By Catarina Dutilh Novaes
I am working on a paper now (together with my student Leon Geerdink, for a volume on the history of early analytic philosophy being edited by Chris Pincock and Sandra Lapointe) where I elaborate on a hypothesis first presented at a blog post more than 3 years ago: that the history of analytic philosophy can to a large extent be understood as the often uneasy interplay between Russellianism and Mooreanism, in particular with respect to their respective stances on the role of common sense for philosophical inquiry. In the first part of the paper, we present an (admittedly superficial and selective) overview of some recent debates on the role of intuitions and common sense in philosophical methodology; in the second part we discuss Moore and Russell specifically, and in the third part we discuss what I take to be another prominent instantiation of the opposition between Russellianism and Mooreanism: the debate between Carnap and Strawson on the notion of explication.
I am posting here a draft of the first part, i.e. the overview of recent debates. I would be very interested to hear what readers think of it: is it at least roughly correct, even if certainly partial and incomplete? Are the categories I carved up to make sense of these debates helpful? Can they be improved? Feedback would be most welcome!
UPDATE: I forgot to mention that a paper that has been extremely useful for me to organize my thoughts on this topic is Michael Della Rocca's 'The taming of philosophy', which gets quite extensively discussed in other sections of my paper with Leon. It is an excellent paper. However, there is still a substantive disagreement between Della Rocca and us, namely that we think there is a lot more tension between Russell and Moore on the question of common sense's role for philosophy than Della Rocca recognizes (he describes both Moore and Russell as fans of common sense).
In the last two decades, there has been a lively (and arguably, much-needed) debate on methodological aspects of philosophical analysis. Much, though not all, of it has focused on the notion of intuitions and their role in philosophical inquiry. Perhaps three milestones in this debate can be identified: the publication of Rethinking Intuition (ed. DePaul & Ramsey) in 1998; the emergence of the Experimental Philosophy movement in the early 2000s; the publication of Williamson’s The Philosophy of Philosophy in 2007. Attesting to the fact that the debate is still ongoing, there are the newly published edited volumes Intuitions (ed. Booth & Rowbottom, 2014) and Philosophical Methodology: the Armchair or the Laboratory? (ed. Haug, 2013), as well as some recent Companion volumes where methodological issues are discussed in detail (e.g. the Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Language, ed. Russell & Graff Fara, 2012).
However, it would be a mistake to view this debate as simply opposing two neatly defined camps: the pro-intuitions camp and the anti-intuitions camp.* In reality, there are many more positions being articulated and defended, as well as much discussion on how to define and understand intuitions in the first place. Indeed, as convincingly argued by C. S. I. Jenkins (2014), the term ‘intuitions’ is used in a number of different senses in the literature, and so when people attack or defend the role of intuitions for philosophical inquiry, they are often speaking of different concepts and thus ultimately defending different positions.
On this type of view, the concept intuition expressed by the semantically general term ‘intuition’ might be best regarded as a kind of family resemblance concept, such that possessing enough of the symptoms in bundles one to four qualifies something as an intuition (where certain symptoms might be more heavily weighted than others, or otherwise of particular significance), but it is difficult or impossible to give tidy necessary and sufficient conditions on intuitionhood. (Jenkins 2014, 98)
Jenkins identifies four main bundles of symptoms associated with the concept of intuitions: i) commonsensicality, ii) aprioricity, iii) immediacy, iv) meta-philosophical. She goes on to note that there are all kinds of interesting connections between the symptoms across bundles, but the main point is that different conceptions of intuitions are characterized by some (or even many) of these symptoms, but not by all of them – hence the absence of ‘tidy necessary and sufficient conditions on intuitionhood’ on the basis of the existing philosophical literature.
In the present contribution, we will focus on Jenkins’ first bundle, i.e. intuitions as common sense, given that we are predominantly interested in the legacy of Mooreanism (and criticisms of it). She associates two main symptoms to the commonsensicality bundle, a ‘negative’ one and a ‘positive’ one: ‘folk beliefs’, and lack of theoretical contamination. Now, while this meaning of intuitions certainly does not cover all of the uses of the concept in the philosophical literature, it is very widespread, and Jenkins presents authors as influential as Kripke, Lewis, and Jackson as exemplifying commitment to this understanding of intuitions (and of their centrality for philosophical analysis). They, and those influenced by them, can thus be viewed as instantiating a Moorean conception of philosophy where commonsensicality plays a pivotal role.
Those who criticize the approach to philosophy based on intuitions-as-common-sense do so for various reasons, in such a way that strikingly different conceptions of philosophy and philosophical methodology emerge among the critics. For reasons of space, it is impossible to present a comprehensive account of all, but here are some of them:
1- We should not shy away from embracing the counterintuitive conclusions of our best philosophical theories, and should thus revise our original beliefs in such cases. But philosophy remains predominantly an armchair, a priori enterprise. (Williamson 2007)
2- We should submit our intuitions to empirical scrutiny, thus approaching philosophy in an empirically informed way (also known as ‘naturalism’) (Bishop & Trout 2004; 2005).
3- We should be more inclusive regarding the range of people whose intuitions we take into account, as much of what we take to be universally intuitive turns out not to be so (in particular but not exclusively, due to cultural variation) (X-Phi).
[UPDATE: Joshua Knobe got in touch with me to point out that this is an overly simplistic account of the X-Phi movement. He's right, of course; however, I will not change the text of the post at this point, but only note that this deserves further attention.]
(Notice that the first variant, which is overtly a criticism of intuitions as common sense, is in fact also a defense of aprioristic methods in philosophy; so it is clearly not a critique of intuitions understood according to Jenkins’ second bundle, based on the notion of aprioricity -- much to the contrary.) Some of the main tools (though not the only ones) used by proponents of this conception of philosophy are formal methods based on logical and mathematical formalisms; the work by Williamson on metaphysics is an example thereof. In this picture, it is often by drawing counterintuitive conclusions from plausible premises that one is forced to revisit the initial implausibility of the conclusion, but still by means of aprioristic, ‘armchair’ methods.
The naturalistic critique, by contrast, eschews purely aprioristic methods because of the (presumed) fallibility of human judgment to perceive accurately some basic facts about reality on its own. Instead, proponents of this approach emphasize the role of the (empirical) sciences in making our conception of reality more accurate, i.e. in leading to the abandonment of pre-scientific, common sense views of the world in favor of scientifically grounded beliefs (e.g. that the Earth is round and that it revolves around the Sun, despite appearances). According to them, this ‘scientific’ approach should be adopted also for philosophical inquiry, and so philosophy should proceed in an empirically informed way.
The X-Phi critique seems to question in particular the second symptom associated with intuitions as common sense: absence of theoretical contamination. If intuitions vary widely among different people, depending on their professional and cultural background, then perhaps these so-called ‘pure’ intuitions of trained philosophers are not so pure after all. They may well be the result of professional or cultural ‘indoctrination’ to various degrees (Bishop and Trout (2005) make a similar point about what they call ‘standard analytic epistemology’), and so their epistemic status as reliable evidence seems to be undermined.
For our purposes, and despite their differences, the aprioristic and the naturalistic critiques of common sense as playing a crucial role for philosophical theorizing are particularly relevant (we will not deal further with the X-Phi challenge). Indeed, they share at least one defining feature, namely their opposition to what is perceived as excessive doxastic conservativeness in the common sense-based philosophical methodology. This critique is illustrated by the two passages below (Williamsom representing the aprioristic strand, Bishop and Trout representing the naturalistic strand):
Again, philosophy is often presented as systematizing and stabilizing our beliefs, bringing them into reflective equilibrium: the picture is that in doing philosophy what we have to go on is what our beliefs currently are […] A popular remark is that we have no choice but to start from where we are, with our current beliefs. But where we are is not only having various beliefs about the world; it is also having significant knowledge about the world. Starting from where we are involves starting from what we already know, and the goal is to know more […]. (Williamson 2007, 5; emphasis added)
Rejecting theories solely because they do violence to our considered judgments is a shockingly conservative principle of theory choice. This may only become clear if we compare it to methods in other fields of inquiry. The special theory of relativity does extreme violence to our considered judgments about simultaneity. But that is hardly a reason to reject it. If physics had been burdened with such a conservative method, we wouldn’t have relativity, quantum mechanics or even Copernicanism! If biologists had embraced the stasis requirement, we certainly would not have Darwinism. (Bishop & Trout 2005, 702/3; emphasis added)
For the present purposes, the main difference between common sense philosophy of the Moorean kind and (at least some of) the critiques that have been voiced against it pertains to whether one sees as the very goal of philosophical inquiry that of revising and improving the extra-philosophical, anterior beliefs that serve as its starting point, or instead that of ‘systematizing and stabilizing’ them. It may well be that, in both cases, so-called intuitions (commonsensical beliefs) will be at the starting point; the question is then whether they will also be at the end-point. On one conception, philosophical analysis goes full circle back to the initial beliefs (which are now systematized and stabilized); on the other, it ends somewhere different from where it starts, thus leading to a revision of one’s commonsensical beliefs.
One of the challenges for the present investigation is to show convincingly that these two stances can be roughly understood in terms of the opposition between Mooreanism and Russellianism, which will then further corroborate the claim that this opposition runs through all of the history of analytic philosophy up to the present.** The reliance on common sense represented by Kripke, Lewis and Jackson can be quite straightforwardly viewed as a version of Mooreanism.*** Williamson-style apriorism in turn is easily seen as descending from Russellianism, at least the Russell who made extensive use of logical formalisms to investigate philosophical questions. In contrast, empirically informed philosophy is less obviously to be traced back to Russell, but it is certainly in the spirit of Carnap’s notion of explication, which in turn can be broadly understood as belonging to the Russellian tradition (as we will argue below).
* A third, interesting but arguably improbable position is defended by Cappelen (2012): current (analytic) philosophy does not (and should not?) as a matter of fact rely extensively on intuitions.
** However, we do not claim that all of what has been done under the heading of analytic philosophy in the last 100 years or so will fit neatly into one of these two categories; X-Phi, for example, does not fit neatly into either. The claim is simply that a significant portion of prominent debates in analytic philosophy of the last century can be understood in terms of this opposition
*** And this despite the fact that both Kripke and Lewis also make extensive use of formal, logical methods in their investigations. So the opposition should not be construed crudely in terms of formal philosophy vs. informal philosophy.