Philip Stratton-Lake’s (2016)- Intuition, Self-evidence and understanding

By Joshua Wells


In the third meeting of the REAPP reading group for this academic year, 27 October 2016, we discussed Philip Stratton-lake’s paper from the Oxford studies in metaethics, edited by Russ Shafer-Landau, “Intuition, Self-evidence and understanding”. Luckily Philip is based in the Universities Philosophy department, and he was able to present the chapter himself. Philip started his presentation by explaining the context of this chapter from his own experience of philosophy. He explained that he use to have a strong interest in self-evidence, an interest which was much stronger than the one he had about intuitions. However, this has now changed and for him intuitions are of more interest than self-evidence. The reason for this became clear throughout his talk, and will be clear by the end of this blog.


The first point is that ethical intuitionists claim that ‘fundamental moral truths’ are self-evident. To test for the plausibility of this view, Philip uses Robert Audi’s account of self-evidence. The advantage of Audi’s account, which makes it appealing to Philip that understanding does not compel belief, according to Audi. Despite this Audi’s account says that an adequate understanding of a self-evident proposition justifies belief. This statement is represented by the idea that understanding P justifies a belief in P.


The next concern is about the implications of this account of self-evidence for synthetic propositions. Synthetic propositions require evidence for their truth. And belief does not constitute evidence. Therefore understanding P is not evidence of P being true which means we face the situation of where my understanding cannot justify belief in a self-evident proposition his raises the question as to what can justify a belief in a self-evident proposition? The paper suggests that intuitions can do the work – but only when understood correctly.


The paper continues to explore what Audi has to offer in this case, by looking at how he understands intuitions. For Audi, intuitions are types of belief. This means that Audi’s account of intuitions is not appropriate for the paper, because belief of P is not evidence for P being true. Yet this is not the full extent the concern with Audi’s account of intuitions. Audi’s account cannot accommodate the recalcitrance nature of intuitions. The discussion focused on the type of intuitions we have when it comes to maths. For example we know that 0.999 reoccurring equals 1. Yet we have the intuition that they are different. It seems that any acceptable account of intuitions must be able to cope with recalcitrance of intuitions.


The best account of intuitions, according to the paper is provided by George Bealer. The reason for this is that his account is able to offer an explanation of recalcitrance, and where intuitions are what the paper calls ‘intellectual seemings’ not beliefs. Intellectual seemings are mental state which are not based on judgments, guesses or hunches. Importantly they have the phenomenology of perceptual seemings. That means that certain things can appear to be intellectually true. In the same way that a table appears to be rectangular.


To conclude, this means that intuitions as intellectual seemings can justify beliefs, but they cannot justify themselves. Intuitions can only be explained, but not justified. This means that self-evidence has no epistemic role in intuitionist epistemology. Because all the work is done by intuitions. The paper is clearly significant, for it seems to take Audi’s account of self-evidence and show how self-evidence is not able to do the work that ethical intuitions require it to should be looking to intuitions, not self-evidence. The discussion was very stimulating, with questions ranging from infinity to inference.


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