I am making my way through Relativism and the Foundations of Philosophy by Steven D. Hales (MIT Press 2006). Chapter 1 discusses intuition and how it relates to knowledge; he sketches out "the problem of intuition" (loosely, in my own words: in some sense, philosophy seems to have foundations circularly based on intuition). At the end of the chapter he gives some general objections.

My confusion comes from one specific objection he refutes. It seems there is a claim (which he argues against) that says something like "there are no necessary truths, therefore intuition isn't a problem to the foundation of philosophy." Unlike the rest of the chapter, he states this quite briefly, and I don't follow why this is the case.

Here's the entire paragraph from the book, I bolded the conclusion I don't follow. Page 44 says:

Elgin's second strain of argument concerns alethic modality. Elgin agrees with the common view, defended here, that rational intuition generates beliefs about putative necessities. However, she denies that there are necessary truths. Therefore intuition has no epistemic role to play. [emphasis mine]. Her argument is that a genuine necessity would be "undeniable" and yet "we can almost always find a scenario in which a seemingly necessary truth looks merely possible" (Elgin 1996, p. 57). She thinks that to use modal locutions is to do no more than distinguish what is conceded and what is in question given some particular context of inquiry. As contexts of inquiry change, so do the propositions listed under the category of "necessary." There there are no authentically necessary truths that are so in all contexts of inquiry.

(Hales then goes on to discuss necessary truths.)

Elgin, Catherine Z. 1996. Considered Judgment. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

To summarize this question: I do not understand how the conclusion "Therefore intuition has no epistemic role to play" follows from the premise "denies that there are necessary truths."

Can anyone expand on what this argument is?

  • 1
    I thought it might be worth posting a link to a fairly recent discussion of intuition: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/49364/… Mathematical 'subitism' is an example of an apparently 'a priori' intuition which might challenge the no epistemology from intuition view, eg. it's presence in animals unlike us bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06pt0bk
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Oct 8, 2018 at 16:32
  • 2
    The implied argument seems to be: we only need intuition to uncover (presumed) necessities, there are no necessities, therefore we do not need intuition. The "only" seems very dubious to me, but perhaps either for Elgin (as for Kant) only necessary truths deserve the label of "knowledge" or, more likely, for all other kinds of knowledge we have more reliable sources than intuition. So even if it is not entirely pointless it is epistemically superseded.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 8, 2018 at 22:21

3 Answers 3


The syllogism is actually quite clearly presented:

  • The epistemic role of intuition is to ground putative necessary truths
  • There are no necessary truths
  • Therefore, there is no epistemic role for intuition

You could argue that Hales hasn't suitably demonstrated premise 1, and that intuition might play epistemic roles other than for determining the necessary (or, more naturally, the a priori) truths of our theories. However, he's quoting a secondary source for this, so you might need to dig into what Elgin has to say in order to understand both of their respective positions.

  • It's not clear on the objection, but (after re-reading the chapter) Hales does seem to think the only role of rational intution is to "generate beliefs about putative necessary truths." I think it is implied this is the only role of intution, but he never says as much in so many words, so I missed that point. Anyways, it seems obvious when you point it out, so thanks.
    – BurnsBA
    Commented Oct 11, 2018 at 2:43

This is simply a development of the answer given by Paul Ross above.

Traditionnaly, since at least Aristotle, science is considererd as a system of necessary truths ( According to Aristotle, only universal and necessary truths can be known scientifically. The alleged reason is that : if a truth is contingent, it means that its object is contingent; if the object is contingent, it might change; if it changes, what was previously true of it becomes false; so, a truth regarding a contingent matter is always provisional; but scientific truth has to be, so to say, " final" , valid " once and for all", unless there is no genuine certainty; for remember " episteme" means somthing like a " stopping on " truth.)

Now, the necessity of the scientific conclusions is derivative, not original. Scientific conclusions are proved.

So scientific conclusions have to rest on principles. These principles have to be necessarily true, but they cannot be proved, unless there would be an infinite regress.

How will principles be known?

Since they cannot be known through a reasoning, they have to be known immediately. But immediate knowledge is called " intuition" ( here intellectual intuition).

Reference : Aristotle, Posterior Analytics.


What I believe is meant here is that there isn't a certain "necessary" truth, especially intuition is something that is usually baseless, most epistemic answers are based on something very much else than intuition.

Most of the epistemic theories and arguments are based on the possible worlds model. I believe what he is trying to say here is that the answer doesn't have a role for intuition to come in and the truth has to be proven in another way instead of using intuition, because intuition is never "the truth"

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .