The pure subject, if he existed

Let us pause for a moment to let the weirdness of all this sink in. Notice that we have moved (very quickly, in this compressed treatment) from an argument about the illegitimacy of certain established political authorities of the seventeenth century to the illegitimacy of the authority of other people in general to the illegitimacy of the authority of our own experience.

In telling the story of the Enlightenment in this sequence, I want to suggest that the last stage (on this telling), the somewhat anxious preoccupation with epistemology, grows out of the enlighteners’ political project of liberation, and that we should view it in this light. Their organizing posture against authority compelled the enlighteners to theorize the human person in isolation, abstracted from any pragmatic setting in which he might rely on the testimony of others, or, indeed, on his own common sense as someone who has learned how to handle things. The pure subject who is posited as the beginning point for the Cartesian/Lockean account of knowledge is a person who has been shorn of those practical and social endowments by which we apprehend the world. If such a creature actually existed, we can well imagine that he would be gripped by the question of how we can know anything.” — Matthew B. Crawford, “How We Lost Our Attention.” The Hedgehog Review 16.2 (Summer 2014): 18-27

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