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Thinking about Intellectual Humility
Humility is the virtuous mean between something like arrogance, on the one hand, and self–deprecation or diffidence, on the other. The humble person, to put it roughly, doesn’t value herself too much (arrogance) nor does she value herself too little (diffidence or self–deprecation). Instead, she thinks of herself as she should–valuing herself, her status amongst her peers, her abilities as she ought.
Swinburne Conference at Purdue University
Recently I had the privilege of attending the conference “Faith and Reason: Themes from Swinburne,” which was held at Purdue University from September 25-27, 2014 to commemorate the 80th birthday of Richard Swinburne, one of the most prominent philosophers of religion of the last century.

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Thinking about Intellectual Humility

Ian Church  09 Mar 2015

Prima facie, humility is the virtuous mean between something like arrogance, on the one hand, and self-deprecation or diffidence, on the other. The humble person, to put it roughly, doesn’t value herself too much (arrogance) nor does she value herself too little (diffidence or self-deprecation). Instead, she thinks of herself as she should—valuing herself, her status amongst her peers, her abilities as she ought.1

Building off of this extremely simple, basic view of humility, an intuitive account of intellectual humility seems to follow. We might imagine that intellectual humility is the virtuous mean between intellectual arrogance and intellectual diffidence. The intellectually humble person, to put it roughly, doesn’t overly value her beliefs (intellectual arrogance) nor does she under-value them (intellectual diffidence). Instead, she values her beliefs as she ought—valuing her beliefs, their epistemic status, her intellectual abilities as she ought. Given its focus on beliefs, this rough approximation of intellectual humility is what I will be calling the doxastic account of intellectual humility.

In this blog post, I try to unpack and defend this simple, intuitive account of intellectual humility. While recent empirical research suggest that intellectual humility might be a multifaceted and multi-layered virtue—with moral dimensions, interpersonal dimensions, intrapersonal dimensions, etc.—I will be defending a fundamentally doxastic account of intellectual humility.2 Whatever social or moral dimensions the virtue of intellectual humility might have, I will suggest that it needs to be built upon or understood within this basic, doxastic account.

The Account

As a first approximation, we might think that this doxastic account of intellectual humility roughly amounts to the following:

DA: Intellectual humility is the virtue of valuing of one’s own beliefs as he/she ought.

Now, we might easily think that this valuing amounts to how firmly someone holds a given belief, to how resilient a given belief is to revision or relinquishment. And to some extent, this makes a lot of sense. After all, it seems right to think that an intellectually arrogant person would be someone who is completely unwilling to change her belief in the face disagreement, threat, or defeater. Likewise, it seems right to think that an intellectually diffident person would be someone who holds his beliefs loosely and revises or changes them at the proverbial drop of a hat. Intellectual humility, then, would amount to holding beliefs as firmly as you ought.3

That said, however, there are cases that suggest that belief firmness or a belief’s resilience to revision or relinquishment are not relevant metrics for intellectual humility. Consider the following case:

MOTHER:

Conner has been charged and convicted of a series of extremely heinous crimes. And there is manifold evidence suggesting that Conner is indeed guilty. There is surveillance footage of Conner committing the crimes. There is Conner’s personal journal that explains in detail his criminal plans, motivation, and intent. There are several eyewitnesses to Conner’s crimes. Conner even confesses in full. All in all, Conner’s trial is an easy, open-and-shut case. Nevertheless, Conner’s mother, who loves him dearly, simply cannot bring herself to believe that Conner is guilty. She’s seen the surveillance footage, she’s read the diary, she’s availed of all the relevant evidence against her son; indeed, she does not blame the judge, the jury, or the judicial system for convicting him. Nevertheless, her love for her son bars her from believing that her son is guilty of such heinous crimes.

Conner’s mother believes that her son is innocent, and this belief is extremely resilient to change or relinquishment. Indeed, there seems to be absolutely nothing that anyone could say or do to convince her that her son is guilty. Conner’s mother knows full well that her belief in her son’s innocence has no justification or warrant, but, nevertheless, she cannot help but believe it. Is she being intellectually arrogant, then? I don’t think so. As MOTHER makes clear, she adequately appreciates the manifold reasons why the jury found her son guilty as charged; but it is the psychological inflexibility caused by her love that simply won’t allow her to believe it.

So how one “values his/her beliefs” should not simply be a function of belief firmness. What cases like MOTHER seem to suggest, however, is that the value should actually track something like justification or warrant or, to be entirely nonpartisan, positive epistemic status.4 No doubt, how much positive epistemic status one attributes to their beliefs will often go hand in hand with how firmly they believe it. It seems natural to think that the intellectually arrogant person attributes far more positive epistemic status than she should. Likewise, it seems natural to think that the intellectually diffident person attributes far less positive epistemic status than she should. But what cases like MOTHER show is that attributions of positive epistemic status and belief firmness can and do occasionally come apart, and when they do it seems like what really matters when it comes to intellectual humility is the former.

But just what do I mean by positive epistemic status? I don’t intend to commit myself or my doxastic account of intellectual humility on this score—at least not in this blog post. For now, let’s let a thousand flowers blossom. Whether it’s safety, sensitivity, evidence, reliability, character virtues, justification, defeasibility, or whatever, if it can give a belief positive epistemic status—or at the very least positive epistemic status that really matters—then DA should track it. With this in mind, perhaps we can now think of DA in terms of the following:

DA′: Intellectual humility is the virtue of attributing positive epistemic status to one’s own beliefs as he/she ought.

Imagine two freshwater aquarium hobbyists, Peter and John. Peter has an aquarium with astronotus ocellatus (or “oscar” fish) it. Upon seeing his oscars eat some goldfish and generally bully the other fish in the aquarium, Peter comes to believe very strongly that (or attributing high amount of positive epistemic status to the belief that) oscars are one of the meanest freshwater fish. John also keeps oscars, which are a members of the cichlid family of fish; however, after perusing the back-allies of the internet, reading blogs that suggest that oscars are actually goldfish (which are not cichlids) that have been mutated by the government, John is no longer all that sure that oscars are member of the cichlid family. Given that watching an oscar eat goldfish and bully a few other fish is, at best, very weak evidence for thinking oscars are one of the meanest freshwater fish, then DA′ would predict that Peter is intellectually arrogant in holding his belief as strongly as he does. And given that back-alley blogs should not in any way upset establish biological research, DA′ would predict that John is being intellectually diffidence in holding his belief as weakly as he does. Neither John nor Peter are being intellectually humble; neither one seems to be accurately tracking the positive epistemic status of their respective beliefs.

But there are still a couple problems (at least) facing DA′. First of all, it would be nice if we could say a bit more about the normative component, about what determines the positive epistemic status that a given belief ought to be attributed with. And relatedly, it’s not entirely clear that the attribution of positive epistemic status is really what is at issue—it’s not clear that attribution is really what we ought to be concerned about when it comes to intellectual humility. After all, attributing positive epistemic status to a belief seems like a highly reflective activity requiring explicit, controlled (System 2) cognitive processing, and it’s not obvious that intellectual humility should only be relegated to that domain.

First of all, it seems like the positive epistemic status someone ought to attribute to their own beliefs is the positive epistemic status such beliefs actually have. So, minimally, perhaps a doxastic account of intellectual humility should be most concerned with whether or not someone is accurately tracking—be it consciously or subconsciously—the positive epistemic status that their beliefs actually enjoy. And what is more, accurately tracking positive epistemic status, perhaps unlike attributing positive epistemic status, does not seem to require highly reflective activity; accurately tracking positive epistemic status, perhaps unlike attributing positive epistemic status, seems like the sort of thing that can be done implicitly and subconsciously. All that said, we can modify our doxastic account of intellectual humility accordingly:

DA′′: Intellectual humility is the virtue of accurately tracking the positive epistemic status of one’s own beliefs.

Helpfully, like DA′, DA′′ allows us to rightly attribute intellectual arrogance to Peter in his belief about oscar aggression, and it allows us to rightly attribute intellectual diffidence to John in his weak belief about oscars being a part of the cichlid family. And it does all this without being completely normatively under-described or inadvertently demanding highly reflective cognition.

That said, we might need to make some sort of caveat with DA′′ in order to account for situations where someone has been non-culpably deceived. Consider the following case:

LIE:

Mary has known Martha for many years and has always found her to be extremely trustworthy. One day, Martha is feeling a bit cheeky and decides to tell Mary a lie. Feigning a panic, Martha runs up to Mary and tells her that Mary’s house is on fire. Naturally enough, since Mary has never known Martha to be anything but entirely honest, Mary non-culpably, yet falsely believes that her house is on fire and takes such a belief to have a lot of positive epistemic status (via Martha’s testimony). And as such, Mary heads home in a hurry.

In order for DA′′ to rightly handle cases like LIE, we need Mary’s strong belief (i.e. belief which is taken to have a lot of positive epistemic status) to not count as intellectual arrogance simply because she was non-culpably deceived. That said, however, someone might worry that—depending on how we cash out positive epistemic status, an enterprise I’m trying to avoid in this blog post—the fact that Mary’s belief is false means that it enjoys far less positive epistemic status than Mary imagines. To avoid such a worry, we’ll make a final adjustment to our doxastic account of intellectual humility:

DA′′′: Intellectual humility is the virtue of accurately tracking what one could non-culpably take to be the positive epistemic status of one’s own beliefs.

And since Mary is non-culpable in believing Martha’s testimony, DA′′′ helps guarantee that Mary won’t be wrongfully ascribed with intellectual arrogance.

Intellectual humility, according to DA′′′, is assessed along two axes: how much positive epistemic status a given belief enjoys, and how much positive epistemic status a given agent thinks it enjoys. Consider the following figure:

Positve Epistemic Status

As such, if a belief enjoys only a very marginal amount of positive epistemic status (perhaps the belief that a thousand angels can dance on the head of a pin), then intellectual humility requires that a given agent track that modest positive epistemic status accordingly. In contrast, if a given belief enjoys a tremendous amount of positive epistemic status (as in the belief that 2+2=4), then the intellectually humble agent will value such a belief—tracking its positive epistemic status—accordingly. Ascribing too much positive epistemic status to a given belief would be vicious (intellectually arrogant, upper left-hand corner of FIGURE 2), and ascribing too little would be vicious as well (intellectual diffidence, lower right-hand corner of FIGURE 2.

Possible Objections

I suggest (humbly, of course) that this doxastic account is the best way to think about intellectual humility. That said, however, it does seem to face some serious objections or worries. In this section, I try to address two of the major worries someone might have against the doxastic account of intellectual humility.

Is intellectual humility really a virtuous mean?

Some philosophers (like Roberts and Wood) might object to the idea that intellectual humility (or humility) is really best conceived of as a virtuous mean.5 And one reason we might think intellectual humility isn’t a virtuous mean is because it seems like we’d have to encourage someone who is extremely self-deprecating or intellectually diffident that they need to be more humble. And that feels like an odd result. So it might seem as though we have conflicting intuitions here. On the one hand, it seems right (I think) to say that someone can be too humble. On the other, it might seem odd to encourage someone who is already really down on themselves that they need to be more humble.

I suggest that we can explain away this latter intuition. Consider the virtue of courage. I take it that most people agree that courage is the virtuous mean between cowardice and foolhardiness. But even so, like humility and intellectual humility, it might feel odd to encourage someone who is recklessly foolhardy to be more courageous. Why is this? First of all, this might feel odd because, more often than not, people are cowardly. (After all, if I were to confess that I lack courage, I imagine most everyone would assume that I am cowardly.) So if we are accustom to telling people to “take courage” when they are being cowardly, telling someone who is foolhardy to “take courage” might seem odd. And secondly, we might often assume that whatever property makes someone courageous is in over abundance in someone who is foolhardy, so telling a foolhardy person they need to be more courageous might sound like we are encouraging them to have more of the property they already have too much of. That said, just because it might seem odd to encourage a foolhardy person to be more courageous, that doesn’t mean that courage isn’t actually best conceived of as a virtuous mean between foolhardiness and cowardice.

And the same thing can be said, I think, about intellectual humility and humility. While it might very well seem odd that (as a virtuous mean) we might encourage someone who is extremely self-deprecating to be more humble, this does not mean that humility isn’t really best conceived as a virtuous mean. Like courage, this might feel odd because, more often than not, people are arrogant. (After all, if I were to confess that I lack humility, I imagine most everyone would assume that I am arrogant.) So if we are accustomed to telling people to “humble themselves” when they are being arrogant, telling someone who is self-deprecating or diffident to “humble themselves” might very well seem odd. And secondly, also like courage, we might easily assume that whatever property makes someone humble is in over abundance in someone who is self-deprecating or overly diffident. As such, telling a self-deprecating person that they need to be more humble might sound like are encouraging them to have more of a property they already have too much of. So it might seem odd to encourage someone who is self-deprecating to be more humble, but I think we can see why this might be the case; nevertheless, such oddness does not seem to legitimately undermine the intuition that intellectual humility is best conceived of as a virtuous mean. This oddness, I propose, can be explained away.

Am I really talking about intellectual humility?

People can disagree about nearly anything. So if someone finds something to criticize in my work, I tend not to worry (unless, of course, it just seems like a crushing objection.) However, when I find that people are systematically, across contexts and audiences, clustering around the same criticism—then I really start to worry. And there is such a criticism facing the doxastic account; there is a worry that people do indeed seem to cluster around, and I am truly concerned. Here’s the worry: Am I really talking about intellectual humility?

When we’ve tried to cash out my account of intellectual humility, lots of people all seem to have the same sort of worry (though there are important differences). All of them have suggested that perhaps I am not really talking about intellectual humility at all—that perhaps I am talking about another virtue and just calling it intellectual humility. Some have worried that perhaps my account highlights a feature of intellectual virtues in general and that I’m not picking out intellectual humility in particular. Or if I am picking out something specific, perhaps I’m really just talking about intellectual honesty and not intellectual humility. Similarly, in a Big Questions Online discussion, Jay Wood suggested that my proposed account is actually honing in on a virtue like intellectual accuracy or intellectual firmness, but not intellectual humility.6

So, does this mean I should consider giving up on my account of intellectual humility as an actual account of intellectual humility? I don’t think so, not yet anyway. The philosophy of intellectual humility is currently something like a wild frontier. As Bob Roberts noted in his discussion summary for the Big Questions Online piece, “What is it to be Intellectually Humble?” (2012), “One of the most striking things to emerge from our discussion of intellectual humility is the lack of consensus on what ‘humility’ and ‘intellectual humility’ mean.”7 As the conversation develops, it has become manifestly clear that there is no shared or even entirely dominate view of intellectual humility in the literature; the Roberts and Wood view is different from Eleonore Stump’s view, which is different from my view, etc. So it seems like the state of play right now is to try to stake a claim and defend it best you can! And that’s what I’m doing.8

Of course, if there was consensus regarding what I’m confusing intellectual humility with, then perhaps I should still back off from my account. For example, if it was manifestly clear to everyone but myself that I was really talking about open-mindedness and not intellectual humility, then (even if there was no consensus regarding what intellectual humility actually is) I might yet worry that I’ve gotten something wrong. But, as I’ve already noted, that’s not my situation. There is no consensus regarding what I might be confusing intellectual humility with.

Conclusion

Intellectual humility has become an increasingly important and vibrant area of philosophical and scientific research. As such, understanding what intellectual humility is has becoming increasingly important. In this blog post, I suggested that it is the virtue of accurately tracking what one could non-culpably take to be the positive epistemic status of one’s own beliefs. And while such an account faces some serious worries (more than we could consider in one post), I tried to show how at least two of these worries could be assuaged. In the end, I (humbly) suggest that the doxastic account might serve as an excellent starting place for understanding this virtue.

Notes

  1. There is, of course, a lot more that can be and has been said about the nature of humility. That said, however, while such an account is, no doubt, rough and ready, I think it is intuitive, and basic enough for the purposes of this post—where humility simpliciter is not a primary focus.

  2. See Samuelson, Peter L., Matthew J. Jarvinen, Thomas B. Paulus, Ian M. Church, Sam A. Hardy, and Justin L. Barrett. 2014. “Implicit Theories of Intellectual Virtues and Vices: A Focus on Intellectual Humility.” The Journal Of Positive Psychology 0 (0): 1–18. doi:10.1080/17439760.2014.967802..

  3. This was actually my former view.

  4. Terms like ”justification” or “warrant” sometimes have epistemological baggage attached to them. Justification, for example, often seems attached to internalism. Warrant, for another, is often used as an umbrella term for whatever bridges the gap between true belief and knowledge. In this post, I don’t want to make any such commitments. I want to develop a doxastic account of intellectual humility that can apply whether or not you are internalist or whether or not you’re explicitly interested in knowledge. “Positive epistemic status” helps leave those doors open.

  5. I think this is a really important issue! The science of intellectual humility is currently a very hot topic, and the measurement of intellectual humility is a central area of research. And, it seems, how we think of intellectual humility—be it in terms of a virtuous mean or simply as the opposite of intellectual arrogance—will radically affect how we develop a scale for measuring this virtue. And as I converse with some of the scientists who see intellectual humility as the opposite of intellectual arrogance, I worry that their measurements are going to give a misleading assessment; I worry that if someone is extremely self-deprecating, extremely undervaluing their intellectual abilities and accomplishments, that they are going to be flagged as virtuous, as intellectually humble.

  6. See Wood, Jay. 2012. “‘How Might Intellectual Humility Lead To Scientific Insight: Discusssion Summary.” Biq Questions Online. https://www.bigquestionsonline.com/content/what-it-be-intellectually-humble..

  7. See (missing reference).

  8. Besides, there are a lot of ways to slice the virtue pie. So maybe I shouldn’t be too worried if my account of intellectual humility is someone else’s meta-virtue (I’m actually attracted to the idea of intellectual humility as a meta-virtue) or intellectual honesty. So long as I ‘m not entirely developing my account from the void, then it seems like maybe the diversity of opinion surrounding intellectual humility shouldn’t concern me too much. And, as it turns out, I don’t think I don’t think my account is coming from the void.