The Relevance of Folk Intuitions to Philosophical Debates

Dissertation, Florida State University (2008)
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A large portion of philosophy done in the Western analytic tradition attempts to provide conceptual analyses which are tested by examples that elicit intuitions. These intuitions are, in turn, used as evidence either for or against a given analysis. In recent years, there has been much discussion of the uses of intuitions from empirically minded philosophers and psychologists. The basic strategy is to discover empirically how “normal” folks think about certain topics in philosophy. This application of folk intuitions to philosophy branches into roughly two basic approaches. The first is an attempt to show that in given domains, folk intuitions are not very reliable sources of evidence; hence, we have good reason to think that philosophers' intuitions are also not reliable sources of evidence in that domain. The second approach attempts to determine what folk concepts are. Once folk concepts are analyzed, they are then argued to be relevant to philosophical debates. My guiding question for this dissertation is the following one: Why should philosophers care about folk intuitions? One answer is that we should want some philosophical analyses to be grounded in everyday concepts. I argue that there are presently no adequate a priori arguments for the reliability of philosophical intuitions in some philosophically relevant areas. Whether intuitions are reliable enough to ground philosophical analyses is an empirical question. I review four domains where ordinary concepts have been argued to ground philosophical theorizing: (1) epistemology, (2) ethics, (3) free will, and (4) action theory. I argue that the available evidence suggests that we should be skeptical of intuitions in philosophy—but that skepticism does not entail radical skepticism. That is, the empirical studies reveal a wide variety of results which on the surface indicate that intuitions are not reliable (e.g., order effects or framing effects). However, I argue that these seeming instabilities are actually the results of stable differences in different groups of people. Hence, I argue that intuitions are stable in a surprising way—that different groups of people have stable intuitions. This intuition stability, while not the kind of monolithic stability many philosophers might desire, is argued to be sufficient to ground philosophical analyses in these domains.

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Adam Feltz
Michigan Technological University


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