REVIEW: Miranda Fricker’s “Why Female Intuition?”

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In “Why Female Intuition?” (1995), feminist epistemologist Miranda Fricker attacks the rationalist dualism between reason and intuition to argue that intuition has a fundamental part to play in human reasoning. Offering a more nuanced distinction between intuition and rationality, Fricker goes on to question and dismantle the widespread misogynist cultural attitude that proposes an essential link between intuition and women through the category of ‘female intuition’. By revising and reconceptualizing these troubled distinctions, Fricker hopes to achieve what she calls a “rich conception” of reason, which recognizes the essentially cooperative relationship between intuitive and thin rationalist modes of cognition. In this way, Fricker’s paper does a good amount of analytic work to break down the reason-versus-intuition dualism, even offering philosophical alternatives that don’t involve the wholesale rejection of the distinction between the cognitive modes. At the same time, the paper does the ethical and political work of problematizing the historical association of intuition with women and all things “female”.

On Intuition’s Relationship to Reason

Fricker draws on the work of Thomas Kuhn, specifically his claim that intuition is basic to reason, in order to convincingly challenge the reason-intuition dualism. Kuhn, a celebrated philosopher of science, held that scientific practice and research only takes place within a pre-decided framework for research, or a ‘paradigm’, which consists of a bunch of scientific assumptions. Kuhn further proposed the existence of two sorts of scientific practice: a) normal science, which has the conservative task of articulating this framework of assumptions, and b) revolutionary science, which occurs when scientists come across anomalies in the current paradigm that initiate a state of crisis, thereby paving the way for the entry and adoption of a new paradigm that explains the said anomalies. Kuhn argued that an alternative paradigm may only be imagined through intuition (triggered by a personal quirk or chance event), not rational deliberation (which, in Kuhn’s formulation, refers simply to the application of pre-established criteria or rules, i.e. ‘thin rationality’).

Crucially, Kuhn defined intuition as fundamentally reliant upon experience, as this basis in prior experience is what allows us to perform the intrinsically rational activity of recognizing that a new problem is like an old one--an activity that itself occurs in the form of an educated hunch. In Fricker’s Kuhnian view, therefore, intuition is a non-inferential, typically subconscious mode of hypothesis formation. In fact, following Michael Polanyi, Fricker goes so far as to argue that rational inquiry in general is heavily reliant upon intuition. This is a rich conception of reason, in that intuition, as a distinctive mode of cognition, is taken to be internal to reason, rather than opposed to it. Intuition is thus reified as rational, since there is an evidential relation between past experience and the intuitions that they may give rise to.

Questioning the ‘Female’ in ‘Female Intuition’

Keeping in mind the experiential character of intuition, Fricker challenges the widespread cultural notion that there exist certain intuitive capacities that only women have. This phenomenon, known as “female intuition”, Fricker argues, is nothing but a misogynist project of naturalization obscuring the historical fact that women, as a social group, have largely been relegated to the domestic sphere, and saddled exclusively with the numerous caregiving tasks that come with childcare and family management. Gender socialization and the relevant experiences of motherhood and childcare are what build in most women “a finely tuned awareness of the psychological and emotional undercurrents in family relations”, or a facility in “the interpretation of children’s behaviour”, says Fricker (240).

While this type of ‘maternal’ or ‘women’s’ intuition is more qualitative and emotion-based than the intuition of the scientific researcher, both types of intuition are structurally identical, for both “involve a capacity for generating hypotheses regarding a particular subject matter, where these hypotheses are subconsciously informed by a relevant range of past experiences'' (241). This insight leads Fricker to problematize the romantic mystification of intuition as a “primal, quasi-telapathic Maternal Instinct” that all women are deemed to have by virtue of their sex (242). This attitude, which Fricker says has often functioned as a “consolation prize for associating reason with masculinity” (242), actually undermines women’s skills by falsely naturalizing them as biological givens, rather than seeing them as skills that have to be learnt. Thus, there is nothing ‘female’ about intuition.

The Interchangeability of Intuition and Thin Reason

Bolstering her argument for the interchangeability of intuitive and thinly rational cognitive modes, Fricker brings up philosopher of mind Daniel Dennett’s generate-and-test schema. A strategy in AI programming, Dennett’s schema breaks down the problem-solver down into a generator (which proposes candidates for solutions to the problems) and a tester (which accepts or rejects them according to predetermined criteria). This model, says Fricker, utilizes a rich conception of reason, by highlighting the essential cooperation of the generative (intuition) and selective (thin reason) components of cognition.

However, there are three problems with Dennett’s generate-and-test model. First, says Fricker, it caricatures intuition as a random generator of ideas, whereas intuition actually has internal selective capacities and only sparks fortuitously. Second, the model ignores how intuition often plays a normative corrective role that thin rational argument is subject to, for instance when we reject philosophical arguments on the basis of their going against some commonly-held intuition. Third, the model doesn’t recognize that thin rationality can also generate ideas through a step-by-step logical progression. Thus, intuition and thin reason, suggests Fricker, can both perform the same tasks, and we need to use them according to a ‘reflective equilibrium’ that is context-sensitive.

Conclusion: The Holistic Structure of Philosophical Revolutions

Fricker acknowledges that in her paper, she reinforces the distinction between intuition and thin rationality. According to certain schools of radical and postmodern feminism, this distinction is a deeply problematic hierarchical and gendered dualism that is inherently oppressive to women, alongside the other dualisms (such as nature and culture, reason and emotion [or intuition], and positive and negative) that power the sexist system of implicit associations lying at the root of the Western intellectual tradition. In Fricker’s opinion, there doesn’t necessarily have to be a gendered or hierarchical component to the distinction between intuition and thin rationality. However, she notes that only a holistic revolution of philosophical thought that allows feminist tenets to pervade and thus transform our most basic assumptions would allow us to purge the distinction of its historically sexist character. This holistic revolution may only occur through a number of localized revolutions that reconceptualize our basic assumptions, and it is just such a localized revolution that Fricker intends her paper to be.

Viewed through a critical lens, “Why Female Intuition?” suffers from an issue that, even though Fricker acknowledges it in the paper, is serious enough to be highlighted in this review. In questioning the female-ness of female intuition, Fricker relies on an ahistorically rendered notion of female intuition that is also devoid of cultural grounding. While women’s intuition is a phenomenon that a number of cultures across the world acknowledge, there is a need for feminist ethnographic scholarship that critically engages with the question of how women’s intuition has been/is rendered in non-Western cultures, possibly prior to the advent of Western hegemony (if you, dear reader, can point me to the existence of such work, I’d be much obliged). Fricker does note that she is making no claims as to the universality or timelessness of the notion of female intuition that she is using in her paper, but in the interest of revolutions that are holistic both in scope as well as reach, it is important to keep in mind the varying geopolitical and cultural relevance of these troubled (and troubling!) sexist categories.

The author is a student of philosophy at the University of Delhi, India, and a member of The Philosophy Project. She is interested in feminist and virtue epistemology, social and political philosophy, anti-caste philosophy, and queer studies.

Works Cited

  • Dennett, Daniel (1979), Brainstorms, Brighton: Harvester Press.

  • Kuhn, Thomas (1970) (first published 1962), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press

  • Miranda Fricker (1995) Why female intuition? , Women: A Cultural Review, 6:2, 234-248, DOI: 10.1080/09574049508578239


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