What is intellectual humility?

Having intellectual humility is important if you’re going to grow intellectually. It’s also, on a more practical note, a precursor for not being considered an arrogant fool. You have to be openminded and prepared to accept you may be wrong.

In examining an argument or claim a lot of us naturally approach it from a specialized angle or paradigm. Many of us have developed specialized knowledge or particular ways of thinking that we consciously and unconsciously apply across a variety of situations. But the world, reality, and life aren’t so specialized or simple. They’re emergent systems. The world is one big complex adaptive system. Understanding that complexity requires multiple perspectives across the knowledge spectrum. And so if we’re not careful our specialized knowledge can blind us to obvious errors and keep us from learning and growing. Abraham Maslow once said, “He is good with the hammer tends to see everything as a nail.” We all know people who see everything as a nail.

Which brings me to an excellent post at BigQuestions Online. Robert Roberts asks, What is it to be Intellectually Humble? It’s an excellent piece worth your attention.

Knowledge comes into us through a variety of channels that can be blocked by our concern for status, and the successful knowledge-seeker will be one who keeps those channels open. The process requires that we be able to “listen,” either literally or figuratively, to what others say. If what they say shows them to be superior to us in knowledge, we will be hampered in our learning if our first reaction is to try to show that we know as much as they or more. The process also requires that we be corrigible, that we be open to the possibility that our opinions are in some way misguided. If, whenever our status as knowers is threatened by the specter of correction, we feel that we must prove ourselves to have been in the right, we will have closed off an avenue of knowledge and crippled ourselves as inquirers. It can be particularly galling, if one lacks intellectual humility, to be corrected in a public forum; and the galling can obstruct the process of learning.

A lovely example of intellectual humility comes from Alice Ambrose in a report of experiences she had in the classroom of G. E. Moore, the prominent philosopher, at Cambridge University. She reports that in a series of lectures on the concept of truth Moore would sometimes criticize claims that he himself had made, say in an earlier lecture, with the same attitude one would take “to an anonymous philosopher whose mistakes called for correction.” Also, he would sometimes announce that he was going to skip to another stage in the argument because he did not know how to make the transition logically. Moore seemed to be unconcerned about protecting his status as an important professor at Cambridge because he was so deeply concerned with getting at the truth about truth. His love of knowledge swamped his concern for status, and this intellectual humility made him one of the greater philosophers of the 20th century.

5 thoughts on “What is intellectual humility?

  1. I agree with the point that having truth as one’s ultimate goal means willing to be corrected when one is wrong. Human minds are fallible and there should be no shame in being wrong when one couldn’t help it. But an earnest search for truth also requires being confident in what one does know through one’s own experiences. Someone should not just yield his own knowledge at the first sign of disagreement and resign himself to agnosticism on the topic.

    In short, what’s required in a search for truth is a dedication to objective thought. Your own viewpoint doesn’t get a pass on reasoning just because it happens to be your current viewpoint.

    • Confidence is important in those cases where you’ve done your homework and you feel confident about the quality of your experiences. But I would consider two things about confidence and what we learn from experience: 1) Most people aren’t very good at “evaluating” their own experience. In general, people aren’t detail orientated and aren’t always curious enough to be concerned with asking themselves why things happen the way they do. And; 2) people aren’t very good at overcoming their own cognitive biases. So people tend to adopt heuristics –which are full of systematic errors—when making intuitive judgments. That’s not to say confidence isn’t warranted in particular situations, but I think confidence has to be matched with an honest self-awareness about where the boundaries of that confidence end.

  2. Reblogged this on Prospective Mind and commented:
    I like this idea described as ‘intellectual humility’ and I think it is absolutely necessary to understanding whatever it is one seeks to understand. If you look at a goal or phenomenon from a single viewpoint, you will never gain a comprehensive understanding. This occurs a lot when it comes to ‘specialization’, or being trained in one specific area in college or grad school. In some ways it is necessary in order to delve deeper into the topic or career path you’ve chosen. This is particularly true for researchers who must look at a single tiny piece of a much larger puzzle. But what ends up happening is we forget about the larger context and other sides of the topic or goal at hand. And without this context, we may not know how the information we’ve found is even applicable or what it even means for the topic at large.
    The other important lesson is how ‘intellectual humility’ applies to knowledge of the self. Some tend to think they know their inner selves simply because they are themselves. But we tend to forget that we also see ourselves in a very specific light. How well you know yourself depends on how self-aware you are, but also how willing you are to change your view of yourself. How one relates to themselves is essentially who they are because it affects every decision and every aspect of life. “The self is a relation that relates itself to itself” according to Kierkegaard. So unless one is willing to change the way they see themselves, to allow themselves to be surprised by themselves, to admit that they may not have the most complete view of themselves, to stop justifying or smoothing over every action so it fits within their view of self, and to be willing to assess their intentions and habits and modes of being, they may never gain the most comprehensive or beneficial perspective of their self.
    Therefore, I see ‘intellectual humility’ as something relevant and necessary in almost every aspect of life.

    • I agree Jazmine. Thanks for the very thoughtful comment. I think without a good dose of humility–intellectual and otherwise–we’re unlikely to become acquainted with ourselves and our limitations. Without it real growth isn’t possible.

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