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The Endarkenment: Carnap to the rescue?

Finally someone has made an issue of this urgent and fundamental problem, and even diagnosed it as a (partly) philosophical problem. — Or rather I should say, finally I stumbled on the book where someone does this! To my embarassment, it’s not even something new, but was published six years ago, by Oxford, so it’s not as if it’s been hiding in the shadows or anything: The Great Endarkenment by Elijah Millgram. He comes at the problem from a different angle than I did in my book, but it’s unmistakably the very same problem, and he paints it in even darker colors than I did, if that’s possible. But like me, he thinks there are resources within the philosophical tradition (if not within the philosophy profession as currently constituted and incentivized) to resist the great endarkenment he writes about.

What problem is that? Because of our (involuntary, but inherent) syndrome of increasing “hyperspecialization,” Millgram says, we are in serious danger of undermining the Enlightenment, which in Kant’s portrayal urges us to throw off our self-imposed submission to spurious authorities and think for ourselves. To use my own words,

The more knowledge there is, the less of it one can assimilate and use. This paradoxical situation, just by itself, seems to undermine the core idea of the entire philosophical tradition since Plato, and especially of the Enlightenment — the doctrine that knowledge sets us free. The very opposite has come to pass. When there is too much knowledge, we drown in it. We are forced to conform more rather than less to authority or to folk traditions. . . As more and more is known, more and more people are needed to be the expert carriers and appliers of this knowledge. But no one is left to mediate among the endlessly proliferating specialties. . . There is no longer a place to go for the big picture, no one who can tell us which knowledge is relevant to which problems. . . There are far more experts among us than ever before, but no one to tell us what expert to consult when. So at the social level, too, greater knowledge effectively results in greater ignorance [pp. 293-4 in Carnap and Twentieth-Century Thought; here is the context].

Looking at this again 15 years later, I’m also reminded of the ironical passage from Robert Musil I quoted there; “For high-flying thoughts, we have created a kind of poultry farm we call philosophy, theology, or literature, where these thoughts can happily multiply beyond what anyone can encompass. Which is as it should be, for then no one needs to feel guilty any more about the impossibility of personally keeping track of it all.” That is one difference between Millgram’s account and mine; he sees this problem as a very recent one; but Musil was already intensely preoccupied by it a century ago. And for me (as for Jacques Bouveresse and a few others), Musil’s endlessly elaborated articulation of the problem is still the classic one — perhaps it’s just a question of which one you came across first as you were growing up.

So what does Carnap have to do with this problem, and why did I address it (too briefly and inadequately) in a book on Carnap? Because I thought (and still think) that Carnap, though not as centrally preoccupied by this problem specifically as e.g. Musil was (with whom, though, I argue in the book, he otherwise had a lot in common), suggested a philosophical meta-framework in which this problem could, in principle, become relatively tractable. Some reviewers found this idea outrageous and just didn’t engage with it; others complained that I’d strayed into questions so remote from Carnap’s main interests. — Well, in the book’s conclusion, I was trying to showcase some applications of Carnap’s radically new perspective to suggest why it might be worth paying attention to. Too telegraphically, no doubt, but I had a strict word limit. Millgram, too, might well be inclined to share those reviewers’ doubts; his own occasional mentions of Carnap (whose name he misspells) would seem to indicate agreement with Rorty’s remark: “Most of us philosophy professors now look on logical positivism with some embarrassment, as one looks back on one’s own loutishness as a teenager.” But in principle, at least, Millgram should be willing to listen, even on his own terms, since he thinks that it is “philosophy of logic” — as the central component of philosophy, the study of arguments and argument appraisal — that can save the Enlightenment from the darkness if anything can. With that, at least, I’m in full agreement — at least as far as the philosophical end of the problem is concerned.

But lest I exaggerate the differences, I hasten to applaud them as well; Millgram has gone into far greater depth about this problem than I did back then, and to brilliant effect. He provides vivid illustrations not only of the forces that are bringing about the endarkenment, but also of the fatal costs if we just submit to it (without even going into the social and political costs, which could easily become the subject of a whole separate book). And despite his appreciation of the depth and seriousness of the problem, his conclusion is remarkably humane and optimistic — by no means does he slink into complacent post-modern acceptance of the primordial slime he knows would await us if we abandon the Enlightenment or allow ourselves to be prized loose from it. He thinks we should resist, with which I’m in total sympathy, of course; he even concludes with a “call to arms”! I’m somewhat affronted on his behalf that the profession has paid so little attention to this book — as far as I can tell, it didn’t even get a review in NDPR. Perhaps the “Leiterization” of the profession (as he calls it) has progressed so far that it’s simply incapable of facing such things any more, even hypothetically, and would prefer just to look the other way. That does it little credit, and leaves one with little hope for its future, whatever gripes one might have about the details of this book.

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