Wednesday, December 02, 2015

How Do You Know What Your Intuitions Are?

As I've noted before, certain strains of analytic philosophy are in the habit of trying to explain the better known by the lesser known -- things get explained in terms of propositions, justification, etc., that themselves have highly controvertible accounts. One of the terms that often comes up is 'intuitions'. It's actually quite recent; the popularity is usually ascribed to the influence of Chomsky's talk of 'linguistic intuitions'. But Chomsky had something very specific in mind, with an account of how linguistic intuitions worked and why we should take them seriously; in the spread of the term to other fields, it hasn't always been the case that people have been as careful as Chomsky. And the inevitable result is that there are a lot of different ideas of what intuitions are, and with rather different accounts that would seem to suggest that they have to work very differently. It's not my interest here to look at this disagreement more closely, but to raise a very different issue that seems to apply across the board.

On one family of accounts, intuitions are suspicions, opinions, judgments, or beliefs. On another, they are predispositions, tendencies making claims attractive to us, or the like. On another, they are appearances or perhaps rather the cognitive state of a subject when something appears to him or her -- in short, kinds of consciousness or perceptions. Take any or all of these. The question I think should be raised is: "How do we know what the content of our intuition is?"

This is not, in itself, a skeptical question. But recognizing that something is what one is actually intuiting is distinct from simply intuiting it, in the same sense that recognizing that you are seeing such-and-such is different from seeing it, or that recognizing that you are hearing Chopin is different from hearing it. While what one intuits need not be oneself, recognizing that you are intuiting something (and thus that it is what you are intuiting) is a matter of self-knowledge. There are even more accounts of what self-knowledge is than there are of what intuition is, although not all of them need be mutually exclusive, since there are a number of reasons to think that self-knowledge is a rather large genus rather than an infima species. (I have in fact elsewhere suggested that this seems to be the case for what analytic philosophers call 'intuitions', as well -- that is, that there are actually lots of very different things that work very differently that get placed into the one box.) But we don't have to get into any of that; we simply wish to raise a few questions in light of it. Three immediately come to mind.

(1) Is it possible to intuit something and not recognize that you are intuiting it? There seems some reason for thinking so. For instance, one might think that we are constantly intuiting things but that we often don't recognize that we are doing so unless we stop to reflect or introspect on what we are doing. After all, we don't spend our lives going around identifying this as an intuition, that as an intuition; we just go about our lives, and occasionally think about intuitions as such.

(2) Is it possible to think you are intuiting something and not actually be intuiting anything? Can the appearance of intuitiveness be mimicked by something else? Is it sometimes the case that what we think we intuit we are actually imposing on ourselves (perhaps under social pressure, or distraction, or hastiness, or some such) rather than really intuiting? For instance, at least some of the intuition pumps in Dennett's "Quining Qualia" could be adapted to suggest this possibility for intuitions.

(3) Is it possible to think you are intuiting something and be wrong about what you are actually intuiting? Here is one possible reason to think so: philosophers appealing to intuitions sometimes seem to suggest that what they are doing is making obscure intuitions more clear. But if intuitions can be obscure, or need to be made more clear, it seems that there is a possibility of jumping to conclusions about what they are before you've actually done the work of making them more clear. And that seems to suggest that you can think you are intuiting something and not be right about what it is.

In each case, the interesting thing is less whether one answers Yes or No than what one's reasons are and what those reasons imply about how one should proceed in appealing to intuitions. Whatever intuition might be, appealing to intuitions is a complex process: it requires intuiting, recognizing that you are intuiting and what you are intuiting, and making use of that recognition. Your account of intuitions does not automatically answer how you recognize the fact that X is what you are intuiting. Is our recognition here simply transparent and certain? Do we need to take steps to make sure that we are doing it correctly, and if so, what would they be? If we take a dispositional account of intuitions, recognizing your own dispositions is not always a simple or easy process. If we take intuitions to be more like beliefs, people do at least claim that such-and-such, although they thought they believed it at the time, was not what they really believed; what is more, people do seem at times to make false inferences about their own beliefs, by not thinking through those inferences properly. If intuitions are more like a kind of consciousness or perception, illusions are quite common for other kinds of consciousness or perception. Regardless of one's account of intuitions, there seems to be a gap here of some significance that needs an explicit bridge.

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