Expertise and the fragmentation of intellectual autonomy


  • C. Thi Nguyen Utah Valley University



expertise, autonomy, social epistemology, trust, testimony, epistemic dependence,


In The Great Endarkenment, Elijah Millgram argues that the hyper-specialization of expert domains has led to an intellectual crisis. Each field of human knowledge has its own specialized jargon, knowledge, and form of reasoning, and each is mutually incomprehensible to the next. Furthermore, says Millgram, modern scientific practical arguments are draped across many fields. Thus, there is no person in a position to assess the success of such a practical argument for themselves. This arrangement virtually guarantees that mistakes will accrue whenever we engage in cross-field practical reasoning. Furthermore, Millgram argues, hyper-specialization makes intellectual autonomy extremely difficult. Our only hope is to provide better translations between the fields, in order to achieve intellectual transparency.
I argue against Millgram’s pessimistic conclusion about intellectual autonomy, and against his suggested solution of translation. Instead, I take his analysis to reveal that there are actually several very distinct forms intellectual autonomy that are significantly in tension. One familiar kind is direct autonomy, where we seek to understand arguments and reasons for ourselves. Another kind is delegational autonomy, where we seek to find others to invest with our intellectual trust when we cannot understand. A third is management autonomy, where we seek to encapsulate fields, in order to manage their overall structure and connectivity. Intellectual transparency will help us achieve direct autonomy, but many intellectual circumstances require that we exercise delegational and management autonomy. However, these latter forms of autonomy require us to give up on transparency.