Friday, June 5, 2015

Elijah Millgram's "The Great Endarkenment"

Elijah Millgram is E. E. Ericksen Professor of Philosophy at the University of Utah. The author of Practical Induction (1997), Ethics Done Right (2005), and Hard Truths (2009), he has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the Guggenheim Foundation.

Millgram applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Great Endarkenment: Philosophy for an Age of Hyperspecialization, and reported the following:
If we’re testing the “Page 99 Test,” this data point makes it look pretty good. Here’s the middle of that page in The Great Endarkenment:
University presses do not like to pay for four-color cover art. I suspect that [Bernard] Williams made the case for using a Gauguin on the jacket of Moral Luck because the title of that painting… asked the questions that Williams found he was trying to answer: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

The questions were well-chosen; as the title of his next collection put it, what philosophy is in the business of is making sense of humanity. But if my argument to this point has been on target, Williams’s answers were not his alone…

Analytic philosophy has done something that is quite peculiar: instead of making sense of humanity, we have been philosophizing for the inhabitants of a romantic fantasy of traditional peasant life—or, bearing in mind Williams’s choice of illustration, a European fantasy of life on a South Pacific island—and not for the sort of creatures any of us are, with the lives any of us have. …It would not be overstated to say that we professional philosophers have misidentified the very species for which we have been philosophizing.
Part of getting a sense of what Ford Madox Ford is calling “the quality of the whole” is knowing pretty much what it’s about, and that passage encapsulates one of the themes that runs through the book from beginning to end, namely, that philosophers have formulated both their problems and their solutions to those problems as though we weren’t the sort of creatures that get trained up into highly specialized trades and disciplines. What’s missing from the passage is the flip side of the challenge to the philosophers: that because there is now a qualitatively new kind of barrier to understanding other, differently trained people, the Great Endarkenment is a very practical, very immediate problem for everybody. Once you see how pervasive and how difficult the problem of communicating with people who have different expertise is, you’ll start to wonder how planes stay up in the air and why, when you get in a car, you still expect it to get you where you’re going.

Getting a fast sense of the quality of a book isn’t just a matter of knowing what it's about. But the writing here is a fair sample of the prose; a book about the pitfalls of specialization would be a failure if only specialists could read it, and I’ve tried to keep the writing clear and straightforward. While you’re also getting a sense of how Big Picture The Great Endarkenment is, the Page 99 Test doesn’t hit one of those stretches where I try to convince you that some philosopher or another’s view is a bad fit for how we have to live our lives. There are quite a few of those, but still, the discussion is pretty much of a piece with what you see above.
Learn more about the book and author at Elijah Millgram's website.

--Marshal Zeringue