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Intellectual Humility: Having Knowledge of Ignorance

We will begin with the fair-minded trait of intellectual humility:

Intellectual humility may be defined as having a consciousness of the limits of one's knowledge, including a sensitivity to circumstances in which one's native egocentrism is likely to function self-deceptively. This entails being aware of one's biases, one's prejudices, the limitations of one's viewpoint, and the extent of one's ignorance. Intellectual humility depends on recognizing that one should not claim more than one actually knows. It does not imply spinelessness or submissiveness. It implies the lack of intellectual pretentiousness, boastfulness, or conceit, combined with insight into the logical foundations, or lack of such foundations, of one's beliefs.

The opposite of intellectual humility is intellectual arrogance, a lack of consciousness of the limits of one's knowledge, with little or no insight into self-deception or the limitations of one's point of view. Intellectually arrogant people often fall prey to their own bias and prejudice, and frequently claim to know more than they actually know.

When we think of intellectual arrogance, we are not necessarily implying a person who is outwardly smug, haughty, insolent, or pompous. Outwardly, the person may appear humble. For example, a person who uncritically believes in a cult leader may be outwardly self-effacing ("I am nothing. You are everything"), but intellectually he or she is making a sweeping generalization that is not well founded, and has complete faith in that generalization.

Unfortunately, in human life people of the full range of personality types are capable of believing they know what they don't know. Our own false beliefs, misconceptions, prejudices, illusions, myths, propaganda, and ignorance appear to us as the plain, unvarnished truth. What is more, when challenged, we often resist admitting that our thinking is "defective." We then are intellectually arrogant, even though we might feel humble. Rather than recognizing the limits of our knowledge, we ignore and obscure those limits. From such arrogance, much suffering and waste result.

It is not uncommon for the police, for example, to assume a man is guilty of a crime because of his appearance, because he is black for example, or because he wears an earring, or because he has a disheveled and unkempt look about him. Owing to the prejudices driving their thinking, the police are often incapable of intellectual humility. In a similar way, prosecutors have been known to withhold exculpatory evidence against a defendant in order to "prove" their case. Intellectually righteous in their views, they feel confident that the defendant is guilty. Why, therefore, shouldn't they suppress evidence that will help this "guilty" person go free?

Intellectual arrogance is incompatible with fair-mindedness because we cannot judge fairly when we are in a state of ignorance about the object of our judgment. If we are ignorant about a religion (say, Buddhism), we cannot be fair in judging it. And if we have misconceptions, prejudices, or illusions about it, we will distort it (unfairly) in our judgment. We will misrepresent it and make it appear to be other than it is. Our false knowledge, misconceptions, prejudices, and illusions stand in the way of the possibility of our being fair. Or if we are intellectually arrogant, we will be inclined to judge too quickly and be overly confident in our judgment. Clearly, these tendencies are incompatible with being fair (to that which we are judging).

Why is intellectual humility essential to higher-level thinking? In addition to helping us become fair-minded thinkers, knowledge of our ignorance can improve our thinking in a variety of ways. It can enable us to recognize the prejudices, false beliefs, and habits of mind that lead to flawed learning. Consider, for example, our tendency to accept superficial learning. Much human learning is superficial. We learn a little and think we know a lot. We get limited information and generalize hastily from it. We confuse cutesy phrases with deep insights. We uncritically accept much that we hear and read—especially when what we hear or read agrees with our intensely held beliefs or the beliefs of groups to which we belong.

The discussion in the chapters that follow encourages intellectual humility and will help to raise your awareness of intellectual arrogance. See if you, from this moment, can begin to develop in yourself a growing awareness of the limitations of your knowledge and an increasing sensitivity to instances of your inadvertent intellectual arrogance. When you do, celebrate that sensitivity. Reward yourself for finding weaknesses in your thinking. Consider recognition of weakness an important strength, not a weakness. As a starter, answer the following questions:

  • Can you construct a list of your most significant prejudices? (Think of what you believe about your country, your religion, your company, your friends, your family, simply because others—colleagues, parents, friends, peer group, media—conveyed these to you.)

  • Do you ever argue for or against views when you have little evidence upon which to base your judgment?

  • Do you ever assume that your group (your company, your family, your religion, your nation, your friends) is correct (when it is in conflict with others) even though you have not looked at the situation from the point of view of the others with which you disagree?

Test the Idea
Intellectual Humility

Name a person you think you know fairly well. Make two lists. In the first list include everything you know for sure about the person. In the second list include everything you know you don't know about him/her. For example: "I know for sure that my spouse likes to garden, but I'm also sure that I have never really understood what her fears and personal desires were. I know many superficial things about her, but about her inner self I know little." Support what you claim by writing out an explanation of your thinking.

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