It is often stated that intellectual autonomy as an ideal and a necessary condition for knowledge is peculiar to enlightenment thinking. Often David Hume’s account of knowledge is cited as an example of enlightenment epistemology. Thomas Reid, a contemporary of Hume is often presented as providing an account of knowledge which is characteristically anti-enlightenment in spirit. This post express some worries on the consensus on the view that intellectual autonomy as an ideal and necessary condition for knowledge is peculiar to enlightenment thinking. Plato’s account of knowledge – which is prior to the enlightenment/renaissance period, is cited as an example to show that intellectual autonomy as an ideal and necessary condition for knowledge is not peculiar to enlightenment/ renaissance
Intellectual autonomy and David Hume
Intellectual autonomy is the idea that in gaining knowledge one has to rely up on one’s own reasons. This would imply that one should not believe in other’s words without applying one’s own reason to see whether it is likely to be the case. David Hume, the Scottish philosopher of the enlightenment time, would defend this kind of view. Hume’s view would amount to be saying that testimony should not be considered as an independent source of knowledge. However, testimony can give us knowledge provided that one applies one’s own reason to evaluate the likelihood of the truth of testimony (this is what is called as the reductionist view of testimony in contemporary literature of epistemology). Hume had the underlying assumption that people might make false testimonies according to their interests or people might make mistakes in correctly testifying (they might not remember what they saw correctly; at least we cannot be sure about it, or people may not have correctly understood what they are testifying etc.).
Thomas Reid and Intellectual autonomy
Thomas Reid- a contemporary of David Hume- has an opposing view on testimony. He holds that testimony has to be considered on par with sense perception in its epistemic status. The basic idea is as follows.
1. Reid argues that we trust our senses. We do not have any independent evidence to believe that our senses are reliable other than the evidences that are available from the senses themselves. We do not suspect our senses unless there is some sort of incoherence. In a similar way we should not doubt testimony unless there are reasons to think that it is false. That is to say that testimony should be considered as on par with the sense experiences in its epistemic status.
2. We should not be suspecting in people’s testimony by thinking that they might lie. Reid takes it to be that we are naturally disposed to tell truth. He observes that toddlers often trust others very easily. They suspect other’s testimony only when there are reasons to do that such as an inconsistency in the beliefs they already hold etc. From this observation Reid argues that it is natural for us to trust others; it is in our nature to trust others.
Reid also notes that if we do not consider testimony as an independent source of knowledge, we will be forced to give up a large chunk of our beliefs and we will end up having very little knowledge.
The view which Hume holds can be understood, I presume, as claiming that ‘intellectual autonomy’ is a necessary condition for knowledge. That is, without satisfying the criteria of ‘intellectual autonomy’ one cannot have knowledge. On the contrary, the view of Reid is that, it is not necessary that one has to be intellectually autonomous to have knowledge. He holds that it is possible to have knowledge even if the agent is not intellectually autonomous (such as in the case of testimony). Reid would think that it is ‘intellectual solidarity’ that often functions at the level of knowledge acquisition. As it is clear from the discussion so far, Reid’s account of testimonial knowledge is a non-individualistic one where as Hume’s view is individualistic.
Intellectual autonomy and Plato
The point I want to make in the context of this debate is the following. It seems to have controversially accepted that the above described view of ‘intellectual autonomy’ as an ideal and necessary condition of knowledge is a product of enlightenment thinking. However it is not so clear to me that it is so.
Think about Plato’s account of Knowledge in the dialogue Theatatus. Plato takes knowledge to be recollection. To have knowledge, one has to remember. One has to remember the knowledge they already possess. In Plato’s account one already has knowledge since one was already in contact with the ‘forms’/’ideas’ in the ‘world of forms’/’world of ideas’. In Plato’s account, for one to have knowledge in this world, one has to remember the knowledge one already had in the world of forms. One had knowledge in the world of forms as a result of their contact with the forms/ideas. What I am interested in here is the following. The account of knowledge of Plato provided here seems to be well in agreement with the view that intellectual autonomy is a necessary condition for knowledge. Merely believing from testimony would not be counted as knowledge. To have knowledge from other’s words (testimony) one has to recollect the knowledge they already had about which the testifier is making a claim. Recollecting/remembering should be considered as an intellectual/cognitive activity. It should be considered as an autonomous activity as well. If that is the case, recollecting/remembering is an intellectually autonomous activity. If that is the case, it would seem that Plato’s account of knowledge – as it is presented here- would look like an individualistic account as it is in the case of Hume. That would seem that Plato’s account espouse intellectual autonomy as a necessary condition for knowledge. Hence it is not clear that in what sense it is true to say that intellectual autonomy as an ideal is peculiar to enlightment thinking. As it seems here, Plato’s account can be seen as holding intellectual autonomy as a necessary condition and hence as an ideal for knowledge.
One last point: often the epistemological spirit of enlightenment thinking is described as ‘rational autonomy’. The idea is that one has to from beliefs on the basis of one’s own ‘reason’s to have knowledge. This is what is called as ‘rational autonomy’. In this post, I have used ‘intellectual autonomy’ instead of ‘rational autonomy’. That should not be confusing I suppose. The intellectual autonomy I talk about in Plato can be called as ‘rational autonomy’ as well. In Plato’s account of knowledge one is forming a piece of belief as a result of recollecting/remembering. This is the reason one has for holding the belief as well. In that sense one is rationally/intellectually autonomous in holding the beliefs in cases of knowledge.