Review of Philosophy and Psychology

, Volume 2, Issue 4, pp 643–665

Surveying Philosophers About Philosophical Intuition


    • School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language SciencesUniversity of Edinburgh
  • J. R. C. Kuntz
    • Department of PsychologyUniversity of Canterbury

DOI: 10.1007/s13164-011-0047-2

Cite this article as:
Kuntz, J.R. & Kuntz, J.R.C. Rev.Phil.Psych. (2011) 2: 643. doi:10.1007/s13164-011-0047-2


This paper addresses the definition and the operational use of intuitions in philosophical methods in the form of a research study encompassing several regions of the globe, involving 282 philosophers from a wide array of academic backgrounds and areas of specialisation. The authors tested whether philosophers agree on the conceptual definition and the operational use of intuitions, and investigated whether specific demographic variables and philosophical specialisation influence how philosophers define and use intuitions. The results obtained point to a number of significant findings, including that philosophers distinguish between intuitions used to formulate (discovery) and to test (justification) philosophical theory. The survey results suggest that strategies implemented to characterise philosophical intuition are not well motivated since, even though philosophers do not agree on a single account of intuition, they fail to capture a preferred usage of intuitions as aspects of discovery. The quantitative summary of survey findings informs the debate on this topic, and advances more defined routes for subsequent approaches to the study of intuitions.

1 Introduction

Philosophers’ intuitions are pivotal in the standard methods of philosophy. There is general agreement that intuitions are whatever it is that is central to realising philosophically relevant concepts in hypothetical cases.1 As such, intuitions bear on a variety of core philosophical areas and themes, playing critical roles in arguments in epistemology, in metaphysics, in philosophy of mind, in ethics and in other areas of specialisation.2 Occurrences of commonplace usages are also frequent in philosophical arguments: utterances such as ‘x just seems obvious’, ‘obviously x’, ‘anyone would just see that x’ and intuitive axioms such as ‘knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief’. Despite intuitions’ centrality to philosophical methods, intuitions are, arguably, not well suited for use in philosophical methods. Experimentally minded philosophers following in the tradition Stephen Stich (1990) are starting to amass a collection of data. The analysis of the data suggests that intuitions are unreliable, subject to demographic differences, and prone to error. Moreover, intuitions of the folk are inconsistent with the published intuition-data of professional philosophers.3 Although experimentalists’ critiques and philosophers’ courted responses are relevant, they are not the focus of this paper. Rather, the authors are interested in whether experimentalists’ characterisation of intuitions corresponds to the conception of intuition held by the philosophers they aim to criticise.

The next section outlines the methods implemented to examine how philosophers conceive of the use of intuition in philosophical methods, and examines whether philosophers agree on accounts of intuition available in the literature. The data analyses suggests that experimentalist ways of characterising intuition-use in philosophical methods are inaccurate because they do not countenance that philosophers conceive of intuitions in modes of justification and in modes of discovery. A number of objections are addressed in the closing section, including why a survey method is useful when a seemingly more useful method is to examine the work of philosophers directly. Improvements to survey research in this topic are suggested. The remainder of the present section of the paper outlines the strategies experimentalists implement to characterise intuition in terms of its use.

The characterisation strategies implemented to conceptualise the category of philosophical intuition are, at first glance, well-motivated since, as objectors point out, philosophers rely on substantially different accounts of intuition in practice. For example, some intuition theorists treat the act of intuiting as epistemically efficacious, an intellectual seeming, while others treat the content of intuition as epistemically efficacious, a self-evident proposition—nor are these exhaustive of the accounts of intuitions available in the extent literature. The disparity amongst notions of intuition available in the literature makes objecting to ‘philosophical intuition’ difficult for experimentalists.4 Intuition objectors end up attacking an ‘undifferentiated mass’ of intuition-kinds. Without a singular target, objections are easily rebuffed by pointing out that one’s preferred account of intuition is guilty only by association with other unsavoury notions of intuition.5 Philosophers can avoid objections by defending individual accounts of intuition ad infinitum - a philosopher need only adopt a new or a slightly different account of intuition -, the proposed solution is to characterise intuition more generally to subsume the class of philosophers’ various construals of intuition. The two strategies for characterising intuition outlined below are indicative of the characterisation strategies employed in the literature. If these characterisation strategies fail, then experimentalists have misrepresented philosophers’ use of intuition.

Characterisation Strategy 1: Weinberg et al. (2001) generalise the philosophical method that appeals to intuition (in whatever form), calling it “Intuition-Driven Romanticism” (IDR).

IDR has the following conditions:
  1. 1.

    The strategy must take epistemic intuitions as data or input.

  2. 2.

    It must produce, as output, explicitly or implicitly normative claims or principles about matters epistemic.6

  3. 3.

    The output of the strategy must depend, in part, on the epistemic intuitions it takes as input. If provided with significantly different intuitions, the strategy must yield significantly different output. (Weinberg et al. 2001, 432)


Characterisation Strategy 2: Weinberg (2007) endorses a second way of characterising intuition (perhaps also adding clarity to the intent of IDR): “Instead of thinking in terms of a problem with something philosophers have—the intuitions themselves—I suggest that we turn our attention to something philosophers do” (320). What philosophers do is cite whether or not a concept (intuitively) applies to a given (usually hypothetical) case. As such, the intuition evidences (justifies) a particular philosophical claim. Intuitions can be faulty, wrong, or even perverse; on reflection, intuitions can be revised or brought into line with one’s other beliefs and judgments. Intuitions evidence philosophical claims and, in standard philosophical practice, do not themselves require any further, direct support. Weinberg labels this practice “Philosophers’ Appeals to Intuitions” (PAI).

In summary, the standard experimentalist objection to intuitions’ use in philosophical methods focuses on intuitions about hypothetical cases. These intuitions are regarded as evidence for a particular philosophical theory, providing justification for its correctness. If the experimentalist is correct, then philosophers need to re-evaluate the use of intuitions and give an explanation for their role as evidence, or move from their armchairs into the laboratory to determine how intuition operates in schema of the folk.

A formative question is to ask whether experimentalists have really captured the conception of intuition at work in philosophical methods. The aim of the following research is to determine whether there are discernible differences in philosophers’ conceptions of intuition and its uses in philosophical methods. The substantive research questions are divided in two groups. The first set of questions attempts to identify differences between the use of intuitions as justification and the use of intuitions as discovery.7 The second set of questions asks respondents to rank in respective order various definitions of intuition derived from the existing literature. The aim is to assess the correctness of the motivation behind strategies for characterising intuitions, and to assess how philosophers are conceiving of intuitions in practice.

2 Methodology

2.1 Participants

The data for the present study were collected via online survey. A survey link was sent to four philosophy list-servers: Philos-L, for philosophy in Europe; Philosop-l, for philosophy in North America, SPP-misc, for the Society for Philosophy and Psychology; and, Aphil-l, for the Australasian Association of Philosophy. The aim was to cast a broad net about professional English-speaking philosophers. The survey link was active for 3 weeks. Overall, 282 professional philosophers agreed to participate in the study and completed the online survey. As shown in Table 1 (Henceforth, all tables can be found in Appendix 1), a larger proportion of participants were male (74.1%), white (87.6%), and had been granted or were currently pursuing their highest degree in philosophy, predominantly in the USA or Canada (43%), Northern Europe (29.6%), and Australasia (21.6%). In addition, half of the respondents had been practicing philosophy for less than 10 years (50.2%). With respect to area of specialisation, most of the categories provided were fairly well represented, though a greater proportion of respondents were associated to Metaphysics (10.6%), Epistemology (10.3%), Ethics (18.8%), Philosophy of Mind (17%), and Philosophy of Science (11.3%). This is a good depiction of the actual distribution across areas of expertise in the philosophical community.8

2.2 Procedure

Respondents were instructed to access a web link connecting them to the survey page. The online survey consisted of 19 items, including demographic information (i.e., age, gender, ethnicity, number of years practicing philosophy, area of specialisation, country and university where highest degree in philosophy was granted or currently being pursued, and current country and university affiliation), one measure with four items, one rank ordering exercise consisting of seven statements, and a cover page with a disclaimer regarding informed consent, confidentiality, and use of the data collected. The respondents were informed of the purpose of the research, conditions of participation, and deadlines for survey completion (see Appendix 2). In addition, the respondents were assured that only the principal investigators would review results.

Participants were professional philosophers, representing several regions of the globe and from a wide array of areas of specialisation. Respondents were asked to state their level of agreement with each of the following four statements: “Intuitions are useful to justification in philosophical methods.”; “Intuitions are useful to discovery in philosophical methods.”; “Intuitions are essential to justification in philosophical methods.” and, “Intuitions are essential to discovery in philosophical methods.” In the final portion of the survey, respondents were asked to rank-order various definitions of intuition according to how they conceived intuitions’ use in philosophical methods.9

2.3 Measures

The survey distributed in this study was comprised of two measures. These measures are described in detail in the following sections.

2.3.1 The Importance of Intuition in Philosophical Methods

A measure to assess perceptions of the importance of intuitions in discovery (e.g., theory development) and justification (e.g., theory evaluation) was developed for the present study (see Appendix 2). The aim of this measure was to determine individual perceptions of the degree of relevance of intuitions in philosophical methods. Participants were asked to evaluate the four statements, presented simultaneously, along 7-point a Likert-type scale with anchors from 1 (disagree to a very large extent) to 7 (agree to a very large extent).10 The scale’s internal consistency was .82.

2.3.2 Rank-Ordering Accounts of Intuition

In the subsequent section of the survey, participants were asked to rank-order seven accounts of intuition according to how each was consistent with their notion of intuition used in philosophical methods. The accounts presented in the survey were obtained from the literature. The original list compiled from a survey of the literature included 29 distinct accounts. Those that appear in the survey were selected on the basis of clarity—after some refinement by the authors in an attempt to make them intelligible to a broader audience and more theory-independent –, and representative of the literature surveyed. Nine accounts were presented in a pilot survey distributed to the staff and post-graduate students at the University of Edinburgh. Two accounts were subsequently removed from the final survey due to a low degree of intelligibility (indicated by comments from participants) and a close similarity to other accounts of better quality. The remaining accounts of intuitions provide a representation of the kinds of accounts of intuition available in the literature. The seven accounts used in the present survey are as follows:
  1. 1.

    Judgment that is not made on the basis of some kind of observable and explicit reasoning process (Gopnik and Schwitzgebel 1998),

  2. 2.

    An intellectual happening whereby it seems that something is the case without arising from reasoning, or sensorial perceiving, or remembering (Weinberg 2007),

  3. 3.

    A propositional attitude that is held with some degree of conviction, and solely on the basis of one’s understanding of the proposition in question, not on the basis of some belief (Skelton 2007),

  4. 4.

    An intellectual act whereby one is thinking occurrently of the abstract proposition that p and, merely on the basis of understanding it, believes that p (Sosa 1998),

  5. 5.

    An intellectual state made up of (1) the consideration whether p and (2) positive phenomenological qualities that count as evidence for p; together constituting prima facie reason to believe that p (Bedke 2008),

  6. 6.

    The formation of a belief by unclouded mental attention to its contents, in a way that is so easy and yielding a belief that is so definite as to leave no room for doubt regarding its veracity (Descartes 1964), and

  7. 7.

    An intellectual happening that serves as evidence for the situation at hand’s instantiation of some concept (Goldman 2007).


2.4 Descriptive Statistics

Response frequencies and distributions for the “Importance of Intuitions in Philosophical Methods” measure and the rank ordering exercise have the following results. With regard to the first item, the means obtained were 3.82 for the extent to which participants agreed that intuitions were useful to justification in philosophical methods (close to “neither agree nor disagree” anchor), 5.26 for the extent to which participants agreed that intuitions were useful to discovery in philosophical methods (between “somewhat agree” and “agree to a large extent” anchors), 2.95 for the extent to which participants agreed that intuitions were essential to justification in philosophical methods (close to “somewhat disagree” anchor), and 4.04 for the extent to which participants agreed that intuitions were essential to discovery in philosophical methods (close to “neither agree nor disagree” anchor).

Results show that 50.9% of the participants agreed that intuitions are useful to justification in philosophical methods, 83.3% agreed that intuitions are useful to discovery in philosophical methods, and 57% agreed that intuitions are essential to discovery (these percentages encompass a response range from “somewhat agree” to “agree to a very large extent”). Conversely, nearly 70% of the study participants considered that intuitions are not essential to justification.

Table 2 depicts the frequency of responses for the rank ordering section of the survey. The results reveal several interesting response patterns with respect to the respondents’ notion of intuition. For instance, the majority of the participants assigned the highest ranks to the first two accounts of intuition (“Judgment that is not made on the basis of some kind of observable and explicit reasoning process” and “An intellectual happening whereby it seems that something is the case without arising from reasoning, or sensorial perceiving, or remembering”). In addition, a large proportion of participants (58.8%) assigned the lowest ranks to the sixth account of intuition (“The formation of a belief by unclouded mental attention to its contents, in a way that is so easy and yielding a belief that is so definite as to leave no room for doubt regarding its veracity”). The responses for the remaining accounts were uniformly distributed across ranking values.

In order to further explore the meaning of these findings, bivariate correlations were conducted to ascertain relationships among participants’ rankings of accounts of intuition, the importance ascribed to intuitions with respect to their discovery and justificatory roles in philosophical methods, individual differences (e.g., age and gender). The following section will examine the results obtained.

2.5 Bivariate Correlations

Preliminary Pearson’s correlation analyses show that the four items pertaining to the role of intuitions in philosophical methods were positively and significantly correlated, with values ranging from .52 to .74 (p < .01). The respondents were able to conceptually distinguish the role of intuitions for discovery and for justification (magnitudes of the correlations between discovery and justification items ranging from .39 to .52). While less discriminating than the previous (magnitudes of the correlations between items capturing useful and essential role of intuitions ranging from .39 to .74), the respondents also differentiated useful from essential contributions of intuitions to philosophical methods. An analysis of response frequencies provides additional information regarding opinions toward intuitions’ importance to discovery and justification. With respect to justification, while 50.9% of the respondents agreed that intuitions were useful to justification in philosophical methods, only 23.5% agreed that intuitions were essential to justification in philosophical methods. Regarding the importance of intuitions for discovery in philosophical methods, 83.3% of respondents agreed that intuitions were useful to discovery, and 57% agreed that intuitions were essential to discovery. These findings will merit further attention in the discussion section of this paper.

Considering the nature of the data provided by the rank ordering exercise, Spearman’s rho correlations were conducted to examine the level of association among ranked accounts of intuition, and between ranked accounts of intuition and perceptions of the importance of intuitions in philosophical methods (Table 3). Spearman rho tested the extent to which high rankings on one account corresponded to similar or discrepant rankings on other accounts. In addition, the relationships between composites of the four importance items were examined in relation to ranked accounts.

The analysis yielded multiple significant relationships among accounts of intuition. The negative correlations found among pairs of accounts indicate that participants who assign a high rank to a specific account of intuition will assign a lower rank to its paired account. These findings are of particular importance for correlations of moderate magnitude signalling discrepancies in rankings of specific pairs of accounts. As an example, respondents who assigned a high rank to the first and second accounts (“Judgment that is not made on the basis of some kind of observable and explicit reasoning process” and “An intellectual happening whereby it seems that something is the case without arising from reasoning, or sensorial perceiving, or remembering”) ascribed a low rank to the fifth account (“An intellectual state made up of (1) the consideration whether p, and (2) positive phenomenological qualities that count as evidence for p; together constituting prima facie reason to believe that p”); (rho = −.35, p < .01 and rho = −.46, p < .01, respectively). The content of these accounts requires further analysis to establish theoretical rationale for these perceptual discrepancies.

With respect to the relationships among ranked accounts and importance of intuitions to discovery and justification, the results show a negative and significant relationship between importance attributed to the role of intuitions and the ranking of Accounts 3 and 4 (rho = −.18, p < .05 and rho = −.18, p < .05, respectively), and a positive and significant relationship between importance ratings and ranking of Account 7 (rho = .17, p < .05). When the composite measure was further decomposed into pairs of items to reflect the unique importance of intuitions for discovery or for justification, further patterns of relationship emerged. In particular, participants who attributed higher rank to Account 2 also considered intuitions to have an important role in discovery (rho = .21, p < .01). Interestingly, while the negative relationship between importance ratings and rank of Account 3 was common to discovery and justification ratings (rho = −.15, p < .05 and rho = −.16, p < .05, respectively), the negative relationship between importance ratings and Account 4 found for the composite measure is only echoed in discovery ratings, and is non-significant for justification ratings (rho = −.20, p < .01 and rho = −.12, ns, respectively). Conversely, the positive and significant relationship between ratings of importance and ranking of Account 7 is only found for ratings of justification (rho = .18, p < .01).

A final relevant question to this study, one raised in previous theoretical debates (Cohen 2000, 18), refers to the relationships among perceptions of the importance of intuitions of discovery and of justification, and the respondents’ area of specialisation within the field. In order to address this question, a series of analyses of variance (ANOVA) were conducted to explore significant mean differences across specialisation groups in respondents’ perceptions of the role of intuitions in discovery and in justification. The next section will elaborate on these results.


Analyses of variance were conducted to examine mean differences in perceptions of the role of intuition in discovery and in justification across areas of specialisation. In order to allow for greater statistical refinement, the seven areas of specialisation with larger samples of respondents (more than 15 respondents per cell) were included in the analysis. In addition, Tukey’s HSD (Honest Significance) tests were conducted to identify the specific areas of specialisation where significant differences in perception emerged, both for the composite measure and its constituent items. The significant findings for Tukey’s HSD test show that philosophy of science participants expressed significantly lower agreement than their metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and philosophy of mind counterparts with regard to the usefulness of intuitions to justification. In addition, philosophy of science participants also displayed significantly lower agreement than their ethics counterparts with respect to the extent to which they perceived intuitions to be essential to justification. The implications of these findings will be discussed in detail in the next section of this paper.

3 Discussion

The survey’s primary aim was to determine whether IDR and PAI strategies for characterising intuition were consistent with philosophers’ conception of intuition-use in philosophers’ practices. The motivation behind these strategies, i.e., philosophers do not share a common account of intuition that stands as target for the experimentalists’ objections, was also questioned. Our analysis of survey results elicited a number of findings that merit detailed discussion. The major findings are addressed below.

With respect to the main research propositions - 1) the IDR and PAI strategies are inaccurate because they fail to be motivated properly and, 2) philosophers are using intuition as a mode of discovery and as a mode of justification -, support for both propositions was identified. The following section details how the survey results inform the advanced research propositions, and offers ways to reform methods of examining intuitions in philosophical methods.

3.1 The Importance of Intuition in Philosophical Methods

Regarding the second research proposition, philosophers exhibited greater levels of agreement with the statement that describes intuitions as useful to discovery than the statement that describes them as useful to justification. Furthermore, philosophers were divided regarding whether intuitions are essential to justification and tended to agree, though only slightly more so, that intuition is essential to discovery. Since the questions were presented together, in the same section of the survey, it is likely that the scores were attributed in relation to one another. Methodologically, the authors thought that it was important to present the statements simultaneously: the juxtaposition motivates the meaning and the context of “useful” and “essential”, as well as “discovery” and “justification”.11 The results indicate that philosophers agree with using intuitions as justificatory elements in their methods as well as using them to roles of discovery (e.g., to explore or to expand philosophical theory). The high frequency of responses indicating that intuition is not essential to justification is somewhat surprising and some might find this theoretically problematic for grounding philosophical theory. For example, Stephan Hales (2000) argues that some form of foundationalist justification about intuition is necessary for non-empirical knowledge. Other moderate rationalists are committed to similar theses (See Audi 2001, 2004; BonJour 1998). However, it may be the case that not many philosophers carry the similar commitments to intuitions’ role in foundational justification. The results indicate philosophers think of intuitions as more useful than essential in regard to both justification and discovery. Furthermore, only 23.5% of participants agreed that intuitions were essential to justification. This suggests that intuitions’ role in philosophical methods may not be critical to the practice. If intuitions are not critical to justification, then some explanation of what grounds philosophical argument is necessary in light of worries about epistemic regress and circularity.12 Future research could advance from the present methodology by including interviews of a cross-section of participants to attempt to ascertain what it is that philosophers think performs this epistemic ground, if not intuitions.

Note that the authors are not taking position on the claim that intuitions are not in fact essential to justification. Moreover, the authors make no claim to how the distinction between intuitions of justification and intuitions of discovery should be cached out. Rather, it is merely pointed out that philosophers tend to think that intuitions of discovery are also conceived as operative in philosophical methods. As much is confirmed by the analysis, and bears on whether IDR and PAI accurately characterise intuitions’ robust role in the philosophical methodology. IDR and PAI strategies fail to differentiate intuitions of discovery in the class of philosophical intuitions. This is problematic since experimentalist research methods do not distinguish whether the target intuition is intended to be justificatory or merely operate in a discovery role (e.g., identifying salient propositions in the thought experiment for further inquiry). Thus, criticisms of intuitions lump together intuitions of discovery with their intended target (i.e., justificatory intuitions). Whether intuitions of discovery are unreliable, subject to demographic differences, or prone to error has little justificatory import to the justification of philosophical claims.

In regard to the usefulness of intuitions to justification, our results also revealed that philosophers of science expressed significantly lower agreement than philosophers doing metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and philosophy of mind. In addition, philosophers of science displayed significantly lower agreement than ethicists in regard to intuitions being essential to justification. This is consistent with the naturalistic purview of the specialty. Philosophers of science aim at an empirical discipline, where empirical findings are the primary source of the justification. As a general claim about scientific practice, conjectures and hypotheses are tested against empirical results, whereas empirical evidence plays the justificatory role. Intuition plays little into the ultimate justifications of the hard sciences. Philosophers of science might be following suit. When juxtaposed with ethics, the difference becomes more salient. Ethicists tend to rely heavily on intuitions about normative claims, which have no similar empirical results on which to rely for justification (e.g., casuistic and reflective equilibrium strategies). This suggests that the philosophy of science may be outside the experimental philosophers’ criticisms of philosophical methods. However, this will have little impact on their project of undermining a priori armchair intuitions since the data suggests that philosophers of science tend not to indicate that they use intuition in the manner criticised in the literature.

No obvious explanation presents itself regarding the distinction between the context of justification and the context of discovery. Given the prevalence of the distinction as it pertains to the philosophy of science, it is likely that philosophers of science are quite familiar with the concept as it is used to distinguish their own specialty from its target disciplines in science (cf. Schiemann 2006). One might presume that they interpret that intuitions’ usefulness to justification is definitional of philosophical practice. If the root of the distinction between justification and discovery were a disciplinary one, i.e., indexing justification to philosophy and discovery to science, one would expect that intuitions’ use would more readily correspond to justification.

One might find that the methodology employed in asking participants to agree or disagree with statements regarding intuitions’ usefulness and essentiality to discovery and justification was deficient, since philosophers could have interpreted the statements in a number of ways. Participants could have interpreted the statements as inquiring about the general practice of employing intuition in Philosophy; about their own practices of employing intuition; or, normatively, about how intuitions should be employed in philosophy. The authors attempted to mitigate interpreting the statements normatively by using no normative terms in the statements. Future survey research should aim at disambiguating the evaluative context.13

Another and related concern is that higher levels of agreement with discovery statements than with justification statements might be explained by the fact that satisfying the concept of ‘useful in discovery’ is generally easier than satisfying the concept of ‘useful in justification’. It is, for example, much easier for something to be useful in discovery than useful in justification. One would expect that if the ease of satisfying the concepts were affecting how participants evaluated the statements, agreement with useful to discovery statements would have an overall higher ratings than useful to justification. Indeed, this is what the analysis of the data reveals. The authors also find a difference in ratings with regard to intuitions being essential to discovery and essential to justification. However, there is no similar ease in satisfying the concept of ‘essential in discovery’ or in satisfying the concept of ‘essential in justification’.14 Hence, one can infer that ease of concept satisfaction was not the primary evaluative criterion participants used to assign ratings to the statement. Future research design should attempt to identify cognitive processes and theoretical concerns that account for differences in agreement level between statements of importance to discovery and to justification.

3.2 Rank-Ordering Accounts of Intuition

The survey results offer no indication that philosophers think differently about what intuition is on the basis of area of specialty or other demographic constraints. It should be noted that although the survey was distributed to a worldwide sample of philosophers, only an English version was provided, and a predominantly English-speaking sample participated in the study. Further empirical research is needed to identify demographic variation in conceptions and uses of intuition in philosophy.

That a similarly proportion of respondents ascribes the highest ranks to Account 1 and Account 2 (“Judgment that is not made on the basis of some kind of observable and explicit reasoning process.” and “An intellectual happening whereby it seems that something is the case without arising from reasoning, or sensorial perceiving, or remembering.”) does not offer much hope that the conception of intuition is ubiquitous in philosophical methods. The first account is consistent with Timothy Williamson’s (2004) characterisation of intuition and is a primary motivation for Weinberg’s PAI. The characterisation that Weinberg offers of intuition in that paper also happens to be the basis of the second account of intuition (cf. Bealer 1998, 2000; Bedke 2008; Pust 2000, 2001; Pust and Goldman 1998). Furthermore, the two accounts are significantly different, as they have markedly different epistemic underpinnings. One account introduces intuition as a species of judgment, and the other presents intuition as a kind of intellectual seeming. Although both have similar phenomenology—i.e., they occur as the upshot of unobserved processes -, intellectual seemings are not judgments. As such, the accounts are inconsistent. Hence, there is not one clear account of intuition on which the respondents agree. The rank ordering exercise does not offer evidence that there is a systematic and unambiguous notion of intuition that philosophers agree on. This lends some degree of confirmation to support the motivation behind IDR and PAI, suggesting that philosophers do work with different conceptions of intuition in practice. This should not a surprising result given the variety of intuition accounts available in the literature. However, the fact that philosophers differ on the conceptual formulation of intuition does not override the previously stated conclusion that philosophers tend to think of intuitions in discovery roles more so than in justificatory roles. The first proposition remains supported.

Our findings also highlight that specific accounts were systematically ranked in high or in low positions. A reason for these findings has been drawn from an examination of the comments given by participants. The respondents expressed their difficulty in conceptualising some of the accounts of intuition presented. As a result, the more easily conceptualised accounts may have received higher rankings than the less discernible ones. For example, the lowest ranked account (“An intellectual state made up of (1) the consideration whether p, and (2) positive phenomenological qualities that count as evidence for p; together constituting prima facie reason to believe that p”) may not have seemed as straightforward to the majority of the respondents as some of the highest ranked accounts. However, using a heuristic account is consistent with the target of the experimentalists’ critique. It is likely that philosophers in their common practices of appealing to intuition do not have in mind a well-formulated, robust account of intuition.

Some significant correlations emerged when the results of the two parts of the survey where analysed. Philosophers that ranked highly Account 7 (“An intellectual happening that serves as evidence for the situation at hand’s instantiation of some concept.”) tended to have higher perceptions of usefulness and of essentiality of intuitions to justification. This is surprising given that intuitions treated as evidence play justificatory roles. Philosophers thinking of intuition as evidence would tend to think highly of intuitions as justificatory. In regard to intuition as discovery, philosophers that ranked highly Account 2 (“An intellectual happening whereby it seems that something is the case without arising from reasoning, or sensorial perceiving, or remembering.”) tended to also have higher perceptions of usefulness and of essentiality of intuitions to discovery. Account 2 leaves open whether the intuitions are justificatory. Philosophers holding this conception of intuition would then be open to intuition playing discovery roles, which is consistent with higher levels agreement with statements regarding intuitions being useful and essential for discovery.

There are a number of limitations to the study that deserve comment and inform further research. The difficulty for participants in apprehending some of the accounts of intuition underscores the need for conceptual refinement in future empirical examinations of intuition. For example, philosophers theorising about what intuitions are dismiss that intuitions are hunches or guesses.15 However, analysis of the data suggests otherwise. Philosophers indicate thinking of their use of intuitions in the context of discovery, which does not eliminate that intuitions are hunches or guesses. If philosophers are correct in thinking about intuitions in these terms, presumably the epistemology of intuitions is either not central to the justification of philosophical theories, or intuitions play some other additional kind of epistemological role that is not primarily justificatory.

Another limitation of this study pertains to potential bias in attitude elicitation due to the manner in which the survey questions were presented. Specifically, the survey requested that participants offered their opinion about the role of intuition, not about their own use of intuition. The results may only represent a general, aggregate assessment of how respondents conceive of other philosophers’ use of intuition. Suppression and deflection effects may also be present, but unaccounted for. If these are present, participants’ responses would not indicate actual practices, but instead how philosophers want to believe intuition is defined and operationally used.16 These effects may be undermined by the accounts of intuition presented, which already appear in the literature, suggesting that at least some philosophers already conceive of intuition in these ways.

One might also worry about the potential for non-response bias and how it may have affected the conclusions drawn in the paper. In essence, the study seems to introduce potential for two types of issues: 1) the sample is mainly comprised of respondents sympathetic to the research methodology employed; therefore the sample was not representative of the general philosophical community, and 2) respondents self-select based on their interest in and views toward the subject matter. A consequent of either are results that are not representative of what might have been found in the broad philosophical community. Considering the comments collected from participants, different groups of respondents—motivated by sympathetic and unsympathetic attitudes toward the method and subject matter—seem to be represented in this study.

One could object to the implications of the survey results on the grounds that a survey method is an inaccurate means to deciphering how intuitions are used in philosophy, and that a better way would be to compile the published work of philosophers. Analysing the published work of philosophers closes the gap between philosophers’ own interpretation of philosophical practice and disambiguates the various ways the research questions could have been interpreted by participants. Furthermore the body of available evidence is the published work of philosophers, so the available evidence is very broad indeed. However, the available work of philosophers covers only those intuitions that make it into publication. It suffices to say that a great deal of philosophers’ intuitions go without mention in publication. Yet, they remain in the dialectical repertoire of philosophical debate held in professional conferences, departmental talks, and wherever philosophers express, create and defend their views. These views are accessible using a survey method, whereas a systematic review of the literature would leave them absent. In short, we acknowledge that there is a conceptual gap between what the survey assesses—i.e., philosophers’ conceptions of the use and of the nature of intuition, and what philosophers actually do—and that a survey method has certain limitations. However, this is not to say that a survey method is not useful at all. The survey has drawn out that philosophers tend to think that intuitions can play discovery roles, a point not readily deployed in the literature.

There is a further issue in reviewing literature directly. Although we find that the distinction between intuitions of discovery and intuitions of justification is cogent, there is little mention of the distinction in regard to intuitions in the literature. To satisfy detractors, we can show that the distinction is actually part of philosophical practice. We can point instances in the literature when philosophers have indexed their intuitions as being used in roles of discovery. The examples are easy enough to find in the philosophy of science literature: Kuhn’s notion of intuition is that of a “mode of hypothesis formation” (Fricker 1995). Henri Poincaré (1908) writes, “It is by logic that we prove, but by intuition that we discover” (129). Kingsbury and McKeown-Green (2009) comment on the use of intuitions in formulating concepts in linguistic theory, including grammaticality and synonymy. “The aim of pumping these intuitions is […] to amass fallible information for the use in construction and testing of a theory about what rules the native speaker has internalized” (175, emphasis added). Intuitions are both what we make theories from and test theories against, and play roles of discovery and of justification.

Another objection one might lay against the survey approach here is that the argument presented is methodologically self-defeating. That is, the authors have attempted to support the view that intuitions are not accurately characterized in philosophical methodology by relying on intuitions of philosophers for epistemic support. Hence, the conclusions presented here are committed to the same methodological use of intuitions that the authors aim to critique. However, the survey was not constructed to elicit intuitive responses. The first set of questions regarding intuitions of discovery and intuitions of justification where presented simultaneously to participants. The questions themselves were articulated such that understanding the questions required the participant to read the entire question-set and make a considered, reflective judgment. Likewise, the second set of questions required some modicum of reflection and considered judgment about the proper ordering of intuition-types. It is possible that participants may have ranked accounts by appealing to intuition. However, whether participants’ responses were intuition-dependent doesn’t undermine the support for our research propositions since none of the research propositions call into question whether intuitions can do epistemic work, and the authors took no substantive position on this aspect of the intuition debate.

Another objection that might be pressed is that the argument against IDR and PAI is obscurantist rather than substantive. The authors aim to undermine motivation behind IDR and PAI by showing that philosophers conceive of intuitions in a role that IDR and PAI fail to distinguish from the intended target. That is, the experimentalist has mistakenly lumped together intuitions of discovery with intuitions of justification. However, even if that is the case, the experimentalist still has a legitimate target of criticism. Philosophers still use intuitions for justification. Hence, the authors haven’t undermined the experimentalists’ motivation for IDR and PAI, they just point out that experimentalists need to do a better job of hashing out the targets of their objections.

Nevertheless, even if all one thinks that the survey analyses show is that experimentalists need to do a better job of hashing out the target of criticisms, that in itself is a substantive point to press in the literature on intuitions. Furthermore, it is a point that is deserving of attention more generally. Some recent attempts have been made towards spelling out what the distinction entails (e.g., Deutsch 2010). Nevertheless, the onus seems to fall on the experimentalist to correctly identify the target of his or her criticisms. Some of the intuitions in the crowd are completely innocent bystanders.

The experimentalist might press back on the point that the dialectical onus is on him or her to more precise about the kinds of intuitions that (1) motivate IDR and PAI and (2) the kind of intuitions that IDR and PAI aim at characterising. Even if the experimentalist has it wrong regarding what intuitions roles are in philosophical methodology, IDR and PAI still have their targets in the kinds of intuitions that do epistemic work. Regardless of what intuitions motivate either account, the most prevalent conception of intuitions in the philosophy literature is intuitions doing epistemic work. This kind of point goes to highlight the importance of the methodology employed by this paper. Merely examining the literature on philosophical intuitions would likely go towards supporting the experimentalist rejoinder. However, when philosophers are asked about intuitions in philosophical methodology, a much different picture has begun to emerge. At the very least, the fact that intuitions of discovery are effective in philosophical methodology is supported by the present findings. Further works needs to be done to fish out what that fact entails.

Future research would benefit from conducting sorting exercises to identify categories of intuition accounts, and from assessments of similarity among accounts of intuition to determine whether specific accounts are categorised similarly by different individuals. Philosophical analysis for the respective viability of each account in philosophical methods would also be beneficial. That is, each account would benefit from an epistemological analysis evaluating whether intuition conceived as such can actually do the epistemic work that philosophers report it as doing.

Finally, the present research aims at the actual practices of philosophers and the methodologies in which they deploy intuition. There is a gap between how philosophers actually deploy and use intuition, and what they report as how intuition is used in practice. Closing the gap can be helped by expanding the survey and asking participants to evaluate their own work, prompting them to examine how they have used intuition in publication, professional presentations of their work, and in conversations about philosophy generally. Results would more precisely identify the ways intuition is used in the various modes of philosophical practice, and the ways participants actually use intuitions.

4 Conclusion

The survey results tend to confirm that the IDR and PAI strategies are not well motivated since, even though philosophers do not agree on a single account of intuition, they fail to capture the preference for intuitions as aspects of discovery rather than justification. Furthermore, although survey methods have certain limitations regarding access to the actual practice of philosophers, they add legitimacy to the claims that philosophers use intuition in discovery roles in addition to their use in justificatory roles. This paper calls for further research to disentangle the various uses of intuitions in the creative and in the justificatory contexts of philosophical methodology.


Some easily recognisable examples are Gettier’s argument that justified-true-belief is insufficient for knowledge, i.e., that one does not have knowledge in cases where one has only justified-true-belief (Gettier 1963); Hillary Putnam’s Twin-Earth Argument for the truth of externalism, i.e., XYZ is not water (Putnam 1985); David Chalmers’ argument against physicalism, i.e., zombies are possible (Chalmers 1996); and John Rawls’ arguments for the concept of justice, i.e., that various cases instantiate fairness (Rawls 1971).


The veracity of intuition arguments depend on only one premise that requires intuitive support, while other premises garner support irrespective of intuitions.


The experimental data covers a variety of philosophically salient issues, including theory of reference (Machery et al. 2004), moral responsibility (Haidt et al. 1993; Nahmias et al. 2005), attribution of moral rightness/wrongness (Blair 1995; Greene et al. 1998; Nichols 2002), the nature of knowledge (Swain et al. 2008; Weinberg et al. 2001), intentional action (Nichols and Ulatowski 2007) free will and responsibility (Woolfolk et al. 2006).

For example, self-evidential and seemings accounts of intuition differ from the kind of account offered by John Rawls (1951):

[I]t is required that the judgment be intuitive with respect to ethical principles, that is, that it should not be determined by a conscious application of principles so far as this may be evidenced by introspection. […] An intuitive judgment may be consequent to a thorough inquiry into the facts of the case, and it may follow a series of reflections on the possible effects of different decisions, and even the application of a common sense rule. (Rawls 1951, 183).

Weinberg (2007) presents the problem this way:

A gloss of “intuition” that comports at all with both specialist and folk usage will take them to be a sort of intellectual seeming, phenomenologically distinct from perception (including proprioception and the like), explicit inference, and apparent memory traces. But this construal includes a rather large and motley class of cognitions. And the opponent [of philosophers reliance on intuition] would be unwise to keep the conversation focused on so broad a class, since it will include a great deal of cognition that the opponent presumably does not want to reject, such as the ordinary application of concepts to particulars (Bealer), or the claim that no object can be red all over and green all over (BonJour), or elementary mathematics (Sosa). The defenders can thus get away with—indeed, can benefit from—a vagueness in the target, as that vagueness lumps together the intuitions that the opponents really want to attack with many others that they really don’t, like criminals trying to hide themselves in a crowd of innocent bystanders. (320)


“Explicitly normative claims include regulative claims about how we ought to go about the business of belief formation, claims about the relative merits of various strategies for belief formation, and evaluative claims about the merits of various epistemic situations. Implicitly normative claims include claims to the effect that one or another process of belief formation leads to justified beliefs or to real knowledge or that a doxastic structure of a certain kind amounts to real knowledge.” (Weinberg et al. 2001, 432)


It is not our aim here to elaborate the theoretical implications for justificatory intuitions and intuitions of discovery. A systematic disentanglement of the uses of intuitions of discovery and of justification, and how intuitions of discovery and of justification are and can be cooperatively put to task is deserving of greater attention than can be met here. We need here to only draw out the creditability of the distinction and report the salience of the distinction to ways that intuitions are ubiquitously characterised. Since the authors make no claim to a particular conception of intuition, we will only suggest how one could make the distinction between intuitions of justification and intuitions of discovery. We suggest the following: Justificatory intuitions are the sort put to work as epistemic support; they provide justification. Were the intuition undermined or defeated, (ceteris paribus) so too would the proposition it supports be epistemically diminished. Intuitions of discovery are not epistemically efficacious. They are causally related to theory construction in ways that relate propositions of salience to the theory context. These may be ill-motivated, faulty, plainly false or similarly incorrigible without (epistemic) effect on related propositions or theory context.

Examples of justificatory intuition are prevalent in philosophical methods. For example, Pust (2000) offers a thoroughgoing defense of intuitions as evidence, and Williamson (2004) defends the position that intuitions are a species of judgment. Both views present intuition in its justificatory role. Examples of intuitions of discovery are less obvious. Consider the role of intuition in dialectical argument. When engaged with argument, as one is presented with a move in chess, there are a number of moves one might make. Like in chess, one must see the alternatives and the relevant moves the opponent/interlocutor might make in response. The tactical solution is often intuited, a creative solution to the problem in the dynamic context of the debate. Experienced philosophers will often intuitively grasp the solution and the course of the dialectic in a couple of turns of the debate. For arguments to this point in the context of chess, see De Groot (1986) and Gobet and Chassy (2009).


For reference, see Bourget and Chalmers (2009), who conducted a survey using a much larger sample size of philosophers.

The interest here is to examine whether differences emerge along the demographics surveyed by experimental philosophers—ones that reportedly impugn the practice of using intuition, e.g., group affiliation (Weinberg et al. 2001)—and whether these differences emerge along demographic variables within the discipline. These variables include years of professional practice and academic affiliation. An observation made by G.A. Cohen (2000), one he makes from his armchair, motivates asking the respondents’ academic affiliation. He writes,

[P]eople of my generation who studied philosophy at Harvard rather than at Oxford for the most part reject the analytic/synthetic distinction. And I can’t believe that this is an accident. That is, I can’t believe that Harvard just happened to be the place where both its leading thinker [Quine] and its graduate students, for independent reasons—merely, for example, in the independent light of reason itself- also came to reject it. And vice-versa, of course, for Oxford. […] So, in some sense of “because,” and in some sense of “Oxford,” I think I can say that I believe in the analytic/synthetic distinction because I studied at Oxford. And that is disturbing. For the fact that I studied at Oxford is no reason for thinking that the distinction is sound. (Cohen 2000, 18)

If conceptual differences occur in regard to the analytic/synthetic distinction, the authors posit that differences could be present in regard to conceptions of intuition as well.


Because the four importance statements were presented on the same survey page, the authors ran a within-subjects analysis of variance to assess whether study participants rated these statements similarly. Results showed that there were significant differences across ratings of importance.


No explicit definition of “discovery” and “justification” was offered to participants since the aim of the survey was to test philosophers’ own concepts of intuition and its uses. The authors worried that explicit definition or description of key terms would bias the results.


The theoretical implications of this are mitigated once one considers that other sources of justification can be foundational or play foundational roles (e.g., visual perception or some form of basic reliability).


The authors are aware that the ambiguity of the evaluative context of the statements of essential and useful to justification and of discovery leaves a number of gaps between the survey findings and what might be claimed that the findings support. For example, the authors infer that the actual practices of philosophers are indicative of their reflections on, and conceptions of, intuition and intuitional methodologies. One can question the strength of that inference by pointing to a number of gaps between the survey findings and the actual practices of philosophers, including a gap between philosophers’ conception of intuition-use and actual practices of intuition-use in philosophical methodology, and a gap between philosophers’ conception of their own use of intuitions and conception of intuitions being essential to philosophical methodology. Future survey research should aim to eliminate these gaps. The current survey findings are offered with acknowledgement of these infelicitous artifacts of the original survey design.


Moreover, 70% of participants indicated that intuitions were not essential to justification, where one would expect ratings to go in the opposite direction given well-know worries about epistemic circularity and regress.


For example, George Bealer (2000) writes, “phenomenological considerations make it clear that intuitions are likewise distinct from judgments, guesses, hunches, and common sense. My view is simply that, like sensory seeming, intellectual seeming (intuition) is just one more primitive propositional attitude”. Pust (2001) holds the same kind of position. Pust argues that merely on the basis of one’s first-person experience of intuiting one eliminates that intuitions are not hunches or guesses, citing “the intuitive peculiarity of calling one’s Gettier intuition or logical intuition ‘a guess’ or ‘a hunch’” (Pust 2001, p. 34. Emphasis added).


The authors thank Glenn Ewan for drawing our attention to this point.



The authors would like to acknowledge the faculty and post-graduate students at the University of Edinburgh who kindly took time to participate in and comment on a pilot version of the survey, their helpful audience at the Australasian Association of Philosophy, New Zealand Division 2009 Annual Conference, and the helpful and insightful comments of reviewers to an earlier version of this paper.

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011