I am coming at this from outside philosophy, though I have had a lifelong amateur interest. It seems to me that rigorous philosophical writing sets out clear axioms before using propositional logic to deduce statements about the condition of the world. The obvious benefit of this approach is, assuming the reader accepts the axioms and the logic is sound, that the conclusion should be effectively irrefutable (unless you believe in some other logical paradigm, e.g. you are an intuitionist and believe that P is distinct from not-not-P).

When I read or listen to disagreements, they almost invariably tend to fall on the axioms themselves, and not on some faulty reasoning in the main arguments. Axioms tend to be intuitively obvious and appealing, hence their appeal in being chosen. In effect, their acceptance hinges on the whether the reader has the same intuition as the writer that the statement is self-evidently true.

If this lever in the reader's mind fails to be pulled, the argument falls away. The supremeness of intuition is attested to in just about any question of substance -- the inability to reconcile determinists and compatibilists in philosophy faculties, for example, though the question of free will has been around for millennia.

Do all serious disagreements in philosophy come down to these differences in intuition, rather than faulty logic?

  • It would help me to have a couple of examples of intuitive axioms. Axioms may often be speculative but I'm not sure what 'intuitive' means in relation to them. If they're 'intuitive' in the sense of Descartes' 'I am' then they are inarguable. Otherwise, for uncertain axioms, are they not simply speculative?
    – user20253
    Jun 6, 2018 at 13:27
  • IMO, it is hard to find logical fallacies in philosophical arguments by Masters of Thinking (Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, etc.). "Obviously" the disagreement is (has always been) on the sort of evidence supporting non trivial first principle. The history of philosophy shows that there is no seemingly (according to philosopher A) evident principle that has not been rejected as absurd by someone else. Jun 6, 2018 at 13:45
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    In addition, I think that by propositional logic alone you cannot deduce any interesting consequence from first principles... Jun 6, 2018 at 13:47
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    I think you have the morally right idea, but... Where did you see "rigorous philosophical writing with clear axioms" or "using propositional logic to deduce statements about the condition of the world"? Philosophy is not mathematics, or even science, and one would not get very far with axioms and propositional logic even in science. Philosophical arguments rely on more or less plausible inferences, not only deductive but inductive and abductive also (hence impossibility of "axioms"), and the judgments of plausibility themselves are often implicit and subjective. One could call that "intuition"
    – Conifold
    Jun 6, 2018 at 18:13
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    Actually, I've been thinking a bit on this subject the past week, but have approached it from a different angle- it seems to me that the disagreements mainly fall on what the philosopher is attempting to achieve, and what is his base for it (e.g. a philosopher can attempt to achieve a naturalist worldview, with the base of egocentric approach, and another with the same goal but having a geo-centric base would have two completely different results that'd simply won't be bridgeable, unless these two premises would change). That can be found in every philosophical disagreement. Jul 9, 2018 at 20:01

2 Answers 2


Do all serious disagreements in philosophy come down to these [axiomatic] differences in intuition?

Intuitions are not axiomatic and logic tells us nothing about the way things are. Differences and disagreements in philosophy usually have nothing to do with logic. Usually, at least in modern philosophy in the west, disagreements stem from presumably ineluctable "foundationism" and its problems, left over from Descartes and Kant. Meaning, as Sellers rejects, that there is a "given" in philosophy that entails our task as "What is mind?" and "How do we get thoughts to represent accurately?" Classic disagreements then would be, for instance, Clifford and James over the ethics of belief, Kant, Quine, Sellers and foundationalism and synthetic/analytic distiction, Putnam and Rorty and the success [or failure] of epistemology and truth.

It bears repeating logic is only a formal description of how folks think, aiding us in clear thinking, it doesn't entail truth, and it tells us nothing at all about reality.

I will say that you're absolutely right, however, in noting that logic itself isn't compelling; one must be moved to agree with it and this is entirely apart from merely applying formal logic to any given proposition. For instance, if we suppose there can be no evidence for transcendent realities and we argue over the existence of said realities, then we use logic alone to do so. In that case, if both sides present sound arguments for and against, the fact that each has a necessary conclusion demonstrates this point as soon as a person finds one or the other to be more likely the case. It wouldn't be logic that's compelling but one's total impressions of the world helping us into a disposition about the proposition's conclusion (an idea expressed in Seller's Coherence Theory Of Truth).

“Of these two conditions, the logician as such is concerned only with the first [validity]; the second, the determination of the truth or falsity of the premises, is the task of some special discipline or of common observation appropriate to the subject matter of the argument.”


“When the conclusion of an argument is correctly deducible from its premises, the inference from the premises to the conclusion is said to be (deductively) valid, irrespective of whether the premises are true or false."


“The bottom line is that logic alone can tell us nothing new about the real world.”


“Traditionally logic was considered a normative description of the workings of an ideal mind.”


“[The principles of logic] are non-contingent, in the sense that they do not depend on any particular accidental features of the world. Physics and the other empirical sciences investigate the way the world actually is.”


“The principles of logic … are derived using reasoning only, and their validity does not depend on any contingent features of the world.”


“… the proof of the validity of these inferences depends upon the assumption of the truth of certain general statements concerning relatives.”



How to explain philosophical disagreements ? A broad variety of considerations play their part but I am not inclined to put all or even most philosophical disagreements down to differences in intuition as will become clear.


'Intuition' is a term with many shades of meaning. Some at least of these must be noted :

▻ Intuition as knowledge of self-evident truth - and particularly (in Descartes) of truths which are foundational to all knowledge and reasoning. (Regulae, XII.)

▻ Singular and immediate representation of particular objects via the senses (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, A49, B72).

▻ Belief instantly produced without prior deliberation.

▻ A hunch, a sense, a feeling that things are thus-and-so on recognisedly imcomplete evidence.

My own intuition or hunch is that the kinds of intuition relevant to the question are the third and fourth.

Time now to explore the sources of philosophical disagreements.

Evidence and judgement

Some philosophical disagreements arise from inferior evidential situations (unrecognisedly incomplete evidence) or inferior judgement between the disputants. I am not espousing rampant elitism. But I have known, for example, disputes about whether physical objects are 'really' coloured or whether we merely see them as coloured where one side is simply ignorant of the physics and neurophysiology of vision. The dispute is philosophical to the extent that it affects the question whether we should include coloured objects in our ontology; and it connects with philosophical issues over primary and secondary qualities which date from Locke (Essay concerning Human Understanding, 1690, II.viii.8) and earlier. There can also be and are inferiorities of judgement as when someone cannot see that 'If p then q; q : therefore p' is a fallacious argument (here the fallacy is that of affirming the consequent).

Failure to suspend judgement

There are cases where philosophers who are epistemic peers - all as clever, well-informed, &c. as the others - disagree. I should say that modal realism about possible worlds in ontology and the issues between internalism and externalism in epistemology are examples of this. The right response to this situation, since there are strong arguments on both sides but no decisive arguments on either side, is suspension of judgement. But some philosophers are unable or unwilling to see that the disagreement of their epistemic peers is evidence of which they should take account, and back their own judgement dogmatically and, as I should say, irrationally. (If you reject my examples, you can find others that fit the case.) I take 'judgement' here to be more than a belief instantly produced without prior deliberation or a hunch.

Failure of full analysis

When there are entrenched disputes that seemingly resist resolution, it is sometimes the case that the disputants are at cross purposes. In the famous dispute in the 1950s between Philippa Foot's 'naturalism' and R.M. Hare's prescriptivism in ethics, it eventually became clear that they simply had different views of the nature of morality. Foot tied moral judgements to considerations of benefit and harm; Hare ignored content (at least in his earlier work) and counted anything as a moral judgement or principle as long as (a) you were prepared and motivated to act on it and (b) you were willing for others to act on it in the same circumstances as your own. (A bit simplified.) Foot and Hare did disagree but largely they were at cross purposes about the nature of morality : each stipulated different criteria for a judgement or principle to count as 'moral'. In this kind of disagreement more is likely to be invovled than beliefs instantly produced without prior deliberation or hunches.

Situational ethical disagreements

Ethical disagreements can arise from other sources than cross purposes. Nearly always in a moral dispute factual considerations are involved. I do not need to enter here into the viability of the fact/ value distinction or the proscription on deriving an 'ought' from an 'is'. Simply consider the question whether the Second Gulf War (2003) was a just war. At least part of the issue turned on whether in fact Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. The justness or otherwise of the war involved many other considerations but this was at least one consideration, whatever weight one attaches to it. If Saddam did not have WMD then this part of the moral case for the war - this ground of entitlement to call it a just war - was eliminated. Here was factual disagreement here, which informed (or misinformed) and coloured the just war argument. There appears no role for intuition here, simply a disagreement over the reliability of information.

Inconsistent intuitions

A place for intuition at last ! There are two possible solutions to the Newcomb Problem, a paradox in decision theory presented by Robert Nozick in 1969 : the one-box solution and the two-box solution. There are strong intuitive arguments for both solutions; and decision theorists divide accordingly. There has been a slight shift towards favouring the two-box solution. But there is, as far as I know, no appeal beyond intuition (in the sense of hunch or feeling for what's correct).


There is a place for differences of intuition in explaining philosophical disagreements but several other factors can also produce disagreement.


R. Nozick, 'Newcomb's Problem and Two Principles of Rational Choice', reprinted in Socratic Puzzles, Cambridge, Mass : Harvard University Press, 1997, 44-73.

Richard Feldman & Ted. A. Warfield, ed., Disagreement, Oxford : OUP, 2010.

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