Does philosophy rely on intuitions? If so, and all of philosophy comes down to intuition, how can one person be deemed to be more rational than other? In this world, most would agree that you cannot be certain of anything, apart from your own experience. Thus for basically anything else, there is a certain level of faith involved in believing in quite literally anything. Does this de facto make no position more valid than any other?

Let's take the case of a flat earther vs. a person who believes that the earth is a sphere. Almost everyone would say the flat earther is being irrational. But both would have reasons to believe in things or simply take it on faith. A person who believes that the earth is a sphere may believe it for certain reasons. But those reasons themselves would need to be justified and so on. Sooner or later, you are going to come across axioms that you must believe on faith. Even if this person is literally in space and can literally see that the earth is a sphere, he would still have to believe, on faith, that he is not being controlled by some alien or that his brain isn't in a vat or that his brain is not hallucinating the image.

Of course, these explanations seem ridiculous, but even this ridiculousness seems to be based on intuition. Some of our intuitions arguably come from inductive inferences, but as Hume pointed out with the problem of induction, you can't even say that it is more probable that the Sun will rise tomorrow than a goblin devouring you tomorrow since that itself would depend on inductive inferences making it circular.

Does this mean that without factoring in assumptions and intuitions that themselves can't be non circularly justified, you can't even say that someone like a flat earther is being less rational than a person who believes the earth is a sphere?

More interestingly, if all of philosophy comes down to intuition, what makes a person who has no knowledge of philosophical subject matter less adept at coming to conclusions than someone who has experience in philosophical subject matter? To put it more crudely, why should I care more about what David Hume thinks about a topic than a random Joe?

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    a) This is a misuse of the term intuition, which is used to denote knowledge (and remarkably, knowledge of the future) without conscious logic/reasoning. Philosophical ideas might come from intuition (eg. perhaps the earth is flat!), but they are considered valid only when they have some logic behind it (no, it can't be flat because...) , that is, when the intuitive component is discarded. b) The term in Kant and others might mean "representation", which does not apply here, but confirms the term is misused.
    – RodolfoAP
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 3:50
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    Maybe we should first answer: what is philosophy? It's not idle or rhetorical, and there is no consensus. So, some philosophers may rely on intuition, some may not. I think many philosophers would put "intuition" in the same basked as "opinion", and aim for critical and rational thinking that would question intuition.
    – Frank
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 4:00
  • @RodolfoAP If it is knowledge that is not conscious, how would you experientially differentiate that from any other sort of hunch or guess or feeling that isn't based on knowledge? The end result is the same and I don't think this changes anything
    – user62907
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 4:04
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    See "Experimental Philosophy", especially sec. 3.1, for more info. Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 4:05
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    There is a big difference between "relies on" and "comes down to". Replace "philosophy" by "mathematics" or "science" in your question to see it. Philosophy also relies on theory building, complicated arguments and evidence, including that coming from mathematics and sciences, to refine those intuitions, elaborate them into conceptions and test if they fit together and work as intended. The evidence is taken more generalistically than in experimental sciences and the testing is vaguer, as the more abstract subject matter calls for, but the underlying approach is not that different.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 6:57

6 Answers 6


Does philosophy rely on intuition? Yes. Does that mean it is nothing more than hunches? No. To conclude so would be the rather elementary fallacy of composition:

The fallacy of composition is an informal fallacy that arises when one infers that something is true of the whole from the fact that it is true of some part of the whole.

Does making a pizza rely on tomatoes? Yes. Does that mean a pizza is nothing more than a pile of tomatoes? No. This sort of argument is gross and offensive to reason.

How is one person than more rational than another? Ahh, this is a challenging question. Epistemologists study rationality. Oxford Handbook on Rationality (GB) opens, if memory serves, with the prestigious Robert Audi who has a long and complicated introduction into what constitutes rationality, and it's complicated for a novice in philosophy, so you might be better off considering that rationality can be judged based on how a person thinks and behaves to achieve a goal, as an example. This is instrumental rationality (SEP). Obviously, some people are good at achieving their goals, and some are not, and therefore rationality can be judged by the proof in the pudding. Discussion about rationality can get complex because it often revolves around contemporary epistemological theory.

Is induction related to intuition? Sure. Does Hume's scandal of induction carry much weight to contemporary philosophers. I'm not sure it does. Most philosophers are comfortable with fallibilism (IEP):

Fallibilism is the epistemological thesis that no belief (theory, view, thesis, and so on) can ever be rationally supported or justified in a conclusive way. Always, there remains a possible doubt as to the truth of the belief.

Is cognition ultimately grounded in intuition? Absolutely. Chimpanzees don't have grammars and don't have philosophies, and they function at the intelligence level of a 3 or 4 year old child. The ability to conduct rational discourse, to engage in exploratory justification, and language use are hard to acquire skills, and all of them rely on intuition on one form or another. Does a chess grandmaster conduct mathematical models to win chess? Of course not. The clock would run out. A grandmaster relies on intuition. Most people most of the time are living their lives in habit and intuition. That's not a weakness, that's a strength. The notion of persons as Homo economicus has long been exorcised by modern science and philosophy. Human beings are subject to defeasible reason and bounded rationality (SEP). And if you think it's a trivial fact, then you have no idea how AI researchers struggle with replicating commonsense knowledge. At the heart of our general intelligence is intuition.

Is intuition faith of sorts? Absolutely not. Chess grandmasters don't win because they believe they'll win or because they pray to a higher being. They train and hone their intuition. If you want to understand what intuition really can accomplish, consider reading Gladwell's Blink:

[Blink] presents in popular science format research from psychology and behavioral economics on the adaptive unconscious: mental processes that work rapidly and automatically from relatively little information. It considers both the strengths of the adaptive unconscious, for example in expert judgment, and its pitfalls, such as prejudice and stereotypes.

Intuition is fallible, but that doesn't make it unreliable. Each and every day, most of us do most of what we do without consciously reasoning through things. That philosophers rely on it for language use and making judgements or creating arguments isn't really that special. And philosophy ultimately relies on many things other than intuition like informal and formal logic, mathematical logic, and sciences for a naturalized ontology and epistemology. In fact, in extreme forms, philosophy might be considered an an experimental, and thus empirical process (SEP).

Before you leap to more conclusions, I'd read some of the linked articles here so you move beyond philosophy-as-personal-speculation and into a more nuanced understanding of what constitutes philosophical practice. I'd particularly recommend you read An Introduction to Metaphilosophy (GB), a book in which 3 professional philosophers conduct a survey of the wide range of views about what philosophy is and how it works.

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    I feel like this is just semantics so I don't see how it violates the fallacy of composition. Nothing more than hunches does not literally mean nothing more than hunches but rather that the basis of a philosophical opinion may just fundamentally come down to hunches which themselves can't be justified
    – user62907
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 15:44
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    @thinkingman Well, rule 1. Semantics matters. Why? Because the meaning of words matters. In fact, contemporary philosophy is largely conceived of in terms of language. (See The Linguistic Turn.) I cannot compel you to consider the meaning of your words, but is any answer at all which doesn't consider the meaning of the words trustworthy? 2. The basis of not just philosophical opinion, but all language use now and forever operates on intuition. That's pscyholinguistics 101...
    – J D
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 16:02
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    Language use is always normative, and normativity is almost entirely based in intuition. 3. Intuition can be justified. The act of doing so is largely considered to be the core of philosophical method. Thus, when you make a prima facie argument based on intuition, then make a logical argument to support your prima facie argument, you arrive at a justified conclusion. Intuitions allow for language use, and language use (along with a health dose of experiment and experience) justify intuition. The human brain does 99.9% of it's work intuitively.
    – J D
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 16:05
  • We intuit. We rationalize. We assess. We repeat. Intuition is EVERYTHING the brain does without explicitly and consciously reasoning through a rule. Every child who has mastered a grammar by 5yo operates WHOLLY without being given the rules of the grammar, therefore almost ALL language use of a 5yo is intuitive. I'll presume you're not a linguist. That means almost all of YOUR language use is intuitive...
    – J D
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 16:08
  • Almost all language is rooted in opinion, and almost all opinion is intuition. Humans are not primarily reasonable creatures, and Homo economicus is mostly a fiction. See the somatic marker hypothesis.
    – J D
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 16:10

Philosophy challenges and formalises intuition

If you put some intuitive premises into a sound argument, you may end up with a false or unintuitive conclusion.

This then tells you that one of the premises were false, or the unintuitive conclusion is in fact true. This should lead to you changing your beliefs to end up with a consistent worldview, by rejecting some intuition.

We may intuitively know that the Earth is round. We could challenge this intuition and try to figure out what it's based on. This probably wouldn't fit so nicely into a logical argument, but we'd probably conclude that we believe this because the majority of the human race believes it, because we have photos of it from reputable sources, because trustable people have seen it with their own eyes and because scientific experiments have determined and verified this.

You could go further and try to figure out how good each of those reasons are. People having seen something, for example, may not be that reliable, as people claim to have seen Bigfoot or aliens. Or, more concretely, our senses have proven to not be perfectly reliable due to internal inconsistencies (e.g. seeing something that's there one moment, and gone the next, or you see a stranger in the dark that turns out to just be a coat rack), and what people claim has also proven to not be perfectly reliable.

(Flat Earthers realise the unreliability in a lot of the above, but the problem is that they exaggerate this and don't see the much greater unreliability that exists in their justification for their flat Earth belief.)

Eventually you may not be able to dig any deeper into why you believe what you believe.

However, on your way there, you could discover some things that you aren't justified in believing, and this could result in changing your beliefs to more justifiable ones.

That, ultimately, is the point: to understand why we believe what we believe and to refine and increase your knowledge.

Philosophy tries to dig down to our most fundamental intuitions (and challenge even those), whereas "random Joe"'s beliefs will be based on those same intuitions, but also on a whole lot of other implicit intuitions, any of which could be wrong. So basically philosophy reduces the number of places where you could be wrong.

It is not "faith"

One doesn't "take it on faith" that e.g. one isn't a brain in a vat. Instead, it is an unnecessary assumption that we have no evidence to support and no way to investigate, so we tentatively treat it as false.

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    +1 "Philosophy formalizes intuition". Beautifully stated!
    – J D
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 14:45
  • In a way it really is all based on faith, because we pretty much agree that there is a point where we can go no farther. So, it is "justified faith". Whether it is true faith or not is up to the person.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 19:06
  • @ScottRowe If a belief is justified by the evidence (or lack of evidence), and you proportion your belief according to the strength of evidence, then it isn't based on faith (at least not in the sense of "firm belief in the absence of proof", and also not in the sense of "strongly held belief" nor "complete trust", because all beliefs should be tentative).
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 20:06
  • @NotThatGuy You're assuming that evidence is objective. It is not. It may seem as such but that feeling would in turn come from intuitions arguably originally based on induction. Why is seeing that the earth is a globe enough evidence to conclude that it is? Because our sight is often reliable. Reliable in what sense? In the sense that what we verified by our sight can be sensed in other ways. It is based on induction and experience, but our sight at any moment can technically be unreliable at any moment. Thus, we have faith that it is. We have faith that nature will stay uniform for example.
    – user62907
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 20:23
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    you seem to think that faith trivially has no place in philosophy, which i assume is not the case.
    – user64727
    Commented Feb 23, 2023 at 2:53

I'm not a philosopher, so I don't know the technical terms.

But what distinguishes sound reasoning from fallacies is that it works. The conclusions you draw allow you to take actions that are usually successful, they allow you to draw further conclusions that are consistent with the real world, and get things done.

Consider the flat earth vs. round earth propositions. The first premise implies that if you travel too far you'll fall off the edge of the Earth, but no one has demonstrated this. On the other hand, the round earth premise implies that you can travel around the Earth, and this has been done numerous times.

Yes, the ultimate basis of all this is intuition about the world and logical processes. Philosophers of science have long debated the question of Why is mathematics so fantastically successful at describing the universe?.

Intuition is a product of evolution by natural selection. All animals (and even "lower" life forms) have this in some form, although as far as we know humans are the only ones who are able to reflect on it, and almost certainly the one ones who can discuss it. It evolved because it works: nature exhibits many regularities, and intuition learns those patterns, assumes they will persist, and makes automatic decisions on this basis. The organisms that do this best tend to win the "survival of the fittest" race, which tends to cause intuition to improve over time.

Like most results of evolution it's not perfect, but it's "good enough". Researchers in behavioral economics have noted many forms of false reasoning that are common among humans. But demonstrating these often requires establishing artificial situations -- our intuitive processes were honed when we mostly interacted with nature, which is not deliberately trying to fool us.

Intuition is not just guessing. If nature weren't generally consistent, it would be practically impossible for any organism to be successful in staying alive, since it would have to continually adapt to changing conditions. Investment companies are required to issue disclaimers that "past performance is not indicative of future results", but in nature it usually is, and intuition relies on this at the mental level. On the rare occasions when this is not true (e.g. asteroid collissions), there have been mass extinctions because lifeforms were not prepared for it.

  • Right. Your first paragraph is basically what my Philosophy professor said. I asked how we can tell in advance what will work, and he replied, "We can't." Thus, humanity.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 19:00
  • The argument doesn't really work as it stands, though. Even a braindead model like flat-earth could always be held up with ad-hoc fixes so it works -ish, stuff like “as you get close to the boundary, a time distortion field makes it so you never reach the boundary and instead divert to go around to it appears as if you come around”, and “space agencies are all in on the conspiracy” etc.. Where this fails is, Occam's razor and falsifiability. Commented Feb 23, 2023 at 14:41
  • @leftaroundabout Yes, this all runs into the "unable to prove a negative" problem. But we don't require proof, all we require is something good enough to get things done. Conspiracy theories may work as explanations, but they usually don't work as solutions. You need science and technology to build a steam engine, you can't do it with magical beliefs.
    – Barmar
    Commented Feb 23, 2023 at 16:17

Simply put, yes, however it is not based just on hunches.

to use your example, A flat earther is viewed as irrational, simply because the other side has a stronger argument. they each have their points but the majority can see one side has a vast river of evidence, while the other does not. the intuition of the majority tells them which side is more probable.

intuition changes person to person (due to differences in knowledge and experiences) however everyone can relatively reach a similar understanding.

With fallibilism, yes nothing can be proven, but one may use their intuition to state that one outcome is more likely than another, humans rely on intuition to make inferences and protect their thoughts and opinions.

Philosophy does not have a more rational point, nor can one truly be wrong. However in a sense one can be disproven or simply out argued, philosophy is a collection of complicated arguments to help hone intuitions, and show people every side of the coin. It isn't an act of faith to believe something, but a consensus based on the complicated arguments.



I guess the question is whether philosophical knowledge relies on intuition: if we need intuition to justify - not just generate - philosophical claims. Of course it depends on what you mean by intuition, though I guess you might you mean a belief that cannot be independently justified (that every "intuition" thought individually is unreliable).

If so, then prima facie it will depend on your theory of knowledge. e.g. if you're a coherentist then coherence is sufficient for knowledge, and it doesn't matter as much if our intuitions are not independently justifiable

The key question is what - if any - philosophical claims are rational, not whether we can only justify then with appeal to intuition.

Some philosophers equate intuitions with beliefs or with some kind of belief. For example, David Lewis writes,

Our “intuitions” are simply opinions; our philosophical theories are the same. Some are commonsensical, some are sophisticated; some are particular, some general; some are more firmly held, some less. But they are all opinions…. (1983: x

Are there skeptics about Lewis' "intuitions", I have no idea.

Skeptics about intuitions allege that we are not justified in believing the contents of our intuitions.

As a concluding note, obviously if (a big if) you are only justified in believing something based on the soundness or strength of one argument that is inferred form an intuition, then you are no more justified in believing the conclusion than the intuition (as deduction preserves the original probability and induction reduces it); that doesn't mean all arguments are as convincing.

However, just as inductive arguments are only as strong as the lines of evidence analyzed to reach the general conclusion, a deductive argument is only as good as the premises used to support the conclusion (Writing That Makes Sense, by David S. Hogsette - who "is Associate Professor of English and Writing Coordinator at the Old Westbury campus of the New York Institute of Technology, where he teaches composition, professional writing, and various upper-level literature courses.")

Fairly sure that should go without saying

  • i rushed that a bit, but i hope it's fine
    – user64727
    Commented Feb 23, 2023 at 0:07
  • i'm fairly sure the conclusion is right. it could be i'm not being bayesian enough in my psychology to understand that it isn't. but definitely, a deductive argument (not, of course, a conclusion we infer) is only as good as its premise, and inductive arguments are less reliable
    – user64727
    Commented Feb 23, 2023 at 1:14
  • just trying to find a quote for that ^ i certainly believe it anyway
    – user64727
    Commented Feb 23, 2023 at 1:27
  • yeah, i'm right "the inference can be presented as a deductive argument. (As always, such an argument is only as good as its premises.)" (Peter Godfrey-Smith is professor in the School of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Sydney)
    – user64727
    Commented Feb 23, 2023 at 1:31

Does philosophy rely on intuitions? If so, does this mean all of philosophy is nothing more than hunches?

Intuition is the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning. This is usually developed through experience. This is far more substantial than a "hunch"

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