Why I left philosophy


I started working on intuitions. To see what a philosophical intuition is (or rather, what one type of philosophical intuition is), consider the following:

You might think knowledge is justified and true belief. But suppose I look at my watch and it says the time is 12:37. On this surely reasonable and justified basis I believe that the time is 12:37, and indeed the time is 12:37. However, unbeknownst to me my clock is stopped. It just so happened to stop on 12:37, and by coincidence this happens to be the time now.

Many people have the intuition that in such a case you do not know that the time is 12:37, but you are justified in believing it, your belief is true, and you certainly do believe it. Thus, they argue, having a justified true belief does not guarantee knowledge. If this is true, it overturns what was the almost universally accepted view of what knowledge almost two and a half millennia- that knowledge is justified true belief, often shortened to JTB. This sense of wrongness about the idea that the person in the example knows that it is 12:37 is a paradigm case- perhaps the defining example- of a philosophical intuition. A philosophical intuition is typically (and these are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions!) a sense of rightness or wrongness about the application of a predicate- for example “Knowledge” in a hypothetical case. This sense of rightness or wrongness does not seem to rely on anything external to itself for its own justification, rather it just sort of seems self-evident.

But why are we confident in our intuitions? Why should these sorts of intuitions count as evidence? Do we all share the same intuitions about various philosophical topics?

During my undergraduate years, debate had erupted in the literature about what is sometimes called experimental philosophy. Experimental philosophers run experiments that seem to suggest a diversity of sometimes contradictory intuitions between cultures, social groups, and even within individuals about the same cases. For example, there is some evidence that East-Asian subjects actually regard Gettier type cases as instances of knowledge- i.e., they would grant that the person whose watch says 12:37 knows that it is 12:37, even if this only happens to be the correct time by accident. I wrote a senior thesis arguing against two views on what these experiments meant. On one hand I argued against people who say that these results debunk the method of hypothetical cases philosophers’ use. On the other hand, I argued against philosophers who contend that the intuitions of non-experts about these matters should not be trusted.

My argument was informed by an underlying thesis about what intuitions were. I regarded intuitions not as glimpses into a platonic realm, but as constitutive and at least partially stipulative. It was my view that intuitions do not track the truth about philosophical questions, but rather that they are partly responsible for making the truth about philosophical questions.

To see how, let us come back to the Gettier case- although what I say here could apply to many other debates in philosophy. If Janet has an intuition that the Gettier case is not knowledge, this expresses Janet’s predisposition to define knowledge in such a way so as to exclude these cases- that she refuses to use the word “knowledge” in a Gettier case partially constitutes what she means by “knowledge”.

If Jiang has a a conflicting intuition, Jiang is demonstrating that she is attaching a different concept to the word “Knowledge”. To talk about Janet being right or Jiang being wrong would be nonsense, because their intuitions pick out different concepts. It would be a bit like an argument about whether it was raining on Wednesday where one person means last Wednesday and the other person means this Wednesday. Jiang and Janet could argue about or investigate whose version of the concept was closer to the typical version, and what sort of people use what variants from the big family of Knowledge concepts- and to do so they might find experimental philosophy useful. They might even debate which concept of knowledge was more useful but debating which is correct is meaningless. Each of the two concepts describes or picks out a different property. The role of experimental philosophy then is to show us the variations in the concepts people are deploying- it is a project of philosophical lexical semantics.

A lot of people seemed worried that this approach would lead to anything goes relativism. I don’t see the argument. If Jiang has X intuitions about the concept of knowledge, and Janet has Y intuitions about the concept of knowledge, then they are using slightly different words. There will still be a fact of the matter about whether someone’s belief is knowledge as Jiang means it, and there will be a matter of fact about whether someone’s belief is knowledge as Janet means it. Once propositions are properly disambiguated, there’s no spooky ‘the world is just a point of view’ relativism going on.

There’s a common cousin of the view I’ve outlined that I’d best explain so as to distinguish it from my own. It goes like this. “Philosophers can’t study knowledge itself using intuitions, they can only study people’s ideas of knowledge. There is this further thing which is Knowledge-itself and either philosophers can’t study it, or they need to use some method other than intuitions about cases to do so”. I can see why people would confuse this view with the view I’ve outlined, but I think they’re quite distinct. Here’s why: If there is a rich enough infinitude of properties in the world, then for any meaningful concept there will be a property corresponding to that concept. As a result, if we come to fully map out someone’s intuitions which define a concept C, then we will also find out exactly which property C picks out. If we fully map out a folk concept, then, at least prima-facie, we also fully understand it’s corresponding property in the world. There’s no need to say things like ‘we understand what this group of people mean by knowledge, but not what knowledge itself is- there’s some further fact about that.’ What the property of knowledge is, is given fully by what the concept of knowledge is. The character of the property of ‘being knowledge’ just falls right out of an analysis of the concept of knowledge.

The view I’ve outlined has many advantages. It avoids tricky epistemological puzzles, for example: why we should think intuitions tell us something about an intangible metaphysical world external to our own minds? If intuitions really do systematically vary between cultures, it avoids the awkwardness of having to explain how one group came to be right and the other group wrong. Also, when you think about it, the idea of one property out there in the world being Knowledge with a capital K is kind of silly. There are of course also arguments against it- mostly in a bundle of ideasrelated to reference magnetism, direct reference and the causal theory of reference which I won’t get into here. There are also concerns built on Quine inspired semantic eliminativism.

Disclaimer for experts: So it doesn’t seem like I’m denying certain facts let us clearly acknowledge that nothing in this view says that some linguistic frameworks aren’t better equipped to describe the world, or carve it at its joints, or simply be more useful, than other frameworks. Let us also acknowledge that what is ‘useful’ will be context dependent. Let us acknowledge even further that nothing in our view denies that there may be a degree of reference magnetism towards the ‘joints’ of nature, it only requires that it not be strong enough to outweigh the possibility of alternative or parallel concepts for important philosophical topics like ‘knowledge’, ‘mind’ and ‘personhood’.

As far as I know there is no name in the literature for the view about what intuitions are, and what studying concepts really does, that I have described. Despite that, when you talk to philosophers it becomes clear that the view I’ve described is extremely common. Indeed in some groups, something like it seems to be the majority view, which makes the absence of an explicit name for the view all the more mysterious. The view described here some has similarities with ordinary language philosophy, though few ordinary language philosophers stated it so baldly, and it’s hard to tell since, following Wittgenstein, so many ordinary language philosophers seem to have made it a virtue to not be clear on exactly what it was they were doing. It has some definite similarities with what is sometimes called the Canberra Plan. Alvin Goldman outlines a vaguely similar view, although from memory his view is a bit more like the common cousin I outlined a few paragraphs above.

Nonetheless the view is rarely argued for in explicit terms. To revise after so many years I reread the Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy article on intuitions before writing this- nothing like the view that intuitions make, rather than track, philosophical truths is described, despite exhaustive discussion of the minutiae of various other views about, and aspects of, intuitions.

As a step towards overcoming this marginalisation, let us call the view constitutivism about intuitions. Formally stated then, constitutivism is the view that intuitions are not merely truth-trackers, but truth-makers regarding certain philosophical claims. The reason for this truth-maker status is that a person’s intuitions help constitute what they mean by a term in their idiolect, and philosophical questions on the constitutivist view often turn on semantics. Further, from the content of concepts we know trivially the nature of the properties they pick out, for any meaningful, complete and non-self contradictory concept has a property which corresponds to it.

Succinctly- intuitions are part of concepts and different intuitions about appropriate usage give different concepts, concepts give us properties, thus once we’ve finished conceptual analysis, we’ve finished. Variation in intuitions , whether between subjects, or even within a single individual, just indicates a plurality of concepts.


But what does this have to do with me leaving philosophy?

I finished up my senior thesis which briefly touched on these themes, and then began a doctoral thesis. In the part of the world I was doing my doctorate, you immediately begin researching and ideally writing your thesis almost as soon as you enrol, unlike the American system. Like any prototypical twenty-two year old philosopher I was wildly over confident in the value of what I had to say, and ready to change the world.

That’s when I encountered the haze. A lack of concrete research on the topic of my thesis I could tap into, of an accessible bedrock of literature which I could build a thesis on. There were many papers on metaphilosophy tangentially related of course, but everyone seemed to be coming at it from different angles, groups of people were having conversations that slid entirely past each other. There was no obvious way for me to slip into the party with grace. It seemed to me that there were a great many people who thought they were talking about the same things, but really were talking past each other. There weren’t even always names for the various constellations of positions people took. I was lost.

There are, I think a number of causes for the haze. Two of which lay with me, one of which I could be rightly blamed for, and the other I couldn’t. The one I could be rightly blamed for was that I was nowhere near as fucking smart as I thought I was. The one I can’t be blamed for was that I was severely mentally ill. However there were also external cases for the haze.

First of all, many philosophers just don’t care that much about metaphilosophy. When I talked about my thesis with faculty members and fellow students I generally got one of four responses:

“This is obviously true.”

“This obviously not true.”

“This is too abstract to be interesting.”

“That’s really interesting, I’d never thought about it like that.”

I realised with astonishment that many- though not all- philosophers had the same orientation towards metaphilosophy that many scientists have towards philosophy. Just like a room of scientists asked about science would tend to throw up sentiments like:

“That’s all good and well, but what’s the practical point?”

“I have strong opinions on this topic but haven’t thought about it that much.”

“Ooh that’s really interesting but it’s a little abstruse for my taste.”

So to did philosophers. The other cause of the haze was that even though what I was saying corresponded to what a lot of philosophers believed no one had thought to name it. And for some reason, even though many philosophers are instinctively drawn to the idea, people who work on topics like ‘what are intuitions’, don’t seem to much like the idea.

I began to wonder if maybe it wasn’t because there’s vaguely self-effacing about the whole thing. If you sort of suspect that parts of philosophy (not all, mind) are continuous with semantics- “semantics” being a byword for irrelevancy in our society- maybe you sort of want to shut up about it. Thus you’ll only write on relevant topics in meta-philosophy if you think you’ve got something to say which carves philosophy into a more imposing figure.

I guess I never saw it that way, because I think there’s a kind of glory to be had in studying such important concepts and words as knowledge, personhood, belief, desire and so on. Some questions about the semantics of some words and the structure of some concepts go to the very heart of the way humans understand their world, and are humans not noble in reason and infinite in faculty?

Overwhelmed by a conversation that was at once fragmentary, vast, and hard to find, in which people who agreed with me never seemed to speak up, which many philosophers seemed to think was a useless conversation, and sapped of energy by my health problems, I sank out of academia.

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