Intellectual Humility

What are the marks of intellectual humility? Where do you see it? What gives it away as present?

W. Jay Wood:

Philosophers known as “virtue epistemologists” claim that the goods of the intellectual life—knowledge, wisdom, understanding, etc.—are more easily obtained by persons possessing mature traits of intellectual character, such as open-mindedness, teachability, and intellectual courage, than by persons who lack these virtues or who are marked by their opposing vices.  Here I focus on the virtue of “intellectual humility” and ask what relevance it has for the pursuit of scientific knowledge. I argue that intellectually humble scientists have a stronger likelihood of winning knowledge and other intellectual goods than those lacking this virtue. Intellectual humility leads indirectly to scientific insight. It does not super-charge our cognitive powers or improve scientific techniques, so much as it changes scientists themselves in ways that allow them to direct their abilities and practices in more effective ways. …

What makes humility intellectual humility, in contrast to the moral humility that suppresses our everyday desires to seek the spotlight? Intellectual virtues, including intellectual humility, are so designated because they are most obviously at work in our intellectual endeavors, in our research, writing, academic conferences, and in everyday forms of intellectual exchange, so that we might obtain intellectual goods—knowledge, understanding, warrant, etc. Intellectual humility opposes forms of pride such as undue concern to dominate others, or excessive resistance to criticism, which often frustrate our quest for the various intellectual goods.

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  • Good post. I think we need to think in love, to seek truth in love. Which means we listen well, and read with a view to really understanding the material. But the love I refer to encompasses both a love for those interacting, and a love for truth in a pursuit of truth, a pursuit which by its nature is of course never ending. Which ought to help us remain humble. As well as the conviction that we need each other in this pursuit, and that truth can come through the most humble things.

  • I’ve had this same thought when it comes to theological knowledge and the potential of arrogance towards those who lack such training.

  • Thanks for sharing this. This is especially helpful to us seminary students who think we suddenly have things figured out. Not even close. As St. Augustine puts it, “If you think you comprehend God, then it isn’t God.” May all students, preachers, teachers, professors, and theologians have an authentic intellectual humility before the incomprehensible God.

  • Well said. I think about this, often, as I float in different circles of thinking. Intellectual humility keeps us curious. Curiosity allows us to seek to understand which has the potential to birth compassion.

  • Intellectual humility is to be glad to be proven wrong if it moves the world closer to knowing the objective truth about a matter. Good scholars want to have their data and conclusions cross examined, because they really care about what the truth is, rather than whether they are the ones who know it.

    Coming from the scientific world, I notice this problem more in religious scholarship than my earlier field. People tend to form teams around a favorite theory and “joust” with anyone who points out potential weaknesses. It becomes more important to cheer for your team than to admit when a theory has problems.

  • Curious cat

    That was beautiful.Challenging things is not allways with hurtful intent.