Saturday, January 06, 2007

Constructivism and Intuitions

A major issue in philosophical methodology concerns the use of "intuitions" -- perhaps as foundational premises, or else the initial data points which our theories then aim to systematize. The difficulty, as Alex recently pointed out, is that we don't have any obvious reason to think that such intuitions are in tune with the facts. Philosophers occasionally speak of a faculty of "rational intuition", which is supposed to somehow detect ("intuit") moral, mathematical, or other abstract truths of the Platonic realm. But it all sounds a bit wacky. (How is this mysterious faculty supposed to work, exactly?)

But perhaps the problem is not so bad if we reject Platonism. I tend to think that philosophical (as opposed to material) facts are not really things that exist out in the world. Though objective enough, their ontological status is better seen as that of a rational construction. According to this view -- call it "Conceptualism" [Update: "Constructivism" seems a better label] -- philosophical truth "just is the ideal limit of a priori inquiry; it does not answer to the sort of independent reality that might sensibly be considered beyond all epistemic reach." Whereas physical facts are made true by existing things in the world, philosophical facts are made true simply by the fact that they are what ideally rational agents would believe. For example: the truthmaker for "the cat sat on the mat" is a particular physical event involving a cat and a mat in the appropriate arrangement. The truthmaker for "2+2=4" is that ideal rational reflection would lead one to endorse the belief.

So what does all this mean for the reliability of our intuitions? Well, if they no longer have to answer to an independently existing realm of facts, perhaps they're not in such bad condition as we thought. Note that I'm not denying that there is an objective truth of the matter for many philosophical questions, so that our intuitions may in fact lead us astray (if ideal rational reflection would cause us to revise them, for example). Our intuitions must answer to this rational construction; the point is that the construction may not be wholly independent of them in the first place.

In short: the views we hold now, which are prima facie coherent and plausible, are reasonable - if fallible - guides to what we would find coherent and plausible on ideal rational reflection (which, for philosophical questions, is simply to say what is true). Intuitions have justificatory force because they're already on the road to constituting truths. Sure, obstacles might arise on further reflection that prevent the initial beliefs from being true after all. But otherwise, they're home free.


  1. Good post, I'd been meaining to write a near identical one myself! It's worth noting, as I intend to post on now instead, that my argument about moral intuitions can be made consistently with this approach.

    One minor issue:
    "philosophical facts are made true simply by the fact that they are what ideally rational agents would believe."

    I hope (and believe!) you mean this merely as an expository device, and not as analysis. If it's analysis, it's open to a euthyphro dilemma (in a manner that I assume is obvious, but tell me if its not!).

  2. Hi Richard,
    I generally agree with your position, though I tend to frame the issue little differently...
    1)To intuit a truth =def. to comprehend something.
    2)When something is comprehended, there is no need for additional justification.

    So the way I see it the question:"how is this faculty supposed to work, exactly?" , has two different answers:

    a) The simple one: It works by comprehension of something (e.g. relations between notions)

    b) How comprehension works?
    There can be different attempts of grounding the comprehension in something else, one is for example the Kantian attempt to explain its possibility (though he frames it little differently, i.e. "How are synthetic a priori judgments possible?"), but to my thinking in ideal case the answer can be nothing but comprehension of relation of thought and notion (or subject and world).

  3. intuition is just what we call decisions made where we can't remember what the justification was.
    Actually almost everything is intuition.

  4. Richard,
    Would an ideally rational agent think that their intuition motivated beliefs aimed at an independent reality?

  5. Sorry for the belated response...

    Clayton - I'm committed to saying that the ideally rational agent would believe in Conceptualism rather than Platonism, if that's what you mean?

    Alex - yeah, there are obvious risks of circularity here (compare my old post on bootstrapping modality). So we'll need to take something as primitive. I'm inclined to favour the normative facts (e.g. about what ideally rational agents would believe; or, to avoid Euthyphro, whatever reasons lie behind these beliefs). What do you think is the best option here?

  6. "we'll need to take something as primitive"

    "philosophical truth "just is the ideal limit of a priori inquiry"

    I think we have to take the methods of a priori inquiry as primitive. I don't think that talk of the ideally rational agent plays any explanatory role at all - if we should mention it at all, we should do so only as an aid in describing this "conceptualist" position.

    If you do this, then metaphysical worries about "where" philosophical truths are, or how they relate to the physical world, reduce to epistemological concerns about what a priori truths there are, and how we reason using these truths.

    Does this sound correct?

  7. Are you therefore embracing a form of "costructivism" as a meta-philosophical theory? Scanlon is such a constructivist. Do you think there is a necessary connection between being a constructivist in your sense and being a contractualist in Scanlon's or Rawls sense? Or one could be either without being the other?

  8. I'm not too familiar with any of that -- possibly 'constructivism' and what I called 'conceptualism' are the same thing? I don't see any obvious link here to moral contractualism. What did you have in mind?


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