How does intellectual humility unlock greater knowledge?
Practicing Socratic ignorance, or avoiding certainty of our own knowledge, diminishes inequality and pushes us in our search for wisdom.
Bradley Jackson is the Senior Program Officer at the Institute for Humane Studies, where he works on topics such as civil discourse, free expression, and the challenges facing contemporary liberalism. He also writes on the history of political philosophy, including figures such as Adam Smith and Thomas Hobbes. He holds a PhD in Political Science from Michigan State University.
BRADLEY JACKSON: Intellectual humility is the recognition that you have imperfect knowledge about the world. There are many things that each of us don't know and to be intellectually humble means to go through the world with a recognition that there are things that you don't know yet and that perhaps you would like to learn about. And an important way that we communicate with others through conversations is that we share the knowledge that each of us has. And the only way that you can start a good conversation and have a discourse with a person is if you recognize that the other person also has important things to offer, things that they can tell you about. And that you might have blind spots in your own point of view, bits of ignorance that you hold onto as truths, that you wish you could get away from but you don't know how. And importantly we don't know which parts of our knowledge are incorrect. We don't know the things that we don't know. And we go through the world as though we understand it, as though we know the importance things but we're very often wrong. So we need to believe that we have blind spots. We need to believe that there are bits of ignorance in our minds if we're going to approach conversations with others, if we're going to approach discourse with the belief that the other person we're talking to is important, and they're important to us. Because what's in their mind might be a thing that could help us in the world.
One great model I think of the sort of posture toward the world that's helpful is Socrates. Socrates very famously said in his apology speech that the only thing I know is that I know nothing. He had this posture of what we call now Socratic ignorance and approached every conversation as though the person he was talking to could teach him everything he needed to know. He lacked all this knowledge by hypothesis. He always assumed he lacked the knowledge and he always assumed that his interlocutor or the person he was talking to would be able to provide him that knowledge. Now in the dialogues of Plato we see again and again that Socrates is frustrated. That he doesn't end up learning what he desperately needs to know. He continually lacks this certainty. But that lack of certainty is what pushes Socrates to search for knowledge, to attempt to go into the world and find those things that he doesn't know yet. And so it's only by assuming that we don't have certainty, it's only by recognizing the fundamental uncertainty of being a human in the world that we can have a posture that tells us to go and try to fix it.
Now in liberalism, which is based upon this fundamental notion that we're all equal as citizens within our governmental order, for someone to act as though they're not equal, they're better. That signifies that they're not playing the same game we are. Maybe if they thought they could, they would try to rule us. That's a great danger. Hobbes says that absence social trust. Absence, my belief that you believe that we are equal. I might also defect from this liberal order that we're trying to build together.
The whole notion of liberal democracy says none of us naturally rule anyone else. No one is, as Jefferson put it, born, booted and spurred to ride the rest of us by the grace of God. And if you act without humility, if you act pridefully and arrogantly, you tell us you think you have a pair of spurs on. And if I worry that you have a pair of spurs on then I might not want to work with you. I might not trust you enough to live in a society with you. And so liberalism requires us all to act with humility, to treat others as equals, as people who might have something important to say. Because if I act as though you don't have something important to say, as though I know everything that needs to be known and you don't know anything that can add to that, I'm essentially saying I could rule you. I could tell you the things that you need to know that would make your life better. And if we look at, for example, Plato's Republic where we see this vison of a philosopher king, we see that there are sorts of governmental order, aristocracies and monarchies, that are based upon the notion that we're not all equal or that some people have privileged access to information that others lack. The extreme version of this is a theocracy where the ruler has direct access to God's wisdom, which we all lack. Which would mean that of course that person should rule us and we should merely be ruled. So there are systems, governmental systems in this world that are based on human inequality, but liberalism is not one of those.
Liberal democracy has as one of its key premises that we're all equal in these important moral and political ways. And if we want to maintain a liberal order and not to run the risk of a return of monarchy and aristocracy and all of these much more unfree forms of government. Then we need to maintain the social trust that's necessary to live with each other as equals and that requires treating one another as equals which requires having some humility.
- Classical liberalist thinking is based on the fundamental notion that we're all equal as citizens within our governmental order. This thought lends itself to the specific principle of intellectual humility.
- Senior Program Officer at the Institute for Humane Studies, Bradley Jackson provides the definition of intellectual humility as recognition that we have imperfect knowledge of the world. If each of us remains intellectually humble, this levels us as equals.
- Putting this into practice calls for a level of social trust, and maintaining this liberal democracy requires that we view each other as equals in these moral and political ways.