          First, the point that much legitimate disagreement, and difference among valuable uses, may spring from functions of literature other than such proposing/advocating. Setting that aside …

          Second, if and insofar as literature offers visions of life, of reality, it does so largely in the medium of suggestive images or examples, and such things essentially have highly indeterminate representational scope. We might say in general: the more broadly the reader extends or projects the significance of an image (in one or another direction), the less the author endorses the extension (as a proposal or claim). No clarificatory articulation that chooses among them will make “the right” choice. Such clarifications may be better, worse, or simply wrong; and all will be somewhat wrong. No clear definition of something genuinely vague can be simply right.

          But vagueness in scope is not prima facie inconsistent with universality. (All Xes are F, All Xes that are G are F – both universal.)

          But they do so on a level that is radically different from just scratching one’s navel and saying, “Yeah, let the trolley run over the fat man,”

          On a narrow interpretation that’s an abstract truth. I read it more broadly also as an imputation of great unreflectiveness to philosophers’ use of thought experiments, and I disagree about that.

          • Paul R. Goldin says:

            Bill,

            I don’t have the time to get into multi-paragraph discussions on these issues, but no, in a nutshell, I don’t believe that “truth” is a meaningful concept in art, nor do I think most art is intended to answer philosophical questions. In fact, the very manner of couching the issue would strike an artist as bizarre, since most artists don’t think the artist’s intentions are relevant to the value of art or the experience of appreciating it (for lots of interesting but very well known reasons that I can’t rehearse here). So even if there were an artist who was trying to answer philosophical questions, you’d be hard-pressed to find connoisseurs who think the value of that artist’s art is delimited by that particular program.

            There have been more recent theorists of art than Aristotle, you know, and I really don’t think he’d be a very good guide to, say, Henri Matisse. I do enjoy talking to you philosophers, but sometimes I get the sense that you need to talk to more people who aren’t.

          • Bill Haines says:

            This is me trying, though admittedly on philosophical questions.

            Paul, this is a public forum and you are a leading figure in the field, dismissing a large territory of human thought and disparaging its people, with ire and imagery. I think that brings some sort of responsibility. Also I think maybe you radically misconceive the activity, and I’m trying to persuade.

            Here asterisks mark possibly unneeded elaborations, given at the end.

            Just now, Paul, I think you’re responding to several things I never meant to suggest,* so I won’t defend them. For my part I’ve probably misunderstood your claim that the arts are a counterexample to a familiar view that philosophy is the only specialty or intellectual enterprise that does X:

            I have to tell you my impression that philosophers always seem to convey that they’re inventing the wheel. Philosophers are by no means the only set of people who are asking questions for which there are no settled methods of getting answers, as you put it. People in literature, art, and music do this every day.

            For the last point to be relevant, I thought you must mean that art commonly involves (includes) working toward finding the answers to broad questions.

            I say, “finding” the answers. I thought it was understood all around that the widespread view about philosophy tries to characterize it as a species of inquiry or investigation—a pursuit of cognitively correct answers or truth.** In which case you would have to be saying the same thing about the arts, to propose them as a counterexample. Maybe it wasn’t understood, and you weren’t saying the arts involve inquiry at all, in which case all my further discussion of the arts was off your original point.

            Of course there are sensible questions that plainly don’t admit of true answers. For example, “Where shall we eat?” seeks decision rather than truth.*** This kind of question can refer to a broad or narrow range of activity, by many people or just one or two; it can admit of good or bad answers (decisions) and arguably morally wrong or required ones, but not true or false answers. I guess that kind of question has definite meaning only insofar as (a) some particular set of deciders is understood, and (b) the discussants collectively have the power to put a decision into effect.

            Is that the kind of question you’re saying the arts pursue?

            Of course, one can work toward answers (even true answers) without proposing answers. One could instead work toward answers just by training the skills of people who will then try to answer. Obviously art can train insight, sensibility, ready thought, etc.**** In this way art could work toward true answers without raising big questions of truth in the art. That wouldn’t make art a counterexample—an elephant that philosophers arrogantly overlook—because that kind of pursuit of answers is of course not what the familiar view of philosophy is mainly talking about.

            Here is a broader question. When you say artists ask questions every day, it looks like you’re saying they do this in their art, and not just by accident. (Obviously you’re not saying it’s the main or only thing they do or intend.) Whether or not that’s actually your point, I wonder whether you think the following would be a reasonable rebuttal:

            In fact, the very manner of couching the issue would strike an artist as bizarre, since most artists don’t think the artist’s intentions are relevant to the value of art or the experience of appreciating it (for lots of interesting but very well known reasons that I can’t rehearse here).

            ===============================

            Elaborations:

            *
            Here are some things I didn’t mean or imply.
            (1) That the word “true” has application in art in either of the following ways: that (a) it makes sense to call a work of art “true” or that (b) where a work of art lays out a vision, we can specify some definite proposition in that vision as definitively intended, a proposition that admits of being true or false. (2) That most art intends to propose answers to questions we’d recognize as being at home in philosophy departments, or even to any definite questions the producers or consumers could specify as definitely intended. (3) If there were a (decent) artist who was trying to answer philosophical questions, the value of her art would lie in little more than the value of that program. (I opposed this point pretty explicitly I think.) (4) Aristotle’s definition of poetry is good. (I opposed this in strong terms.) (5) Aristotle’s account of poetry is a good guide to paintings.

            **
            We discussed the widespread view about philosophy at length in another recent thread: LINK
            . Also, the idea that philosophy is a kind of inquiry (search for truth) is consistent with the fact that philosophers are actively open to, and often discuss, the possibility that at least some of what they hope are questions admitting true answers are in fact not. That might be true.

            ***
            Of course, “Where shall we eat?” can seek decision and truth as one, as when someone asks it of her military superior.

            ****
            Whether art by training answerers is therefore thereby “working toward answers,” and thus in at least that sense “asking questions” as you say, is a question about the artists’ broad understanding or intent. There’s a similar and separate question to ask about the consumption of art, and the consumers’ intent.

  8. Bill Haines says:

    A. The pure inevitability defense

    One way to defend reliance on intuition is to point out that it’s epistemically unavoidable (in every field, I’d add). That abstract point defeats the claim that it’s wrong to appeal to intuition ever, but does not address complaints about quantity. Even if appeal to intuition in large quantity is epistemically unavoidable, that still doesn’t get to the question whether Smith or Jones does it too much. If we are all inevitably sinners, that doesn’t excuse any particular sin.

    B. Another version

    Tom wrote above, “The differing intuitions are used rather to support skepticism about a methodology that takes our own intuitions as the basis of the view we defend.”

    This sentence suggested to me the following thought. Suppose we define “intuitions” as those views one has without being readily able to point to a basis in others of one’s views. It would seem to follow pretty immediately that one bases all one’s views (that are not themselves intuitions) on one’s intuitions. What does not follow at all is that we have a special faculty, “intuition,” on whose authority we base anything.

    Brian wrote above, “in a non-foundational world, intuition is really the final appeal.” I don’t see why how the intial qualifier makes the claim more plausible.

    One thing that’s wrong with the definition of “intuitions” I proposed just above–those views one has without being readily able to point to a basis in others of one’s views.–is that it includes too much: it includes things one knows by direct sensory observation: here is a coffee cup. Is there any other significant problem with the definition?

    C. Another definition of intuition

    Brian offered a different definition above:

    An intuition is what seems to us to be right, not simpliciter, but given all the evidence and cognizant of the inherent underdetermination of evidence and the canons of reasoning used to assess evidence.”

    I disagree with this account, because it would imply that (i) pretty much every sentence in Paul’s books expresses one of his intuitions, and that (ii) people who are not highly sophisticated about epistemology and method have no intuitions.

    (Other definitions were offered later that I don’t quite understand.)

    D. Better general defense of reliance on intuition in moral thought

    Someone wrote above, “Some intuitions may be hard-wired into the human brain. Many others, it seems, are culturally constructed.”

    Another wrote, “on the plausible assumption that values and upbringing shape our intuitive responses we should expect widely shared intuitions that allow theories to have broad appeal.”

    I want to say that many intuitions are trained by experience with the realities they’re about. I don’t think that point should fall between the cracks, because I think it’s the main reason why we should respect intuitions. (If there’s another, maybe it’s this puzzling one: that insofar as we’re incapable of abandoning an intuition, we’ll contradict ourselves if we contradict it.) Even hardwired intuitions, if there are any, are in general, to some extent, trained by the realities they’re about.

    (一)

    For example, “linguistic intuition” is our ability to judge correct v. incorrect usage pretty well in particular cases, prior to our having articulated any general accounts regarding the words or strings in question. Maybe a person can often come up with a pretty good account of a word’s meaning, in an armchair on a beach without internet, if she works at it by testing her attempts against her linguistic intuitions and then amending them, over and over; and if she has practice and/or training in that kind of enterprise, in which imaginative thought experiments would play a big role. Linguistic intuition has legitimate epistemic authority.

    Linguistic intuition is intuition about certain cultural facts, trained up mainly by experience with those facts, those realities – very different from what is likely to be suggested by the phrase “culturally constructed intuitions.” The latter phrase may suggest intuitions that are trained into us by cues that are somewhat independent of the truth of the intuition: as when someone is trained by electric shocks to have bad feelings about Beethoven.

    What seem to be abstract universal intuitions, such as an intuition that all goodness must come down to how much pleasure/unpleasure there is, might be explained as a sophisticated kind of linguistic intuition.

    (二)

    Another kind of reality a person has lots of experience with, that is relevant to moral thinking, is the people around her (hence people in general) – how they operate, how they see and feel, what they expect, how this or that kind of situation tends to work out. Most of our understanding of these things is encoded in our experience-trained sensibility.

    (三)

    Another kind of reality a person has lots of experience with, that is relevant to moral thinking, is her own capacities, e.g. the extent of what she knows or can readily come to know. Morality (arguably) is about what’s reasonable for us to do, and what we can reasonably expect of each other. What’s reasonable for a person depends on her capacities. To overestimate or underestimate one’s own capacities is to mistake one’s moral situation; to overestimate or underestimate human capacities is to mistake the human moral condition.

    E. Local to Universal

    Suppose intuitions constitute local knowledge, of indefinitely broad application. How could we reasonably get from the local to the universal? Precisely the same problem arises (though more starkly and familiarly) for the project of working toward broad generalizations about nature on the bases of empirical observations. It’s not a problem special to intuition.

    Pursuing one of Brian’s points above: Past observations (in physics or whatever) don’t logically imply anything about the future, or indeed about what happens at any time and place other than the actual observations. So if we base generalizations on observations, we’re not basing them on observations only. For example, maybe we’re relying on some sense that the universe is simple or elegant at some level, and a feel for what counts as elegance in general and in particular cases. That sense and feel may have been trained up by evolution and experience, and so may deserve some respect. We may also sense that we need our environment to be somewhat elegant in order for inquiry to have any value; it has to be graspable and knowable by us. That is, we may sense that in inquiring into any topic, we might as well bet on elegance, because in its absence our choices in thinking don’t matter anyway. We might feel this point as, say, a sense of disorientation whenever trying to take seriously the point that the way X behaves in the future needn’t logically bear any relation to the way it has behaved in the past.

    F. An objection about morality in particular

    Someone might grant that one can have intuitive knowledge of language, how people work, how people feel if this or that, one’s own capacities, etc. – but say that this is all knowledge of “facts,” which are radically distinct from “values,” and conclude I haven’t said anything yet in defense of the claim that there are moral intuitions with epistemic authority.

    One way to reply is to challenge the distinction, or the depth of the distinction, between “facts and values.” This conceptual question is in some large part a matter of linguistic fact, of what it means to say that something is “good” or “morally owed,” etc.

    Another way (in very brief) is to say that one kind of value on which our gut sense of things might have authority is in questions about what kind of thinking is good thinking: e.g. what sorts of (not strictly logical) inferences are reasonable, fair, legitimate. Arguably all substantive thought is built on such an antecedent sense of what’s a fair conclusion from what, a sense we can’t well defend. And arguably, insofar as value is different from fact, value is about what’s reasonable.

    But all the topics and issues for intuition—language and all the rest—get mixed up and shade together when we try to work up general theories and hash out our theoretical disagreements.

    G. Intuition and articulation

    It’s especially obvious in the case of linguistic intuition that in at least some areas our intuitive knowledge can vastly outstrip any knowledge we have formulated into statements.

    From Wikipedia’s 5/9/2014 front page, Featured Article: “Today mirror symmetry is a major research topic in pure mathematics, and mathematicians are working to develop a mathematical understanding of the relationship based on physicists’ intuition.”

    Maybe the following is true in almost every field about which there is widespread knowledge: when we try to articulate our intuitive knowledge in the form of general statements, or generalize, we lose touch with some of what we know, some of what we would otherwise take as obvious and apply with ease. Quoting myself from another thread:

    In my teaching generally, which was mainly at the intro level, I preferred to use rather than attack the view that words can be defined, because I found it a very good way to persuade students that they can make progress by thinking. I would have them work collectively on definitions of some relatively easy words, starting with ‘paint’. One of them would propose a definition and I’d write it on the board. Then I’d solicit a counterexample (pointing out that there are two kinds: non-paint that fits the definition, and paint that doesn’t). Then I’d solicit a revision to avoid the counterexample. Then I’d solicit a counterexample. Then a revision. And again and again, so students would see a way to make progress in thinking (not just about definitions) by having a dialogue with oneself. After several cycles with ‘paint’, we’d end up with a definition that says “paint is a liquid that…” – and I’d point out that they’ve been looking at paint the whole time, it’s all around them, and not one bit of the paint they see fits the definition. Moral of the story: you – even you – can make lots of progress just by thinking.

    Theories, like principles and plans, can be made much less bad just by thinking, if it’s done right, with imagination.

    (An alternate moral to the story might have been, you should avoid theory, avoid abstract thinking. But I think there are prima facie reasons to think it’s a good thing that some people try to develop moral theory.)

    The point that theories can be improved just by thinking – that intuition is relevant – does not imply or even suggest that nothing else is relevant. So how can the point be a defense of armchair moral theorists? Four replies – off the top of my head. Collectively they may satisfy.

    Efficiency of the Armchair.

    The students’ exploration of ‘paint’ might have been carried out, not by reference to the particular counterexamples that struck them as apt, but rather by counterexamples they could find by googling the English language. They could google for uses of ‘paint’ and look for ones that don’t fit the definition. But many uses on line are misuses: how could they test for that, objectively? And it would be hard to search up the other kind of counterexample: things that fit a proposed definition but are not properly called ‘paint’. Still, there might be a way to do it. But direct use of one’s own imagination and sense of correctness are immeasurably more efficient.

    Relevance of Field Research.

    Suppose you want to determine what’s morally right (or what’s morally right in a given society) by some kind of social research that shows which set of rules for living is such that widespread voluntary adherence to them would generate the most total happiness long-term (i.e. more happiness than would be generated by any alternate set of rules). Is that the relevant sort of evidence? It is, only if Rule Utilitarianism is the correct account of morality. Now, you might defend Rule Utilitarianism on the basis of a linguistic theory about the meaning of the word ‘moral’ in our usage, or you might defend it in some other way. But the social research project doesn’t seem to avoid the question. Moral theory aims mainly to address such fundamentals, toward figuring out what concrete research program might be relevant.

    Souped-up Armchairs.

    Many (I’d say most) philosophers think it’s part of their business to develop and maintain a broad awareness of other fields relevant to their philosophical interests. Some of them cite work in the special sciences in their philosophical papers. Theorists of aesthetics study art history. Many moral philosophers feel that moral theory tends to be better insofar as it’s informed by a better general familiarity with the human condition, as one might nurture with novels, history, and newspapers. I suspect that the number of moral theorists who think that the “intuitions” they appeal to get their authority mainly in some other way than by exposure to the realities is very small. Reading, in general, may not be the most effective way to train a good affective sensibility about humans. But it has the advantage of being a good fit with a paid job working on theory, and in any case there’s a trade-off between the intensity of personal interaction, and reading’s easier breadth across time, space, class, etc.

    Theoretical Focus.

    One could imagine pursuing physics by sending surveys to the four corners, asking people to write down their observations of the physical world for a while, and then looking for patterns in the voluminous results.

    (Is that how “experimental philosophy” explores philosophical questions—takes surveys and plans eventually to harmonize the reported views? Or is it instead a branch of social psychology that doesn’t plan to address directly in any way the philosophical questions (or pseudo-questions if that’s what they are) that it surveys about? I simply don’t know.)

    But what physicists usually do is test theories by just a few observations, very special observations, even weird observations. Exploring the overall trajectory of the universe by looking for ultra-microscopic blips in underground water tanks, that sort of thing.

    I think the original and standard uses of the trolley and other such thought experiments are narrow and negative: they are attacks on theories or principles. (Not that thought experiments don’t have many other uses, good and stupid.)

    The oddness of odd examples is analogous to testing something in a vacuum or in zero gravity, to focus on some single point – again, normally some single negative point. Intuition can be out of its element if the examples are too odd, so one wants an example on which the discussants have strong intuitions.

    The most famous experiments are of course the ones used often on beginners, to train basic skills. Their main legitimate use is to attack very simple theories, which might be beneath present company. In teaching one wants supersimple vivid cases that students will grasp and remember, that forcibly exclude extraneous issues.

    H. Diomedes v. the Trojans

    The people whose intuitions are primarily at play in such uses of the examples in philosophical inquiry are the discussants, the one or more people who are doing the thinking. Of course, the wider the (competent) conversation the better.

    Hagop writes, “Take the trolley cases …. Experimental psychologists and philosophers who use that case do so in order to better understand the nature of moral judgment in human populations.” I don’t think that’s what the philosophers are doing, mainly.

    I hope we can all agree in opposing the facile dismissal of large territories of human thought.

    I. Anglo philosophers do not assume agreement of intuitions

    Anglo philosophers (moral and otherwise) are practiced at thinking up new hard cases on the spot, as a way of challenging this or that claim of one’s own interlocutor that one disagrees with. Thus perhaps the most familiar use of odd-case thought experiments is to set a view (perhaps an intuition) that two parties agree on against a view (perhaps an intuition) that one of them accepts and the other opposes.

    The use of thought experiments is very much at home in discussions with people with whom one disagrees profoundly. That is likely to be its most familiar environment. The use of thought experiments is in no way bound up with the idea that all people agree on their intuitions in general, nor that all intuitions are right; indeed, the use of the experiments does not depend at all on whether the operative views are intuitions.

    We might distinguish between two kinds of odd case that a survey might ask about. One kind, like the case of the fat man stuck in the cave mouth (do you carve into him so that you and your group can escape the rising waters in the cave?), is meant to attack some simple idea (which we might find intuitively attractive in the abstract) by showing people that they find some of its implications simply wrong (at least intuitively). That is, the case is not meant to feel much like a practical dilemma. (Of course, in playing with the details one might generate dilemmas.)

    The other kind is hard cases: cases meant to feel like practical dilemmas. I think these are most often encountered in fields like medical ethics and law, where such dilemmas are real, and addressing them is part of producing and maintaining a framework for decent civil cooperation.

    Of course the people who discuss hard cases – cases they take to be hard – do not operate with the casual assumption that people’s views or feelings are largely in agreement on those cases. The point of discussing hard cases is that agreement is absent and hard to achieve. The familiar milieu is disagreement. What thinkers who work on such cases mainly encounter is of course not people who all feel similarly torn, but rather some people who feel torn and lots of people who feel strongly inclined toward opposite sides. There is some effort to find and appeal to strong intuitions all sides can share; but no thought that intuitions on such matters in general tend to agree.

    Not only do anglo philosophers take for granted the obvious fact that there is plenty of disagreement between the intuitions of different people on questions of the kind philosophers deal with. What’s a little more special to anglo philosophers is that most of them have noticed that there is plenty of disagreement among the intuitions of any one person—at least, as that person is inclined to formulate the intuitions on the first or tenth try.

    We find disagreement too among observations of the natural world. There was a time when people observed, or thought they observed, that the sun rises. No doubt even today many people think they observe that the sun rises and the earth stands still. Does that make empirical observations as such “ too thick and hairy to satisfy the analytical purposes demanded of them”?

    Of course, what feels like a dilemma in one culture needn’t feel like a dilemma in another. Suppose, Bernard Williams wrote in a book widely used for decades in Intro Ethics, your wife (sic) and a stranger each fall off the boat, and you can save only one. (Or something like that.) Who do you save? Williams’ point was that to pause to consult abstract moral concepts at such a time is morally ugly. It’s “one thought too many.” (Derek Parfit commented on another version of the passage: “It’s odd that Williams gives, as the thought that the person’s wife might hope he was having, that he is saving her because she is his wife. She might have hoped that he saved her because she was Mary… That she is his wife seems one thought too many.”) A side-effect of the famous passage, I think, was that it naturally suggested a simple little dilemma that could be used to provoke discussion in an intro class, and that I think was at one time fairly familiar among teachers: Your mother and your spouse fall off opposite sides of a boat, and you have time to save only one. Which do you save? I don’t remember ever using this in class; to me it seems uninteresting in a Buridan’s ass sort of way. I imagine that American college kids would on average find it a hard call in the abstract, and would refuse to generalize. (Note that that’s a position that has room to acknowledge cultural differences in what choice people should usually make: in some cultures the parental tie may usually be closer than the spousal tie, in others the reverse.) In 1990 in Beijing I was told, and I then found by experiment in my own class, that most Chinese undergraduate and graduate students at Beida found the question easy and the rationale obvious: “You save your mother, because you can always get another spouse.” The expressions of this view were so confident and uniform that I had the impression that the basic idea of the dilemma was familiar and the solution was a settled, considered view. I’m not sure what it means about moral intuitions, as the response seems to see the situation as raising a question of self-interest rather than morality. Clearly one needs more background. In any case, the spouse v. mother dilemma is not the kind of case anglo philosophers would use seriously to elicit intuitions with which to challenge theories. Neither choice in that dilemma would be a stark counterexample to any interesting theory.

    J. Academic specialists and the arts

    Paul wrote:

    Philosophers worry more than specialists in other fields about whether their theories are intuitively plausible, and I have some empirical data to support this assertion: just Google … typically the author starts by saying that such-and-such a position might initially come across as intuitively implausible, but he or she will defend it regardless. No one in any other field really gives a damn whether a position is intuitively plausible.

    The comparison is between philosophy and other academic fields that explicitly defend positions.

    The point, I think, is that the phenomenon suggests that philosophers care about intuitions way more than all other specialist inquirers who defend positions. That might be a prima facie argument for respecting intuition in philosophy, more than elsewhere; except that Paul reports more specifically that the bulk of the data in this quantitative study show philosophers opposing the intuitions they mention.

    Unlike philosophers, when scientists and historians advertise that their results are surprising or important, they don’t often put the point in terms of “intuitive plausibility.” One possible explanation of this phenomenon is that unlike philosophers, most of what scientists and historians argue for is propositions on which people, and even most specialists, have no intuitive predisposition one way or another. (And there are kinds of importance that philosophers (unlike scientists and historians) will rarely cite in their introductory puffery. First, philosophers can’t claim to have established their conclusions solidly, because everyone knows that the whole field is too much a work in progress. Second, they can’t rely on the claim that their conclusions have big implications if true, because that’s nothing special in philosophy. It won’t satisfy the referees.)

    Hagop replied by offering a hypothesis to explain the phenomenon Paul cited here – i.e. to explain why philosophy might reasonably pay much more attention to intuitive plausibility than the other fields that defend positions.

    philosophy today is sometimes characterized as the discipline that continues grappling with questions and problems for which there are no settled methods of getting answers. When such methods are agreed upon and widely used, and we can generate predictions and make observations (like in physics) then appeals to intuition will be wholly unnecessary.

    That is, the following view is widely held and perhaps not far wrong: that for some general questions that seem important we do not yet have established methods, and ‘philosophy’ is a catch-all term for the pursuit of these questions, or the serious academic-style pursuit of these questions. On this premise, philosophy’s concern about views not supported by established methods is not a mistake, it’s simply the predicament we’re in if we don’t dismiss the topics.

    In replying to Hagop’s objection, Paul said something that could easily be read as (A): That account of philosophy is wrong in that it implies a mistaken comparison between philosophy and the arts.

    Re your second paragraph: as an outsider, I have to tell you my impression that philosophers always seem to convey that they’re inventing the wheel. Philosophers are by no means the only set of people who are asking questions for which there are no settled methods of getting answers, as you put it. People in literature, art, and music do this every day.

    To point (A), the correct reply is that the account—as generally understood among philosophers, and as presented by Hagop, and as relevant in the original exchange—proposes no comparison at all between philosophy and the arts, unless music, painting and poetry are among the fields of inquiry that present arguments for positions. That is, (A) seems simply off- point unless the arts are fields that defend positions by presenting arguments (that will show up looking like arguments in Google searches).

    Another reading is that Paul was not trying to rebut the objection, but was simply proposing another complaint about philosophy—or rather, about philosophers, or philosophers these days: (B) Philosophers tend to misunderstand the arts, thinking that arts do not ask big questions. If philosophers tend to hold that view, that would suggest some sort of problem with philosophy itself.

    What could give rise to that impression? I can’t think of anything that would lead me to suspect that philosophers tend not to see the arts, or at least good literature, as aiming (at least in part) to present visions of this or that aspect of the human condition (universal or local). Aristotle, for example, famously held that the key difference between poetry (fictional literature) and history is that poetry aims at universal truth while history aims at particular truths.

    K. More on the arts

    We can imagine someone holding this view of literature (etc): Unlike philosophy, literature characteristically doesn’t try at all to get things right, or doesn’t think of itself as trying to get things right. All it does, or all it aims to do, is to make things up. Therefore, literature is not beholden to any epistemic standards or requirements. It may fairly rely on intuition or coin-tosses.

    One could imagine that Paul is expressing just that view, here:

    the major difference between the use of intuition in philosophy and literature, art, music, etc., as I tried to state above, is that people in those latter fields don’t try to formulate universal theories; when they do appeal to intuition (as they inevitably must), it’s with the obvious understanding that such appeals are entirely subjective.

    That is, everybody in the arts appeals to intuition and obviously understands that the appeal is “entirely subjective.” I don’t understand the latter phrase. What is it that all poets, painters and musicians obviously understand?

    If one thinks intuition has no epistemic weight, one might defend the arts’ heavy reliance on intuition (the artist’s sensibility and opinion) as follows:

    1. The arts aim to ask questions, and/or to present or suggest possible answers; but they don’t aim to home in on the truth. They aren’t trying to get it right.
    2. The arts thus rightly see themselves as “subjective” in the sense of having no epistemic aims or claims. They’re exercises in free imagination.
    3. So intuition’s lack of epistemic authority is no reason for the arts not to rely on it.

    (And yet if the aim is free imagination, reliance on intuition might also be an obstacle.)

    But Paul’s thought may instead be this completely different one, thoroughly opposed to the above argument:

    1a. The arts do aim to pursue questions in the sense of trying to home in on the truth.
    2a. But the arts rightly see themselves as “subjective” in the sense that their epistemic aims and claims are not universal. They’re local; they’re about only some time or place or people.
    3a. Intuition has some epistemic weight on local questions, though none on universal questions.
    4. So it’s appropriate for literature to rely on intuition.

    (That’s not a possible sense of the word ‘subjective’ – but no matter for the argument.)

    But 3a doesn’t make sense. Local matters are relevant to universal questions. The local truth has epistemic weight on universal questions. That’s how there can be such things as counterexamples, or investigation of laws of nature on the basis of observations.

    L. You have to accept

    Hagop wrote:
    It seems inevitable that when we are trying to come up with a theory of what is good, right, or beautiful, we will be appealing to intuitions somewhere along the way.

    Paul replied:
    That’s fair, but then you have to accept that whatever “theory” you advance doesn’t necessarily apply to anyone but yourself.

    I don’t understand why one has to accept this last point. I don’t understand what the point is. I’ll try to explain why I don’t.

    What it normally means to say that a theory “applies to X” is either that (a) X is something the theory is about, or that (b) X is something the theory is true about.

    (a)

    Suppose that by “applies to X”, Paul means is about X (as “apples are made of wood” is about apples).

    He would then seem to be saying that theories I adopt on the basis of intuition are not necessarily about other people (but are necessarily about me). Surely that can’t be what Paul is saying.

    (b)

    Or suppose instead that by “applies to X”, Paul means is true of X (as “apples are green” is true of some apples).

    He would then seem to be saying: Theories I adopt on the basis of intuition are not necessarily true of other people (but are necessarily true of me).

    One reason to think that’s not what he’s saying is that on this reading Paul’s main emphasis would be on the point that theories I adopt on the basis of intuition are not necessarily true of others. But the same can be said of pretty much any method or epistemic basis, in any field. Theories I adopt on Basis X are not necessarily therefore true (so they are not necessarily true of other people). It is a point that goes without saying and that is also not relevant to a discussion of intuition as compared other epistemic bases.

    Another reason to think that that’s not what he’s saying is that it seems crazy to say that theories I adopt on the basis of intuition are necessarily true of me.

    But not so fast. Perhaps Paul’s point is meant to be specific to the topics in question.

    To pursue that possibility, let’s start with (a), the weak sense of “apply.”

    For example, Smith’s linguistic intuition might tell her (as most philosophers of aesthetics would not) that that the phrase “is beautiful” means something of the form “is such as to generate reaction ___ in me (the user of the phrase) when I contemplate in a certain way.” And then she might think that anyone’s intuitions about what “is beautiful” are necessarily (because of the conventions of English) all of them about the intuiter/speaker (about his aesthetic reactions, not about his beauty). If Smith is right about this, then all intuitions about what “is beautiful” necessarily apply to the intuiter in the weak sense (a) of “apply to,” while they are not about others, even others whose reactions would be the same.

    But this claim would not be about intuition at all. It would arise simply from the meaning of the word “beautiful,” and so would apply to all expressed judgments of the form “X is beautiful,” no matter the basis. So it would be irrelevant to any comparison of intuition to other bases of judgment.

    (That is, if Paul is supposing Smith’s view, then when Paul says to Hagop “That’s fair, but then you have to accept that whatever “theory” you advance doesn’t necessarily apply to anyone but yourself,” Paul’s “then” ought to mean not “since you are relying on intuition,” but rather “since you are putting forth a theory of what’s beautiful.”)

    Next to Smith’s claim about “is beautiful,” a parallel claim might be made about the language of morality, based on parallel readings of moral words and phrases. Such readings have had defenders (mainly early in the last century, I want to say). We could talk about the familiar objections to them. Anyway, the parallel argument about morality would similarly fail to be about intuition.

    A slightly more sophisticated kind of view about “is beautiful” is that the phrase means “is such as to generate reaction___ in any normal contemplator”—or any normal contemplator among the conversants, or in the speaker’s linguistic community; or any contemplator experienced with the kind of object in question, or what have you. If “is beautiful” means something along those lines, then it makes sense that we can have or train up in ourselves some real knowledge of what is beautiful, based in significant part on our sensibility or intuition. Intuition can feel how others would react. But then it wouldn’t be true that “you have to accept that whatever ‘theory’ you advance [based partly on intuition] doesn’t necessarily apply to anyone but yourself.” On the contrary, our intuition-based theories on the topic of what is beautiful would necessarily be about at least some others, and might be knowledge about them.

    We’ve been talking about how to read Paul’s claim if it’s topic-specific and he means “apply” in sense (a). What about sense (b), where “applies to” means is true of?

    Consider the topic of morality.

    Here’s a simple universal theory of morality, a claim about the shape of moral truth across the board: Any action is morally right or wrong precisely insofar as the person who does the action thinks it’s morally right or wrong. That’s “Individual Relativism.”

    On this theory of morality, each person’s intuitive views about morality necessarily apply to herself but do not necessarily apply to others—in the sense that they are necessarily true of her, but not necessarily true of others.

    This (grotesquely implausible) theory of morality could not be held by someone who thinks there is no moral truth.

    On this theory, as in the cases discussed earlier, the point would turn out to have nothing to do with intuition.

    I don’t know how to formulate a parallel theory about beauty.

  9. Paul R. Goldin says:

    Once again there’s no way to respond to Bill except by starting a new margin.

    I don’t feel that I’m “dismissing a large territory of human thought and disparaging its people”; I’ve tried to state specifically what it is about the use of intuitive responses (or, to be precise, REPORTED intuitive responses) to canned moral problems that I find fallacious. To the extent that not all philosophers engage in that sort of exercise, I am not dismissing all philosophers.

    But I do have to say, sometimes I feel that we’re speaking a different language. Clearly the conversation about art has gone astray. It started when someone said that philosophers struggle mightily because they ask questions to which there are no standard protocols for getting answers, and I replied, essentially, Come off it, people in other fields do that every day. I did not mean to propose art as a counter-example to philosophy, as you keep saying. If anything, I encouraging philosophers to acknowledge that what they’re doing is a lot more like art than mathematics.

    One point I can’t let pass silently: it’s pretty unsatisfying to say that the value of art is that it might nourish the necessary skills for finding “true answers.” Artists hate that sort of approach. There’s “The Poetic Principle,” by Edgar Allan Poe, for starters, and of course the slogan ars gratia artis.

    Over and out on this one, I’m afraid; I don’t mean to close the conversation, but I don’t have more to contribute to it.

  10. Bill Haines says:

    I thank Paul for replying to that extent.

    Paul is replying tothis. One can continue on any indented level by replying to its immediate northwest superior.

    I’ve tried to state specifically what it is about the use of intuitive responses (or, to be precise, REPORTED intuitive responses) to canned moral problems that I find fallacious.

    That’s a much better topic than art, but on this topic it hasn’t been my turn for several days (see especially D thru G ).

    I think Paul’s specific objection is here – that there’s no reason to think we can intuit “truths about the universe,” which might mean laws of nature or anything about the world outside us. So the common use of intuitions by anglo moral philosophers, especially in connection with canned (simple and unoriginal?) thought experiments, is wrong.

    To what I’ve said I’ll add a bit more here, specifically to this from earlier:

    The problem, as I see it, is that philosophers have been unwilling to accept that they’re in the same class as those poor drudges in literature, art, or music; on the contrary, they’re constantly trying to compare themselves to mathematicians or other grand theorists, and advance correspondingly pretentious theories.

    1.
    On the most general or universal level, anglo philosophers address questions like “what is goodness.” In general, in principle, it’s not crazy to think that questions of the form “What is X”? can admit at least of trivial universal answers on the level of semantic analysis of what we mean by the term ‘X’. Linguistic intuition has access to that kind of truth about the universe. Terms in ethics can be particularly tricky, but the arguments aren’t over. Purely semantic answers are trivial in a sense, but also universal; generality and triviality are not opposites. Also, fairly trivial answers can sometimes be very helpful, for reasons we could discuss.

    (A correct semantic analysis of the meaning of the word ‘circle’ points us to an elegant relationship for which we can give many equivalent characterizations that are not on their face equivalent. Circularity in Brooklyn is the same as circularity in Beijing, whether or not they have an equivalent word in China. Circularity is not a truth (“about the universe” or otherwise); that circles are the same everywhere is a trivial or empty truth in some sense. We could be pointed to a clear view of the relationship is the semantic truth about the word, to which linguistic intuition has access. The objective (?) elegance of the relationship might be called a partly mathematical truth, and it predicts that various cultures (past a certain level) will tend to have a word for the more or less same thing. Circularity is something we would naturally tend to notice and then be interested in. Whether e.g. goodness can be like that is an open question.)

    2.
    It’s not quite so pretentious to put forth a general account if one understands, as I think philosophers characteristically do, that the whole enterprise is a work in progress, and that even a whole life spent refining and defending a theory is best understood as the most productive (fun, motivating) way to participate in a long-term adversary process that doesn’t guarantee results ever. Care taken to be right about the strict implications of a theory—one’s own or another’s—can be complicated and sometimes even reminiscent of math.

    3.
    There’s no need for philosophy departments to start doing just what the poets do; there are already poets. One thing that distinguishes philosophy from literature is that (on the whole) the parts of philosophy are trying to build, or become, reliable academic disciplines, in case that turns out to be possible, which we don’t know before we get there. Philosophers tend to think that philosophy has calved lots of successful disciplines already. Literature is fine, and there are lots of other things to do, but this speculative enterprise seems worth trying. Of course, if one were to see that there is no moral truth, it would no longer make sense to try to build a discipline that can reliably investigate moral truth. But I think Paul means to be arguing here from the general epistemological limitations of intuition in uncovering truths, not from the grand philosophical theory (which I think he may also accept; I don’t know on what grounds) that there is no truth to be uncovered in this area, there is no moral truth.

    **
    **

    someone said that philosophers struggle mightily because they ask questions to which there are no standard protocols for getting answers, and I replied, essentially, Come off it, people in other fields do that every day. I did not mean to propose art as a counter-example to philosophy, as you keep saying.

    Artists do it, so philosophers don’t? The fact that artists do something can show that philosophy isn’t unique in doing it—because uniqueness means nobody else does it, and arts would be a counterexample to that.

    But the arts can’t succeed as a counterexample to the actual uniqueness claim Paul was answering; they’re outside the scope of that uniqueness claim (as I hope I showed earlier). Paul mentions “other fields,” and maybe somebody will propose one.

    (… as a counterexample to a view about philosophy, of course, not “a counterexample to philosophy.”)

    I don’t feel that I’m “dismissing a large territory of human thought and disparaging its people”; …. To the extent that not all philosophers engage in that sort of exercise, I am not dismissing all philosophers.

    Sorry: a large-ish territory. And there were other vivid charges against philosophers in general. A separate point from whether the charges are deserved.

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