Sat Dec 14, 2002

Philosophy Discovers Society

Matthew Yglesias reports on research investigating the radical idea that one’s philosophical intuitions might vary by culture, class position or prior exposure to philosophy. Although I think philosophy is great, and in fact am in the process of getting married to a pure-type analytic metaphysician, it’s still hard for me to resist needling philosophers about their blind spot about intuitions. To caricature, the standard form of argument in the field goes like this:

  1. I wish to argue that P.
  2. Choose premises for argument that P based on their intuitive plausibility. 2a. Some premises may not be intuitive. If you want to use them without argument, try either (a) The argument from italics, (b) The argument from heroic technique (“This premise is justified by the benefits it confers under S4, S5 and related systems—- see Appendix for details”); or © The argument from What Do You Mean (“What do you mean you don’t think that’s intuitive?”)
  3. Complex argument of amazing logical consistency and correctness follows for 10-12 pages, resulting in view which claims to solve all known philosophical problems.
  4. Resulting complex philosophical view is then “tested” and “checked” by seeing whether it conforms with a bunch of other intuitions.
  5. Inevitably, at least one consequence of said view turns out to be somewhat non-intuitive. E.g., “There is an infinity of actual possible worlds”; “You (and I) do not exist”; “Only elementary particles and human beings exist”; and so on.
  6. Responses: (a) Say “I’m willing to bite that bullet”. This sounds terribly brave. (b) Say “Our intuitions are divided, so spoils to the victor—i.e., me.” © Insist that your conclusion really is intuitive, given the right kind of intuitions. The kind of intuitions one might have after 5 or 6 years in grad school, for example. (Note subtle use of argument from italics there.) (d) Write an argument defending the unintuitive bit—return to step 2.

In the meantime, you might be interested in looking at other writers, who have explored the idea that our intuitions might have institutional roots; that culture might mold conceptions of rationality and thus deeply affect how you think; that classification is a social process which might have its origins in material life; and that although individual and social cognition interact in complex ways, getting socialized into a culture often implies subscribing to its point of view.

Of course, the thing about philosophy is that, even for views that might look threatening to it, there’s usually a philosopher who’s made the general argument already—- the clever bastards.