How Might Intellectual Humility Lead to Scientific Insight?
Philosophers known as “virtue epistemologists” claim that the goods of the intellectual life—knowledge, wisdom, understanding, etc.—are more easily obtained by persons possessing mature traits of intellectual character, such as open-mindedness, teachability, and intellectual courage, than by persons who lack these virtues or who are marked by their opposing vices. Here I focus on the virtue of “intellectual humility” and ask what relevance it has for the pursuit of scientific knowledge. I argue that intellectually humble scientists have a stronger likelihood of winning knowledge and other intellectual goods than those lacking this virtue. Intellectual humility leads indirectly to scientific insight. It does not super-charge our cognitive powers or improve scientific techniques, so much as it changes scientists themselves in ways that allow them to direct their abilities and practices in more effective ways.
Humility is a contested term. Some thinkers wrongly describe it as thinking oneself as more lowly or less accomplished than is the case. We do not think a surgeon intellectually virtuous who enters the operating theater overcome with humility in this sense. Others describe humility as the capacity to conduct a frank and sober assessment of one’s true strengths and weaknesses. This is not humility, but honesty or truthfulness, which are no doubt aided by humility’s power to suppress forms of pride that obstruct honest self-appraisal.
Humility is a deeply anchored disposition that marks persons remarkably free from pride, or inordinate self-love in its many forms—selfish ambition, snobbishness, conceit, arrogance, and presumption, to name just a few. This is often because excessive self-regard is swamped by a more virtuous concern for knowledge, wisdom, or the well being of others. Humility also works to detect and check the stirrings of pride, where persons might yet be tempted by pride, though in its most mature form, humility does not need to overcome contrary inclinations.
What makes humility intellectual humility, in contrast to the moral humility that suppresses our everyday desires to seek the spotlight? Intellectual virtues, including intellectual humility, are so designated because they are most obviously at work in our intellectual endeavors, in our research, writing, academic conferences, and in everyday forms of intellectual exchange, so that we might obtain intellectual goods—knowledge, understanding, warrant, etc. Intellectual humility opposes forms of pride such as undue concern to dominate others, or excessive resistance to criticism, which often frustrate our quest for the various intellectual goods.