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Arguments over Intuitions?


Deutsch 2010 (The Review of Philosophy and Psychology 1: 447–460) claims that hypothetical scenarios are evaluated using arguments, not intuitions, and therefore experiments on intuitions are philosophically inconsequential. Using the Gettier case as an example, he identifies three arguments that are supposed to point to the right response to the case. In the paper, I present the results of studies ran on Polish, Indian, Spanish, and American participants that suggest that there’s no deep difference between evaluating the Gettier case with intuitions and evaluating it with Deutsch’s arguments. Specifically, I argue that one would find these arguments persuasive if and only if one is already disposed to exhibit the relevant intuition.

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Fig. 1


  1. Cappelen (2014) thinks that experimental philosophy is a completely misconceived endeavor. Deutsch is more congenial, leaving some room for experimental philosophy as the study of people’s beliefs: “such data [gathered by experimental philosophers] are relevant to how we should treat others and how, more fundamentally, we should understand the social practices of different groups of people. Data on the philosophical intuitions of people from different cultural groups serve these broadly ethical goals and has real potential for fostering cross-cultural understanding and respect” (2015, p. 160). Neither author, however, takes experimental philosophy to be of any help in solving purely philosophical problems.

  2. This attack has been influential; for instance, Cappelen admits that his book was partially inspired by Deutsch (Cappelen 2012, p. 20). Hence, much of what will be said pertains to the core part of Cappelen’s argument as well.

  3. Page numbers in parentheses refer to (Deutsch 2010).

  4. The theorem says that, given any partition of a plane into contiguous regions, at most four colors are required to color the regions in a way that no two regions sharing a border have the same color. In lay terms: any map can be colored with at most four colors so that no countries that share a border have the same color. Interestingly, some philosophers of mathematics deny that the proof is a genuine proof, precisely because no mathematician can understand it, and thus be convinced by it (Tymoczko 1979)—which adds fuel to the claim that good arguments should persuade.

  5. In my argument, I assume that what participants report in a questionnaire is their intuition. This assumption is not uncontroversial—many attacks on experimental philosophy argue against this assumption. For instance, Bengson (2013) points out that participants’ answers can express many different mental states, like guesses or inferences, not only intuitions; Kauppinen (2007) and Cullen (2010) argue that participants’ responses are, most likely, influenced by both pragmatic and semantic features of scenarios, where genuine intuitions should respond to semantic features alone (Deutsch (2009, pp. 461–462) makes a similar point); Sosa (2009) notices that participants might misunderstand the scenarios by filling in details that are not explicitly stated.

    These are viable worries. However, first, responses to them have been offered (Horvath 2010; Nadelhoffer and Nahmias 2007; Alexander and Weinberg 2007). Second, answering these objections is beyond the scope of this paper—Deutsch, in the argument that I focus on here, grants that participants’ responses to questionnaires count as genuine intuitions, and thus I feel justified in making this assumption as well.

  6. In such a case, to save his conclusion, Deutsch could claim that arguments that convince philosophers but not laypersons are superior to arguments that convince laypersons but not philosophers. To do so, he’d have to explain laypersons’ reactions away—for instance with a lack of background knowledge, with poor logical reasoning, or with performance errors. As I argue in the last section, this move is less plausible than it seems.

  7. One should proceed with caution here. It still would be consistent with Deutsch’s account if the participants were persuaded in both conditions (i.e., by both arguments), but gave Gettier’s response if exposed to both arguments at once. This experiment does not test for this possibility. However, given the experiment’s results, this methodological shortcoming turns out to be inconsequential.

  8. These two responses were chosen, because they were also used in the study that Deutsch focuses on in his paper: Weinberg et al. (2001).

  9. Raw data and the Spanish and Polish translations of the scenario can be downloaded from

  10. For all four groups, the test of equal proportions yields p-value >0.1.

  11. Statistically significant difference in epistemic intuitions was found only between the Spanish sample and the Indian one (the test of proportions, p = 0.00191), and the Spanish sample and the American one (p = 0.00045). The latter result will be significant even after the Bonferroni correction for α = .1 and ten comparisons (four tests presented in Table 1 and six comparisons of unprimed responses between groups). Therefore, although the study did not replicate the difference between the American and the Indian participants reported by (Weinberg et al. 2001), contrary to (Nagel 2012a, b; Nagel et al. 2013; Machery et al. 2015; Seyedsayamdost forth.), my results provide some evidence for the cross-cultural variability of epistemic intuitions.

  12. For each country, I have also estimated a logistic regression model with the condition as predictors and the response as the dependent variable. This analysis yielded similar, insignificant results.

  13. There are, of course, arguments so complex that philosophical training is required to see their validity or invalidity, or arguments embraced or rejected by laypersons just because they agree or disagree with their conclusions, arguments for the theory of evolution being a salient example. However, the G-grounds and the really-knows argument are not of this sort.

  14. Some version of this theory is endorsed, among others, by (Goldman 2010; Goldman and Pust 1998; Hintikka 1999; Sosa 2007), and, to some extent, also by (Devitt 2006; Kornblith 1998). In this context, by a concept of X I mean the part or capacity of the mind that lets you classify something as an X, rather than an abstract entity, like, say, the Fregean sense of X. This part of the mind stores the information required to classify an object as an X; the information is retrieved and used when the classification occurs. This notion of concepts and classificatory judgments is further explored in the last section.

  15. More precisely: you’ll Judge John’s belief as a case of knowledge only if the aggregated weight of the features of his belief reaches a certain threshold, where the weights come from your concept—i.e., your prototype—of knowledge.

  16. For a presentation of prototype theory, see (Rosch 1973; Rosch 1978; Rosch and Mervis 1975). For exemplar theory, see (Medin and Schaffer 1978; Nosofsky 1988). For the theory theory, see (Carey 2009; Keil 1994; Murphy and Medin 1985).

  17. One could think that showing that people have different concepts of knowledge does not say anything about the subject matter of epistemology, which many epistemologists take to be non-conceptual and non-linguistic (Brown 2012). However, since on the standard methodological picture epistemic intuitions are treated as evidence for what knowledge is, if our intuitions differ, this means that we disagree about what this philosophically interesting phenomenon, knowledge, really is. It’s possible that our best theory ends up telling us that there is no such thing as a universally shared concept of knowledge. If this is the case, then studying knowledge requires that we make decisions about what the subject of inquiry should be. For example, we might try to focus on a notion of knowledge that fits well with the normative postulates associated with knowledge. A proper discussion of this point cannot be given here.

  18. For instance, such arguments have been offered by (Devitt 2006, pp. 104–105; Hales 2006, p. 171; Horvath 2010, pp. 464–472; Ludwig 2007). In response, experimental philosophers both theorized that philosophical training does not improve one’s concepts (Weinberg et al. 2010), as well as conducted empirical studies suggesting that philosophers’ intuitions are susceptible to the similar manipulations as laypersons’ (Schulz et al. 2011; Schwitzgebel and Cushman 2012; Tobia et al. 2013a, b).

  19. The view can be attributed not only to Plato, but also, as Goldman and Pust (1998) point out, to (Steup 1996; Plantinga 1993; Katz 1981). One notable difference between the concept-application theory and the form-apprehension theory is that, on the first one, having an intuition does not require any link between the capacity producing the intuition and any extra-mental entity, whereas, on the second one, intuiting requires such a link (Goldman 2007).

  20. Notice, however, that the proponent of this response either would have to explain the variability of intuitions with an error theory, or hypothesize that people having different intuitions grasp different platonic forms. Without any further argument, the latter claims leads to a conclusion similar to Weinberg et al.’s (2001): that one cannot ascertain which platonic form is the right one, or even that there is a unique right one.

  21. These results were replicated (Turri 2013).

  22. In these studies, control conditions included also cases of justified false beliefs. In these cases, participants were significantly less likely to make knowledge ascriptions than in Gettier cases, which means that non-Gettier intuitions cannot be explained by stipulating that by “really knows” the participants meant, for instance, “is convinced.”

  23. However, in a cross-cultural study by Machery et al. (2015), the ratios of participants ascribing knowledge in Gettier cases were lower. For instance, one of the cases, called the trip case, was evaluated as follows: 25 % (U.S.), 35 % (India), 32 % (Brazil), and 18 % (Japan) said that the protagonist in the scenario knows the proposition; the other available response read that the agent feels like knows that proposition, but she does not actually know it.

  24. For the same reason, a different explanation of non-Gettier intuitions, proposed by Nagel et al. in the same paper, does not apply to the tower-clock case: “Another possible difficulty has to do with an ambiguity about when the mental state of the agent is to be measured. In many Gettier cases, the agent does know the key proposition at some point in the story but then knowledge is lost due to some unforeseen course of events. Professional epistemologists typically understand that they are being asked to gauge the mental state of the agent at the very end of the case, taking everything into account. A lay reader may not share this assumption, or may simply lose interest early in the story rather than following it through every twist” (Nagel et al. 2013, p. 659).

  25. For other studies showing that different categorization mechanisms are activated in different contexts, see (Sloman 1996; Smith and Sloman 1994).


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I would especially like to thank Julia Staffel for her extensive advice and feedback. I also want to thank for very helpful discussion John Heil, Todd Jones, Ron Mallon, Jennifer Nagel, Howard Nye, Gillian Russell, Stephen Stich, Brian Talbot, two anonymous referees from this journal, and the audience members at the 2015 Pacific APA conference in Vancouver, the 2015 Buffalo Experimental Philosophy Conference, the Experimental Philosophy Conference in Bristol, 2013, and the Epistemology for the Rest of the World Conference in Tokyo, 2013. Finally, I also thank Dominik Dziedzic, Adrianna Senczyszyn, and Artur Tanona for help with the Polish translation, and Daniel Márquez and Louis Quero for help with the Spanish translation.

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Wysocki, T. Arguments over Intuitions?. Rev.Phil.Psych. 8, 477–499 (2017).

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  • Thought Experiment
  • Performance Error
  • Good Argument
  • Knowledge Ascription
  • Gettier Case