The Origins of Modal Error
Bealer (George)
Source: Dialectica 58:1 (2004), pp. 11-42
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Philosophers Index Abstract

    Modal1 intuitions are the primary source of modal2 knowledge but also of modal3 error. According to the theory of modal4 error in this paper, modal5 intuitions retain their evidential force in spite of their fallibility, and erroneous modal6 intuitions are in principle identifiable and eliminable by subjecting our intuitions to a priori dialectic. After an inventory of standard sources of modal7 error, two further sources are examined in detail. The first source – namely, the failure to distinguish between metaphysical possibility and various kinds of epistemic possibility – turns out to be comparatively easy to untangle and poses little threat to intuition-driven philosophical investigation. The second source is the local (i.e., temporary) misunderstanding of one’s concepts (as opposed to outright Burgean misunderstanding). This pathology may be understood on analogy with a patient who is given a clean bill of health at his annual check-up, despite his having a cold at the time of the check-up: although the patient’s health is locally (temporarily) disrupted, his overall health is sufficiently good to enable him to overcome the cold without external intervention. Even when our understanding of certain pivotal concepts has lapsed locally, our larger body of intuitions is sufficiently reliable to allow us, without intervention, to ferret out the modal8 errors resulting from this lapse in understanding by means of dialectic and/or a process of a priori reflection. This source of modal9 error, and our capacity to overcome it, has wide-ranging implications for philosophical method – including, in particular, its promise for disarming skepticism about the classical method of intuition-driven philosophical investigation itself. Indeed, it is shown that skeptical accounts of modal10 error (e.g., the accounts given by Hill, Levin, and several others) are ultimately self-defeating.

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