What Is It to Be Intellectually Humble?

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We human beings are seekers. We seek love, wealth, security, power, happiness, and recognition. We also seek knowledge. Aristotle said, “All people by nature desire to know.” The desire to know can be very ambitious, like that of the scientists who sought to solve the structure of the DNA molecule, or rather modest. It can be enormously satisfying to know and understand things. What does it take to have intellectual success—to come to know and understand something challenging? Well, you need some raw intelligence and memory, and you need to work hard and persevere when it doesn’t come easily. You’ll be better off if you’re surrounded by learned people and have enough leisure and resources to support your inquiries.

However, you will also need to BE a certain kind of person. To achieve significant and challenging knowledge, you’ll need some virtues. One of those virtues is intellectual humility. Of course, several other virtues are needed for optimum performance as well. I mentioned persevering, and that’s of course the behavioral output of the virtue of perseverance; I mentioned working hard, and the corresponding virtue is diligence. The persevering and the diligent will have more success in knowing than the impatient and the lazy. While a love of knowledge, courage, open-mindedness, and intellectual fairness or charity are also necessary for optimal performance, the virtue I want to discuss here is intellectual humility. What is it to be intellectually humble?

The first definition of ‘humility’ in the Oxford English Dictionary is “The quality of being humble or having a lowly opinion of oneself.” Now we can’t deny that this is one meaning of the word, but it seems clear that thinking poorly of oneself is not a virtue. So some have suggested that humility is evaluating oneself correctly: if you’re the world’s worst pianist, then humility is assessing yourself as such, and if you’re the world’s greatest pianist, humility is assessing yourself as that. Although this is much closer to being the virtue than low self-esteem, correct self-assessment doesn’t seem to be humility either. Imagine two people. One is rotten at his job, and the other is spectacular at hers. And imagine that these two go around proclaiming their relative worth. The one says, “Woe is me, I am an abominable insurance salesman,” and the other says, “I am an amazingly glorious newspaper editor.” Even if both self-assessments hit the nail on the head, I don’t think either of these characters has exhibited the virtue of humility.

Accurate self-assessment is a good thing in its place, but it seems almost the opposite of virtuous to be preoccupied with assessing oneself. The person who is constantly asking, “How am I doing?” “How do I measure up?” “How do I rank?” “What am I worth?” is too centered on his or her own value to count as humble in a virtuous sense. In the Christian tradition, Jesus of Nazareth is the model for humility, and the crucial New Testament passages describe him as precisely not preoccupied with his status.

The apostle Paul writes to the church at Philippi encouraging them to give precedence to one another rather than to show “selfish ambition” or “vain conceit.” And he says that they should have the attitude that Jesus had, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” (Philippians 2: 6-7) Jesus, whose “rank” was very high (to put it mildly), makes himself into a servant both of God and of humankind out of a passionate concern for us. Paul’s point about Jesus’ humility is graphically illustrated in the foot-washing scene in John’s Gospel. There in the upper room on the night before he was to die for them, during their dinner together Jesus began to wash his disciples’ feet as only a low kind of servant would do. This gesture was to symbolize the attitude the disciples should take toward one another and toward those for whose wellbeing they were to work in Jesus’ name, by symbolizing what Jesus was going to do for the world the next day.

As regards the nature of the humility depicted here, note that Jesus is perfectly knowledgeable about his rank, even while he treats it as nothing “to be grasped.” For he tells the disciples that though he is their Lord and Teacher, he is washing their feet to illustrate for them how their minds should be oriented to whatever status they themselves have. Humility, then, on this model, is a non-preoccupation or unconcern about one’s rank and status and worth, but not an ignorance of it.

On the faculty web page of Asif Ghazanfar, a psychologist at Princeton University, Ghazanfar comments, “For primates (including humans), the most salient features of the environment are other status-striving agents.” In other words, the monkeys, chimpanzees, baboons, gorillas and you and I tend to be quite preoccupied with our personal worth and more particularly with our rank or status. We tend to be hyper-aware of how we rank relative to the other “status-striving agents” in our environment. We want to be alpha, if not absolutely, then at least relative to somebody.

However, as I noted in the first paragraph, we humans are not one-concern creatures. We are interested in and seek many things. So our hyper-concern for rank can be mitigated or even stifled—maybe even occluded—by other concerns. Paul and Jesus, in the passages I mentioned above, are quite clear that our concern for our status can be blocked by our love for others and for God. When it is blocked in such a way as this, we have the virtue of humility.

This little article is about intellectual humility in particular, and so the concern that may dominate our preoccupation with personal status, thus yielding this particular kind of self-forgetting humility, is the one that Aristotle mentions: the desire for knowledge. Intellectual humility will be a trait of our character when we care so much about knowing, understanding, and getting to the truth of some big question that we become oblivious of how we rank, of what we are “worth” vis-à-vis the other status-striving agents in our circle. The apostle Paul says, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” (1 Corinthians 8:1) and we might add that love of knowledge can build us up in humility.

Knowledge comes into us through a variety of channels that can be blocked by our concern for status, and the successful knowledge-seeker will be one who keeps those channels open. The process requires that we be able to “listen,” either literally or figuratively, to what others say. If what they say shows them to be superior to us in knowledge, we will be hampered in our learning if our first reaction is to try to show that we know as much as they or more. The process also requires that we be corrigible, that we be open to the possibility that our opinions are in some way misguided. If, whenever our status as knowers is threatened by the specter of correction, we feel that we must prove ourselves to have been in the right, we will have closed off an avenue of knowledge and crippled ourselves as inquirers. It can be particularly galling, if one lacks intellectual humility, to be corrected in a public forum; and the galling can obstruct the process of learning.

A lovely example of intellectual humility comes from Alice Ambrose in a report of experiences she had in the classroom of G. E. Moore, the prominent philosopher, at Cambridge University. She reports that in a series of lectures on the concept of truth Moore would sometimes criticize claims that he himself had made, say in an earlier lecture, with the same attitude one would take “to an anonymous philosopher whose mistakes called for correction.” Also, he would sometimes announce that he was going to skip to another stage in the argument because he did not know how to make the transition logically. Moore seemed to be unconcerned about protecting his status as an important professor at Cambridge because he was so deeply concerned with getting at the truth about truth. His love of knowledge swamped his concern for status, and this intellectual humility made him one of the greater philosophers of the 20th century.

Subramanyan Chandrasekhar was once asked why he could innovate in physics well beyond retirement age, while most physicists do innovative work only when young. He said, “there seems to be a certain arrogance toward nature that people develop. These people have had great insights and made profound discoveries. They imagine afterwards that the fact that they succeeded so triumphantly in one area means they have a special way of looking at science which must be right. But science doesn’t permit that. Nature has shown over and over again that the kinds of truth which underlie nature transcend the most powerful minds.” Chandrasekhar seems to be saying that early success in knowing “puffs up” the scientist, so that his enlarged ego makes it hard to see the way forward on new problems. The humble self-forgetting love of knowing can remove this impediment.

Discussion Summary

One of the most striking things to emerge from our discussion of intellectual humility is the lack of consensus on what ‘humility’ and ‘intellectual humility’ mean. One commentator considered humility to be a kind of effortless mental naturalness or going-with-the-flow that can’t be adopted as action or pursued. To another, ‘humility’ suggests servility or obsequiousness, a kind of groveling bootlicking attitude. Another thought it to be a combination of disregard for social status, contrition for one’s moral shortcomings, and trust in God to bless one with moral improvement. In recent literature, humility is sometimes equated with low self-esteem, to which people sometimes respond by saying that it’s actually accurate self-assessment, rather than low self-assessment. The history of philosophy doesn’t provide much help. David Hume writes of humility as though it is the feeling of shame, while Thomas Aquinas regards it as a brake on immoderate ambition.

In my focal essay, I propose that it is a lack of regard for social status that comes of caring passionately about some good. Jesus and Socrates are prime exemplars of the virtue. Jesus’ humility consists in not regarding his divine status as “something to be insisted on” or “grasped” because of his great love for the Father and for humanity, and Socrates’ humility consists in his disregard for social approval that comes of caring passionately for truth and for his own integrity. Since the passion that explains Socrates’ lack of regard for social standing is in large part an intellectual passion (the love of truth and the desire to understand), Socrates’ trait is a prime example ofintellectualhumility.

One “big question” that the weeklong online discussion seems to me to have raised is that of how, conceptually, to divide up human excellence (and in particular human intellectual excellence) into the various distinct traits that go to make it up, and also how to distinguish the virtues themselves from virtues’ consequences. Some of the concepts of humility that came forward in the discussion are clearly not virtues at all—for example, low self-esteem and obsequiousness and the feeling of shame—but others do seem to be related to humility. For example, sensitivity to one’s own sinfulness and trust in God to improve one’s character, as well as a disposition to proper ambition, measured both by reference to human nature and to one’s individual nature, all are virtuous and seem to be related to humility in the sense that the humble person is more likely to have the other traits. And we could say something similar of feeling proper shame at one’s moral shortcomings and of judging accurately one’s own value and abilities: the humble person is more likely than the vain or arrogant to display such feelings and make such judgments.

It seems to me plausible to suppose that differential judgments about the nature and value of humility often stem from differing moral and spiritual outlooks. If that is so, then efforts to determine what intellectual humility IS might well involve careful attention to, and frank honesty about, “where we’re coming from” religiously, morally, and spiritually. My own orientation, in my discussion of humility and intellectual humility, is the Christian tradition as understood with the help of Greek philosophy (Plato, Aristotle); I draw especially on texts from the Apostle Paul and John the Evangelist. Hume, by contrast, comes from a significantly different moral orientation that is actually in polemic against Christianity, and the contributor who thinks of humility as effortless mental naturalness or going-with-the-flow that can’t be adopted as action or pursued seems to come from the direction of one of the indigenous Asian religious philosophies.

Two New Big Questions:

So an aspect of this big question would be, “How is intellectual humility related to other intellectual virtues such as intellectual courage, objectivity, intellectual honesty, fairness, charity, autonomy, perseverance, and practical wisdom?” I think I noticed in the comments a tendency to conflate virtues that are related to humility (in perhaps various ways) with humility itself. I would suggest that to understand any one of the virtues depends on understanding that virtue’s dependency relations with other virtues, because together they consist in something like an organic whole, an interdependent “system” of traits.

A second big question that comes out of our discussion is the more practical one of how to become intellectually humble. How do we rear or educate intellectually humble (or more broadly intellectually virtuous) people, and what kind of disciplines can we practice to develop our own virtues? Jason Baehr and his colleagues have recently received a significant Templeton grant to study just this question and to begin implementing possible answers.

28 Responses

  1. unenlightened says:

    "Being good is a state in which there is no effort, but we are not in that state. We are envious, ambitious, gossipy, cruel, narrow, petty minded, caught in various forms of stupidity, which is not good; and being all that, how can one come to a state of mind which is good without making an effort to be good? Surely, the man who makes an effort to be virtuous is not virtuous, is he? A person who tries to be humble obviously has not the least understanding of what humility is." J Krishnamurti, 1955.

    Knowing that I cannot fit the world inside my head, that knowing is a very small and insignificant fragment of even my own being, and that even that is borrowed wholesale from the whole history of humanity, I have no reason to make much of whatever small contribution I might by good fortune be able to make

    • Robert Roberts says:


      Dear Arnie,

      Thanks for joining the discussion. Your comment, like Alex’s and unenlightened’s, shows the indeterminacy of the word ‘humility’ in contemporary English, an indeterminacy that quite possibly exists in earlier English as well, and in other languages. ‘Humility’ seems to mean many different things to different people: for David Hume it was pretty much the same as shame; Aquinas analyzes humility as a kind of psychological brake on ambition such as to keep our ambitions from becoming too ambitious; Jonathan Edwards more or less equates humility with penitence (a strong sense of one’s own sinfulness and moral unworthiness); more recently people have equated it with low self-esteem or correct self-assessment; to Alex it suggests trust and contrition as well as unconcern for status; to unenlightened and perhaps to Krishnamurti it seems to be a kind of effortless naturalness or going-with-the-flow that can’t be adopted as action or pursued; and to you, it seems, it suggests servility or obsequiousness, a kind of groveling boot-licking. My policy, concluded from this rather chaotic riot of conflicting intuitions, is to consult a particular linguistic and moral context, that of the New Testament, and to ask for a trait that seems unequivocally to belong in the category of virtue; and then to ask what an intellectual version of that virtue would be. The conception of humility so derived can then be tested against the other intuitions; and it seems to me that the result of doing so, at least for the intuitions that make humility out to be some kind of excellence, is to see that humility conceived as an unconcern about status generated by a commitment to some good, is that it clears the way for the working of some of the good traits that have been identified with humility. 

  2. Alexander Pruss says:


    I agree that unconcern about status, except perhaps instrumentally (we are called to be clever as serpents, after all, and Paul rightly makes use of his Roman citizenship status and his Jewish status as appropriate), is a part of humility.  That is a very attractive insight.  

    But I think there is something more.  Suppose that by the grace of God, Sam has just come to see that his previous way of life was deeply sinful, and that as a result he lacks most of the habits necessary for the virtuous life, but entrusts himself into the hands of God, who can do all things, in the hope that God will raise him to new life by grace.  

    Sam's attitude seems to be one that could be an instance of deep humility.  But Sam's humility here is not just limited to unconcern about status.  In fact, if lacking virtue is a status, then Sam is deeply concerned about this aspect of his status, and not just instrumentally so.  (It could, though, be argued that ideally Sam shouldn't be concerned about his lacking virtue as much as about this creature of God's lacking virtue–it being irrelevant whether that creature is he; but I don't want to go that way, as that way could lead to the errors of Fenelon.)  But perhaps lacking virtue doesn't count as a status–it's not comparative and social, maybe.  In that case, we can say that indeed Sam is unconcerned about his status, and that's an important fact about him.  He wants to be virtuous, but doesn't care about being more or less virtuous than others.  And that is an important part of his humility.  But it doesn't exhaust it, and doesn't, I think, get at the heart of his humble entrusting himself into the hands of the Almighty who alone can heal his soul.

    Now, maybe you weren't saying that this unconcern is all that humility is.  If so, I'd love to hear more…  And I think the more is important in the intellectual sphere.  It seems to me that an aspect of intellectual humility is an entrusting of certain aspects of one's epistemic life into the hands of others, in a partial analogy to Sam's entrusting all his aretaic life into the hands of God.  "She says it, so I believe it."  Accurate self-assessment is needed for figuring out which aspects are best entrusted, and so the aspect of accurate self-assessment while perhaps not the whole of humility is surely a part of it.

    • unenlightened says:

      Yes, I am saying that unconcern is all that humility is. And generally, that one is only concerned with virtue when one lacks it. To claim the concern with one's lack of virtue as itself a virtue seems to me like a foolish game of self deception.  I would not think that virtue is a habit at all; habits might be convenient, innocuous, useful, or not any of these things. But what one does without much awareness cannot have much virtue.

      Sam wants to be virtuous, and so he 'practices' virtue, makes an effort. It is never very pleasant to be on the receiving end of such efforts. One feels the contradiction between the kindness being displayed and the unkindness behind it, and one generally has to pay for it. Personally I prefer it when unkind people refrain from imposing their kindness on me; I like the real thing or nothing at all.

  3. Hmm says:

    It seems to me you come pretty close with the idea of wanting the truth more than (fill in the blank). It's an intrinsic need for a not-yet-realized consistency (at least not-yet-had by the seeker) on a topic, problem, or an issue. It's about needing that hoped-for consistency badly enough that you are willing to accept it on its own terms and without regard for whether that makes you the laughing stock of the local pub, the chairman of a prestigious philosophy department, both, or neither. It may be that we require that kind of need in order to learn the patient persistence sometimes required to get there, and also to develop the willingness to discount the extrinsic reward/punishment structures one may be subjected to along the way. Now what I have described here may be more along the lines of "topical need humility" more than "intellectual humility in general." I guess a person could have the needs that led to the intellectual productivity of humility in one area, while remaining generally arrogant overall. But then to want the truth in a general way and badly enough to begin to realize how little of it we just might be working with — would seem like it should go a ways toward helping one keep open the receiving lines of communication. 

  4. Robert Roberts says:



    Dear unenlightened,

    Thanks for your comment, especially the reminder that we owe most of what we know to others who have gone before us. Harold Bloom writes about “the anxiety of influence,” that is, the desire that many people with great minds have to leave their own individual stamp indelibly on the minds of their successors. People with this anxiety actively seek to innovate, and do so with a view to influencing the minds of future generations. (James Joyce comes to mind.) A few great thinkers actually do have such influence (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Einstein, etc.), but most of us just repeat what other people have said and have only a passing influence on a few of our friends. I don’t think that humility is simply the belief that we won’t have much influence on anybody. On that understanding, if Socrates had humility, then his virtue was a false belief (this is not a happy implication). But in fact Socrates seems to have had intellectual humility, in the sense that being one of the greatest and most influential thinkers of history was not of any concern to him; he just wanted to know the truth and remain true to himself. That is part of what makes him truly great, and why he is generally more admired than people like Joyce, who exhibit the anxiety of influence. One is reminded of the saying of Jesus that he who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

    One other thing: In your quotation, Krishnamurti says, “A person who tries to be humble obviously has not the least understanding of what humility is.” That statement seems to me false. Why couldn’t a person understand that humility consists in caring so much for something excellent that one simply has no interest in being important, realize that he or she isn’t humble by this definition, and try to become more humble? One might do this by meditating on the virtue of humility, by calling to mind great humble people like Socrates and Jesus, by immersing oneself in some excellent project that has little prospect of garnering applause, or by considering the vanity and ugliness of vanity and arrogance. It is highly likely that none of these efforts will be completely successful, but it’s hard to deny that they are efforts, and it seems clear to me that they are not completely misguided as to what humility is. 

    • Robert Roberts says:


      Dear Alex,

      Thanks so much for this excellent question. It raises a further question about how to think about the virtues systematically, that is, in relation to one another and to the whole of good character. It’s a question about how to divide up the personality of the excellent person into “traits” or “features” or “qualities.”

      The Sam you mention seems to be exhibiting several traits. His appreciation of the sinfulness of his life heretofore might be called contrition or penitence, and his entrusting himself to God for reform and rebirth might be called faith. Both contrition and faith are supported by humility as unconcern for one’s status because self-righteousness (being proud of one’s moral superiority) is a barrier to both faith and contrition. One might even say that a certain amount of humility is necessary for contrition and faith.

      It seems possible to conceive of a virtue that packs all three of the features that Sam exhibits into a single virtue, and call that trait ‘humility.’ So one might say that humility is unconcern for one’s status and also a perceptiveness about one’s moral shortcomings and also an attitude towards God of trusting him to remedy one’s moral shortcomings. That would be one way (or part of a way) of dividing up the personality of the excellent person.

      But in the essay I was following Paul and the Gospel writers in taking Jesus to be the paradigm exemplar of humility. And Paul would not think it proper to include in Jesus’ humility Jesus’ perceptiveness about his moral shortcomings. If you take Jesus as the paradigm, then it seems better to assign such perceptiveness to a different virtue, perhaps one we could call ‘contrition,’ which is a special virtue for sinners like Sam and the rest of us. This argument doesn’t work quite as well against including trusting God in humility (unless of course you specify that it’s trust in God to remedy your moral shortcomings), because Jesus, as depicted in the Gospels, does trust God and thus exhibits a kind of faith.

      So I agree with you that it’s possible to think of humility as including more than unconcern about one’s status, but perhaps we keep our thinking about the virtues clearer if we don’t try to pack too much into each one. If we can manage reasonably to keep the virtues distinct from one another, we may be better able to see how they interact; and I have argued that one of the ways that humility is important is that it clears the way for other virtues. And of course if humility is intellectual, it clears the way for knowledge and understanding. And one of the kinds of understanding it clears the way for is accurate self-assessment. That might be why so many people think that humility itself includes accurate self-assessment.


      • Robert Roberts says:


        Dear Hmm,

        I think you’re right that part of the love of knowledge that can drive out ego concerns is the desire for consistency among one’s beliefs. If it comes to our attention that our belief-set is inconsistent, people who are intellectually excellent feel uncomfortable and look for ways to resolve the inconsistency, perhaps by eliminating a belief or by forming a new belief that shows that the apparently inconsistent ones weren’t inconsistent after all. And you’re right, too, that intellectual humility allows us to let the inconsistencies in our belief set hang out where people can see them. Even the intellectually humble person might be a little bit embarrassed when her inconsistencies go public, but she also knows that being aware of the inconsistencies is crucial to intellectual progress, so she swallows her embarrassment and lets the inconsistencies be revealed.

        But you seem also to imply that the concern for consistency is the main feature of the love of knowledge, and that seems to me not quite right. Knowledge is valuable because many of the particular things to be known are valuable. The world is a glorious thing, and that’s a reason why epistemic contact with it is also a glorious thing. This is not to say that all facts are good; some of them are truly horrific. But I’m happy to say that most of the creation is quite lovely, and that is an important reason why knowledge of it is also worthy of our love. 

        • Hmm says:

          Thank you Robert, 

          You write: "But you seem also to imply that the concern for consistency is the main feature of the love of knowledge, and that seems to me not quite right."

          It may (or may not) be quite right so far as it goes. Maybe it's mostly incomplete? If you are uncomfortable with the idea that "consistency is the main purpose for knowledge" — I think I  can join you in that reluctance. It seems to me consistency is the primary tool or means to knowledge, and in that much we should be "primarily concerned" with it, or have it as "the main feature of the love [pursuit?] of knowledge."  I'm not sure I am satisfied with it as a primary "end" or "reason for" knowledge. I'm unsure "why" I am uncomfortable with it as an "end," (though I might make a guess it would be too long for posting here)  — except that it seems lacking. But with consistency being featured as the main tool of knowledge — I'm just not sure what else we have, if anything. (?)

          Whether we love the knowledge  (truth) or hate the knowledge (truth) our best perceptions of consistency seem to be what we rely on to gauge the standard of "what is the knowledge (truth)." Can you think of anything else we have available for use in making those determinations? In the sense it seems at least fair to say "consistency is the main [tool] feature of the love of knowledge" (or for that matter, the hate of it either)  —

          Did I clarify anything or make it worse?



          • Hmm says:

            If “consistency” was all that mattered as an “end” it would not seem to matter much whether we tended toward consistent evil or consistent good, so long as we were being consistent about it. So consistency is not The Value, but the means to a value (either of those two values). And The Value/end is what it must really all be about.

            Maybe that says it better? — And consistency — as the only tool in the box (so far as I can tell), must still be crucial. (?)

          • Robert Roberts says:


            Dear Hmm,

            Consistency is a formal requirement on a set of beliefs, but a set of beliefs could be consistent even though all or most of the beliefs in the set were false. So we look not only for consistency in our beliefs, but also for truth. And we have many “tools” for gaining truth; for example, observation, testimony, designed experiments, dialectical discussion—and if we belong to any of certain religious traditions, revelation. Intellectual humility can affect our ability to derive knowledge and understanding from any of these sources.

          • Hmm says:

            Dear Robert, thank you for the thoughtful reply.

            You write: "And we have many “tools” for gaining truth; for example, observation, testimony, designed experiments, dialectical discussion . . . ."

            In each of your examples cited above, what is it that we use to "mediate" our inputs gained from use of these tools? When we observe, consider testimorny, design our experiments and/or interpret their results, or when we engage in dialectical discussion, what is it, aside from recognized consistencies and inconsistencies that we use to navigate all those various inputs towards (we hope) "the truth" ?

            Your next and last cited option/tool: "and if we belong to any of certain religious traditions, revelation" while cartainly an important possibility, I suspect opens up more than I'm prepared to engage here. In brief, I would ask if, or even if, someone received "revelation" in any of several possible forms, if it is not largely "consistency" and "inconsistency" that they are then left with when it came time to "work out the revelation" (for example, "to interpret the dream"?) for application to their environmental milieu. 

            I appreciate the discussion, thank you again. 

          • Hmm says:

            Robert, I have more time for a better reply now. Thanks again for the discussion.

            I appreciate what you are saying about the other tools you have suggested. It's helpful for me to recognize those as also being tools. It does seem a fair distinction is in order though (here sidestepping the "tool" of "revelation" for the time being, unless someone else wants to chime in here and tell me how it works — I don't pretend to know). It seems the additional tools you mention are the "data collection and input devices" — or at least coupled with our physical senses they do amount to the tools of data input. But then, the data processing, the operating program or the software seems to be reduced to running on consistency and inconsistency. In other words, the way we decide what to do with that data we have input comes back around to consistency and inconsistency. So, our physical senses combined with the investigational tools you suggest (and probably others as well if we thought about it long enough) combine for data collection and input, and the processing, navigational, regulating tools of governance are the perceived consistencies and inconsistencies. I'm finding this helpful. Thank you.

            Also, you write, "So we look not only for consistency in our beliefs, but also for truth."

            And to see if we are on the same page here, and not to start a discussion on political economy, but strictly as an example, let's consider the philosophy of Karl Marx (or at least the political economy part of it). By comparison to other expressed philosophies it is fairly internally consistent. And that's a pretty good beginning standard for evaluating a written philosophy. Does it even stand up against itself, or is it internally divided – a house that has to fall? Well, it seems Marx's work is at least not too internally divided. Unto itself, when restricted to the pages of the book and one's mind — it seems to make pretty good sense. This is probably why it has had as much influence as it has, despite the evidence that it doesn't work so well once lifted off the page, extracted from the mind, and application is attempted anywhere else in the rest of experience.

            While it is (relatively) internally consistent (again, I suspect accounting for much of its influence) — when tried, it works out not to comport with the balance of experience. So, we would conclude if not all together "false" it is apparently "somehow fatally flawed." 

            Otherwise it seems it would work better when tried outside the pages of the book. And even after all of this, or as part of all of this — in the end when we decide "good (consistent) as it may look on paper, it doesn't work anywhere else" — At this point what are we using to decide it's flawed?  Aren't we relying on the evidence that despite its relative internal consistency, it nevertheless appears to be  inconsistent with the balance of the paradigm to which it might otherwise apply? 

            So even when it comes to truth and falsehood, aren't we still relegated to consistency and inconsistency (perceived) as the regulating tools of governance; the data processing/navigating tools?

            One can-of-worms left open in this rationale, and one I'm not all together comfortable with, is a realm of "pragmatism" — My discussion as above is leaving a whole of authority resting on "what works and what doesn't seem to work" as "correct/true" and "problematic/false"  — at least as I've argued above it seems to leave that door more open than I like. But again — what else do we have? You have suggested or implied "revelation," but I don't know how to pursue that aspect of the discussion.

          • Robert Roberts says:


            Dear Hmm,

            I agree that a concern for consistency is always in the background of investigations; it is always a possible test of claims to know something. And as I said earlier, intellectual humility is sometimes needed to allow the consistency test to be implemented: if our ego is heavily invested in a given understanding of something, we may resist too long allowing an inconsistency in our belief set to have a full impact on our investigation.

            But it is also possible to react too soon to inconsistency in one’s belief set. Thomas Kuhn points out that very good scientists sometimes just ignore observations that are anomalous relative to their theory; and this is often the scientifically right thing to do, because it allows time for the theory to develop. Acting earlier on the inconsistency would in such cases terminate too early a line of research, thus depriving the investigator (and possibly the world) of important knowledge.

            In such cases, the prolongation of a line of inquiry after discovering the anomaly may or may not result from the scientist’s arrogance or vanity. But often it does, to some extent. And this shows us that even intellectual vices sometimes work advantageously. Conversely, intellectual humility, combined with an ignorance of the value of persistence in science, might lead a scientist to terminate a research program too early.

            In ethics as well, we sometimes see vice leading to good results and virtue to bad. For example, a person’s courage in battle can lead to the untimely death of someone who would have made great human contributions, while his equally talented comrade was preserved by his cowardice for later greatness. In my essay I emphasized the likely good epistemic results of intellectual humility, but it would be wrong to think that the value of this virtue is exhausted by its tendency to yield good results. Virtues have more than merely instrumental value. They are valuable also as fulfillments of human potential; they are ways of being an excellent specimen of humanity; we could say that they are forms of human “glory.”

          • mouneiag says:

            Poet and artist Gibran Khalil Gibran once warned in your pursuit of truth say not "I have found the truth" but rather "I have found a truth". In order for us to understand humility we must first recognize the ever changing nature of truth as well as our own inconsistency in thought between today and yesterday let alone between this year and the one prior. Humility rests in, not only open ears, but an open heart. A willingness to put our guards down and rather than wait to respond in conversation, seek to learn from the words being spoken. If we completely disagree with the words being said let us seek an understanding of the voice behind the words. How did this person reach their conclusion, what life experiences or understanding have they gained that I may not ever endure.

            I appreciate the inquisitive analysis of motive, good, and virtue as they may speak to underlying voice behind our humility but an over-analysis and our unquenchable thirst to categorize or even homogenize understanding is suicidal. We have all heard of the madness behind our “human condition”, our desire to find “absolute truth”. But our unwillingness to recognize the lack thereof, our inability to find beauty and knowledge in everything, no matter how ambiguous, corrupt, or evil, will drive us mad. It will leave us skeptical of our own voice(s) that shape our internal dualism rather than appreciate the beauty behind a concept so thought provoking and so humanist at its core. While Socrates and Einstein truly were great thinkers, I don’t think we can hold them so highly as to belittle ourselves as merely “repeat[ing] what other people have said”, Einstein said it best when he said if you want to seem creative hide your sources. That intense consciousness of our own behavior, our own thought, and our own “creativity” only feeds into the idea of inferiority. Socrates wasn’t the first “madman” willing to stand up to oppressive social conditions and Einstein wasn’t the first thinker willing to challenge scientific theory. It was his understanding of it is ever changing that gave him the comfort and confidence that surely, if anything, inspired his theory of relativity. Thelonious Monk completely skewed jazz form so that it could fit his own style of playing. People deemed him insane early in his career and for nearly a decade many overlooked his style. Suddenly his ingenuity was recognized as his own style and overnight Monk would be placed among the ranks of top Jazz musicians to have ever lived.

            The question we remain left with is the means in which we can go about this search for a “Greater consciousness” or acceptance of the self.  


          • Robert Roberts says:


            Dear mounelag,

            I very much like your comment that intellectual humility is sometimes expressed in listening attentively to what others have to say, rather than feeling the need always to be “contributing.” Barbara McClintock, the great geneticist, tells of a time when her own work was being eclipsed because of the molecular turn in genetics. Fellow scientists were not much interested in what she was doing, because it wasn’t the “latest thing.” She comments that at that time, she became a listener to the others and didn’t try to put in her own two cents’ worth. And she comments happily that she learned a lot during that period of her career.

            We see a related aspect of intellectual humility in your admonition that “if we completely disagree with the words being said let us seek an understanding of the voice behind the words.” You say that humility involves “an open heart.” Sometimes, if we are willing to listen attentively to what someone is saying, even if that person is expressing some hostility towards us, or voicing what seems to us at first to be nonsense, we will find that there is some kind of sense behind the words, in the speaker. And often, by such careful listening with the heart, we can actually, to our surprise, learn something from what the person is saying!

            Such humility is related to intellectual charity, which is the disposition to interpret the speaker’s or writer’s words in the most sympathetic light. It is true that we can sometimes learn something by interpreting the interlocutor’s words unsympathetically, narrowly, and literally; but I think such behavior is on the whole less productive, intellectually, than charity, because it has a strong tendency to shut down discussion. I think it also tends to be motivated by a defensive or competitive attitude toward intellectual endeavor that is rather contrary to intellectual humility. 

          • Hmm says:

            Robert, thank you for the toughtful reply:

            But it is also possible to react too soon to inconsistency in one’s belief set. Thomas Kuhn points out that very good scientists sometimes just ignore observations that are anomalous relative to their theory; and this is often the scientifically right thing to do, because it allows time for the theory to develop.”

            Also, if we have the patience and temperament to collect enough anomalies, they may be what best demands the next round of questions, if we can find the pattern and formulate the questions.

            Acting earlier on the inconsistency would in such cases terminate too early a line of research, thus depriving the investigator (and possibly the world) of important knowledge.

            It may be helpful to recognize anomalies as clues to something different rather than a threat to what we’re working on, and then be open to the something else.

            In such cases, the prolongation of a line of inquiry after discovering the anomaly may or may not result from the scientist’s arrogance or vanity. But often it does, to some extent.

            Maslow was interested in creative type scientists. He noted that his “self actualizers” seemed to transcend many of the dichotomies we generally live with, for example the work/play dichotomy. I don’t know that he ever cited humility and arrogance in this context of transcending dichotomies, but it seems to fit the idea. In this case, the achiever would transcend arrogant and humble curiosity and have “Just Curiosity.”

          • Karen Blakeley says:

            I was wondering about Henri Nouwen as an exemplar of intellectual humility.  A renowned scholar and teacher at Yale and Harvard, he left the world of academia to look after a community of the mentally disabled  at L'Arche, in Canada.  In his books he appears to manifest true intellectual humility as it dawns on him that 'knowledge' and the social prestige that comes with achieving intellectual excellence in a field, is 'nothing' in comparison to love and compassion.   Knowledge appears to be a quality which is highly valued by society and hence we may seek knowledge purely as a means to fulfilling ego needs such as status, whereas, patience, for example, does not seem to fulfil that same function; it is sought purely as a means of attaining a 'good life'.  So maybe, intellectual humility is manifested not only by the subjugation of ego needs in the search for truth but also in the recognition that the search for truth (and gaining a mastery in that practice) is not important in itself but must be utilised in the service of something higher – such as love or service to others.

          • Robert Roberts says:


            Dear Karen,

            I really appreciate your bringing up the case of Henri Nouwen and his personal renunciation of the world of academic prestige to minister to an individual handicapped person.

            You are right that intellectual achievement often functions as a means by which to achieve personal importance and social standing, and Nouwen’s act of renunciation is in part an effort to purify himself of that motive and understanding of life.

            But I think it would be wrong to suppose that knowledge always, in every person’s life, functions as a means of achieving social prestige. It can also function as a means of helping people. For example, I have a colleague who uses his expertise in engineering to improve the lives of people in economically underdeveloped countries. For him, knowledge functions not as a means to prestige, but as an expedient of love. And this is a case where love begets humility—though perhaps not specifically intellectual humility. The world would not be better if all possessors of knowledge turned their backs on it to minister to a handicapped person. Nouwen was on a very particular personal quest.

            Your comment raises the question of the value of knowledge, and that question raises the further one about what knowledge is. You mention academic learning, but there are other kinds of knowledge, as Bob Kruschwitz’s comment makes clear. We might distinguish intellectual knowledge from other kinds, like the personal knowledge that you have of your friends, or your own self-understanding. In Jesus’ prayer reported in John 17 he says, “And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” This is certainly a kind of knowledge, but it would not be characteristic of intellectual humility to renounce it—first, because the knowledge in question isn’t intellectual, and second, because it isn’t characteristic of intellectual humility to renounce knowledge. In your example, Nouwen renounces not knowledge, but the ethos of the academic world. Indeed, we might think that Nouwen was seeking knowledge—the knowledge of God—in renouncing the stratospheric academic world of Yale and Harvard. And perhaps this pursuit of knowledge was at the same time an effort to grow in humility. 

    • unenlightened says:

      One other thing: In your quotation, Krishnamurti says, “A person who tries to be humble obviously has not the least understanding of what humility is.” That statement seems to me false. Why couldn’t a person understand that humility consists in caring so much for something excellent that one simply has no interest in being important, realize that he or she isn’t humble by this definition, and try to become more humble?

      It seems so simple, I hardly know how to explain better. It is rather like the injunction, "Act natural!". One might learn to be very good at acting natural, but it will always remain an act, and not natural. The effort towards humility is necessarily motivated by pride. 'What a marvelously virtuous person I am to be making all these efforts to be humble!'

  5. Arnie says:

    I don't like "humility"–it is too much a reminder of bending the knee before some human authority. What we need is "Openness", the free and unconstrained readiness to see what is going on, what we can think up as alternatives to any view, what others present as possibilities — even if they present it with a potentially authoritative expertness.  And, in the end, to recognize that  we ourselves believe most fervently is always a commitment, a chosen, personal certainty. In the end, our scientific knowledge is based on commitments about "reality"which we can justify and nonethless recognize as a personal commitment to empiricism and trust in our intellectual forefathers.  And so it is with transcendental truths: belief in the Golden Rule or that we should love our neighbors as ourselves are personal commitments, for which we have to take responsibiility–if we accept them on grounds of humiity, we are not accepting them onthe basis of personal responsibility. More generally, humility is the acceptance of ego-alien authority. Well, thinking about this has convinced me that "Openness" is the thing, and  humility is (at least too likely to be) a sin.

  6. cashrock says:

    Dr. Roberts,

    Thank you for such an engaging essay, especially for those of us who teach.

    This topic seems closely related to Harry Frankfurt's "On BS." (http://bit.ly/MWnIac)  Frankfurt defines BS as making a claim without regard for its truth or falsity, and he worries that it is terribly harmful to our intellectual and deliberative lives–perhaps even more harmful than lies. Intellectual humility involves unconcern for one's status, which enables one to care for truth and falsity.

    It seems natural to think of intellectual humility as the antidote for BS. But I'm wondering whether the connection is as pronounced as it seems. Surely there are other motives, besides intellectual or moral pride, that could bring one to BS. But what would they be?

    And, although the intellectually humble person is inclinded to avoid BS, there must be many other ways that humility manifests itself in one's intellectual life. You've already mentioned creativity and self-correction. Are there other behaviors or motives that would be typical of this virtue?

    I'm asking both of these questions with an eye toward self-examination and correction–discipline.

    Thanks again, and God bless.

    Chris Shrock

    • Robert Roberts says:


      Dear cashrock,

      I think you’re right to associate BS with a lack of intellectual humility, and also right to think there are other plausible associations.

      The motive for BS that would be mitigated by intellectual humility would be the desire to impress others with one’s discourse. If the “discourse” in question is BS, it’s likely to have the desired effect only on undiscriminating listeners, and this fact reduces its value as a means to satisfy one’s vanity. Thus it’s likely to be used for this purpose only by undiscriminating speakers. Vanity might well move the more discriminating speaker to avoid BS, so as to avoid the embarrassment of being perceived to use it.

      A person whose intellectual humility is weak might need another virtue to support him in the use of clear, simple speech—namely intellectual courage. Such a person will need courage because he is strongly attentive to his intellectual standing among his peers, and realizes that the use of simple speech tends to make his level of intellectual competency frighteningly transparent. A person who was both intellectually vain and not very courageous might try to “snow” his listeners with unnecessary technical jargon instead of just speaking clearly, when he finds himself out of his depth.

      The fact that BS works only on undiscriminating listeners suggests another possible motive for its use, namely, contempt for one’s audience. If one has a low opinion of the listener’s intellect, and also no regard for helping to improve it, then one might spout BS as an expression of contempt. In this case, the antidote would be not intellectual humility, but respect for the listener.

      Perhaps some people purvey BS out of ignorance of better ways to speak, or out of the belief that BS is just the normal way to speak in certain contexts or lines of employment, or perhaps out of a desire to make money. I think I can imagine a fortune-teller or life coach who furnishes large quantities of BS on a daily basis simply as a means of livelihood. She might do so without intellectual vanity, and without contempt for her clientele. She might even think that they need a certain daily minimum of BS in their lives to keep them on an even keel. Or if she’s a bit sophisticated, she might think that it has a placebo effect. BS is like a sugar pill with a fancy label. 

  7. Bob Kruschwitz says:


    After defining intellectual humility, you suggest we need this trait because "Knowledge comes into us through a variety of channels that can be blocked by our concern for status, and the successful knowledge-seeker will be one who keeps those channels open" and "The process [of gaining knowledge in community] requires that we be able to 'listen'…to what others say… [and] that we be corrigible." In other words, we need intellectual humility because, as knowers, we are limited in various ways–not always getting to the truth, and not usually by ourselves. If this were the whole story, then a person with really good cognitive faculties (like an angel, or God in Christ?) would not need intellectual humility.

    So, I'm wondering, is there something more than the limitations of the process of knowing that requires us to have intellectual humility? Perhaps there are certain objects of knowledge–like God, other persons, or oneself–that can only be known and loved through a dialectical process of deeping relationship, and knowing these sorts of objects requires intellectual humility.

    Of course, our relationships with these objects require humility to flourish, but is there anything about such objects that requires intellectual humility to know them (beyond the fact that the human knowing process generally tends to be communal and fallible, as you mentioned). Perhaps knowing persons requires that we be vulnerable, that we receive their self-revelation on their own terms, that we not dare to manipulate and master them–or some such things–and these stances require intellectual humility.

    Your thoughts?

    • Robert Roberts says:


      Dear BobK,

      You have asked a deep question—and a hard one! You focus on knowledge of persons (of God, other people, and oneself) as a special kind of knowledge that may have a different relation to intellectual humility than the ones I briefly sketched in the essay.

      Let’s think about knowing oneself. Let’s say that self-knowledge includes understanding one’s own motives. For example, suppose that my motives are sometimes ones that I’m not proud of, motives that I wouldn’t like other people to know too intimately, ones I don’t really want to face even in my own private conscience. Most of the time I succeed in rationalizing these motives, or ignoring the fact that I have them. This way I manage to keep a reasonably good opinion of myself, but the result is that I don’t know myself very intimately. The problem is that I want to think more highly of myself than I deserve to be thought of, so the motive behind this obscuring of my motives is a kind of pride. Were I less concerned to present myself to myself as admirable, I would rationalize my motives less, and ignore less their real character. This lessened concern is an instance of what I have been calling humility.

      But typically the lessened concern for status comes about through absorption by some good, such as the drive for truth about myself.

      It can also come about through a reduction of the ultimacy of the concern to think highly of myself. This happens sometimes in Christian conversions. The sinner is struck, somehow, by God’s acceptance of her as she is, sullied motives and all; and suddenly, thinking highly of herself matters less to her, and she is freed by the knowledge of God’s love to be more honest with herself, and thus comes to understand herself better.

      The conversion marks several moral changes. It brings greater self-understanding by way of greater humility and greater honesty.

      Does the description I’ve just given uncover a dimension of humility that I didn’t mention in the essay? I don’t think so. Does it trade on specifically intellectual humility? That will depend on what you think makes humility intellectual. The result of this humility is self-knowledge, but it seems a rather un-intellectual kind of self-knowledge. The humility and the knowledge in question seem to be better described as moral than as intellectual.

      To examine your question thoroughly, BobK, we would need to ask questions similar to the above about the knowledge of other people and the knowledge of God.

  8. Peter Samuelson says:

    The quote from Subramanyan Chandrasekhar in the last paragraph of the essay has caused me to wonder:  is intellectual humility always in relation to some “other?”  And what if that  “other” is conceived as “God” or “Truth” or “Nature?”  Chandrasekhar says “Nature has shown over and over again that the kinds of truth which underlie nature transcend the most powerful minds,” implying that there is a “transcendent Truth” that we seek to understand.  One aspect of intellectual humility is to know that our knowledge of that “Truth” is partial, contextual, biased and not immune to distortion from our own particular commitments. However,  another aspect is revealed in the word “understand” – that is – to “stand under” the truth as we know it, live by the “truth” we far as we can comprehend it, conform our lives to the way the world is rather than remake the world in our image.  The old adage “it is not nice to fool Mother Nature” gets at this aspect of intellectual humility with the obvious example of global warming.  Intellectual humility compels us to admit we may not know with absolute certainty that global warming exists, yet to act as if all the evidence of global warming is wrong is the height of hubris.  Nature works according to certain laws that intellectual humility tells us we can only understand partially, but we avoid living by those laws at our peril.

  9. Justin Barrett says:

    I am very much attracted to Bob Roberts’ notion that humility is a lack of concern for one’s status, and intellectual humility (IH) as that virtuous state in which pursuit of knowledge is unencumbered by motivation to acquire knowledge for the sake of status (i.e. being regarded as clever or knowledgeable). One reason I am attracted to this perspective on IH is that it resonates with some musings I have had concerning the apparent loss of IH from childhood to adolescence. I may be wrong, but I have the impression that something resembling IH is more apparent in childhood than in adolescence and adulthood. If I have the facts right, why would children lose their IH? Certainly one major psychological change from childhood to adolescence is an increase in concern for one’s social status, and when life revolves around formal education, what one knows and doesn’t is directly relevant to status. Interestingly, in some sub-cultures of American and UK high schools (at least), one gains status by not knowing rather than by knowing (you don’t want to be a nerd/boffin) but in either case, adolescents are self-conscious about their status as knowers and such a lack of IH serves as an obstacle to learning. Ironically, then, the institutions meant to encourage learning have some cultural byproducts that work against learning (or so it appears).  I offer this as a hypothesis.

  10. Robert Roberts says:

    Dear Peter,
    You identify two consequences of intellectual humility: It facilitates our recognizing the partial character of our knowledge by making us less prone to premature closure on the knowledge that we may seem to have achieved, and it makes us more ready to recognize the limits of our agency and so to be willing to submit to the object of our knowledge, whether that be nature or God, and not to insist on remaking the object in our own image. Both of these consequences of humility are likely to aid us in gaining true beliefs and avoiding error.
    I think you’re right on target about the state of our knowledge of global warming and the practical consequences of our attitude toward the state of our knowledge. If we think we have it figured out beyond any reasonable doubt—regardless of which side of the debate we take—we are probably showing ourselves deficient in intellectual humility. The humble attitude would be to keep an open mind and keep investigating, and in the meanwhile try to do the most responsible thing in the light of the information at hand.