DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-P045-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 02, 2022, from

5. The role of intuitions

Many fallibilist responses to the sceptic take as their starting point our ordinary intuitions about knowledge or our everyday pattern of knowledge attributions. But how exactly can our everyday pattern of knowledge attributions have force against sceptical arguments, since the sceptic is calling into question precisely these attributions?

The reason our ordinary intuitions about knowledge have force against the sceptic is that these intuitions persist even in the face of sceptical arguments. When we confront a sceptical argument, even though we may not be able to say where the argument goes wrong, we are reluctant to withdraw our everyday knowledge attributions. This is the basis of G.E. Moore’s famous response to sceptical arguments. Moore claimed to be more sure that he knew some things, for example, that he has a hand, than he is that the sceptical argument is sound. So even though he could not say where the sceptical argument goes wrong, he thought it more rational to suppose that there is a mistake in the sceptical argument than to suppose that the conclusion of the argument – we fail to know anything – is true (see Moore, G.E. §3; Commonsensism).

The sceptic could try to dismiss the significance of our reluctance to withdraw our everyday knowledge attributions as nothing more than the persistence of old habits. This persistence of our habitual ways of thinking about knowledge even after we have been confronted with sceptical arguments was noticed by Descartes and by Hume.

But in response, we can note that, often, we find our everyday pattern of knowledge attributions compelling even while we are in the midst of sincere philosophical reflection. The fact is that when we think about sceptical arguments, we often find ourselves pulled in two directions. We feel the pull of the sceptical argument and yet we remain reluctant to give up our claims to know. This phenomenon cannot be dismissed as nothing more than an unreflective habit. So the fallibilist can maintain that our everyday knowledge attributions reflect deep-seated intuitions about our concept of knowledge. Since our intuitions are a kind of data that any theory of knowledge must explain, they present a formidable challenge to the sceptical position.

Nevertheless, there is something unsatisfying about rejecting scepticism just because it conflicts with our intuitions about knowledge. For, again, it is hard to deny the force of the sceptical argument. And just as our intuitions about our everyday knowledge attributions present a problem for scepticism, so our sceptical intuitions present a challenge to our everyday knowledge attributions. If scepticism is a strongly counterintuitive view, then why do sceptical arguments have any grip on us at all? Why do we not immediately respond to sceptical arguments by objecting, for example, that sceptical hypotheses are too remote and fanciful to undermine our knowledge claims? (Either we can know that sceptical alternatives are false or we need not know they are false in order to know things about the external world.) Sometimes we are inclined to do just that. But the sceptical problem arises precisely because we cannot always sustain that attitude. Sometimes, when we consider sceptical arguments, we begin to worry that sceptical alternatives really do threaten our knowledge claims.

What we are confronting here is a paradox – a set of inconsistent propositions, each of which has considerable independent plausibility:

  1. We know some ordinary empirical propositions.

  2. We do not know that sceptical alternatives are false.

  3. If S knows q, and S knows that q entails not-h, then S knows not-h.

One of these propositions must be false (on the assumption that we know q entails not-h). Yet each of them is very difficult to deny. This is what explains our vacillation over scepticism. The arguments for scepticism and for fallibilism attempt to exploit the intuitions favourable to them. The sceptic appeals to (2) and (3), and concludes that (1) is false. Relevant alternatives fallibilism appeals to (1) and (2), and concludes that (3) is false. Modus ponens fallibilism appeals to (1) and (3), and concludes that (2) is false. Because each member of the set has independent plausibility, it seems arbitrary and unsatisfying to appeal to any two members of this triad as an argument against the third. Such a strategy does not provide what any successful resolution of a paradox should provide, namely an explanation of how the paradox arises in the first place. Any satisfying resolution of the paradox that defends our claims to know against the sceptic must explain the appeal of sceptical arguments. For it is that very appeal that gives rise to the paradox.

This is where Moore’s response to the sceptic goes wrong. Many philosophers think that Moore begged the question against scepticism. In a way he did, but no more so than the sceptic begs the question against him. Still, there is something quite unsatisfying, philosophically, about Moore’s treatment of the sceptical argument. But the problem with it is not that it begs the question against the sceptic. Rather the problem is that it fails to explain the dialectic force of sceptical arguments. Though it is possible that the apparent cogency of sceptical arguments is explained by some very subtle error in our reasoning, the simplicity of these arguments suggests that their appeal reveals something deep and important about our concept of knowledge. That is why we can learn much about the nature of knowledge by grappling with the problem of scepticism.

Citing this article:
Cohen, Stewart. The role of intuitions. Scepticism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-P045-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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