What Do Philosophers Believe? Survey: Part I

What are the answers to The Big Questions? A survey was taken to discover what professional philosophers thought. We’ll have fun going through the questions and answers.

The results are, for no reason I can discern, presented in a different order than on the survey itself. I’ll follow the results page’s order. I group all “accepts” and “leans towards accepting” as saying “yes”, and similarly for “no”. For most questions, about 80% of philosophers answered “yes” or “no”, and about 20% said something else, like “Skip” or “I reject both.” This will be clear below.

  1. A priori knowledge: yes or no? 71% were inclined to say yes, 18% no. A priori knowledge are those things we know without empirical evidence. Logical probability hinges on the existences of a priori knowledge. In fact, all subjects do. Mathematics does: axioms and axiomatic rules are prime examples of facts that are accepted without proof. Since all that we eventually know rests on a base of what we cannot prove but must accept, you can say that our lives are based on faith.
  2. Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism? About 40% were inclined towards platonism, 40% towards nominalism. Individual pencils surely exist, but some are fat, others skinny. Some are short, other long. Yet we all know a pencil when we see it. Does an idealized form of “pencil” exist somewhere outside the universe, apart from the physical world, a form so pure that all actual pencils know it as their father? The “pencil” exists as an abstract object, along with “17.2” and other “numbers”, and the pure forms of all other things and thoughts. If you say so, you are a platonist (small ‘p’ because it’s not clear Plato himself was a platonist).

    If you disagree and say that there are no abstract objects such as “pencil” and “17.2”, you are one kind of nominalist, one that probably accepts universals. A thing is a universal only if it can be instantiated by more than one entity, where “instantiated” means brought into existence. If a thing cannot be instantiated by more than one entity, it is a particular. So, some say redness is a universal because red things are often instantiated: redness meets our test. But where does redness exist? Outside the universe as a pure form?

    Or is redness merely a definition of what happens between two actual, physical entities? I think something like this is true.

  3. Aesthetic value: objective or subjective? Take any blank piece of paper and any (real, instantiated) sharpened pencil. Hold the pencil to the paper, close your eyes, and in less than two minutes draw a picture of, say, the Last Supper; then open your eyes. Is your artwork beautiful? Is it as beautiful as da Vinci’s?

    If you hesitated for more than a microsecond to say “No!” to either question, then you are a subjectivist, along with 45% of academic philosophers. That set argues that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder and is nowhere else. This attitude might be what accounts for a lot of what passes for “art” today.

    But 41% of philosophers say that beauty can be objectively defined, even if we fail to define something as beautiful in a particular circumstance. Objectivists do not say that subjectivity has no role—as subjectivists do say objectivity has none—but they do insist that one thing can be more beautiful than another. As one piece of music can be more beautiful than another. For example, an objectivist would say the Beatles are what Mozart scrapped off his boot.

    I say objectivity is correct, but that does not necessarily mean that “beauty” is a platonic ideal. It could be that beauty is objective because what is beautiful conforms to something innate in our biology. Beauty, therefore, might not be unique but would exist is a narrow range.

  4. Analytic-synthetic distinction: yes or no? 65% said yes, 27% no. How do you know the sentence “All bachelors are unmarried” is true? Because you know that a bachelor means a man who is not married. This kind of sentence is analytic. Take the sentence: “Many bachelors are happy.” You can’t know it’s true by examining the definition of the words. Its truth could be determined externally. This kind of sentence is known as synthetic. The division was named by Kant; obviously, not all philosophers accept that such a division exists.

    The subject is complicated, but very briefly: some believe that we know things via intuition. But others say that since deeply held beliefs have been shown to be wrong before, intuition cannot be trusted. However, because intuition has been wrong before, it does not follow that it is always wrong.

    Actually, I don’t see this question as much different than the first.

Tomorrow: free will, is there an external world?, and the existence of God.

This article was inspired by Arts & Letters Daily, which linked to Intelligent Life and the article “What Do Philosophers Know?” by Anthony Gottlieb.

It’s national Pass On The Briggs month here at wmbriggs.com. If your interpretation of this phrase is on the generous side, email a link of this page to a friend who hasn’t been here before. The best kind of friend is one who has need of a statistician and who has a lot of money.


  1. DAV

    The thing about the pencil seems pointless.

    If I have an abstract model of an object in my head, be it pencil, chair or the letter ‘A’, is it a ‘pure’ object or is it my definition of the object? Does it really matter in the long run? (puns intended)

    Objective vs. subjective Aesthetics: Are Andy Warhol’s works beautiful? If there is any disagreement, doesn’t that imply subjectivity? Yet, there are some things most likely universally viewed as inherently beautiful. Certain landscapes, rainbows, the moon, whatever.

    ‘Bachelor’ may not be the best example. It’s a word, and words (nouns and verbs at least) are codes for concepts which are definitive in nature. Parallel lines might have been a better example although I personally view the axioms of geometry as definitions.

  2. Chuckles

    You can take a horse to the water, but a pencil must be lead?

  3. Speed

    “The PhilPapers Survey was a survey of professional philosophers and others … ”

    So the survey deals not with philosophers only but with the entire population of the earth without qualification. In any case, I’d like to know what is included in the populaton of “professional philosophers.”

  4. Bernie

    “Accepts” and “Leans towards accepting” and the obverse statements strike me as very different statements. It would be interesting to see which items produced the most emphatic responses, i.e., the highest % of Accepts and Rejects?
    I would have expected relatively low % in the emphatic positions. When I see questions of this ilk, most of the time I have to say “it depends” or “I am not sure”. I guess I have to go read Gottlieb.

  5. Briggs


    Right. But I’m not so much interested in how many believe this or that, but in what the right answers are.


    Of course there are right answers. That statement is itself the answer to one of the (upcoming) questions.

  6. Philosophers Kant Fienberg their Derrida’s in the Descartes.

  7. DAV

    Right answers?

    “A priori knowledge are those things we know without empirical evidence.”

    Doesn’t that pretty much cover all of philosophy?

  8. Doug M

    This is a storng philisophical consensus. The epistimology is settled!

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