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.