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Intuition pumps

If you look at the history of philosophy, you see that all the great and influential stuff has been technically full of holes but utterly memorable and vivid. They are what I call “intuition pumps” — lovely thought experiments. Like Plato’s cave, and Descartes’s evil demon, and Hobbes’ vision of the state of nature and the social contract, and even Kant’s idea of the categorical imperative. I don’t know of any philosopher who thinks any one of those is a logically sound argument for anything. But they’re wonderful imagination grabbers, jungle gyms for the imagination. They structure the way you think about a problem. These are the real legacy of the history of philosophy. A lot of philosophers have forgotten that, but I like to make intuition pumps.

I like to think I’m drifting back to what philosophy used to be, which has been forgotten in many quarters in philosophy during the last thirty or forty years, when philosophy has become a sometimes ridiculously technical and dry, logic-chopping subject for a lot of people — applied logic, applied mathematics. There’s always a place for that, but it’s nowhere near as big a place as a lot of people think.

I coined the term “intuition pump,” and its first use was derogatory. I applied it to John Searle’s “Chinese room,” which I said was not a proper argument but just an intuition pump. I went on to say that intuition pumps are fine if they’re used correctly, but they can also be misused. They’re not arguments, they’re stories. Instead of having a conclusion, they pump an intuition. They get you to say “Aha! Oh, I get it!”

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