Free to think? Epistemic authority and thinking for oneself

by Ursula Coope

01 Apr 2019
Journal of the British Academy, volume 7 (2019)
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Abstract: People generally agree that there is something valuable about thinking for oneself rather than simply accepting beliefs on authority, but it is not at all obvious why this is valuable. This paper discusses two ancient responses, both inspired by the example of Socrates. Cicero claims that thinking for yourself gives you freedom. Olympiodorus argues that thinking for yourself makes it possible to achieve understanding, and that understanding is valuable because it gives you a certain kind of independence. The paper asks how insights from these thinkers might bear on a question about the role of experts in a democracy. As citizens, we make judgements about many matters that fall within the domain of some expertise. Should thinking for oneself play an important role in such cases, or must the responsible citizen simply defer to expert authority?

Keywords: Cicero, Olympiodorus, Socrates, freedom, understanding, authority, expertise.

Philosophical Lecture, read 26 June 2018 | audio

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