Doing It All By Yourself (guest post by Elijah Millgram)

Doing It All By Yourself (guest post by Elijah Millgram)

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 HyperspecializationEarlier 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.

Beyond the Ivory Tower. Workshop for academics on writing short pieces for wide audiences on big questions. Taking place October 18th to 19th. Application deadline July 30th. Funding provided.
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Buck Field
9 years ago

Wonderful post! For a general audience treatment in this train of thought, I’d like to recommend Deadly Decisions: How False Knowledge Sank the Titanic, Blew Up the Shuttle, and Led America into War.

Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins
9 years ago

I agree that there seems to have been a dramatic change in the way “we humans,” and perhaps especially academics, think in this day of hyperspecialization, compared to the way we thought a century or two ago. For one thing, philosophers used to keep themselves abreast of much of the current thinking in science, before “science” became “the sciences,” and philosophy became another thing entirely; and I suspect, moreover, that the average person was far more likely to have been thinking in terms of realities like how the crops were growing in the field instead of abstractions like credit scores and interest rates. But I very much disagree that, recognizing the changed reality in which we are now living, we should give up altogether on the notion of having autonomy, the capacity to “think matters through from scratch” and question previously held assumptions, simply because of its apparent explosion into knowledge bits and intentionally misleading sound bites.

We live in one world–a world with many human-created problems–and there are urgent questions about how we are going to continue living in this world, questions that philosophers should be addressing instead of allowing themselves to float off into other “possible worlds” where none of these problems pertain. And there are certain “basic things” that everyone should still know, in order to live sensibly in the world: that we are a form of animal life, dependent on appropriate food, water and other necessities, and therefore dependent upon a relatively stable planetary regime in order to keep all the complex processes underlying ecological “food chains” going, for example. Philosophers and other academics, moreover, should take the time to grasp at least the “basics” of fields that investigate the “how things are” of our common reality, as their predecessors once did, and to try to make their philosophical positions coherent with an integrated view of the whole. Our “metaphysics,” for example, could stand to be updated by taking into consideration the genetic and biochemical commonality, as well as interdependence, of the entire “Tree of Life,” coupled with the growing realization that some sort of awareness must go “all the way down”–how might this change our thoughts about tired topics like “mind/body” and “free will vs determinism”?

I happen to think it would strengthen the case for our human power to make choices and change our actions, as well as for our ability to share a common reality once again, instead of dwelling in tiny fragments of it–in other words, I think a very good case can be made for our possessing and exercising both intellectual and moral autonomy, should we bother to develop these capacities instead of allowing the “endarkening” to proceed further.

Ram Neta
Ram Neta
9 years ago

Fascinating post, once again.

But is my reliance on others (for information and guidance) inconsistent with my living up to some previously more fully achievable ideal of autonomy? I would have thought that autonomy is not so much a matter of Thoreauvian self-reliance, but rather of responsibility. In deciding which house to buy, I might accept the guidance of my realtor and my financial advisor, but only I am responsible for my decision. Perhaps, though, responsibility is somehow mitigated by reliance on the information and guidance of others…?

David Sobel
David Sobel
9 years ago

As best I recall, Robert Paul Wolff had a similar thesis in A Defense of Anarchy. He claimed that living under a government undermined one’s autonomy because one is reliant (in a way I felt was under-specified) on others. I didn’t buy it, nor the vague picture of autonomy he offered, but it might prove a useful comparison.

Elijah Millgram
9 years ago

I do agree with Ronnie Hawkins that there’s a lot to be said for people learning
the basics of other fields. But there are complications. One is that there are too
many other fields to learn the basics of all of them. Another is that what gets
learned is, well, simplified for export (typically in the form of an undergrad
textbook), and if you don’t understand how this happens, what you learn can
be positively misleading. In our own case, philosophers often enough turn the oversimplified
(and frequently just plain dumbed down) version of some science they
encountered as undergrads into metaphysical renderings of their world. (Think
standard expressions of physicalism; a good corrective in the philosophical
literature might be Mark Wilson’s Wandering Significance.) The Great Endarkenment
argues that a better strategy is creating incentives for more people to have competences
in *two* fields, and in particular, incentives for philosophers to have such
a second competence.

I also agree with Ram that relying on others doesn’t mean you’re no longer
autonomous. The Great Endarkenment locates the problem primarily in 1) your inability
to choose *who* to rely on intelligently, 2) your inability to catch the problems
that arise when you put to work inputs from other specialized fields, and 3) the ways in
which the standards you yourself accept and those used by the people you’re
relying on differ.

Thanks for pointing me to Deadly Decisions and to the Wolff volume.

BLS Nelson
9 years ago

Elijah, I think there’s two inter-related issues you bring up in this thread (which are, I’m sure, well developed in the book). You seem like you’re talking about the intellectual autonomy of individuals in the OP, but there are also moments where it seems like you’re talking more about the intellectual autonomy of philosophy, esp. in your proposal to create incentives for cross-disciplinarity.

They’re related, obviously, but I think the distinction is an itch worth scratching. I’m not much of a believer in the autonomy (or authority) of philosophy, and so I’m fine with development of cross-disciplinary expertise. But I am also indelibly committed to being intellectually autonomous… or, at least, I’m committed to the ideal. That doesn’t mean I’m committed to being a polymath, or the great pulsating brain at the centre of the galaxy, or whatever. I just think that a) philosophical disagreements are most acute and entrenched when informed and rational people of good faith care about making different kinds of inferences, b) that I should get to decide what kinds of inferences I care about within the constraints of rationality, information, and good faith, and c) that all other things equal people shouldn’t be given an especially rough time just for trying things out in our own way.

So, two questions: is this conception of autonomy the same as or different from your conception of old-fashioned autonomy? And is this kind of orientation worsening the endarkenment instead of shedding any light? I can’t quite get a definite read on your answer based on your comments so far.

9 years ago

I prefer to keep my own planes in the air and would say that philosophers must be autonomous to be effective. Other people cannot know things on out behalf. But I may be misreading the post. It seems a little ambiguous in places.

Elijah Millgram
9 years ago

BLS Nelson is right that there are two connected themes here, and meantime Ram’s way of putting the issue is growing on me: that what we want to be asking is what configuration of responsibilities it’s reasonable to expect someone to take on. In Ram’s example, it’s reasonable to ask people to take responsibility for relying on their realtor and financial advisor if there’s vetting they can be reasonably be expected to do, to tell if they’ve *got* a reliable realtor or advisor. If they simply can’t tell, and the choice of realtor can be no more than a shot in the dark, then putting people in a position where they have to use a realtor — but also making them responsible for what happens — isn’t a good way to assign responsibilities.

The older understanding of autonomy, in our emerging social circumstances, is starting to look a lot like the insistence that we each be responsible for a great many decisions that we aren’t in a position to make responsibly. You may remember an earlier guest post on this blog, discussing unsuccessful techniques for benchmarking the research output of academics. That comes up in *The Great Endarkenment* in the course of an argument that, more and more, we’re in the position of not being able to tell, as it were, whether the realtor is any good, and whether the financial advisor knows what he’s doing. When deans face their version of this problem, they start buying benchmarking applications; but then they can’t tell if the benchmarking tool works properly, or even at all.

In other words, we’re setting people up for failure, and getting ready to blame the victims. (Hey, you made the choice. You’re an autonomous agent. It’s your responsibility!) What’s the fix? For what it’s worth, I don’t expect there will be a general and uniform characterization of what configuration of responsibilities it’s reasonable for you to take on, and what configuration of responsibilities you should be expecting other people to assume. In particular, in the world of extreme specialization, there will be different assignments of responsibility appropriate to differently specialized individuals, and also to different people positioned at the interfaces between different disciplinary specializations.

Taking up that second theme, philosophy is first of all a special case, that is, an illustration I do help myself to frequently in The Great Endarkenment, if only because the primary audience of the book is familiar with it. Here’s an example of a local configuration of responsibilities that perhaps matches *some* of Nelson’s inclinations (and maybe some of PeterJ’s). Subdisciplinary specialization works differently in philosophy than in some other areas. Nowadays you see a lot in the way of philosophers who say things like, “Oh, I don’t know about what goes on in the theory of agency; I only work on testimony” — where that’s a refusal to get on top of something they need to understand to do their own work. That’s a mistake, and it’s also a *moral* failure (it’s something like shirking). In philosophy, this stance is *almost* never forced; if you’re already a philosopher, you really *can* learn your way around, say, theory of agency when you need it. Another way of saying that might be: philosophy is a domain *within* which the older conception of autonomy is largely appropriate. (In this illustration: when you rely on someone else’s work on, say, agency, it’s reasonable to expect you to be able to do your own quality control, and so to hold you responsible for having made use of it.) That’s a contrast with various other sciences in which it would be unreasonable to expect that level of competence with subdisciplines adjacent to one’s own.

But philosophy is also a special case in another sense. I argue in *The Great Endarkenment* that philosophers already have much of the intellectual equipment needed to rethink those cross-disciplinary interfaces, and, in the vocabulary I’m now lifting from Ram, to help figure out locally appropriate zones of responsibility — for
decisions, for looking backward into the premises you’re relying on and so on. (“Already have much of”: training in analyzing argumentation, for instance, still needs to be supplemented by training in one or another further discipline whose practices you are going to try to integrate with the preparation level of their clients.)
We philosophers have got a very practical job to do, in response to the Great Endarkenment. And one way to describe it might be: figuring out a much more nuanced and articulated successor to and replacement for the older conception of autonomy.

BLS Nelson
9 years ago

Thanks for the thoughtful reply. Those remarks about the duties of philosophers are in line with my inclinations. (Though, with a caveat: on the face of it I think the relevant kind of shirking is morally permissible if one is humble and self-aware about it.) I think I now have a better idea on how Elijah would tackle the second question.

I also agree with Ram. The idea of autonomy has always seemed like a half-way house between the concepts of agency and responsibility; a theory of autonomy requires some kind of account of the relationship between those ideas. I have tended to think of autonomy as a set of duties — call them “agentic duties” or “autonomic duties” — one has to empower oneself through education (Ram’s realtor example) and/or increased capacities (a milquetoast kind of will to power). Ideally, both the old-fashioned and hi-tech concepts of autonomy will just apply this concept in different ways.

The old-fashioned view of autonomy is, I guess, just one way of talking about a strong form of responsibility, where “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.” This view holds for philosophy at the present moment, but needs to be dismantled in favor of a more nuanced successor. But I still don’t quite know what is wrong with this old-fashioned idea, in part because I don’t know whether “doing it on your own” amounts to coming to closure on the correctness of some opinion without needing anyone else’s permission, or if it means collecting evidence through all and only your own devices (or both, or neither). I am tempted by the former formulation, though I have mixed feelings about the latter.