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30 Days to Better Thinking and Better Living Through Critical Thinking: Discover Your Ignorance

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The authors of "30 Days to Better Thinking and Better Living Through Critical Thinking" discuss intellectual humility: the disposition to distinguish, at any given moment and in any given situation, between what you know and what you don’t know.
This chapter is from the book

Most of us assume whatever we believe to be “right.” Though we were taught much of what we believe before we could critically analyze our beliefs, we nevertheless defend our beliefs as the truth. Good thinkers know this is absurd.

When you actively focus on uncovering your ignorance, you realize you are often wrong. You look for opportunities to test your ideas for soundness. You recognize that much of what people believe is based on prejudice, bias, half-truths, and sometimes superstition. You routinely question your beliefs. Your beliefs do not control you; you control your beliefs. You develop intellectual humility—awareness of the extent of your ignorance.

  • “Willingness to be taught what we do not know is the sure pledge of growth both in knowledge and wisdom.”
  • —Blair

Intellectual humility is the disposition to distinguish, at any given moment and in any given situation, between what you know and what you don’t know. People disposed toward intellectual humility recognize the natural tendency of the mind to think it knows more than it does, to see itself as right when the evidence proves otherwise. They routinely think within alternative viewpoints, making sure they are accurately representing those viewpoints. They consider other viewpoints to understand them in good faith—not to dismiss them.

Socrates, an early Greek philosopher and teacher (c. 470–399 B.C.E.), was a living model of intellectual humility. Consider:

  • “Socrates philosophized by joining in a discussion with another person who thought he knew what justice, courage, or the like was. Under Socrates’ questioning, it became clear that neither [of the two] knew, and they cooperated in a new effort, Socrates making interrogatory suggestions that were accepted or rejected by his friend. They failed to solve the problem, but, now conscious of their lack of knowledge, agreed to continue the search whenever possible (p. 483).”4
  • “Profoundly sensible of the inconsistencies of his own thoughts and words and actions, and shrewdly suspecting that the like inconsistencies were to be found in other men, he was careful always to place himself upon the standpoint of ignorance and to invite others to join him there, in order that, proving all things, he and they might hold fast to that which is good (p. 332).”5

People with a high degree of intellectual humility (and they are rare) understand that there is far more that they will never know than they will ever know. They continually seek to learn more, to develop their intellectual abilities, and to expand their knowledge base, always with a healthy awareness of the limits of their knowledge.

Be on the lookout for...

...intellectual arrogance today, the tendency to confidently assert as true what you do not in fact know to be true. Try to discover the limitations and biases of your sources of information. Question those who speak with authority. Question the information they use in their arguments, the information they ignore, the information they distort. Question what you read and see in the media. Notice the confidence with which “the news” is asserted. Question the sources that “produce” the news. Whenever you feel inclined to make a bold statement, stop and ask how much you really know about what you’re asserting.

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