This is the third in a series of guest posts* by Elijah Millgram (Utah) based on themes from his new book, The Great Endarkenment: Philosophy for an Age of Hyperspecialization. Earlier posts are here and here.
Doing It All by Yourself
by Elijah Millgram
Every now and again I troll my friends’ children, telling them that I have superpowers: I can fly, make my voice heard far away, even on the other side of the planet, read the minds of the dead and so on.
When the little boy insists that I cannot fly, I remind him that, just the other week, I flew to Milwaukee, that I just called his cousin in California, and that I’m right now rereading Hume’s Treatise. To which the almost invariable response is that it doesn’t count, because I can’t fly and so on by myself.
That’s entirely true; human beings do very little of what they do by themselves, in this sense. But what’s wrong with that? Birds fly “by themselves,” humans fly in airplanes, and why should it be better when we fly without availing ourselves of the standard means of flying, and also wear a cape and colorful tights? Grownups usually no longer have this sort of fantasy—except in one particular area.
Not all that long ago, we used to be able to make up our minds by ourselves, in something like this sense. Faced with a decision, or a question as to what to believe, people would think the matter through from scratch—if necessary, investigating previously held factual and evaluative assumptions.
Especially during the Enlightenment, this came to be regarded as the most important and worthwhile personal accomplishment: both the central moral duty, and what made people uniquely valuable. And the philosophers, who devoted themselves to analyzing just what this accomplishment was, had a special name for it: autonomy.
Times have changed. More and more, we’re dependent not just on other people, but on differently specialized other people. And over the last couple of centuries, specialization has become a qualitatively different sort of thing. You can literally no longer understand specialists in other fields; they work to standards you’re unable to make sense of, and which in any case aren’t your standards; some of these standards have to do with what counts as a correctly done argument. (They have a different logic than you do.) You can’t rethink the working premises they provide you, you can’t check that you’re using the materials they give you correctly in your own trains of thought, and you can be pretty sure they’re dumbed down for export to disciplinary outsiders.
And this is true of everyone: experts rely in just this way on experts in other fields. You can no longer decide what to think or to do by yourself; questions having to do with autonomy, as philosophers have equipped themselves to construe it, are simply moot. This Great Endarkenment poses successors to those questions, however, which now are philosophically—and practically—urgent.
When we collectively delegated the responsibility for figuring things out (all by themselves) to each and every person, that was us doing our best to get many important things done as well as possible. You would figure out how to spend your money, and the invisible hand of market would do its job; you would decide how you were voting, and the government would represent the interests of the people—just for instance.
Once we give up the nostalgic philosophical fantasy that is the equivalent of the child wanting to fly without an airplane (while sporting a blue body stocking and a large red cape), we will need to think hard about how the planes are going to stay up in the air: keeping them up there requires the cooperation of many, many different sorts of specialists, none of whom can properly understand or assess the work of the others.
For once, the philosophical puzzles are absolutely practical: old-fashioned autonomy is dead, and we have to answer the question of what can replace it, carefully but ASAP.