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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: February 2018

3 - Two Historical Episodes in the Problem of Experts




A complete survey of the problem of experts would cover a vast ground, including the entire detailed history of jurisprudence, philosophy, and religion, as well as innumerable discussions of the proper authority of physicians, the role of psychiatry in the state, the design of economic policy, and so on. Two episodes in the history of ideas may especially be worth discussing, however. The first episode I will discuss concerns the role of experts in the Socratic tradition of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. This tradition, of course, had a great role in shaping subsequent thought. I will try to place the tradition in the competitive context from which it emerged. Socrates was an expert who challenged the prior authority of religious orthodoxy. He and his group were the new experts challenging the old experts.

The story of the Socratic tradition in ancient Athens is not merely of historical interest. The attitudes formed at that time are still with us. Defenders of experts in specific areas such as “science” have often had the sort of perspective I will attribute to the Socratic tradition.

The second episode I will discuss is the emergence of a literature on expert witnesses in law. Mostly, I will cover some relevant nineteenth-century discussions in the United States and the United Kingdom. This literature illustrates the connection between the Socratic tradition and the attitudes and presumptions of many modern experts. Many would-be nineteenth-century defenders of “science” in the witness box struck moralistic and high-handed tones that seem to reflect the philosophy of the Socratic tradition or, at least, an attitude similar to that of the Socratic philosophers who had themselves a similar interest in claiming, creating, and preserving a privileged epistemic status. As I will note, the attitudes expressed in this nineteenth-century literature can still be found today, especially in the context of expert witnesses in the British and American legal systems. In both the Socratic tradition and the literature on expert witnesses we see arguments that tend to elevate the all-seeing expert both morally and epistemically, thereby justifying the call for others, the nonexperts, to obey.

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