Philosophical Studies

, Volume 161, Issue 2, pp 227–246 | Cite as

The Philosophical Personality Argument



Perhaps personality traits substantially influence one’s philosophically relevant intuitions. This suggestion is not only possible, it is consistent with a growing body of empirical research: Personality traits have been shown to be systematically related to diverse intuitions concerning some fundamental philosophical debates. We argue that this fact, in conjunction with the plausible principle that almost all adequate philosophical views should take into account all available and relevant evidence, calls into question some prominent approaches to traditional philosophical projects. To this end, we present the Philosophical Personality Argument (PPA). We explain how it supports the growing body of evidence challenging some of the uses of intuitions in philosophy, and we defend it from some criticisms of empirically based worries about intuitions in philosophy. We conclude that the current evidence indicates that the PPA is sound, and thus many traditional philosophical projects that use intuitions must become substantially more empirically oriented.


Experimental philosophy Intuitions Personality Philosophical method Psychology 

1 The Philosophical Personality Argument (PPA)

Given the currently available evidence, the following argument is sound:
  1. 1.

    Philosophically relevant intuitions are used as some evidence for the truth of some philosophical claims.

  2. 2.

    Some differences in philosophically relevant intuitions used as evidence for the truth of some philosophical claims are systematically related to some differences in personality.1

  3. 3.

    If philosophically relevant intuitions are used as some evidence for the truth of some philosophical claims and those intuitions are systematically related to some differences in personality, then one’s endorsement of some philosophical claims is at least partially a function of one’s personality.

  4. 4.

    Therefore, one’s endorsement of some philosophical claims is at least partially a function of one’s personality.

We will argue that the PPA supports restrictionism—the view that the use of intuitions for some philosophical purposes should be restricted (Alexander and Weinberg 2007).
Our argument is not intended to support restrictionism in any philosophical project. Rather, our argument is targeted at the use of specific intuitions in some prominent projects in philosophy. Much recent debate about the implications of empirical evidence concerning intuitions has centered on conceptual analysis (Kauppinen 2007; Ludwig 2007, 2010). But intuitions are used for a variety of purposes in philosophy.

[T]he use of intuitions in analytic philosophy, and in philosophy more generally, should not be tied to conceptual analysis. Consider some of the main subjects of prominent debates in analytic philosophy: utilitarian versus deontological theories in ethics, for example, or Rawls’s theory of justice in social and political philosophy, or the externalism/internalism debates in epistemology, and many others could be cited to the same effect. These are not controversies about the conceptual analysis of some concept. They seem moreover to be disputes about something more objective than just our individual or shared concepts of the relevant phenomena. Yet they have been properly conducted in terms of hypothetical examples, and intuitions about these examples. The objective questions involved are about rightness, or justice, or epistemic justification. (Sosa 2007a, p. 59; see also Sosa (2007b, 2009)

Intuitions have also been held to be important for determining the adequacy of philosophical principles (Sosa 2009). As Sosa indicates, the use of intuitions in philosophy is far reaching and not confined to conceptual analysis.

Given the plurality of areas where philosophical intuitions have been deployed, Stich (2010) argues that empirical results concerning intuitions have different implications for different philosophical projects. Stich points out three types of projects in contemporary philosophy: (1) projects in conceptual analysis, (2) Neo-Platonic projects, and (3) normative projects. Conceptual analysis aims to provide an analysis of philosophically relevant concepts. For example, the Justified True Belief (JTB) account of knowledge was forwarded as an analysis of the concept of knowledge. Similarly, the Simple View of intentional action is a partial analysis of the concept of intentional action. Neo-Platonic projects attempt to discover the truth about some non-conceptual or non-linguistic philosophically relevant phenomenon. One attempts to discover what knowledge is or what intentional action is and not what some people’s concepts of knowledge or intentional action are. To put the distinction in other terms, conceptual analysis deals with things in the head and Neo-Platonic projects deal with things in the world. Finally, normative projects address how we ought to be. Two of the most prominent fields in this project are epistemology and ethics. Epistemology largely deals with what we ought to believe and ethics largely deals with how we ought to act.

As these considerations might indicate, few current restrictionists want to call into question all philosophical uses of intuitions. Rather, restrictionists are often worried about certain classes of intuitions used in the service of certain projects (Weinberg 2007). For example, Alexander and Weinberg (2007) call into question intuitions “about typical philosophical hypothetical cases” (p. 71). Weinberg (2007) indicates that he is concerned about intuitions that are about far-fetched cases. We will focus our discussion on how the PPA bears on many Neo-Platonic projects that use intuitions as evidence.2

2 The truth of the PPA’s premises

2.1 Premise 1

The PPA is valid but are all the premises true? Premise 1 describes what has been called the “practice of philosophy” (Alexander and Weinberg 2007). As Kornblith puts it, “Most philosophers do it openly and unapologetically, and the rest arguably do it too, although some of them would deny it. What they all do is appeal to intuition in constructing, shaping, and refining their philosophical views” (1998, p. 129). That is, intuitions are often used as evidence for some particular philosophical claim (Pust 2000, 2001; Bealer 1998). For example, “intuitions are supposed to function like observations” in empirical sciences (Sosa 2007b, p. 106; see also Sosa 2009).

The crucial notion is what it means for intuitions to be used as evidence. There are several philosophical conceptions of evidence (Achinstein 2000). For our purposes, not much hangs on the correct philosophical account of evidence. Premise 1 is consistent with many philosophical conceptions of evidence. To illustrate, take the following popular analysis of evidence: X is evidence for (against) Y if and only if X makes the truth of Y more (less) probable (Maher 1996; Achinstein 1994). This analysis of evidence can be easily modified so that intuitions are evidence for some philosophical claims: an intuition (or cluster of intuitions) I is evidence for (against) some philosophical claim C if and only if I increases (decreases) the probability that C is true.3 For example, intuitions about Gettier cases typically are thought to decrease the probability (perhaps to 0) that the JTB account of knowledge is true. Hence, intuitions about Gettier cases are evidence against the JTB account.

However, having an I for or against C is not sufficient for I to be used as evidence. It is widely accepted that intuitions are defeasible evidence for the truth of some philosophical claims (Bealer 1998; Sosa 2007a, b, 2010). Just as one could have visual intuitions that the moon is larger than the sun without using that intuition in one’s astronomy, one could have a philosophically relevant intuition without using that intuition as evidence in one’s philosophical theory. One could discount intuitions in a number of ways. To illustrate, one favored method of generating philosophical theories is wide reflective equilibrium (Bealer 1998; Daniels 1979; Goodman 1955). Wide reflective equilibrium counsels revising a theory if it conflicts with a deeply held intuition shared by many (along with appropriate background theories). By a process of mutual adjustment between intuitions and background theories, one settles on a theory. In creating equilibrium between intuitions and principles, some intuitions could be discarded. Those discarded intuitions do not increase or decrease the probability that some philosophical claim is true. In such situations, those discarded intuitions are no longer used as evidence for the truth of a philosophical claim. As a result, we understand I used as evidence when I enters into a justificatory process where I figures into the probability that a philosophical claim is true.

Of course, whether reflective equilibrium is the right method for philosophical theorizing (Stich 1998) or if intuitions should play an evidential role is not uncontroversial (Williamson 2007; Deutsch 2010). The actual correctness of either is not our main concern. What is important is this account captures how many philosophers treat intuitions. A perusal of the philosophical literature reveals intuitions used in ways consistent with the above analysis of evidence. We find Chinese rooms (Searle 1980), Swamp Men (Davidson 1987), counterfactual interveners (Frankfurt 1969), and strangely wired video games (Bratman 1984) that are meant to generate an intuition in the reader. These intuitions are then used as evidence either for or against philosophical claims. Many philosophers take these types of intuitions to be valuable or even irreplaceable parts of philosophical practice (Bealer 1998; Daniels 1979; Jackson 1998; Pust 2000, 2001; Sosa 2007a, b; Ludwig 2007). It is this practice that many empirically minded philosophers have been interested in (Alexander 2010; Alexander and Weinberg 2007; Cokely and Feltz 2009a; Feltz 2008; Feltz and Bishop 2010; Miller and Feltz, in press; Nichols 2004; Stich 1990, 1998; Weinberg 2007; Weinberg et al. 2001). So, while not all philosophers take intuitions to be central evidence for philosophical claims, many think that intuitions provide some important evidence for many philosophical projects.

2.2 Premise 2

Premise 2 is gathering support from research indicating that in a wide variety of contexts philosophically relevant intuitions are related to stable, global, and heritable personality traits.4 Theoretically, differences in personality traits (or some of their facets) cause differences in philosophically relevant intuitions.5 For example, some intuitions about free will and moral responsibility are predicted by the heritable personality trait extraversion (Cokely and Feltz 2009a; Feltz and Cokely 2009; Schulz et al. in press; Nadelhoffer et al. 2009), as are some intuitions about intentional action (Cokely and Feltz 2009b; Feltz et al. submitted). Similarly, some intuitions about moral objectivism are predicted by the heritable personality trait openness to experience (Feltz and Cokely 2008). This research indicates that there is growing evidence that personality traits can, at least in part, predict the pattern of a variety of fundamental philosophically relevant intuitions.

2.3 Premise 3

Premise 3 also appears to be true. An intuition is used as evidence when it enters into one’s justificatory process (e.g., wide reflective equilibrium) and as a result that intuition increases or decreases the probability that a philosophical claim is true. If intuitions are used as evidence, then the view that one ends up endorsing is a function of those intuitions.6 In addition, gathering evidence suggests that some philosophically relevant intuitions often used as evidence are systematically related to personality traits. Intuitions in the domains we have documented (e.g., free will, intentional action, moral objectivism) are influenced by personality and continue to be used as evidence for some philosophical claims. Hence, if a widely endorsed method of philosophical inquiry is used and philosophically relevant intuitions vary as a function of personality, then the philosophical view one ends up holding will likely be at least partially a reflection of one’s personality.

2.4 Implications of the PPA

If premises 1–3 are true, then the fact that one endorses a particular philosophical view is at least partially a function of one’s personality. This is problematic for many who use intuitions to support their Neo-Platonic views. Philosophers rarely (if ever) justify Neo-Platonic claims by referencing their personality. We have never, for example, heard or read a free will compatibilist defend her position by arguing that she is extraverted. We suspect that philosophers would be shocked by and dismissive of such a defense. Instead, compatibilists typically use thought examples designed to generate intuitions in others that support their view. This general intuition mongering strategy is used in many contemporary Neo-Platonic projects including ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics.7 Hence, the PPA puts increasing pressure on the legitimacy of using intuitions for many Neo-Platonic projects.

In particular, the PPA provides additional support for restrictionism—the view that “the results of experimental philosophy should figure into a radical restriction of the deployment of intuitions as evidence” (Alexander and Weinberg 2007, p. 61) because “it involves deploying a source of putative evidence that is sensitive to non-truth-tracking factors” (Weinberg et al. 2010, p. 332). Restrictionists have presented empirical evidence that calls into question the truth-tracking features of many philosophically relevant intuitions. For example, some philosophically relevant intuitions in some paradigmatic cases vary with respect to socio-economic status (Haidt et al. 1993), culture (Machery et al. 2004; Weinberg et al. 2001; Huebner et al. 2010), the order scenarios are presented (Swain et al. 2008; Feltz and Cokely in press), and one’s perspective (Nadelhoffer and Feltz 2008; Feltz et al. submitted). It has been argued that these factors are irrelevant to the truth of the content of the intuition (Sinnott-Armstrong 2008; Alexander and Weinberg 2007; Weinberg 2007; Stich 2010; Weinberg et al. 2001; Horvarth 2010).

Neo-Platonic projects attempt to discover the truth of the relevant philosophical phenomenon by using rational reflection along with relevant intuitions. Through rational discourse, we can come closer to achieving or approximating the truth. The PPA suggests that some agreement or disagreement in Neo-Platonic projects is not solely a function of purely rational arguments aimed at a progression toward the truth (Bealer 1998). Rather, some features irrelevant to the truth of the content of the intuition (e.g., personality traits) may be driving mechanisms of philosophical agreement or disagreement. We take it as uncontroversial that one’s personality is not likely related to the truth of almost all Neo-Platonic claims.8 The variance of intuitions related to personality is similar to variation of intuitions related to order, socio-economic status, or perspective. If the PPA is right, then some intuitions about some paradigmatic hypothetical cases vary with irrelevant factorsone’s personality. As a result, to the extent that intuitions vary with personality, those intuitions do not only track the truth. The use of any source of evidence in Neo-Platonic projects that does not only track the truth should be restricted. Hence, the use of intuitions that vary with personality should be restricted in Neo-Platonic projects.

But some care needs to be taken in interpreting restrictionist implications of the PPA. To illustrate, take Horvarth’s (2010) formulation of the restrictionist’s Master Argument:

Intuitions about hypothetical cases very with irrelevant factors.


If intuitions about hypothetical cases vary with irrelevant factors, then they are not epistemically trustworthy.9


Intuitions about hypothetical cases are not epistemically trustworthy (p. 448).

It seems like the PPA nicely complements the Master Argument. But, one worry is that the conclusion of the PPA does not support (A). Personality could be relevant to the truth of particular philosophical claims. To take just one example, Prinz (2007) argues that the truth of some moral claims is essentially related to one’s emotions. For example, when one says “Eating your dead relatives is wrong,” the truth of that claim essentially involves a sentiment (i.e., disposition to experience disapprobation) in the speaker. Without the sentiment toward eating a dead relative, what the speaker says is false on Prinz’s account. On the assumption that personality can influence what sentiments one is likely to have, it seems that it is possible that personality is reliably related and relevant to the truth of some philosophical claims (e.g., “Eating your dead relatives is wrong.”).
Take two different claims that might be made on Prinz’s view:

An action has the property of being morally wrong (right) just in case there is an observer who has a sentiment of disapprobation (approbation) toward it (Prinz 2007, p. 92).


Eating your dead relatives is wrong.

Presumably, personality can be importantly and reliably related to the truth of (N) but not the truth of (M). One plausible explanation is that (M) is an example of a Neo-Platonic claim whereas (N) is a normative claim. (M) is a “Metaphysical Thesis” about the nature of a philosophically relevant phenomenon indicating a requirement for something to be morally wrong or right (Prinz 2007, p. 92). The truth of Neo-Platonic claims like (M) are not supposed to be related to one’s personality.10 However, (N) is a normative claim. The truth of (N) could be importantly related to one’s personality. Somebody who is extremely neurotic might think that (N) is true whereas non-neurotics may be more likely to think (N) is not true. However, if neurotics and non-neurotics have qualitatively different intuitions about (M), at least one of them is wrong. As a result, personality could be critically important for the truth of normative claims, but it does not appear that personality is important or relevant for the truth of many (if not all) Neo-Platonic claims.

But is the PPA problematic for Neo-Platonic projects that use intuitions as evidence? As noted, on the conception of evidence we have been using, having an I for (or against) a C is not sufficient for using I as evidence for (or against) C. Once philosophers learn that some of their intuitions are systematically related to some personality traits, they may appropriately discount those intuitions and not use them as evidence. And, the argument goes, excluding or discounting some intuitions is a natural part of philosophical practice. As a result, the PPA should be of no concern for those using intuitions as evidence because almost all philosophers incorporate relevant empirical evidence into their philosophizing already.11 While philosophers can admit that learning some intuitions are systematically related to personality is important information to incorporate into theorizing, that information does not call into question Neo-Platonic theorizing based on intuitions as the PPA suggests.

While such a position is possible, we think it would be a major concession to restrictionists for at least two reasons. In one sense, consulting closely with empirical psychology may not be odd or new for those working on some Neo-Platonic projects (Sosa 2007b). For example, some have argued that the conditions under which one is free or morally responsible may be helpfully informed by empirical science (Nahmias 2007). Empirical psychology may help tell us under what conditions one lacks freedom-relevant control over a behavior (e.g., one’s glucose is too high or low, cf. Baumeister 2008). However, in another sense, consulting with the empirical sciences would be important and new for Neo-Platonic projects. In this sense, it is not merely that empirical evidence has some role to play in assessing some philosophical claims. Empirical evidence has a role to play in evaluating the intuitions deployed in Neo-Platonic projects. For example, is one’s glucose being too high or too low relevant to the control required for free will and moral responsibility? The answer to this question may depend on what intuitions one has about the particulars of the case involving glucose, and those intuitions may be systematically influenced by personality. It isn’t odd to think that glucose’s effect on behavior is relevant. It is odd to think that one’s personality influences one’s thinking about the importance of glucose’s effect on behavior. As a result, one must consult closely with relevant empirical evidence including evidence about one’s intuitions.

We know of very few philosophers (if any) who discard intuitions because the intuitions are likely influenced by the type of personality they have. For example, compatibilists and incompatibilists neither reject their own intuitions nor the intuitions of others because of personality’s relation to those intuitions. But the PPA suggests that these intuitions sometimes need to be dramatically discounted as evidence in some Neo-Platonic projects. But more generally, the PPA suggests that in order to have confidence in intuitions used in Neo-Platonic projects, we need to have a deeper psychology of philosophical intuition (see Stich 2010) and philosophical expertise. Hence, the PPA would constitute a significant change to the way some philosophers go about doing philosophy.

Second, philosophers who think that intuitions related to personality can be quarantined find themselves in a precarious philosophical position: The viability of their approach depends critically on empirical science. That is, at the end of the day, for their position to be viable there had better not be large and systematic relations of one’s personality with the intuitions that one has. There is already evidence that personality is related to intuitions in problematic ways for Neo-Platonic projects. We suspect that the evidence indicating that philosophically relevant intuitions are systematically related to personality (and other stable individual differences) will continue to grow. If our suspicion turns out to be right, then these philosophers are hostage to empirical results. What if philosophically relevant intuitions in a substantial number of fields are systematically related to personality traits? If that is the case, then the defender of intuitions in Neo-Platonic projects would be committed to barring those intuitions as evidence for Neo-Platonic projects. But if a sufficient number of intuitions are thereby barred, there will not be a sufficient amount of evidence to theorize upon. These considerations lead to a rather striking suggestion: In their current form, many intuition driven Neo-Platonic projects simply cannot be done.

Whether our suspicion turns out to be correct remains to be seen. What is important to note is that the worry posed by the PPA is not merely a skeptical hypothesis. We aren’t just positing the possibility that personality is systematically related to intuitions used in Neo-Platonic projects. Rather, the PPA indicates that this possibility is likely actual. What we currently know is sufficient to be worried that many Neo-Platonic projects based on intuitions are in trouble. What we need to do, then, is to investigate the extent to which intuitions in the relevant Neo-Platonic project are associated with personality traits. And that means that almost all philosophers engaged in Neo-Platonic projects using intuitions as evidence need to consult empirical evidence about their own (and others’) dispositions and intuitions more closely (i.e., via scientific methods).

Given these considerations, we favor the following principle:

Empirical evidence has a substantial role to play in many Neo-Platonic projects.12

We take (E) to be the general attitude of experimental and empirically minded philosophers. The empirical evidence is both evidence relevant to the Neo-Platonic project and evidence about intuitions deployed in those projects. Many philosophers engaged in Neo-Platonic projects reject (E) in some way. One could reject (E) by simply ignoring (E). However, we think following principle is true:

Most fully adequate Neo-Platonic views must take into account all available and relevant evidence.

Ceteris paribus, if a philosophical theory does not account for available and relevant evidence, then that theory will at least in some cases (and perhaps in most cases) be inferior to one that does take into account that evidence. Personality’s influence on intuitions is available and relevant. Therefore, ignoring personality’s influence on philosophically relevant intuitions is in most cases not tenable.

3 Objections to the PPA

3.1 The self-defeating argument

There are several ways one could reject (E) and respect (R). First, one could hold the relatively strong theoretical position that empirical evidence in principle cannot have anything substantive to say about intuitions in most Neo-Platonic projects. One argument offered by those who favor this rejection of (E) is the Self-Defeating Argument (Bonjour 1998; Bealer 1998; Pust 2001; Goldman and Pust 1998; Horvarth 2010). One gloss of the self-defeating argument is that the only way to question the trustworthiness of intuitions is to use other intuitions. But if all intuitions are suspect, one cannot appeal to any intuitions. As Horvarth states, “the experimental challenge might easily lead to epistemic self-defeat because some of the relevant intuitions are themselves needed in order to justify the epistemic principles that form the very basis of the experimental restrictionists’ own methodological criticism” (2010, p. 459).

In particular, restrictionists need evidence that the following principle is true:

If intuitions about hypothetical cases are unreliable and their unreliability is explicitly noted and explicitly noting their unreliability does not give rise to self-defeat, then they are not epistemically trustworthy. (Horvarth 2010, p. 461)

Since Horvarth argues that (EU+) is not directly intuitive,13 it requires some reflection and thought examples to determine if it is true. But, the restrictionist argues that intuitions about thought examples are not reliable evidence for philosophical claims. Hence, the restrictionists’ position is self-defeating because the very intuitions the restrictionists need are not available to them by their own lights.

The PPA does not suggest that all philosophically relevant intuitions are suspect. We advocate “not the root and branch removal of all intuitions, but just the pruning away of some of the more poisoned branches” (Alexander and Weinberg 2007, p. 71). Intuitions may be indispensable in projects in conceptual analysis and normative projects. Indeed, variability in intuitions related to personality can be theoretically important in those projects (cf., Prinz 2007). The PPA supports restricting intuitions in some Neo-Platonic projects along with scientifically oriented documenting and tracking of non-trivial influences on intuitions. As a result, there could be a wide swath of philosophically relevant intuitions that can be used to justify the premises of the PPA, (E), and (R). All the premises in the PPA are either descriptive or conceptual. (E) is a natural consequence of the PPA, and (R) seems to capture a straight-forward conception of a fully adequate theory. We don’t see any reason that we would be required to use Neo-Platonic intuitions to criticize Neo-Platonic intuitions (that would seem to be self-defeating). If we are not required to use Neo-Platonic intuitions and we do not use Neo-Platonic intuitions to justify the premises of the PPA, (E), or (R), then our argument supporting restrictionism is not obviously or necessarily self-defeating. Hence, it is not obvious or necessary that our argument falls prey to the Self-Defeating Argument.

3.2 Defining intuitions

Others may attempt to circumvent (E) and respect (R) by defining ‘intuition’ so that intuitions cannot be empirically questioned. In this way, it can be claimed that the way restrictionists talk about intuition is “obviously not an intuition in the sense in which philosophers have talked about intuitions” (Ludwig 2010, p. 437).14 For example, one may think that one has an intuition only when one has complete (enough) understanding of the relevant concepts involved and only makes judgments based on competencies with those concepts in ideal conditions (Bealer 1998; Ludwig 2007, 2010; Kauppinen 2007). Indeed, some even claim that “it is impossible for intuitions properly understood to be relative” (Ludwig 2010, p. 427) because there would be “identical judgments in response were the responses made solely on the basis of those competencies and identical understandings of the scenario, task, question, and adequate thought” (Ludwig 2007, p. 145). As a result, intuitions are “veridical, and it follows that intuitions are not relative to cultures, socio-economic status, times, the ways questions are presented, or anything else, and this is demonstrable a priori” (Ludwig 2010, p. 442). On this account of intuitions, when people have different responses to a scenario, at least one of the people do not have an intuition.

The variability in responses associated with personality is easy enough to accommodate while respecting (R) with an exclusive definition of intuition. Intuitions aren’t relative to “anything.” However, the PPA suggests that intuitions are systematically related to one’s personality. So, when people with different personalities give different responses, at least one of them does not have an intuition. Given that (R) holds that one needs to take into account available and relevant evidence, when there are divergent responses, at least one of those responses are not relevant because the response is not an intuition. As a result, these defenders of intuitions can easily deny (E) while at the same time as respecting (R).

Several theorists have argued that defining intuitions in a particular way does not help the defenders of intuitions very much. First, stipulating a definition of intuition that makes intuitions invulnerable to empirical challenge is not very satisfying (Horvarth 2010). But more problematically, intuitions defined in these ways may make it just as likely that philosophers don’t have intuitions (Alexander and Weinberg 2007). How could we ever tell when philosophers have an intuition? How do we determine (a) who the competent user of a concept is, (b) what ideal conditions are, or (c) if one’s judgment is only influenced by semantic considerations (Kauppinen 2007)? It seems like it would be very difficult, for example, to determine who are competent users or when ideal conditions obtain (Kauppinen 2007; Feltz 2008). To illustrate, Sosa writes that the reliability of intuitions “depend[s] on favorable circumstances in all sorts of ways, and these are often relevantly beyond our control. We must depend on a kind of epistemic luck” (2007b, p. 102). Restrictionists would argue that we are often epistemically unlucky when using intuitions in Neo-Platonic projects. There are thousands of studies across disciplines indicating that very minor changes in judgment environments (e.g., framing) can result in large differences in resulting judgments (e.g., Gigerenzer et al. 1999; Kahneman 2003). But more to the point, it is very difficult to determine how lucky one is from the armchair. Horvarth (2010) notes there is quite a bit of evidence that we often aren’t aware of all the causal influences on our responses to particular cases (e.g., Nisbett and Wilson 1977). Given that we don’t have much evidence that philosophers satisfy (a)–(c), we should not be confident that philosophers have intuitions. If philosophers don’t have intuitions, then philosophers could not use intuitions in Neo-Platonic projects because they do not have any! Of course, we might be able to determine if philosophers satisfy (a)–(c). But since many factors relevant to determining if philosophers satisfy (a)–(c) are not introspectively discoverable, it won’t be from the armchair. Hence, stipulating definitions of intuition does not insulate defenders of intuitions in Neo-Platonic projects from the PPA or (E).

3.3 The expertise defense

One could have a relatively weaker position that empirical evidence can have a role to play in principle, but the current state-of-the-science does not allow any strong conclusions about restrictionism. One of these strategies is the expertise defense (Ludwig 2007; Kauppinen 2007; Horvarth 2010; Sosa 2010; Williamson 2007, in press).

The Expertise Defense holds that the specific training professional philosophers receive makes their intuitions in many cases qualitatively better than folk intuitions. Philosophers’ intuitions could be better for a variety of reasons including having better conceptual clarity, theories, or cognitive skills (see Weinberg et al. 2010 for discussion and thorough critique). Because philosophers’ intuitions are qualitatively better, they are not likely to vary in the same way as folk intuitions. Given that philosophers have higher quality intuitions, once philosophically relevant concepts are appropriately grasped (as they are in many philosophical domains), then there will be little or no differences among philosophers with those competencies. Where there are disagreements in philosophy, we simply need more time in order for philosophers to understand the issues involved adequately enough. Hence, the PPA misses its mark because philosophers are experts who through rational scrutiny and extensive training come to see the truth. As such, we should only pay attention to philosophers’ intuitions and not folk intuitions when we engage in Neo-Platonic projects. Because philosophers’ intuitions are the relevant sources of evidence, one can reject (E) by ignoring the variability in folk intuitions while respecting (R). If all this is right, then “assessing the truth of intuition claims can remain a relatively armchair business that begins with our own considered reactions to the case at hand. We [philosophers] are entitled to have confidence in such reflection, since we take a lot of real-life experience of using concepts to the armchair with us” (Kauppinen 2007, p. 110).15

Restricting the scope of the relevant intuitions to those had by experts makes it harder to generate examples where extraneous factors influence intuitions (see, for example, Stich 1998). We think the defense is in need of refinement making the defense even stronger by making it even harder to come up with the right kind of evidence to call intuitions into question. To illustrate, the restrictionists need something like the following principle to be true:

Philosophers’ intuitions about hypothetical cases vary equally with irrelevant factors as those of non-philosophers. (Horvarth 2010, p. 464)16

However, “philosophers’ intuitions” is too broad. Philosophy is an expansive discipline with very few (if not none) who specialize in every area of philosophy. For example, somebody might self-identify as a professional philosopher yet know nothing about the free will debate. We take it that the defender of the expertise defense would hold that variability in free will intuitions in such non-free-will-expert philosophers does not count against the expertise defense because they are not experts in the relevant sense. So, the variability must be found not just in philosophers but in expert philosophers.

We think there is something to be said for tradition and expertise. While it is often hard to determine who has the burden of proof, we can assume for the sake of argument that those critical of the tradition have the burden of proof (see Horvarth 2010; Sosa 2010; Williamson in press). But how heavy is the burden of proof?17 What evidence can we muster for the truth of EQ? There have been subtle and detailed defenses of restrictionism from the expertise defense (see Weinberg et al. 2010). Restrictionists do not need intuitions of expert philosophers to vary equally with folk intuitions. Rather, restrictionists need only that intuitions in expert philosophers vary with sufficient similarity to folk intuitions (Weinberg et al. 2010, p. 333). After all, the restrictionist need not claim that personality is the only mediating factor. All that is required is that personality is one of the mediating factors. Another mediating factor may well indeed be expertise. In philosophers, expertise may overcome or interact with personality such that different patterns of intuitions will be observed. If philosophers’ intuitions vary along different personality dimensions than the folk, or to somewhat different extent, then that would be equally troubling for the use of intuitions in Neo-Platonic projects.

But, there is good reason to think that EQ may not be true. There is a considerable body of scientific evidence suggesting that in many domains expertise is accompanied by large, qualitative differences in intuitions and reasoning abilities (Ericsson and Lehmann 1996; Ericsson et al. 2007). This is no less true in philosophy. For example, those who have had more philosophy classes tend to have a more reflective cognitive style (Cokely and Feltz 2009b; Livengood et al. 2010) that is associated with superior judgment and decision making (Cokely and Kelley 2009).18 Those with philosophy training are also better at evaluating arguments and evidence (Kuhn 1991). These results suggest that philosophical training can have important influences on people’s judgments (Feltz and Cokely in press).19 The influence of expertise might be enough to eliminate the influences of personality on intuitions. If expertise makes the effects of personality on intuitions trivial, then EQ is not a worry.

Some have tried indirect strategies to show that EQ is true. These strategies do not attempt to show directly that philosophers’ intuitions vary in ways similar to the folk. Rather, these strategies attempt to show the ways in which expertise functions in philosophy is sufficiently dissimilar to the ways expertise functions in other domains. Because of the dissimilarity, we should not have much confidence that expertise in philosophy will make enough of a difference to falsify EQ. Weinberg et al. (2010) give some detailed arguments that the ways philosophers could be experts does not neatly map onto known ways that expertise makes intuitions qualitatively better in other domains. Just to take one of their examples, the type of feedback offered in philosophy is often not the same as the feedback offered in other disciplines. In chess, it is fairly clear and immediately known when one makes an error. In philosophy, it is often not clear or immediately known when one makes an error (e.g., how long did it take for the JTB account of knowledge to be thought wrong? Is it clear to everybody the JTB account is wrong?). Hence, the feedback in the two domains is sufficiently different to suggest that philosophers may not have the right kind of expertise (or learning environments) to insulate their intuitions from the effects of extraneous factors like personality.

One can also employ direct strategies to show that EQ is true. Direct strategies provide evidence that experts display the same or similar types of effects as the folk. There is gathering evidence that experts sometimes behave in much the same way as the folk. For example, ethicists sometimes do not behave any better than non-ethicists (Schwiztgebel 2009; Schwitzgebel and Rust 2010a, b). But even more direct, there is some evidence that personality influences the intuitions of verifiable experts. Schulz et al. (in press) have found that experts20 about free will and moral responsibility display similar effects of personality as those who are not experts in some paradigmatic cases. Therefore, at least in some cases involving judgments about free will and moral responsibility, EQ is met. To the extent that these studies generalize to other Neo-Platonic projects, the expertise defense fails.

We think this puts restrictionists faced with the expertise defense in a rhetorically strong position. If either indirect or direct strategies show that EQ is true, then the expertise defense is in jeopardy. If an indirect strategy is correct, then philosophers don’t possess the relevant expertise to deflect the worrisome implications of the PPA. If a direct strategy is successful, then philosophers’ intuitions display similar biases as expressed by the folk, or at least that intuitions show some systematic variation with personality. Giving the amassing evidence that either an indirect or direct strategy has merit in connection with the relative lack of evidence that the expertise defense is correct, the expertise defense does not insulate many Neo-Platonic projects that use intuitions from the implications of the PPA.

3.4 The verbal defense

The final defense we will consider is the Verbal Defense. According to the Verbal Defense, the current evidence based on surveys does not ensure “true disagreement” in people’s intuitions (Sosa 2007b). In order for there to be true disagreement, responses gathered by experimental philosophers must be about the same things. But the worry is that different people could interpret scenarios or questions differently and thereby have intuitions in response to different things. There are a number of ways that people could interpret scenarios differently. To illustrate, Sosa (2009) argues that the materials many experimental philosophers use are like stories. Like most stories in fiction, not all details are spelled out in the text. As a result, people often fill in stories in different ways. Participants may do the same thing for the scenarios used in experimental philosophy. People simply fill in the scenarios differently and are thereby representing relevant content of the scenarios differently. These differences may result in different intuitions but not about the same things. Likewise, people may interpret questions asked somewhat differently. For example, when asking whether somebody is morally responsible for an action, people may interpret “morally responsible” in a variety of ways. They may interpret moral responsibility in an attributability sense where judgments are made about the action reflecting the actor’s character. Or, participants may interpret moral responsibility in an accountability sense where one can be held accountable (e.g., punished/rewarded) for acting (Sosa 2007b). If participants interpret scenarios differently or interpret questions differently, then much of the disagreement in intuitions put forward by experimental philosophers is merely surface or verbal disagreement. In the end, people could be “talking past each other” (Kauppinen 2007, p. 107). Since such surface variability is not philosophically relevant, we can reject (E) while respecting (R).

The PPA may seem to support the verbal defense. It is fairly well documented that people with different personality types have different sensitivities, beliefs, and goals (Costa and McCrae 1988; Funder 2001). These differences may result in people with different personalities resolving ambiguities in probes differently. So, it might be that people with different personality types are not disagreeing about the same contents of the intuitions.

However, if the PPA makes it plausible that apparent disagreement among the folk is only verbal disagreement, it makes it just as likely that disagreement (or agreement) among philosophers is not disagreement (or agreement) about the same things (Alexander and Weinberg 2007). That is, we cannot be sure that agreement or disagreement among philosophers is about the same content of the intuitions. Not being able to tell when there is true agreement and disagreement results in general skepticism about philosophical uses of intuitions because we could never tell when philosophers are truly agreeing or disagreeing (Alexander and Weinberg 2007; Machery et al. 2004). Hence, if the verbal defense were to succeed, it would be at the expense of skepticism about intuitions in general. But we take it that philosophers (experimental or otherwise) want to resist general skepticism about intuitions.

Of course, just as in the expertise defense, one may argue that the burden of proof may be on the experimentalist to show that philosophers run the risk of only having verbal disagreements. “The appeal to divergence of interpretation is a defensive move, made against those who claim that there is serious disagreement in supposed intuitions. It is only against such a claim of disagreement that we must appeal to verbal divergence. But any such claim need be taken seriously only when adequately backed by evidence” (Sosa 2007b, p. 103). Fair enough. But there is evidence emerging that adequately backs the worry. As already noted, experts about the free will debate are also influenced by specific, heritable facets of their general personality traits: Warm extraverts tend to have more compatibilist friendly intuitions than do introverts (Schulz et al. in press). If the verbal defense is correct, then this disagreement between experts would largely be a verbal disagreement. But if that is the case, it is hard to tell when there ever is a substantive disagreement among experts in free will. And again, the Verbal Defense risks a general skepticism about intuitions in Neo-Platonic projects.

4 Concluding remarks

We would like to add one final note. If the PPA is sound, some deep-seated, ancient debates in some Neo-Platonic projects may not go away without new methods. There is some evidence that global personality traits are partially, if not largely, genetic in origin (Jang et al. 1996; Bouchard 1994). And, as noted, intuitions are used extensively in many Neo-Platonic projects. Research suggests that some intuitions used in Neo-Platonic projects are systematically related to personality and personality is largely inherited. If both of these two facts are true, then one’s tendency to endorse a particular philosophical view is also at least partially inherited. So, some issues in Neo-Platonic projects are likely to persist through the generations of philosophers with very little resolution. One could take this result as pessimistic, but we think it is actually encouraging. It may help free philosophers from an over-reliance on intuitions and may help encourage philosophers to use other methods and evidence to cover new ground for important, ancient Neo-Platonic projects.

In summary, the PPA supports increasing restrictionism on the use of intuitions in some Neo-Platonic projects. Given the PPA, there is currently no rejection of (E) that satisfies (R). Because the PPA is valid, the only way to dispute the PPA is to dispute one of the premises. But determining the truth of each premise 1–3 requires empirical evidence. One or all of the premises in the PPA may turn out to be false. We are open to this possibility. However, demonstrating that at least one of them is false requires providing and evaluating empirical evidenceand that just is (E). Hence, objecting to the PPA while respecting (R) requires accepting (E). As a result, the PPA suggests that many Neo-Platonic projects should become substantially empirical enterprises (Alexander and Weinberg 2007).


  1. 1.

    We use personality to refer to stable, global, and heritable personality traits such as the Big Five Personality traits (John 1999). The nature, causes, and assessment of global personality traits have been debated for some time (cf., Mischel and Shoda 1995). Our view is consistent with a suitably fine-grained modern account of personality (cf., Funder 2006).

  2. 2.

    Experimental philosophy also has important implications for projects in conceptual analysis and normative projects. See Stich (2010), Feltz (2009), Nadelhoffer and Nahmias (2007) and Knobe and Nichols (2008).

  3. 3.

    This analysis is similar to one given by Goldman and Pust, “Mental states of type M constitute a basic evidential source only if M states are reliable indicators of the truth of their contents (or the truth of closely related contents), at least when the M states occur in M favorable circumstances” (1998, p. 180).

  4. 4.

    For similar remarks about political orientation and personality, see Graham et al. (2009) and McCrae (1996).

  5. 5.

    This is a gloss of the causal mechanisms involved. For more detailed accounts of these types of mediating mechanisms, see Cokely and Feltz (2009a, b).

  6. 6.

    Sometimes one endorses a view not based on evidence. For example, in Haidt et al. (2000) moral dumbfounding, people end up endorsing a position despite not having any evidence for their moral convictions. In such circumstances, intuitions are not used as evidence. So, one can end up endorsing a view not based on evidence. However, if philosophers end up endorsing philosophical claims in such a manner, then that is even worse news for defenders of intuitions. In such situations, intuitions do no work in the resulting philosophical position one ends up endorsing.

  7. 7.

    We want to be clear that these are not the only ways to go about philosophy or that all philosophers use intuition gathering strategies. We only claim that these strategies are very popular and held to be valuable by large portions of contemporary philosophy.

  8. 8.

    Some theorists (Horvarth 2010) argue that some of the other findings argued to bear on the truth of intuitions (e.g., order effects, affect, framing effects) are not always present. In cases where they aren’t present, they obviously don’t call into question the truth of those intuitions. However, other factors like culture and personality are arguable always present. Hence, personality findings are immune from this type of criticism.

  9. 9.

    A piece of evidence is trustworthy if one can detect and correct for errors in those pieces of evidence (Weinberg 2007, p. 325).

  10. 10.

    We make no claim about the extent to which Prinz actually uses intuitions for his Neo-Platonic project. In fact, Prinz’s work is a nice example of one alternative way to do a Neo-Platonic project without extensive uses of intuitions.

  11. 11.

    It is ultimately an empirical question what percentage of philosophers, as a matter of fact, incorporate relevant empirical evidence about their own intuitions into their Neo-Platonic projects. Our informal impression is that there aren’t that many (e.g., Bealer 1998; Ludwig 2007, 2010).

  12. 12.

    (E) does not entail that empirical evidence is the only evidence for Neo-Platonic projects. Rather, (E) holds that empirical evidence should play some substantial role in most Neo-Platonic projects The qualifier ‘most’ is included because it is possible that some Neo-Platonic projects (e.g., in logic) are not susceptible to the PPA. However, this exception should be of little solace as the PPA has implications for a large number of Neo-Platonic projects.

  13. 13.

    Direct intuitions are intuitions that are not about cases (e.g., immediately intuiting that “2 + 2 = 4” is true). Intuitions are not direct if they involve cases (Horvarth 2010, p. 460).

  14. 14.

    We take it as a bit ironic that Ludwig’s claim that what “we” as philosophers are interested in is an empirical claim. And at least some philosophers do not have this kind of definition in mind as they think that intuitions can be fallible (e.g., Sosa 2007a; Bealer 1998). So, by Ludwig’s lights, those theorists aren’t philosophers. But that seems improbable. If that is the case, then what Ludwig might really mean by “we” is “philosophers who think like me.” But as many have noted, why should we be interested in intuitions that the group of “Ludwig-like-philosophers” are interested in? It’s not at all clear what the answer to that question is (e.g., Stich 1990, 1998; Weinberg et al. 2001).

  15. 15.

    This remark echos Jackson when he writes, “we know that our own [philosophers’] case is typical and so can generalize from it to others. It was surely not a surprise to Gettier that so many people agreed about his cases” (1998, p. 37) or when Ludwig states that philosophers engage in experimental methods “informally in teaching and in conversation with nonphilosophers” (2007, p. 155).

  16. 16.

    Weinberg et al. (2010) refer to a similar principle they call the “ampliative inference;” and inference where “patterns disclosed concerning the ordinary subjects to the predicted occurrences of those patterns in professional philosophers” (p. 332). See also Weinberg and Crowley (2009).

  17. 17.

    We take it that any burden of proof must be at least in principle satisfiable by the experimentalist. For example, Kauppinen states an extremely high burden of proof when he says “the actual studies conducted so far have failed to rule out competence failures, performance failures, and the potential influence of pragmatic factors” (2007, p. 105). Ruling out these factors is something that is extremely difficult (if not impossible) to do in experimental science. In fact, if that burden of proof was standard in experimental psychology, we would not be able to make many inferences about much of anything from experimental data. So, the appropriate burden of proof must be something less stringent.

  18. 18.

    Just because philosophers are more reflective does not mean that their intuitions are necessarily of a higher quality. Some troubling effects persist in those who are more reflective, see Weinberg et al. (2008).

  19. 19.

    Even if training reduces the effects of personality on intuitions, that would not automatically mean that intuitions that are the result of training are qualitatively better. As Weinberg (2007) notes “having the ‘right’ intuitions is the entry ticket to various subareas of philosophy” (p. 337). If those intuitions reflect similar personalities among philosophers, then personality may still influence philosophers’ intuitions. For selection biases of philosophers, see Livengood et al. (2010) and Buckwalter and Stich (2011).

  20. 20.

    They operationally define and measure expertise with a reliable, validated psychometric test of knowledge of the free will debate.



Authorship is equal. We would like to thank Al Mele, Shaun Nichols, Jonathan Weinberg, Stephen Stich, Stewart Cohen, Eric Schulz, attendees at the Northwest Philosophy Conference, and attendees at the Experimental Philosophy Workshop in Wroclaw, Poland for helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper. We are also indebted to Gerd Gigerenzer and the Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, in Berlin, for support during the development of this project.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy and Interdisciplinary StudiesSchreiner UniversityKerrvilleUSA
  2. 2.Center for Adaptive Behavior and CognitionMax Planck Institute for Human DevelopmentBerlinGermany
  3. 3.Michigan Technological UniversityHoughtonUSA

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