Thursday, October 04, 2012

Arguments for Cappelen's 'Centrality'

Philosophy Without Intuitions is an extended argument against Centrality, the thesis that philosophers rely on intuitions as evidence. Herman's official conclusion is that "on no sensible construal of 'intuition', 'rely on', 'philosophy', 'evidence', and 'philosopher' is it true that philosophers in general rely on intuitions as evidence when they do philosophy." The broad argumentative structure of the book is this: Herman says that defenders of Centrality don't offer arguments in its favor, but that "I take it two kinds of arguments are tacitly assumed". These two arguments he then goes on, in the two parts of his book, to consider in detail and refute.

The dialectical strategy, therefore, affords a defender of Centrality with two significant avenues of response, short of taking on Herman's arguments head-on:

  • One could maintain that Centrality carries enough prima facie plausibility that it does not require argument; in the absence of compelling arguments against Centrality, it is reasonable to accept it.
  • One could offer an argument for Centrality other than the two Herman considers.

With respect to (1), it may be helpful to consider an analogy. Contemporary archaeology widely assumes the existence of a mind-independent external world. Practically all archaeologists assume that the kind of idealism espoused by the late British Empiricists is false; they treat as perfectly coherent the idea, for example, that there might be a skull underground that no one will ever see or learn about. But although the assumption that there is a mind-independent external world is extremely widespread among archaeologists, one rarely sees arguments for this conclusion offered. And as philosophers well know, providing a cogent argument for this conclusion is not at all straightforward. But it's hard to take seriously the idea that this omission constitutes any serious error qua archaeologist -- we think that (a) our colleagues in the archaeology department are proceeding perfectly reasonably, and (b) their assumption is probably true, even if we're not sure how to provide an argument for it.

Can the defender of Centrality respond to Herman in a parallel fashion? To be sure, there are some differences here -- Centrality is a claim about how philosophy works, and the archaeologists' assumption is a claim about the broader world. But it's not clear why such a subject matter claim should make any important difference here. We have two claims: philosophers use intuitions as evidence, and there is an external world; both are widely assumed, and neither is given much argument. Indeed, there's a case to be made that both seem to share a deeper property as well: it is not at all clear how in principle one would go about investigating them empirically. So if one antecedently just considers it obvious that philosophers rely on intuitions as evidence, I am not at all sure that one will feel compelled by anything in the book to change one's mind.

With respect to (2), I think that some philosophers have been convinced that intuitions must be playing important evidential roles, not because it is obvious from watching how philosophers work, but because of epistemological concerns. The philosopher I have in mind takes her cue from the apparent epistemological difference between certain philosophical judgments -- say, the judgment that Mr. Truetemp doesn't have knowledge -- and paradigmatic empirical judgments -- say, the judgment that it was sunny in Vancouver today. There is a straightforward perceptual story to tell about my epistemic access in the latter case; it is one that affords a central role to certain of my perceptual experiences. But it doesn't look very much like my knowledge about Mr. Truetemp works in the same kind of way. There just aren't any sensory experiences that I've had that seem relevantly akin to the visual experiences that established my perceptual knowledge. It’s all very well to say that it needn’t be an intuition that’s doing the justifying here, but, unless one is offered an alternate story, one is bound to remain less than fully satisfied. Herman is quick to emphasise that there are arguments underwriting my judgment about Mr. Truetemp -- and he's right, and I think that's significant -- but arguments proceed on the basis of premises, and what story are we to tell about my epistemic access to the relevant premises? Insofar as it doesn't seem very plausible that perceptual experience can ultimately be establishing the premises from which I can conclude that Mr. Truetemp doesn't know, one might be tempted to think that it must be some other kind of experience, which plays a similar role to that of perceptual experience.

Call this line of thought the ‘What Else?’ Argument (WEA):

  1. People sometimes come to justified philosophical beliefs via armchair methods.
  2. In many of these cases, no sensory experience is playing justificatory roles.
  3. All justified beliefs must be mediated by something like sensory experience.
  4. Intuitions are the best candidates for such experiences in the cases in question. Therefore,
  5. In some cases, people come to justified philosophical beliefs with intuitions playing justificatory roles.

I do not endorse the WEA -- I reject premise (3). (You can also be a philosophy-skeptic, denying (1), or a Quinean, denying (2).) But I do think it plausible that it or something like it does motivate the thesis that intuitions are playing important evidential roles in philosophy. This is an epistemological argument, not a methodological one; it does not proceed, as the ones Herman considers do, on the basis of empirical claims about how philosophers go about constructing arguments (except for the uncontroversial-in-this-context premise (1)). The WEA-endorsing proponent of Centrality, it seems to me, escapes Herman's critique unscathed.


  1. Do you think WEA gives us the philosophical exceptionalism which Cappelen treats Centrality as entailing? Cappelen says, "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 [PWI]" (p16).

    The reason I doubt that WEA does support the exceptionalist reading is that (1*) is also true: (1*) sometimes people come to justified archaeological beliefs via armchair methods. 2, 3 and 4 seem no less plausible in the case of such beliefs.

  2. James: that's a reasonable question. I think there's a case to be made either way. You've made the case that this would not render exceptionalism; the case to the contrary would argue that in the archaeological cases in question, experiences are playing the relevant roles. We'd have to look at some of the particular armchair archaeological claims in question to see how plausible that is.

    (I argued a couple of weeks ago that Herman's stipulation that Centrality must support exceptionalism might not be well-motivated.)