We philosophers like to appeal to intuitions to help advance our cases against, of course, rival views. They’re the closest thing we have to data: we appeal to these pre theoretical basics to ground our positions, they function as starting points and checks alike. Much has been written in the last 30 or so years arguing that our alleged intuitions are in fact primed heavily by culture and convention (and thus not so revealing about anything basic, after all), indeed some have called into question whether there even are such things as intuitions, at least as traditionally conceived.

Prison teaching surely puts the intuition theory to the test, on the ground, so to speak. The men in my group, even those with less radically different backgrounds from mine than you might think, have been changed by their time in prison, which really is like Twin Earth in many ways, or a social sci fi world, or… you get the idea. They not only experience a radical new social order but their relationship to almost all authority has been dramatically reoriented, their presumptions about the nature of things have been called into question, and as a result the men have a much keener eye than most for the utter conventionality of so much those of us outside of prison take so totally for granted that we treat it/them like they’re laws of nature. We haven’t read Kuhn, but I am confident these men would immediately get and endorse his favorite example of the Copernican revolution ushering in a new world, with changes in the structure of knowledge reverberating all the way down to having to redefine basic concepts.

Which brings me to our recent foray into critical thinking. My traditionally aged, and mostly privileged students accept pretty readily the textbook’s distinction between the descriptive and the emotive features of words’ meaning, and resist my attempts to add more nuance to what the textbook oversimplifies. (Full disclosure: I am one of the text’s editors, and I take some pleasure in taking the quite good book to task in a few places for oversimplifying some philosophically complicated concepts. Like this one.)  The men eagerly gave example after example in which the emotive and descriptive features of words couldn’t possibly be pried apart; topping the list of course were official terms mandated in and by the system, with special attention to euphemism starting with “correctional facility,”and ending somewhat laughingly with “food” for what they are served in the mess hall. It was liberating, it seemed, for them to be able to think through and spell out how what the terms actually mean depends on a complicated system of values and goals, politics and theory, and psychology and economics.

When we moved last week to talking about inductive arguments generally and arguments from analogy in particular, they jumped on the connections to the earlier material on meaning and definition, especially when I stressed the impliative nature of analogical reasoning, and the creativity called upon to come up with powerful analogies among sometimes wildly different things. Like the proverbial lightbulb going off one man remembered having heard about the famous Judith Jarvis Thomson example in “A Defense of Abortion” of the woman waking up finding herself attached to a famous violinist. After he explained the example, like any group hearing the case for the first time, this one divided up passionately on the question of what the hooked up person (how prescient of JJT to have used that language) should or should not, must or must not do. We lost sight for the rest of the meeting of the analogical structure of the case, but I can live with that for now. I’ve sent copies of the article to the prison for our next meeting, and hope they make it through the censor so that we can look at the actual argument she makes.



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