Intellectual Humility: Theoretical Construct and Function
Also Posted at: Medium “Intellectual Humility: What it is and Why It’s Relevant
What about it?
There is no single definition of intellectual humility, but researchers commonly think of this as a multidimensional construct that involves both dispositional traits and cognitive (thinking), affective (feeling) states. Some scientists explain it as a way of being that is mediated by a combination of personality traits and state-based mental processes, and it manifests in the way that one engages with the pursuit of knowledge . When one thinks and acts with intellectual humility, the ability to evaluate the utility and/or validity of information is not compromised by personal assumptive beliefs regarding one’s intellectual superiority/inferiority. Additionally, one is able to exercise an awareness of the extent to which one’s personal theories, beliefs, and/or values, has an effect on their evaluation of epistemic material. It is associated with constructs such as openness, curiosity, cognitive flexibility, and loving non-attachment (to both people and ideas). An intellectually humble position isn’t tainted by self-serving or self-defeating motivations or beliefs. The commitment to producing inferences, deductions, and/or creative conjecture in the service of “what could be”, with an equal consideration for all intellectual inputs, independent of one’s opinion of the people who espouse those inputs, is a hallmark of intellectual humility. As a person who conducts him/herself with intellectual humility, you generally think that socially implied epistemic differentials across teacher-student, doctor-patient, expert-layperson, are, at best, helpful when they facilitate learning, but you acknowledge that, at worst, they can be dangerous barriers to the integration of new information and to dialogical intellectual pursuits. Relatedly, you are open to the possibility of any person, dyad, group, or community, making constructive contributions in spaces of generative knowledge.
Intellectual humility lends itself to a method of thinking where openness, acceptance of self and others, curiosity, analytical rigor, and creativity, can coalesce–uncompromised by the motivation to placate oneself or others–such that “being oriented to engagement with unknowing”, yields emergent knowledge . Put more simply, you evaluate all information critically, curiously, and openly, irrespective of who proposed the idea. In discourse, you do not justify your own epistemic “merit” by virtue of your occupation.
Let’s say you’re a philosophy of science researcher. You may acknowledge that you are likely able to analyse and integrate philosophical concepts in a more agile way when compared to your vocationally non-academic counterpart. You acknowledge that your partner in conversation, let’s say your mechanic, has not been in the practice of thinking and speaking on this subject to the extent that you have, but you don’t assume that this means that you have the capacity to create more value, absolutely, in this domain. What’s more, you are reflectively aware of the paradox of “expertise”,–the associative barriers that can lead to tunnel vision–and you think that all perspectives that differ from your own, are opportunities for growth. You are aware that being in the role of one who does theoretical work vocationally, does not preclude you from falling prey to faulty heuristics or inaccurate assumptive beliefs. You are also aware that when you and your mechanic are shooting the shit about the hard problem of consciousness, your stance (as the individual with implicitly more “credibility” based on your social role) of curiosity, ‘unknowing’, and epistemic humility allows for you both to think and act in an integral system, where let’s say, you and your mechanic realize ideas that would not have been possible without mutually creating and entering such an open space wherein to explore “that which could be”. Maybe your mechanic never realized what she thought about the subject because she had always needed to spend all of her mental time on making ends meet and surviving. Maybe nobody had ever been curious enough to ask about her thoughts. Maybe she and you surprised one another and yourselves.
Function: What Does it Do?
Whether we are situated in contexts where we implicitly have more, less, or equal social power, interacting in such a way that embodies intellectual humility–especially in a leadership role–means setting a constructive tone of epistemic fairness that invites everyone to participate. More dialogical depth and breadth may lend itself to the generation of more solutions to more problems–and over time, it lends itself to the emergence of functional knowledge.
When you do this: you implicitly tell people that you do not use social power structures as proxies for value (specifically as a proxy for one’s potential to contribute intellectual value). “The proof is in the pudding” when it comes to ideas, and the possibilities seem infinite.
When you reinforce that you unconditionally accept our shared potential as human beings: the potential to deliver good ideas, bad ideas, and everything in between, you co-recover integral connections that make our ‘being’ relevant. And that is a type of sense making that is priceless.