Williamson – Philosophy of Philosophy – 7.3

In section 3 of Philosophy of Philosophy chapter 7, Williamson targets judgment skepticism. He wonders if skepticism about intuitions is not skepticism about a special form of judgment, but, rather, a special form of skepticism about any kind of judgment. Judgment skeptics try to falsify common sense in favor of science. They question practices of applying concepts in judgment (e.g., the concept of a mountain, belief, knowledge, and possibility). One goal of the skeptic is to show that folk judgments presuppose a false theoretical basis, yet such judgments afford an evolutionary advantage. For example, mountains do not really exist because the underlying metaphysics is false, but use of the ‘mountain convention’ facilitates quick communication and offers practical advantage over, say, giving an accurate yet labored explanation of the true metaphysics of the phenomenon. How does this connect with intuitions?

For Williamson (2004) an ‘intuition’ is arrived at through typical capacities for making judgments. In philosophy this involves the construction of thought experiments. A complex host of cognitive capacities are, for instance, used to arrive at the intuition that the Gettier subject does not know. These capacities include making modal judgments and making counterfactual conditional judgments. The judgment skeptic argues against these ‘armchair’ cognitive capacities. As Williamson mentions:

For judgment skeptics, appeals to intuition are nothing more than the last resort of dogmatic conservativism, in its desperate attempt to hold back the forward march of scientific and metaphysical progress. (2007: 223)

Williamson, as a defender of armchair practices, wants to defend the use of intuitions as he understands them.  He makes the following points against the judgment skeptic:

  • Self-undermining: Scientific practice involves perceptual judgments. Judgment skeptical arguments apply to the use of microscopes, telescopes, and other instruments that magnify perceptual capacities but do not replace them. Observations including macroscopic objects threaten the use of such observations as evidence because they are grounded in the very common sense ontology skeptics are keen to argue against.
  • Question Begging: Looking at judgment skepticism Williamson wonders, “what is the status of scientists’ evidential judgments?” When a scientist judges that a set of evidence best explains a theory, and then a judgment skeptic questions, “what evidence is there that our rankings of explanations are reliable?”, the scientist cannot avoid the charge of begging the question if she answers her rankings are reliable because they best explain another thing (e.g., survival of the species). Using empirical evidence to argue against folk theory does not remove the practices used to obtain the empirical evidence from exposure to judgment skeptical forms of argument.    

I’m not sure what I want to say about Williamson’s discussion. The points he makes against judgment skepticism seem valid and well-placed. In fact, I have more of a problem with Williamson’s characterization of intuitions as involving the application of routine capacities for judgment-making. Surely they involve such capacities, but I do not think they can be reduced to or dissolved into those capacities.

I’ll close by pointing you to a good discussion of Williamson (2004, 2005) in David Sosa’s article “Scepticism About Intuition.” Among other things, Sosa argues that intuitions play an illimitable epistemic role that cannot be reduced to ordinary capacities.

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