What is Intellectual Humility?

A General Overview

In one of our investigations, we surveyed (through the internet) people from all walks of life and found there are three dimensions to intellectual humility in the “folk” conception:  an intellectual dimension: (smart, curious, love of learning, inquisitive); a humble dimension: (humble, doesn’t brag, not a show-off); and a civil dimension: (listens to others, kind, considerate, respectful).

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We think the person on the street got it about right.  Intellectual humility has to do with understanding that you don’t know everything, that there is more to learn, that you don’t use your knowledge or expertise as a way to get advantage over others and that, in discussions with others, you are respectful, listening closely to what the other has to say in order to learn something.  Our project has funded investigations in all of these areas. Some are looking to create a measurement of intellectual humility. Some are looking at our cognitive systems in order to see if our normal patterns of thought produce or inhibit intellectual humility.  Some are interested in how children practice intellectual humility (or don’t) and how we might develop this trait. Others are looking at how knowledge is used and acquired in social situations.  Still others are interested in using intellectual humility to promote better discourse between disagreeing parties.

We operate under the assumption that intellectual humility is a good – the possession of which makes you a better person, and the practice of which makes for a better, more civil society.  If we can learn how our natural ways of thinking either help or hinder this virtue, we can know how to best promote it.  If we learn how it plays out in a child’s cognitive development, we can teach children how to practice it.  If we can learn how people think and react in situations of disagreement, we can use intellectual humility to enhance civil discourse.  Having a good grasp of the limits of your own knowledge coupled with a curiosity and love of learning make for a fulfilling life.  Having a respect for the knowledge and opinions of others, and a attitude of open-mindedness will help society move toward the best solutions to vexing problems.  These and other aspects of intellectual humility help us reach for the goal of human flourishing – for all people.

Intellectual Humility & Philosophy

file000888158051What are some ways intellectual humility will be important to philosophy?  Recent work in philosophy has highlighted the theoretical importance of intellectual humility in the context of the broader subject of “virtue epistemology.”  Virtue epistemology focuses on the process by which beliefs are formed, looking specifically at whether or not the belief was formed by an intellectually virtuous knower. Some have claimed that intellectual humility is among these core intellectual virtues.  In this way, intellectual humility can be seen as foundational to knowledge itself.  What is more, intellectual humility seems incompatible with the notion that one might fairly stick to his or her guns (intellectually speaking) when faced with others who are equally intelligent and well informed, but who hold opposing, even incompatible views.  And yet, while sticking to your guns and being intellectually humble seem incompatible, even paradigmatically intellectually humble individuals sometimes (quite justifiably) maintain their positions in the face of such disagreement.  The epistemic import of peer disagreement is a hot topic in contemporary epistemology and directly relevant to intellectual humility (and vice versa).

Intellectual Humility & Psychology

What are some ways intellectual humility will be important to psychology?  Well, we could begin our investigation into intellectual humility by recognizing it as the opposite of intellectual arrogance for we have evidence that this vice is deeply rooted in human psychology.

First, human beings are notoriously (and apparently naturally) disposed to over-estimate their intellectual strengths and under-estimate their weaknesses; indeed, the evidence is clear that there is a strong tendency even to under-estimate our liability to such biases!  Do these biases show a natural tendency away from intellectual humility?   Furthermore, we are susceptible to all sorts of biases that make intellectual humility difficult.   For example, we tend to favor evidence or data received early in our inquiries (primacy bias) and we tend to discount the weight of evidence that counts against hypotheses we endorse (confirmation bias).

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Second, evolutionary psychologists have offered some intriguing arguments that these dispositions are embedded within our cognitive architecture in ways that can systematically lead us to biased thinking, in some cases for adaptive reasons.  Does this mean that intellectual arrogance is both an epistemic vice and a “biological virtue”?

Third, some clinicians have argued that intellectual arrogance is necessary for maintaining mental health.   The intellectually humble, who see themselves and their condition with unmitigated clarity, are more susceptible to forms of depression, for example.  Presumably, however, viewing intellectual humility merely as the opposite of intellectual arrogance gives us an incomplete picture.  For example, evidence indicates correlations between intellectual humility and important morally salient traits such as a willingness to forgive others, a lack of aggression, and helpfulness.  Moreover, psychologists have discovered traits and behaviors associated with intellectual humility that facilitate learning, personal growth, and social interaction.  What other positive, or negative, correlations exist between intellectual humility and other aspects of human flourishing?