Can you be humble and know it? Can you be humble and say so? And what does being humble even mean anyway? These are some of the questions that we hope to answer over the next two years.

I'm not always humble. But when I am, I'll be sure to tell you.Consider our friend here, the Most Interesting Man in the World. If he tells you he’s humble, is he? Intuitively, it seems like he’s not. As soon as someone tells you he or she is humble, you have good reason to suspect they’re not. Growing up, my father had a sign in his office proclaiming himself to be the most humble person in the world. (Whether that was arrogance or irony, I’ll leave aside for now.) But the key point is that there’s something different about humility. If I tell you I’m brave or just or wise or temperate, my having told you so doesn’t count as evidence against my claim. Bragging about being humble suggests the bragger isn’t humble. Humility is elusive.

Another favorite example of the elusivity of virtue is a great rabbi joke. The Rav was studying for hours and finally fell asleep at his shtender. One by one his students crept in to stare at him. “Such a holy man” whispered one. “A true masmid” said another. “And so generous with tzedekah.” “And kind to the unfortunate.” Then the Rav lifted up his head and asked “And of my humility you say nothing?”

The elusivity of humility creates two interesting problems for our project. First, we need to be able to explain why humility is elusive in this way, while other virtues aren’t. Second, we need to find a way to measure humility (specifically intellectual humility). I’ll leave the second point for some of my colleagues to discuss in later posts. For the first, let’s restrict ourselves to intellectual humility (IH).

There are a few possible answers to our first question. One might argue, similar to Julia Driver, that IH involves an ignorance or underestimation of one’s intellectual abilities or achievements. Let’s take Socrates as our example here. If Socrates has IH, then he thinks himself less wise than he is. (After all, didn’t Socrates admit to only knowing that he knows nothing?)

Another option claims that IH isn’t about one’s believes about oneself, but rather about what one says about one’s self. Socrates may correctly believe himself to be wise or intellectually accomplished. His intellectual humility, however, is demonstrated in part in his refusal to claim or acknowledge his wisdom or intellectual achievements.

We think that this alternative approach is on the right path. But a problem remains. Not everyone who doesn’t claim to be intellectually humble, not to be wise, not to have any intellectual abilities or achievements, etc. is humble. Some of them might be, but not all. In other words, just because one doesn’t make non-IH statements about oneself, doesn’t mean one is intellectually humble. Some people simply don’t have something to be intellectually humble about.

So we have three groups of people: (A) those reporting IH, but (seemingly) not intellectually humble; (B) those not claiming IH and are intellectually humble; and (C) those not claiming IH and aren’t intellectually humble. Asking for self-reports can easily distinguish between A on the one hand and B & C on the other. But telling B from C is harder. (As I said, I’ll leave discussion of our methodology on this point to one of my colleagues.)

The key then, we believe, is to understand IH as a means between two vices. One can have the vice of intellectual arrogance (IA). Or one can have the vice of intellectual diffidence (ID). We contend that understanding IH as a the mean between IA and ID not only creates the possibility for measuring IH, but it also has the potential to reshape the existing debate on humility (or modesty) in general.


Cross posted on Intellectual Humility.