Philosophy Within Its Proper Bounds: The Method of Cases

In the previous post, I introduced the method of cases: To find out whether modal claims are true, philosophers describe actual and possible situations and assess what facts hold in these situations. For instance, following Gettier’s classic paper, to determine whether, necessarily, someone knows that pif and only if she has a justified true belief that p, philosophers have described possible situations where an agent has a justified true belief that p, but do not know that p. The modal claim is then judged to be false. In today’s post, I characterize the method of cases more precisely.

Let’s start with the notion of a case. A case just is a description of an actual or a possible situation. A philosophical case is a case that is of philosophical relevance. Gettier cases, the fake barn case, the Gödel case, the Twin Earth case, the Frankfurt case, the last man on earth case, the trolley cases, the society of music lovers case are paradigmatic examples of philosophical cases. Part of the descriptive content of a case is irrelevant to the philosophical issue it is meant to bear on: I call this “its superficial content.” The part that is relevant is “its target content.” Gettier cases vary in their respective superficial content, but have the same target content.

Cases are used for many reasons in philosophy, most of which are unobjectionable. They can be illustrative: They are then used to illustrate the analysis of a concept or a theory. They can be provocative: They are then used to elicit philosophical puzzlement in order to get philosophical theorizing started. They are also used to assess modal principles (e.g., the reduction of knowledge to justified true belief or the principle of alternate possibilities) or to assess proposed analyses of concepts. I reserve the expression “method of cases” for this kind of use. When they are used to assess modal principles, they bear on knowledge, responsibility, causation, identity, permissibility, fairness, etc., themselves: Cases are then used “in the material mode.” When they are used to assess the analysis of concepts, they bear on the concepts of knowledge, responsibility, causation, identity, permissibility, fairness, etc. (or the meaning of the words expressing these concepts in some natural language): Cases are then used in the “formal mode.” Much of Philosophy Within Its Proper Bounds is concerned with the method of cases used in the material mode. (We’ll discuss its use in the formal mode in the last post of this series.)

Surprisingly given its common use, there is an intense debate in metaphilosophy about the nature of the method of cases. Chapter 1 of Philosophy Within Its Proper Bounds engages with an aspect of this debate: What kind of attitudes do cases elicit? When one reads the Gödel case, what kind of attitudes does the reader form about the situation described by this case? To address this question, I distinguish three families of views: exceptionalist, particularist, and minimalist theories.

Exceptionalist theories hold that the propositional attitude elicited by a philosophical case is either not a judgment at all or, if it is a judgment, it is an unusual judgment, one that differs from the judgments we make in our everyday life. Philosophers often use the expression “intuition” to refer to these attitudes. To characterize them, philosophers appeal to either epistemic properties (aprioricity), or semantic properties (analyticity), or phenomenological properties. Bealer, Sosa, and many others hold exceptionalist views about the method of cases.

Particularist theories hold that the propositional attitude elicited by a philosophical case is a particular kind of everyday judgment. Particularly influential is the view that philosophical cases elicit a quick, unreflective judgment. At least in some of her writings, Jennifer Nagel holds a view of this sort.

Finally, minimalist theories hold that the propositional attitudes elicited by philosophical cases just are everyday judgments. They are judgments; no property distinguishes them from everyday judgment; and they are not unified by a particular type of property. (Some are slow, others are fast; some have a particular phenomenology, others do not; etc.) Cappelen and Williamson endorse minimalist theories of the method of cases.

Philosophy Within Its Proper Bounds defends a minimalist version of the method of cases. The judgments we make in response to a philosophical case are not different in kind from the judgments we make when we read an article in a newspaper or a passage in a novel: They are judgments about situations described by texts. No epistemic or semantic property distinguishes them. Thus, I reject strongly the idea that philosophical cases elicit intuitions, however intuitions are understood. This is a mischaracterization of what we philosophers do.

To show that minimalism is the correct approach to the method of cases, I propose two adequacy conditions. According to Philosophical Adequacy, an adequate characterization cannot appeal to empty notions or to notions that are not useful to characterize the method of cases. According to Descriptive Adequacy, an adequate characterization must be in line with how philosophers use cases.

I argue that exceptionalist and particularist theories fail to meet these adequacy conditions. In particular, I criticize the appeal to semantic and epistemic analyticity as well as to conceptual competence by many exceptionalist theories: Either there is no such thing as semantic or epistemic analyticity and no such thing as conceptual competence, or if they are such things, these notions are of no use to characterize the judgments elicited by cases: These judgments are neither plausibly viewed as semantically or epistemically analytic nor do they express people’s conceptual competence. I also reject the notion of irreducible intuitions (Bealer, Chudnoff): There is no good reason to postulate such propositional attitudes; the phenomena taken to call for intuitions that can’t be reduced to judgments are well accounted for by referring to mere dispositions to judge.

So, when philosophers appeal to cases they merely make judgments about the situations described by these cases, as they also do when they read fictional and non-fictional texts. To make these judgments, they appeal to all their relevant beliefs, and they are justified in exactly the same way their judgments about the situations described by fictional and non-fictional texts are justified (whatever that is).

So, perhaps remarkably, I agree with the characterization of the method of cases embraced by some of the most critical opponents of experimental philosophy: Philosophers do not use intuitions; the judgments involved in philosophy are continuous with everyday judgments; and what bears on the modal principles at stake in modally immodest philosophical issues are the facts that hold in the situations described by cases, not the judgments themselves. However, as we will see in the next posts, my agreement with the defenders of traditional philosophical methodology ends there. The lesson, then, is that the argument against the method of cases does not require any controversial view about the method of cases: Even if one endorses the characterization of the method of cases embraced by its defenders, the method of cases is indefensible.