DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-P049-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 06, 2020, from

2. Autonomy and reduction

This individualist idea is essentially reductionist, in the sense that it attempts to show that, at the significant core of the epistemological enterprise, we have no need of any basic or primitive reliance upon the word of others. At this level, we need only the individual resources of perception, memory and inference. We rely extensively on the reports of others, of course, in the final development of knowledge, but this reliance is itself established by and dependent upon the primary operations of those individual resources. The idea that this must be so has great appeal because of the influence of a certain ideal of intellectual ‘autonomy’. This ideal is well captured at the beginning of modern philosophy in Descartes’ philosophy. There we find an outlook on knowledge that remains immensely influential today even among those who reject, and even denounce, most of Descartes’ specific conclusions and many of his assumptions. Descartes makes it clear that the task he sets himself is precisely that of finding out whether it is possible to have fully autonomous knowledge, knowledge that you have rationally guaranteed entirely by and for yourself. As he puts it in the Discourse on Method:

So, too, I reflected that we were all children before being men and had to be governed for some time by our appetites and our teachers, which were often opposed to each other and neither of which, perhaps, always gave us the best advice; hence I thought it virtually impossible that our judgments should be as unclouded and firm as they would have been if we had had the full use of our reason from the moment of our birth, and if we had always been guided by it alone.

(Descartes [1637] 1985: 117, emphasis added)

Although Descartes then tries to establish how he is entitled to trust himself in the proper exercise of his own isolated cognitive powers, he never addresses the question of how solitary cognizers can employ their reason to validate in an ‘unclouded’ fashion their inevitable reliance upon others. Later theorists, however, occasionally try to deal with this problem. From an ideal of entirely ‘autonomous’ knowledge there is born the correlative portrait of the autonomous knower who extends and enriches knowledge by relying upon others only by licensing their word to be reliable by unaided epistemic efforts. Different theorists have different stories to tell about how the autonomous knower brings off this remarkable feat. One of the most vivid presentations of the picture, and one of the most influential accounts of how the feat is to be done, may be found in David Hume, though there are also different attempts in a similar reductive spirit by other philosophers such as F.H. Bradley and Bertrand Russell.

Citing this article:
Coady, C.A.J.. Autonomy and reduction. Testimony, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-P049-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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