Intuition and philosophy

by Neil Rickert

This is mostly a reaction to a recent post at Scientia Salon:

Apparently some philosophers, including the author Massimo Pigliucci, are seriously arguing that philosophy does not depend on intuition.

I had to check my calendar.  It seems far to early in the year for an April Fools joke.  The argument presented seems to suggest a staggering lack of self-awareness among philosophers.

Mathematics and intuition

I’ll start with where I see intuition as important.  And, quite frankly, I could not do mathematics or science without intuition.  Skeptics often criticize the use of intuition, but I’m inclined to think that when I am expressing skepticism, that skepticism is partly based on intuition.

Mathematics can be said to have a formal structure that is independent of intuition.  We make definitions and prove theorems based on those definitions.  Thus the conclusions are formal consequences of the definitions and other assumptions, so technically they are not dependent on intuition.

However, in order to do mathematics without any intuition, I would  be forced to rely on a mathematical philosophy of formalism.  Yet mathematics, seen as logical manipulation of formal symbols, seems sterile.  Almost everything that I value about mathematics depends on intuition.  My ability to use mathematics to solve real world problems depends on intuition.  My ability to think of numbers as if they were actual entities rather than formal meaningless symbols, is dependent on mathematical intuition.

Seen as a language, FOPC (first order predicate calculus) seems to be a rather sterile language.  We like to kid ourselves that we could do all of mathematics in FOPC.  But most of the mathematical literature is written in something closer to ordinary natural language.  And that’s because natural language is a far better medium for conveying our mathematical intuitions.

So sure.  In a strictly formal sense, we might be able to say that mathematics is independent of intuition.  But, in a more practical sense, mathematics is steeped in mathematical intuition.

Science and intuition

Similarly, I see science as steeped in intuition.  Many good ideas behind science grew out of intuition.

As with mathematics, we can perhaps say that science is formally independent of intuition.  We can say that science is a logical structure built on data obtained by measurement and with laboratory experiments.

However, I think the independence case for science is weaker than the case for mathematics.  I can give a formal definition of force (roughly, f = ma).  But I cannot formally define length, time or mass.  My understanding of the most basic concepts of physics seems to rest on intuition.  I can, of course, describe length in terms of using a measuring rod.  But I cannot precisely define what it means to use that measuring rod.  I have to rely on intuition and intuitive learning.  So I see the case of science being independent of intuition as a weak one.

Philosophy and intuition

If there is at most a weak case for saying that science is independent of intuition, then it seems to me that the case for philosophy is non-existent.  Philosophy is mostly related to our being in the world.  And philosophy does not do laboratory work, so there is no fall back position that I can see.

Many philosophers say that they do “ordinary language philosophy.”  It is hard to see how ordinary language philosophy could be other than a philosophy of intuitive notions.

Thought experiments

Some of the discussion at Scientia Salon is about thought experiments such as used by Putnam in his “Twin Earth” argument.  It is being claimed that this argument does not depend on intuition.

Consider me puzzled.  A thought experiment, almost by definition, is an appeal to intuition.

In a famous thought experiment, Einstein described a person traveling in an elevator car.  But the person could not tell whether he was experiencing the acceleration of the elevator car, or the force of gravity.  Einstein used this to make the case for his new conceptualization of space-time, where a gravitational field was just an acceleration field.

I suppose one could say that Einstein’s though experiment did not introduce dependence on intuition.  For Einstein was not trying to persuade me of the truth or falsity of a statement about reality.  He was simply introducing me to his new way of conceptualizing that reality.

By contrast, Putnam’s “Twin Earth” thought experiment does attempt to persuade me of the truth of his claim that “meaning is not in the head.”  (I’ll note that I did not find his argument persuasive).

Similarly, Searle’s “Chinese Room” thought experiment seemed to be aiming to persuade people that you cannot get semantics from syntax.  And I see that, too, as dependent on intuition.  As it happens, my intuition already agreed with Searle on this.  I already did not think that you can get semantics from syntax.  But I found the argument itself wholly unpersuasive, because of its dependence on intuition.


As I see it, ordinary language philosophy is necessarily dependent on intuition.  Philosophers would be wiser to embrace that, rather than attempt to run away from it.


One Comment to “Intuition and philosophy”

  1. Agreed, except to the the extent that you are still too nice to the philosophers! You may be giving the mathematicians and scientists too much credit too. Democritus said there are atoms, and everything else is opinion. Substitute ‘reality as it is’ for atoms and he seems absolutely correct.

    Philosophy is in a very tenuous position since it has nothing to fall back on, unlike science, by which to resolve disagreements or questions. Modern research in consciousness brings into serious question the idea that our conscious mental processes are entirely conscious, rational, or even evidence based all the time. In fact, very complex decisions and behaviors can be orchestrated completely in the unconscious realm, with consciousness taking credit for it afterwards.


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