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Philosophical Methodology Project

Philosophical Methodology (2008-2012)


Funded by:

Leverhulme Institutional Network Grant, 'Intuitions and Philosophical Methodology'; and
Major 4-year AHRC grant 'Intuitions and Philosophical Methodology'

Major Events
September 2008: a workshop on The Philosophy of Philosophy
April 2009: a conference on Philosophical Methodology
October 2009: a workshop on Philosophy without Intuitions?
May 2010: a workshop on Imagination and Modality
May 2010: a conference organised by St Andrews/Rutgers on Evidence
October 2010: a workshop on Knowledge Ascriptions (in collaboration with the Social Epistemology Group, University of Copenhagen)
November 2010: a workshop on Philosophical Evidence, Disagreement and Scepticism
June 2011: a workshop on Ordinary Language, Linguistics and Philosophy
July 2011: a Rutgers-Arché workshop on Knowing How
October 2011: a workshop on: Naturalness in Semantics and Metaphysics Workshop
June 2012: Perspectives on Philosophical Methodology Workshop
November 2012: Causes of Belief
June 2013: Reasons and Rationality
October 2013: Social Epistemology Workshop
October 2013: Normative language workshop

Forthcoming Events

A complete list of our previous seminars and visitors is available here

List of publications by project members.

The Project Team


Principal Investigators: Jessica Brown

Co-Investigator :Herman Cappelen

Independent Auditor: Ernest Sosa(Rutgers)

Post-Doctoral Fellows: Yuri Cath (2008-12), Torfinn Huvenes(2011-12) and Jonathan Ichikawa (2008-2011)

Project Students:

Julia Langkau, Andrea Onofri, Laura Cecilia Porro,and Margot Strohminger

Daniele Sgaravatti (2008-2011)

The Research Problem


It is unusual to read a paper in contemporary philosophy that does not, at some central point, appeal to 'intuitions'. Some philosophical concept, C, is under discussion. We are presented with a thought experiment in which a scenario, S, is imagined, and we are asked to have intuitions about whether C is instantiated in S. Some illustrations:

  • Gettier's argument against the justified-true-belief theory of knowledge asks us to imagine someone who has justified true belief that p, but, intuitively, doesn't know that p. This intuition is at the centre of one the most important arguments in epistemology.

  • Hilary Putnam's Twin Earth Argument for externalism asks us to imagine a world just like ours, except that what looks like water has the chemical composition XYZ. The intuition that this stuff is not water is at the centre of one of the most important arguments in philosophy of language.

  • John Searle's Chinese Room Argument appeals to the intuition that the person in his 'Chinese Room' does not understand Chinese but is functionally equivalent to someone who does. This intuition is at the centre of anti-functionalist arguments in philosophy of mind.

  • The intuition that zombies, that is, microphysical duplicates of human beings lacking any conscious inner life, are possible is central to David Chalmers' arguments against physicalism in The Conscious Mind.

  • Appeal to what we intuitively find to be fair is central to John Rawls' critique of utilitarianism and to the arguments for his conception of justice as fairness.

These are but some very prominent examples, and the list could be continued indefinitely. Any systematic investigation of the methodological issues raised by such examples must give centre stage to two basic questions:

1. What is a philosophical intuition?
2. What role(s) does and should intuition play in philosophical methodology?

Satisfactory answers to these questions are crucial to our understanding of what philosophy is, should be, and can be. It is not unthinkable that a rejection of this methodology might even jeopardise the entire enterprise of analytic philosophy as currently practiced.

The Contemporary Context

Recent philosophy is increasingly characterized by a preoccupation with its own methods. Discussion of the legitimacy and centrality of conceptual analysis as a philosophical tool goes back to the early 20th century and has continued up until today. The question of how 'armchair philosophy' is possible and what role appeals to intuitions should play is a main focus of Timothy Williamson's forthcoming book, The Philosophy of Philosophy (Williamson's answer to the latter is 'none'). Brian Weatherson has written a number of important papers on the role of intuitions in epistemology. A new flourishing field of meta-metaphysics concerns the role of intuitions (and other methodological issues) in metaphysics (important contributors include David Chalmers, Katherine Hawley, Theodore Sider). Work by so-called 'experimental philosophers' (Stephen Stich being the lead proponent) focuses on whether and how intuitions can be tested empirically and cross-culturally. Jackson and Chalmers' work on semantic 2-dimentionalism has been widely viewed as a canonical framework for defending philosophical appeals to intuitions.

A shared assumption in this work is that a deeper understanding of these methodological issues is a necessary condition for philosophical clarity and progress. Our project aims to bring together these varied strands of research and provide a managed, international research collaboration on the issues concerned.


The work will run through four phases, each planned as lasting a year. We will concentrate successively on four detailed sets of issues. This plan will naturally be responsive to the way the work develops, and the divisions represent areas of intended concentration rather than exclusion.

PHASE 1: Overview of Practice

The goal of this phase is to examine in depth a range of central examples of the method from a variety of areas of the discipline, including epistemology, philosophy of language and mind, logic, and metaphysics, all of which are areas of Arch expertise. Questions to be addressed include:

1) Is there a theory-neutral way to characterize the procedure of appeal to intuitions?
2) What weight is (typically) given to such appeals by comparison with other kinds of philosophical considerations, such as simplicity, explanatory power, and symmetry standardly taken to support philosophical theories?
3) Do those who use appeal to such intuitions see them as disclosing features of our concepts, or our theories and beliefs, or the world itself?
4) Does the appeal to intuitions in the different areas of philosophy under consideration assume a common pattern or are there local variations?
5) How do the different sub-fields differ with respect to how they treat the possibility of mistaken or conflicting intuitions? In metaphysics, for example, there seems to be more receptiveness towards mistaken or conflicting intuitions than in logic and epistemology.
6) In what ways, if any, is the method distinctively philosophical? Does it rest on specific or more general cognitive capacities?
7) Is the method as practised hitherto exclusively a priori?

PHASE 2: Models of Intuitions

The goal of this phase is to develop and evaluate models of intuition that systematise the details reviewed in phase one. Our focus will be led by the traditional pure rationalist conception (see e.g. Katz), according to which an intuition is a kind of immediate, spontaneous, non-inferential, direct apprehension of an abstract structure. Such a view involves conceiving of intuition as a special mental faculty of direct rational insight, yielding apriori knowledge of necessary truths which is unconditional, infallible, and foundational.

Few contemporary philosophers are content with the pure rationalist conception. We will ask:

(1) What if any aspects of actual philosophical arguments based on intuition force a departure from the pure rationalist conception?
(2) In particular, are there aspects which distinctively motivate any of the various more relaxed conceptions which dispute whether intuition requires all or even most of the features just mentioned?
Examples of such conceptions supported in the contemporary discussion include:
a. Phenomenal models, disputing whether intuition is direct and positing instead an intermediary presentation of a kind of "intellectual seeming" (see Bealer; Sosa; Lycan; Pust).
b. Naturalistic models, disputing whether intuitive knowledge is apriori or even non-inferential (see Hintikka; Kornblith).
c. Various conceptualist models of intuition dispute whether intuition requires any sort of special faculty of rational insight. According to such views they require no more than exercise of our everyday faculty of understanding (see Bonjour; Peacocke).
d. Eliminativists about intuition (e.g. Williamson) go further arguing that what customarily passes for intuition in philosophical thought-experiments is nothing more than the deployment of routine counterfactual reasoning.
Each of these gives rise to certain specific critical issues, which we will explore, including:
(3) Re a: What distinguishes an 'intellectual seeming' from a belief? Is it plausible that such a state is involved in all cases of intuition-based philosophical argument? How must such a state be conceived if it is to count as evidential?
(4) Re b: How can naturalistic models of intuition be reconciled with the apparently "armchair" methodology of most contemporary philosophy?
(5) Re c: How do conceptualist models square with the manifest variability and conflict of intuitions among thinkers whose understanding of the key notions is not in question?
(6) Re d: Can Williamson's particular form of eliminativism be reconciled with the fact that routine counterfactual reasoning typically involves empirical input?

PHASE 3: Scepticism Concerning the Value of Intuitions

Scepticism concerning the philosophical use of intuitions is widespread and long-standing. Ayer famously worried that "unless it is possible to provide some criterion by which one may decide between conflicting intuitions, a mere appeal to intuitions is worthless as a test of a proposition's validity". More recently, Cummins alleges that intuitions are "epistemologically useless"; Lycan alleges that "philosophical intuition is and always will be laughably unreliable", while Hintikka urges that intuitions are just fine when investigating our language faculty but worthless when investigating anything else.

There are three broad (and related) types of scepticism concerning the use of intuition. These are:

(a) Reliability Scepticism: why should a mere intuition that p provide any kind of reliable indication of the truth of p and, in particular, why should a mere spontaneous impression that p provide us with evidence that p is necessarily true?
(b) Conflict Scepticism: How can intuition be thought of as a source of philosophical knowledge when philosophical argument so often bogs down in a seemingly intractable conflict of intuitions?
(c) Relativity Scepticism: given that intuitions seem particularly prone to be influenced by contingent cultural and historical factors, why take intuitions to be more than a reflection of our cultural and local prejudices? (see, in particular, Stich; Nichols, Stich, and Weinberg; Nichols).
We take it that sceptical challenges to intuition are of no interest for our purpose if they amount to no more than an application of one of the familiar general sceptical paradoxes in epistemology, which in principle engage any mode of knowledge acquisition. For each of the distinguished forms of scepticism, the questions that will focus our inquiry will be:
(1) Does the scepticism in question present a challenge that is appropriately peculiar to intuition?
(2) If so, is the challenge exacerbated by any in particular of the distinguished models of intuition?
(3) What are the prospects for a model of intuitive philosophical knowledge which is robust enough to contain any local sceptical challenge in its strongest form?

PHASE 4: Case Study

The last phase of the project will apply lessons learned and frameworks developed in earlier phases to a crucial case study at the intersection of philosophy of language and epistemology. Keith DeRose has proposed that epistemologists should adopt what he calls the "New Linguistic Turn" (NLT) according to which the semantics for epistemically central terms like 'know', 'justify', 'evidence' should be based on appeals to intuitions about what speakers would say in various epistemic settings. Further it is suggested that conclusions can legitimately be drawn from a semantic theory so based about, for example, the nature of knowledge, justification and evidential support themselves. A major question arising is therefore:

1) Do the most competitive models of intuition emerging in the light of previous work tend support or undermine these two assumptions?
An additional range of closely connected methodological issues to be addressed will include:
2) What, in this connection, is the significance of the kinds of empirical cross-cultural studies of intuitions involving the word 'know' (and its putative synonyms) conducted by Stich and others?
3) Salmon, Cappelen&Lepore, and Soames argue that strict semantic content must be sharply separated from speech act content (e.g. what speakers say) and on that basis reject the assumptions of NLT. Is this distinction well taken and, if so, what are the implications for the reliance upon thought-experiments in epistemology?
4) Must any form of opposition to NLT imply a form of semantic blindness on the part of ordinary speakers? In light of results from earlier phases, can a general account be given about the conditions under which it is acceptable methodology to postulate such blindness?
5) Must NLT sanction the idea that, should it turn out - as seems foreseeable - that our intuitions about counterfactual cases are conflicting or fragmentary, corresponding conclusions should be drawn about the concept of knowledge itself?
6) To what extent does the current debate between contextualist, interest-relative invariantist and relativist treatments of knowledge depend upon the assumptions of NLT?