Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Cappelen on Intuition and Philosophical Exceptionalism

I'm reading through Herman Cappelen's Philosophy Without Intuitions again, trying to settle on a few discussion points to pull out for a review. The book is an extended argument against 'Centrality', the thesis that
[c]ontemporary analytic philosophers rely on intuitions as evidence (or as a source of evidence) for philosophical theories. (3)
Centrality, Herman says, is a widely-held misconception of philosophy, which has confused quite a lot of metaphilosophical theorizing, but hasn't had much effect on first-order philosophical argumentation. I'm broadly sympathetic to this conclusion, but there are a few respects in which I suspect Herman's argument might be too quick. I'll probably blog about several of them; here is one.

When clarifying the target of his critique, Herman specifies that the interesting version of Centrality should be interpreted as applying distinctively to philosophy, as opposed to other disciplines:
Since Centrality is a claim about what is characteristic of philosophers, it should not be construed as an instantiation of a universal claim about all intellectual activity or even a very wide domain of intellectual activity. Suppose that all human cognition (or a very wide domain of intellectual life) appeals to intuitions as evidence, from which we can derive as a special instance that philosophers appeal to intuitions as evidence. Such a view would not vindicated Centrality, since according to Centrality the appeal to intuitions as evidence is meant to differentiate philosophy—and, perhaps, a few other kindred disciplines—from inquires into the migration patterns of salmon or inflation in Argentina, say. If it turns out that the alleged reliance on intuitions is universal or extends far beyond philosophy and other allegedly a priori disciplines, that would undermine Centrality as it is construed in this work. ... As a result, it will be crucial when evaluating an argument for the significance of intuitions to keep track of its scope. An argument that shows that all intellectual activity relies on intuitions as evidence, and then derives Centrality as a corollary, will not be acceptable given how Centrality is presented by its proponents. (16)
I think that Herman is overlooking the following possibility, which is worthy of consideration: evidential reliance on intuition is ubiquitous, and not distinctive of philosophy. However, philosophy is unusual in that (a) a higher proportion of the interesting action involves the contribution of intuition than it tends to in other fields, and (b) in some canonical instances of philosophy, intuition provides all the relevant evidence. According to the picture I'm thinking of, intuition is one important source of evidence everywhere, and it's playing a particularly interesting role in philosophy. If this were true, I think it would vindicate an interesting version of Centrality, and one that makes a reckoning with the epistemic significance of intuition a pressing issue for philosophers, even though it did not claim that intuition is not a source of evidence in other realms. I'm inclined to interpret at least many of those philosophers who do emphasize the role of intuitions in philosophy as thinking in something like this way.

I do think the view sketched here is wrong; establishing this is one of the central aims of my forthcoming book with Ben Jarvis. But I don't think Herman is right to leave it off of the conceptual map.

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