Are Intuitions Reliable Enough for Political Theorising?

Political theorists have a number of different tools in their methodological toolkits. A great deal of political theorising is done with reference to empirical data, whereas others look to history to show how certain ideas were shaped by the historical contexts from which they emerged. Other theorists draw on tools like archival sources; however, one of the most prominent methodological tools for analytic political theorists and philosophers are intuitions.

Intuitions are defined in various ways by various different philosophers of mind and philosophers of language. These definitions tend to revolve around a set of shared assumptions but also differ to varying degrees. Given this contestation, the definition I rely on is broad. That is, that intuitions are a kind of mental state – akin to an opinion or belief – that is formed without explicit or considered reasoning. In other words, intuitions are a kind of non-conscious inference from data.

The use of intuitions by political theorists spans various kinds of conceptual claims. These include claims and definitions of justice, democracy, equality, and freedom. For example, our theories of freedom are expected to be consistent with certain intuitions about freedom. Other uses of intuitions prompt us to make common-sense or intuitive comparisons of degrees of freedom. The point here is that intuitions form a central part of a particular set of debates in contemporary political theorising.

Just as political theorists rely on intuitions, they also subject them to critique. Recent trends in the study of methods in political theory have raised serious doubts about the role of intuitions in political theorising. These critiques include those from the perspective of the history of ideas, and the perspective of genealogy and ideology critique. These critiques of intuitions ask political theorists to be cautious when relying on intuitions uncritically, as they can be biased or bugged by, for example, classic texts in the history of ideas. In a similar vein, certain arguments might rely on intuitions in a way that ignores the relevant historical and social facts.

While these approaches capture a particular perspective of intuition critique, I argue that any critique of intuitions needs to incorporate a systematic view of how intuitions are formed and shaped by our experiences in the world. In order to provide this view, I draw on various mental heuristics, processes, and shortcuts from experimental and cognitive psychology.

These heuristics include the availability heuristic, anchoring and default rules, and nudges. The availability heuristic is where our assessments of the likelihood of an event are made with reference to similar events. For example, a plane crash will result in increased media reports regarding air safety, which will affect an individual’s perceptions about the safety of flying. Anchoring is where our intuitions are shaped by a starting point. Lastly, nudges are where the state employs covert mechanisms to shape behaviour and perceptions.

What each of these heuristics, biases, and shortcuts illustrate is that the way our intuitions are formed and shaped by the world has the potential to affect the intuitions used by political theorists. To explore how this might result in our intuitions being biased, I set out three categories of potential biases, resulting from various features of the world. These categories are parochialism, where intuitions are shaped and biased by the set of political institutions in which we live; endogeneity, where the motivations of political agents feed into our intuitions via institutions; and idiosyncrasy, where the contingent life history of individuals can shape and bias intuitions on the level of the individual.

These potential sources of bias, together with the critiques from the history of ideas and ideology critique, raise serious questions about the continuing use of intuitions altogether. We might, for example, need to question the very use of intuitions themselves, and find some other basis for political theorising. On the other hand, we might need to abandon the use of certain intuitions for certain political arguments. A further option that I explore is attempting to use techniques from fields such as survey methods to try and overcome these biases.

The specific technique for overcoming and addressing bias will depend on the potential source of bias. When it comes to parochialism, we can use comparative political theory to provide greater knowledge of institutional context for certain intuitions. Addressing endogeneity could resemble prompting people to ignore certain features of their surroundings to ensure our intuitions are unbiased by the motivations of others. Lastly, addressing issues of idiosyncrasy might resemble only gathering intuitions from certain groups of people with shared backgrounds or life experiences.

All of this, however, brings us back to the broader issue of the reliability of intuitions for political theory. Having put the use of intuitions under such pressure forces us to grapple with the idea that we cannot rely on intuitions in a completely uncritical way. It is not enough to say that something is ‘intuitive’ without going to some length to show that the intuition is not arbitrary or problematic. Recognising that intuitions are problematic requires a theorist to either rely on another methodological tool or use some mechanism to ensure the intuition is not problematic. In either case, the result is a set of serious methodological questions about the reliability of intuitions.

This blog piece is based on the article “Assessing the Use of Intuitions in Contemporary Political Theory” by Edmund Handby, forthcoming in the Journal of Politics, July 2022.

About the Author

Edmund Handby is a Ph.D. Candidate at the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University. His research interests include methods in political theory and the history of ideas, conceptual change, and the concept of political representation. He has also published on the use of classroom games to teach contemporary political theory. You can read more about his work here, and reach him @EdmundHandby on Twitter.