Never Trust the Gut Over the Mind, Composing, 13/07/2013

Friday, I was working on some edits to my ecophilosophy manuscript, particularly some passages on the nature of intuition. Intuition has become something of a bugbear to me in contemporary philosophy. When I was at the Canadian Philosophical Association this June, I delivered a commentary on a moral philosophy presentation where I ripped into the widespread practice in the field of backing up your argument with appeal to intuition. It’s difficult to read any moral philosophy today that doesn’t at some point back up an argument with an appeal to ‘our common sense moral intuitions.’ Such appeals are all over the theory of knowledge and mind too, with writers justifying their ideas by appeal to their intuitions about esoteric scenarios about what counts as knowledge, or the nature of what mind is. Those who appeal to intuitions take them to be genuine insights into what is true.

For example, one can justify retributive conceptions of justice on the grounds that it accords with our intuition that wrongdoers deserve punishment. In environmentalist moral philosophy, writers have often appealed to our feelings of awe and majesty when we experience grand natural vistas as intuitions of nature’s value.

This appeal is all poppycock to me. In the literal, etymological sense of poppycock, derived from the Dutch pappe cac, meaning soft shit.* Some of the most liberating philosophical work I’ve come across in the last few years has been the work of Jonathan Weinberg. He’s done actual empirical research on ‘common sense intuitions.’ He conducts laboratory experiments where he gives people different permutations of common thought experiments from which philosophers pump intuitions. And there is no agreement or preponderance among people on any of their so-called intuitions. An intuition offers no indication of your conclusion being truth, only that the person considering the question feels that this response is obvious to him.

Stephen Fry, who taught
me the true meaning of
poppycock, among other
*Thank you Stephen Fry, for writing the scene in your novel The Liar where a character insults someone with this exact phrase. It is hilarious.

Maybe the only reason you have an intuition that wrongdoers deserve punishment for their crimes is because you’ve grown up all your life being told that wrongdoers deserve punishment for their crimes. Maybe you’ve never considered seriously the idea that it would be better if we treated criminals and wrongdoers as damaged people in need of care and repair. If that idea sounds silly to you, maybe you haven’t spent enough time training yourself to question the dogmas you’ve absorbed all your life. Because that’s what philosophy is for.

It seems anathema that philosophy, an intellectual tradition that values calm, rational judgement, and critique of mainstream values and ideas, would come to rely on using intuitive gut feelings to justify our arguments, and taking those gut feelings for the indubitable truths of common sense. Philosophy is supposed to be the discipline founded on questioning common sense presumptions, not taking those presumptions as intuitive truths to be justified through our careful reasoning and argument. Philosophy started with the role models of mystics, gadflies, and rebels. I hate referring to Socrates, just because I find such appeals so gauche. But I find it infuriating that the discipline has developed in such a way that so many of us take intuitions to be indications of the truth, instead of intuitions of a potentially problematic status quo that may need to be taken down a peg or three.

We should try speaking a little truth to power, instead of letting established powers dictate what we take to be true.


  1. Adam, I'm hesitant to follow you too far along the path of criticizing intuition, mainly because I see gross offenses against common sense in much social science, but this is I think a very valuable critique of academic philosophy. I'm not sure whether we should chalk this disciplinary conservatism up to an unintentional consequence or maybe an epiphenomenon (not entirely unwanted) of twin polarities of professionalizing pressures and popularizing efforts. (too many "p"s!)

    I see this line of inquiry as also spilling over into a discussion of the place of philosophical work vs academic philosophy vs intellectual work as such in our lives today -- I'm hoping that becomes a theme here!

  2. Hesitate all you want, Tom. But I've given up on intuition as anything other than a gut feeling of conservative obviousness. After all, it's plainly intuitive that motion is continuous, that a particle can't behave like a wave and a wave can't behave like a particle, that the Negro and Mongoloid races are clearly inferior to the Anglo-Saxon, that the mind and soul must be a separate substance from the body, and that the sun goes around the Earth. These were all once widely believed as obvious truths, truisms, not even worth questioning because they were so obviously true. But careful investigation of the world has by now either entirely disproved them or is in the process of doing so.

    And this habit is seriously all over philosophy. I haven't yet done the research to see where this trend began in moral philosophy of justifying the beliefs we all already have (I suspect that its roots are in ordinary language philosophy, J. L. Austin, Elizabeth Anscombe, and that clique, but that's just a hypothesis right now).

    "I see this line of inquiry as also spilling over into a discussion of the place of philosophical work vs academic philosophy vs intellectual work as such in our lives today -- I'm hoping that becomes a theme here!"

    You're going to love tomorrow's post.