Argument from Authority brief history.

CC BY flickr.com/photos/bootbearwdc
CC BY flickr.com/photos/bootbearwdc

Argument from authority, or AA, is a logical fallacy used to endorse and validate a point of view just because someone – the authority – thinks in that way, instead of using a logical demonstration. Having some referents that provide us quality data is key to building knowledge, but there is a problem when critics to these theories are not allowed, just because they’re being supported by an authority.

The prerequisite to AA’s existence is to define who is and who is not an authority in each knowledge field. Scholasticism solved that in a simple and neat way: just God was an authority and by derivation, ecclesiastic hierarchy, sacred books and a bunch of ancient texts –essentially Aristotle – but only interpreted in the way this ecclesiastic hierarchy preconized.

It is generally assumed that AA was ‘a la mode’ just in the Middle Ages due to the lack of available divergent sources to enrich intellectual discussions. It was said that since printing started to reveal and allow diffusion of divergent points of view, the AA became deceased. I don’t think so. Even with lots of published opinions, they needed to be previously approved by the ‘authority tenants’.

The first articulated AA condemnation started in the seventeenth century, simultaneously from empirism and rationalism. Descartes, Locke, Hume, and Leibniz created knowledge origin explanation systems, and even if they reached antagonist conclusions, they coincided in condemning AA as a remora for knowledge construction.

Locke – from the empiric team – said that we could go further in knowledge discovery using our own thoughts about things instead of others’. On the rationalism side, Descartes made the same argument… but he was tempted to use AA in the ‘Methode discours’, soon after the ‘cogito ergo sum’. Once having followed his rationalism till the outer boundaries, how could he assure the veracity of data he received by his senses? Well, he prove first God’s existence (4th part) – no one could object to that – and then he said that even if one’s senses tried to cheat his owner, God – who is completely perfect and truthful – wouldn’t permit it.

CC BY flickr.com/photos/matteostaltari/5366519795
CC BY flickr.com/photos/matteostaltari

It was then, in the eighteenth century, when Kant ‘Sapere Aude’ definitively vindicated the value of using our own brains. He started his essay ‘What’s illustration?’ saying that Illustration was adulthood of human beings, and that our artificially extended childhood was caused by the incapacity of using our own understanding without a guide.

Brilliant and exact.

Was this the grace blow to AA? Definitively not. Kant is Kant and we, the other mortals, are not Kant. Today, AA is as pervasive as ever. And in the same way Internet provides us alternative sources to fund genuine thinking processes, there are unavoidable global omnipresent authorities… Google and Wikipedia make sense here?

Raúl Antón Cuadrado