This is part one in a theoretically indefinitely long series of posts about how philosophers respond to counterarguments and counterexamples to their claims. This post is about the Special Case response.
Suppose you are arguing for your favored thesis, claim P. It turns out that there is a clear counterexample to your claim that, if correct, renders your claim false. For example, you claim, as Socrates did, that all virtues are wisdom, that to be good is to know how to act. In response, someone says, "I knew that it was morally wrong to have sex with that intern, but I did it anyway." Thus, there is a clear counterexample to your claim.
You might now be tempted, with your favored claim shown definitively to be false, to back off that claim, to revise your view or reject it altogether. If so, I recommend a career in accountancy for you are clearly not made of the stuff of great philosophers. Overwhelming evidence of the falsity of one's claims is not a reason to change one's mind; it is only a test of one's mettle. Don't revise, attack.
There are lots of ways to face down such a counterexample, but, before talking about them, we need to make one thing clear. Do not ignore a counterexample or pretend it does not exist. You are much better off bringing it up yourself than having some reviewer think of it. But don't worry; this doesn't mean you need a real response. All you have to do is frame something in the form of a response whether it is meaningful or correct or not.
Today's example: The Special Case.
Amie Thomasson, writing in her anthology Phenomenology and the Philosophy of Mind (edited with David Woodruff-Smith), discusses the topic of self-knowledge. Self-knowledge has often been understood on a semi-perceptual, introspectionist, model, but there are significant problems with this approach. So, an alternative account would be particularly useful. Thomasson suggests that Husserl has already presented such an account, an account she calls a Transformationist account. On this account knowledge of one's first person mental states is a logical transformation of a statement about the external world into a statement about one's internal state. So, if the original state is "I perceive a tree," the transformed state is "There is a perception of a tree."
There are some obvious problems with the account. For example, suppose I make the statement when I have no conscious experience of a tree and am looking at a fire hydrant. In this case, my statement is not true and cannot be used to justify a claim that I have knowledge of my own internal state of perceiving a tree. So, how do we know to apply the Transformation, what renders some transformations acceptable as indicating self-knowledge and others not? Some transformations are based on conscious awareness (hint, hint: knowledge) of our internal states. So her account seems to presuppose self-knowledge rather than illuminate it. But that's not my point.
My point is to discuss a counterexample she considers. Some forms of self-knowledge clearly do not fit the model of transformation of perception of external object to internal state. For example, we make statements about our experiences, such as, the claim that one's vision is blurry, that are directly about internal states not external stimuli. Thus, some self-knowledge is possible without this transformation. And, significantly, this shows that we have not avoided the problems with the quasi-perceptual account of self-knowledge.
Her response is not to deny that these cases are possible but to describe them as a special case. This response, however, is as unjustified as it is irrelevant. First, it's not relevant. One's theory of self-knowledge should not be a theory of self-knowledge except in special cases in which cases one needs another theory. A theory of X ought to include all cases of X; if it doesn't, you haven't really got a theory of X.
Second, it's not justified. We can sometimes say when something is a special case of a more general theory. One way this can happen is if you can explain how the special case follows the general theory but appears not to do so because it applies only to a limited domain or involves certain conditions. For example, Newtonian mechanics is a special case of Einsteinian, relativistic, mechanics. The case still falls under the Einsteinian theory (hence, indicating something as a special case does not relieve you of the responsibility of explaining it) but it turns out that the parameters (here, low velocity) are such that we can make adequate predictions without using the full apparatus of the theory. We have an approximation that is good enough. In any case, in order to say something is a special case, you need a theory of all the cases and show why in this case your theory appears to be violated (e.g. it does not appear to involve time dilation). You cannot identify something as a special case of X unless you have a comprehensive theory of X that is confirmed by independent means. Otherwise, how do you know that this counterexample constitutes the special case rather than the standard one whereas your examples constitute the special case? Indeed, you cannot.
It is, as I said, possible to show that some example is a special case, but you need to have an independent analysis of that case that shows that, in fact, it really does fit under your theory but appears not to do so because of some constraints or simplifications in the description of the case. In Thomasson's case there is no independent explanation that provides this. So, remember that the "Special case" response is the last desperate act of a flailing philosopher (rather than the first act of Henry the Fifth), so use it sparingly.
Also remember: my example is, of course, a special case and philosophers nearly always reason perfectly and responsibly without resort to evasions.