Monday, April 25, 2011

Brian Talbot on intuitions in philosophy

I spent the last week at the APA Pacific in San Diego. I have several topics inspired there that I'm hoping to write up quick blog posts about, including some philosophical and nonphilosophical ones. In general, I think I'm going to start using this blog for a bit more extraphilosophy content. I'll start that not-right-now, though, because first I want to write up a reaction Brian Talbot's talk, An Argument for Old-Fashioned Intuition Pumping (pdf link).

Brian was defending the traditional philosophical project of investigation into extra-mentalist subject matters, and arguing that the best way to do this involves heavy reliance on intuitions. His main focus was on the appropriate conditions for measuring such intuitions, but my main point of departure comes earlier, in the suggestion that traditional armchair philosophy must or should rely on intuitions in any interesting sense. Brian makes a stark contrast between intuitions and what he calls 'reasoned-to judgments'. Anything reasoned to is, Brian says, no intuition. I disagree, but let's allow the stipulation. The question is whether we have any special reason to care about intuitions in Brian's sense. Brian says we do: his argument is roughly this: a reasoned-to judgment that p is not itself evidence for p; rather, it reflects the evidence upon which the reasoning is based. So we should, when investigating the evidence for p, look to the evidence on which any reasoning is based; in the relevant cases, this must be intuition.

From this methodological stance, Brian makes some fairly sweeping claims about philosophical methodology and experimental philosophy, emphasizing the need to study intuitions directly, isolating them from any influence by reasoning. This, to my mind, is a rather bizarre idea. Good reasoning, in my view, is at the center of good philosophy. So I'm pretty suspicious of any approach to methodology that wants to marginalize reasoning.

In the Q&A, I raised something like this point. I pointed out that, at least so far as Brian had said, it was open for the defender of traditional philosophical methods to deny that intuitions play the important starting-point role that Brian articulated; perhaps reasoning is ultimately where the action is. Brian's response was effectively that reasoning must have starting points, and those starting points are intuitions. But reasoning, in general, need not have starting points; sometimes, good reasoning can proceed from the null set of premises. Another audience member raised the apt example of a reductio.

Brian's response to this was effectively to allow that there might be some philosophical knowledge achievable in this way, but that the strategy would extend only to tautologies. Insofar, then, as philosophers are interested in establishing more than just tautologies, one will need intuitions as starting points. Someone following my strategy, Brian said, will not count as engaging in the traditional project he intends of substantive investigation into extramentalist subject matters.

Now I don't know what exactly Brian means by 'tautology', but it seems to me that there are two ways one can go, either of which looks fine. If tautologies are limited to, e.g., obvious logical truths, then there is no reason to accept that good reasoning, without intuitions, can yield only tautologies. For good reasoning need not be limited to logical reasoning. I think that one can reason, for instance, from 'S knows that p' to 'p'; this kind of reasoning can underwrite the knowledge, from no premises, that knowledge is factive. And I don't see why this couldn't extend to all of that philosophy which is plausibly a priori. If, on the other hand, Talbot wants to call claims like these tautologies, then it'll just turn out that philosophers sometimes discover interesting tautologies.

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