Skip to main content

Open for Debate

The Myth of Intellectual Individualism

27 December 2021

Have courage to use your own understanding. This, Kant declared, as the motto of the Enlightenment. This same sentiment is echoed in the more contemporary call to think for yourself. Thinking for yourself is incredibly important. A central goal of educators is to equip their students to think for themselves – to prepare them to take on new information, to encounter new challenges, and to be lifelong learners. Thinking for yourself is often seen as the cure for ailments of groupthink, echo chambers, and ‘the tyranny of public opinion’. So, thinking for yourself is good, but what exactly is thinking for yourself?

It can be tempting to equate thinking for yourself with a kind of rugged intellectual individualism. On such a picture the intellectually autonomous individual is self-reliant and does not depend on anyone else in their inquiry. They insist on figuring everything out for themselves. Autonomous thinkers want to see the evidence for themselves and to evaluate it for themselves, but does the call to think for yourself amount to such a call for intellectual independence and isolation? Are we really better off conducting our investigations of the world by ourselves? Such a picture of autonomy casts the hermit as the ideal, yet few of us aspire to such of life of seclusion, whether intellectual or otherwise.

Such a picture of intellectual autonomy simply doesn’t fit the kind of creatures that we are. We are social creatures. If our intellectual lives were lived in isolation, they would be nasty, brutish, and short. Given our finite time and limited cognitive resources, without relying on others there is very little that we could come to understand about the world. Left to our own intellectual devices, the scope of our beliefs would be incredibly narrow and the support for our beliefs would be exceedingly flimsy. If in doubt, take a moment to think about what things you have figured out all on your own, without the help of others. The intellectually independent life is not an intellectually healthy life This fact is further revealed in contemporary scientific practice. Scientific research is not an individual activity. Large groups work together on complex projects and are spread across countries and continents. In fact, one recent physics paper lists over 5,000 authors! Much of this research simply could not be done individualistically. However, the group nature of such scientific research is not a drawback, it’s an asset. We can do more and do better together. This is not unique to scientific inquiry, the same is true of inquiry more broadly. So, what does all of this mean for intellectual autonomy and the ideal of thinking for yourself?

In short, we shouldn’t see thinking for yourself as thinking by yourself. We need to distinguish intellectual autonomy from the rugged intellectual individualism discussed above. There are two important respects in which thinking for yourself is actually a group project, and not something done on your own (as paradoxical as that might sound). First, we wouldn’t even be equipped to think for ourselves if it wasn’t for others. We rely on others for the tools we use in thinking as well as the development of the needed intellectual skills to use those tools well. Developing our intellectual autonomy requires relying on others for language, ideas, and information. Similarly, sharpening our critical thinking skills is also best done together, not alone. So, rather than being in conflict with our autonomy, a healthy reliance on others is actually required for its development. We couldn’t even be intellectually autonomous if it wasn’t for others. We all owe a debt of gratitude to our intellectual communities. Second, we rely on others in exercising our intellectual autonomy. We think for ourselves well when we think with others. Thinking for yourself well requires you to think about other perspectives, both real and imagined, and to see yourself as answerable to others for your views. To be rational, we need to see ourselves as accountable to others for our own thinking – for why we came to the conclusions that we did. So, both the development and the utilization of our intellectual autonomy is interpersonal, not individualistic. Thinking for yourself is something that we do together. This is a relational conception of autonomy, one that appreciates our social nature and deep dependence on others. Intellectual individualism is simply a myth. It is unobtainable for creatures like us, and we have good reason not to want it anyway.

Why does this matter? The call to think for yourself can often be interpreted as a call to do it all yourself, to do your own research, to not just listen to the experts. Understood as relational autonomy, however, intellectual autonomy has no such individualistic implications. Thinking for yourself is perfectly compatible with listening to what others have to say, particularly those with the relevant expertise. The person who thinks for themselves needn’t reinvent the intellectual wheel, so to speak. Autonomous thinkers are free to utilize the intellectual resources of others. In fact, thinking for yourself well requires it. That’s good news since for most things that we want to think about, there are others who are more informed than we are and have been thinking about it longer than we have. Those are good reasons to lean on their understanding. A relational conception of intellectual autonomy allows us to take advantage of the great intellectual resources that we have in others. Just as the autonomous person does not need to grow all their own food, make all their own clothes, do all their own home repairs, and so forth, the intellectually autonomous individual does not need to do their inquiry all on their own either. We can learn from others and rely on their expertise even while thinking for ourselves. In fact, to think for ourselves well, we need to recognize our own intellectual limitations and appropriately rely on others in our inquiry.


Photo: Working and trust – Michael Mächtlinger://