In his 1861 treatise “Walking,” a remarkable reflection on life’s ample complexities, Henry David Thoreau poses a question vital even today: “Which is the best man to deal with — he who knows nothing about a subject, and, what is extremely rare, knows that he knows nothing, or he who really knows something about it, but thinks that he knows all?”
Thoreau is principally concerned with how the illusion of knowledge motivates hubris and how information is mistaken for wisdom — problems that have worsened in an age when information is so readily available. To this vexing problem, Thoreau offers a counterpoint in humility: “A man’s ignorance sometimes is not only useful, but beautiful — for what is most of our so-called knowledge but a conceit that we know something, which robs us of the advantage of our actual ignorance?”
Thoreau’s words are of singular importance today, when everyone is allegedly an expert and we are all convinced of the superiority of our beliefs and opinions. Intellectual humility provides a timely antidote to the excesses of our self-righteousness: Beyond mere modesty or low self-estimation, it is an active and constructive virtue that can facilitate effective learning and generate mutual understanding.
Intellectual humility begins with the recognition of the partial nature of our own knowledge and understanding. It is driven by a commitment to seek measured and cogent answers, and a willingness to accept new evidence and ideas — even those which contradict our own views.
Indeed, such humility can help overcome the defensiveness and myopia that arises when our most deeply held convictions are challenged. In a recent study, psychologists Carol Dweck and Tenelle Porter found that people who scored higher on their survey of intellectual humility were more likely to listen to an opposing point of view and try to learn from it. As Porter states, “When we are more engaged and listening to the other side, disagreements tend to be more constructive.”
The intellectually humble person has a healthy sense of their own fallibility, and acknowledges the existence of others’ intelligence. This is far from easy. By being actively attentive to others — especially those we disagree with — we become vulnerable to the devastating realization that we do not know everything. Yet in our pluralistic and ever-changing world, focusing solely on ourselves means losing out on a vast trove of wisdom.
Intellectual humility demands that in addressing important questions, we seek out a variety of ideas. To do full justice to the complexity of reality, we must consider it from a multitude of perspectives. No one viewpoint, however ingenious, can offer all the answers. This cerebral humility allows us to move past the egotism of believing we have greater and better insights than do those around us, and toward a positive sense of self-awareness and scrutiny.
In closing out “Walking,” Thoreau declares, “My desire for knowledge is intermittent, but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant.” In a period in which no knowledge seems out of reach, intellectual humility allows us to immerse ourselves in the deep expanse of the unknown and, hopefully, emerge anew.
Philip Tsien is a sophomore in the College.
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