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.

Justice: What is the right thing to do?

Michael Sandel is a celebrity in the world of philosophy and education. He’s a Harvard University philosophy professor who’s world renown for his Justice lectures. He wrote a book to accompany the course and recently he published a book about the moral limits of markets.

The strapline to Sandel’s popular Justice lecture is “What is the right thing to do?” This is the question that’s constantly at the hub of Sandel’s lecture. Student’s are asked to decide what’s the right thing to do about a number of moral dilemmas that individuals and societies face. It’s challenging and intellectually stimulating as students grapple with tough moral problems and are forced to think through issues and ask deep questions about what they believe is the right thing to do.

If there is anything I’ve learned over the years it’s that tough, deliberative thinking is not what most people like to do. It’s work. You have to dig deep and be able to tolerate hovering in uncertainity. There are many tough questions. But not so many easy answers–if there are any answers at all. I realize some of us don’t have time or just don’t want to think about the big questions. It’s easier to just remain disengaged and avoid such tough questions. We risk actually be changed by what we learn. For some people that’s really what keeps them from engaging with ideas honestly and openly. Change isn’t what many of us want to accept. At the heart of philosophy is the willingness to challenge assumptions, especially long held ones. Philosophy requires us to use our own reason. It requires us to stand alone in the lights of our intellectual, emotional, and moral conscience.

Philosophy teaches us that a lot of what we think we know turns out under close scrutiny to be wrong. Or at least highly questionable. We attend lectures like Sandel’s because we want to face those tough questions and be changed by the force of our own understanding.

Stay passionately curious all your life


The worst thing about stubbornness of mind, about prejudices, is that they arrest development; they shut off the mind from new stimuli. Open-mindedness means retention of the childlike attitude; closed-mindedness means premature intellectual old age. — John Dewey


Master-Mind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes

Mastermind-cover-new-pipeI recently finished reading Maria Konnikova’s new book. It’s called Master-Mind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. Konnikova is mostly known for her blog “Literally Psyched” at The Scientific American. Her blog is, for the most part, an exploration and discussion of topics in literature and psychology. So it’s not surprising that her first book is an exploration in psychology and scientific thinking as demonstrated through the mind of Sherlock Holmes, the great fictional character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Konnikova uses the literary character of Sherlock Holmes and his successful thinking methods (for solving crimes) as a model for a particular way of thinking. This method is the scientific method of mind. The central purpose of Master-Mind is to demonstrate how to develop a scientific method of mind and thereby improve your thinking.

There are five basic principles to Konnikova’s scientific method of mind:

1. Self awareness and context matter. The first thing we must realize from the start, before we even begin to evaluate, judge, or reason is that each of us have built in cognitive biases, predispositions, and prejudices that push our perspectives, our thinking and decisions, in ways that we’re not even conscious of. Being consciously aware and attempting to mitigate these stereotyping influences is critical to the scientific state of mind and effective thinking. Related to this is the principle of “mindfulness.” This is another theme running throughout the book. The idea is that we need to be passive (not letting our minds “actively” wander) observers (not just looking but “seeing”) of the phenomenon.

The second part of this principle is “context matters.” This means being mindful of the external (and internal) environment–the whole situation–before you start making judgements. How you initially frame the situation can have a significant impact on whether you succeed or fail. This is important because our intuitions tend to race ahead of our deliberative thinking if we’re not mindful of the need to slow down the process and observe. You need to know if the environment has something to tell you about the situation. Understanding the environment also means understanding your own state of mind. “Remember: specific, mindful motivation matters.” Are you engaged? What are you trying to accomplish? What are your goals? You need to clarify these important points before you start your journey of thought.

2. Be a careful and thoughtful observer. Once you’re aware of your limitations and considered the context you must then truly observe the phenomenon. You must be attentive to details. One needs to be open minded and allow objects, events, and evidence to speak for themselves, without you filtering it through any prior assumptions, preconceptions or expectations.

3. Make room for creative space. Once you have observed and gathered information then it’s time to mull it over, taking the time to ask yourself questions and consider various possibilities and probabilities. In a sense, you’re forming a hypothesis.

4. Deduce. After mulling it over you begin the process of weighing your theories against the known facts and then choosing the best answer. “Objective fact, to a consideration of multiple possibilities, to a narrowing of the most likely ones. No extraneous details, no holes filled in by an all too willing imagination. Scientific deduction at it’s best.”

5. And principle 5 is straight forward: “Learn–from your failures just as you do from your successes.”

These 5 basic principles make up the scientific method of mind. Master-Mind is loaded with a lot of insights gleaned from research in neuroscience and psychology. This brief post doesn’t do her book justice. If you’re interested in improving your thinking and becoming more reasonable and approaching situations more objectively (and scientifically) then I highly recommend her book.

Large numbers of college students aren’t learning to think critically

In late 2010, Professor Richard Arum led an extensive four year study that examined the development of critical thinking skills in 2,322 college students spread across 24 universities and colleges. The participants were your traditional college aged students. The study’s impact and what it means for our education system are still resonating across academia and the web.

The findings actually confirm what many of us suspected: Our higher education system fails to significantly improve the critical thinking skills in a large number of college graduates. Here’s the basic findings of the study:

  • Forty-five percent (45%) of the students made no significant improvements in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college.
  • Even after four years of higher education, thirty-six (36%) [that’s almost 4 in 10] of those in the study showed no significant improvement in what’s called “higher order” thinking skills.

I don’t think most of us were necessarily surprised at all by the first two bullet points. And I know those of us who’ve studied the Liberal Arts in-depth are definitely not surprised (and a bit self satisfied too) by this last finding.

  • Students majoring in the traditional liberal arts — social sciences, humanities, natural science and mathematics — showed significant progress in higher order skills, like critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing. Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the least gains in higher order skills.

According to Arum a number of students in the study had a difficult time separating fact from opinion, being able to objectively review a report or develop a clearly written and well reasoned argument in writing. There are a number of contributing factors to what’s going on. One of them is that colleges and universities aren’t demanding higher standards. The study revealed that college students are spending less and less time studying and more and more time socializing. And obviously students have more free time because less is being demanded of them in class.

It’s ironic that colleges and universities have been cutting back on liberal arts courses during these tough economic times. The very courses that have shown to consistently improve higher order skills in students. Outside of a specialty skill, critical thinking has got to be high on a potential employers list.

The study brings up two other points for me. If we have up to forty-five (45%) of students, after two years of college, showing no significant improvement in critical thinking skills we might ought to wonder whether we have some big problems at the primary and secondary schooling level. I realize we have other factors to consider at the primary and secondary level, but if entering college freshmen already had a strong foundation in critical thinking then expanding it shouldn’t be that challenging. If college freshmen entered college with those “habits of mind” already engrained then the journey forward shouldn’t be as difficult.

Secondly, if almost 4 in 10 college graduates aren’t showing any significant improvement in “higher order” thinking skills we can only imagine what the percentage is amongst high school graduates who never attend college. I suspect it’s pretty high. All of this can’t make us surprised by the increasing degree of social and economic challenges an every growing segment of our population faces in a technologically advanced, globalized economy.