Herman Cappelen has provocatively argued that philosophers don't generally rely upon intuition in their work and thus that work in experimental philosophy that aims to test people's intuitions about philosophical cases is really beside the point. I have a simple argument against this view.
First: I define "intuition" very broadly. A judgment is "intuitive", in my view, just in case it arises by some cognitive process other than explicit, conscious reasoning. By this definition, snap judgments about the grammaticality of sentences, snap judgments about the distance of objects, snap judgments about the moral wrongness of an action in a hypothetical scenario, and snap folk-psychological judgments are generally going to be intuitive. Intuitive judgments don't have to be snap judgments -- they don't have to be fast -- but the absence of explicit conscious reasoning is clearest when the judgment is quick.
This definition of "intuition" is similar to one Alison Gopnik and I worked with in a 1998 article, and it is much more inclusive than Cappelen's own characterizations. Thus, it's quite possible that intuitions in Cappelen's narrow sense are inessential to philosophy while intuitions in my broader sense are essential. But I don't think that Cappelen and I have merely a terminological dispute. There's a politics of definition. One's terminological choices highlight and marginalize different facets of the world.
My characterization of intuition is also broader than most other philosophers' -- Joel Pust in his Stanford Encyclopedia article on intuition, for example, seems to regard it as straightforward that perceptual judgments should not be called "intuitions" -- but I don't think my preferred definition is entirely quirky. In fact, in a recent study, J.R. Kuntz and J.R.C Kuntz found that professional philosophers were more likely to "agree to a very large extent" with Gopnik's and my definition of intuition than with any of six other definitions proposed by other authors (32% giving it the top rating on a seven-point scale). I think professional psychologists and linguists might also sometimes use "intuition" in something like Alison's and my sense.
If we accept this broad definition of intuition, then it seems hard to deny that, contra Cappelen, philosophy depends essentially on intuition -- as does all cognition. One can't explicitly consciously reason one's way to every one of one's premises, on pain of regress. One must start somewhere, even if only tentatively and subject to later revision.
Cappelen has, in conversation, accepted this consequence of my broad definition of "intuition". The question then becomes what to make of the epistemology of intuition in this sense. And this epistemological question is, I think, largely an empirical one, with several disciplines empirically relevant, including cognitive psychology, experimental philosophy, and study of the historical record. Based on the empirical evidence, what might we expect to be the strengths and weaknesses of explicit reasoning? And, alternatively, what might we expect to be the strengths and weaknesses of intuitive judgment?
Those empirical questions become especially acute when the two paths to judgment appear to deliver conflicting results. When your ordinary-language spontaneous judgments about the applicability of a term to a scenario (or at least your inclinations to judge) conflict with what you would derive from your explicit theory, or when your spontaneous moral judgments (or inclinations) do, what should you conclude? The issue is crucial to philosophy as we all live and perform it, and the answer one gives ought to be informed, if possible, by empirically discoverable facts about the origins and reliability of different types of judgments or inclinations. (This isn't to say that a uniform answer is likely to win the day: Things might vary from time to time, person to person, topic to topic, and depending on specific features of the case.)
It would be strange to suppose that the psychology of philosophy is irrelevant to its epistemology. And yet Cappelen's dismissal of the enterprise of experimental philosophy on grounds of the irrelevance of "intuitions" to philosophy would seem to invite us toward that exactly that dubious supposition.
[Cross-posted at The Splintered Mind.]
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