A research project at the University of Innsbruck, generously funded by the Tiroler Wissenschatsförderung (TWF)

Zeitdauer: 2022 - 2025

Projekt leader: Federica Malfatti

Other investigators:  Katherine Dormandy, Christoph Jäger,

That epistemic or intellectual autonomy is a good thing, something to admire in others and to nurture and cultivate in ourselves, is broadly assumed as true, maybe even judged to be self-evident and not even in need to be argued for. We should “use our own reason”, as Immanuel Kant famously claimed, i.e., think with our own head. But what does it mean exactly to be epistemically or intellectually autonomous, and to think with our own head? What is the role of epistemic autonomy in a world in which there is a division of epistemic labor and competence and expertise are allocated unequally among epistemic agents? Why is epistemic autonomy a valuable thing? Is epistemic autonomy valuable for its own sake, or are there some other epistemic goods (truth, for example, or understanding) that epistemic autonomy helps us achieve? Moreover, is epistemic autonomy always a good thing, or are there risks connected to its exercise? If there are, are these risks worth taking? These are the questions that the TrAU! project aims to address. The project is structured around three work packages called A, B and C.

Work package A is entitled “Epistemic autonomy: its nature”. The overarching aim of this work package is to shed light on the nature of epistemic autonomy. We will achieve this goal taking two different roads. On the one hand, we will explore the (allegedly very tight) connection between epistemic autonomy and the epistemic state we call “understanding”. If our arguments succeed, we will be able to show that understanding is much more social and less autonomous than standardly assumed. On the other hand, we will explore the connection between epistemic authority and (epistemic) trust. Prima facie, trust and epistemic autonomy pull in different directions: the more one trusts, the less autonomous one is. Our hope is to show that even trusting can, under certain conditions, represent a great exercise of epistemic autonomy.

Work package B is entitled “Epistemic autonomy: its risks”. Trusting (the word of) others can, no doubt, be dangerous. It makes us vulnerable. But what about trusting (only or primarily) oneself? In what sense, if any, does epistemic autonomy make us vulnerable? We will tackle these questions from two different sides. First, we will explore the relation between understanding and the subjective feeling of understanding. The feeling of understanding, we will argue, is a seductive, but often unreliable indicator of genuine understanding. Second, we will explore the phenomenon known under the label of “meta-ignorance”.

Work package C is entitled: “Epistemic autonomy: its value”. Why is epistemic autonomy a valuable thing? What is it exactly about epistemic autonomy that is valuable to us? The result of our arguments will be that the kind of epistemic autonomy that we value does not involve complete epistemic self-sufficiency. Complete self-sufficiency is an impossible (and maybe not even a desirable) ideal, given the way our epistemic communities are structured and given the kind of epistemic goods that we try to achieve. The kind of autonomy that we value is one that allows for, or maybe even welcomes, wise trust (trust on reflection, and that successfully targets the trustworthy) and “epistemically healthy” or “epistemically felicitous” forms of epistemic dependence.

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