Over the past year I’ve sometimes been so consumed by worry and anxiety that it has been difficult to function as well as I’d like to. Some of the things that have caused me to worry have been rational concerns, broadly-speaking. For example, periods of unemployment and associated job searches can be highly stressful. At the same time, I also recognise that the things that cause me to worry sometimes, perhaps often, turn out to be things that I needn’t have worried so much about, or that I was wrong about in other ways.
Indeed, if I’m honest and if I kept score, I’m probably wrong more often than I’m right about many things (or maybe most things). I doubt I’m unique in this respect given the various cognitive mechanisms that can cause us to make such errors, such as by jumping to causal conclusions too rapidly, or through stress-induced hazy thinking.
On reflection, this may be something that points to some of the roles and potential benefits of intellectual humility.
If I’d exhibited greater intellectual humility during the past year I may not have taken some of the thoughts that caused me so much worry quite so seriously, or I might have taken other perspectives more seriously. Or I might have been more willing to seek advice on matters from relevant experts rather than trying to think things through myself.
This is quite an interesting reflection for me given that I often “preach” about the dangers of dogmatism and the need for intellectual humility. I clearly often struggle to put this into practice in my own life, perhaps like most people.
Now I’m not saying that you shouldn’t worry or that what’s worrying you necessarily isn’t important, or that it isn’t as important as you think. And I’m not saying that all the societal issues causing worry more broadly shouldn’t be taken seriously or should ignored via some position of radical doubt and skepticism. That would be an enormous over-reach.
Rather, what I’m trying to say is that intellectual humility may help us to function effectively during stressful times. It may have helped me to remember that I might be wrong (probably, in fact) and thereby be more open to other ways of thinking about things. This, in turn, may have helped me to function during periods of life which are challenging.
I intend to experiment with the ideal of intellectual humility proposed Ian Church and Peter Samuelson, which is conceptualised as “the virtuous mean between intellectual arrogance and intellectual diffidence” (Church & Samuelson, 2017, p.7). As they elaborate:
“The intellectually humble person, then, doesn’t overly value her beliefs (intellectual arrogance) nor does she undervalue them (intellectual diffidence). Instead, she values her beliefs, their epistemic status, and her intellectual abilities as she ought” (p.7)
More broadly, the humble person is one who “doesn’t value herself too much (arrogance) nor does she value herself too little (diffidence or self-deprecation)” (p.7).
This is an interesting ideal. Perhaps like others, at different times I exhibit greater intellectual diffidence or intellectual arrogance than I ought to. Sometimes I struggle to appropriately value my knowledge, whereas other times I accord my beliefs greater epistemic status than I ought to. Understanding intellectual humility as a virtuous mean gives us something to strive for and work towards each day, like other virtues.
Church, I.M. & Samuelson, P.L. 2017, Intellectual Humility: An Introduction to the Philosophy and Science, Bloomsbury Academic.