As many readers will have seen, there is an interview with Herman Cappelen in the latest issue of 3:AM Magazine. Moreover, Cappelen has recently published the much-discussed Philosophy without Intuitions, where he seems to argue (I haven’t had the chance to check out the book with my own eyes yet) that the X-Phi critique of ‘armchair’ methodology misfires in that it criticizes an inexistent straw-man: there are no (serious) philosophers for whom intuitions play the philosophical role that X-Phi’ers claim is the case in traditional, armchair philosophy. Here are some relevant passages from the interview:
3:AM: Your latest book, Philosophy without Intuitions, enters a hot debate in philosophy, that of the role of intuitions. Philosophers' alleged reliance on intuitions has been source of concern. This concern is unwarranted?
HC: Right. Not because reliance on intuitions is unproblematic, but because philosophers don’t rely on intuitions. It turns out that those who assumed philosophy was intuition-based hadn’t done their homework: they made broad, sweeping claims about an activity (philosophising) and a group of people (philosophers) without careful study of those people and that activity. When you look at what real – as opposed to caricatured – philosophers write (and say), there’s nothing there that is appropriately characterised as ‘relying on intuitions as evidence’.
I’m quite passionate about this since the picture of philosophy as resting on unquestioned intuitions, snap judgments endorsed unquestioningly, etc. is such a depressing misconception of what we are doing. One of the most characteristic features of us philosophers is that we question everything and are willing to (try to) provide reasons for everything. In philosophy, nothing has the kind of status intuitions are mistakenly described as having. That’s just not the kind of activity philosophy is.
The view that intuitions are the foundation of philosophy would be alien to more or less all those we think of as the leading thinkers of the 20th Century. It played no role in Frege, Wittgenstein, Russell, Carnap, the logical positivists, Quine, Davidson – whomever you take to be your favourite philosopher prior to 1980 didn’t have this false belief about philosophy.
Indeed, this has become a familiar move among the detractors of X-Phi: X-Phi completely mis-describes the practice of philosophy and the role of intuitions therein from the start. Now, some of us here at NewAPPS have questioned whether this picture of ‘philosophy without intuitions’ indeed successfully describes as much of the recent practices of philosophy as Williamson, Cappelen and others seem to claim it does (here and here, for example). Admittedly, I haven’t checked Cappelen’s book yet, where presumably he offers detailed arguments to support the claim of the non-importance of intuitions for much of 20th century (analytic) philosophy. But from what he is saying in the interview, it seems to me that he is forgetting an essential piece of the puzzle: G.E. Moore.
As I’ve argued in a blog post of some time ago, one plausible account of the origins of analytic philosophy is as the somewhat uncomfortable marriage between the ‘logicist’ tradition represented by Russell and the Vienna Circle with the Moorean school of ‘common sense philosophy’. As is well known, Moore published an influential piece in 1925, ‘A defence of common sense’, where he attempts to refute skepticism by arguing that at least some of our beliefs about the world are unquestionable. Indeed, Cappelen’s picture of philosophers as those who ‘question everything’ easily gives rise to extreme forms of skepticism, and resisting extreme skepticism has been on the philosophical agenda for millennia. Moore's response to the challenge seems to have been much more influential than Cappelen recognizes.
To be clear, I am myself no fan of ‘Moorean’ intuition-based philosophical inquiry (nor am I a fan of X-Phi in the narrow sense), but it seems to me that by telling a story according to which no (serious) philosopher has ever engaged actively with so-called intuitions, Cappelen is leaving much too much out: it is an overly partial, overly selective account of the development of philosophy since the 20th century. (Eric found a lovely passage by Maudlin that describes ‘the rules of the game’ quite accurately.) Even if the very term ‘intuitions’ was not widely used until fairly recently, a number of important developments in 20th century philosophy – I’m thinking in particular of the ‘ordinary language philosophy’ school – do seem to be instantiations of a Moorean ‘common sense’ approach to philosophy, thus making Cappelen’s claims appear problematic, to say the least.
At any rate, I look forward to checking out the book with my own eyes. In fact, it would be great to be convinced that reliance on intuitions for philosophical analysis is not as widespread a phenomenon as I think it is; but I won't be holding my breath.