Do your beliefs define who you are? Or do your beliefs hold your aspirations? For example, if you believe that social inequality is bad (as most people genuinely do), does that define you as a person (such as forcing you toward a socialist-leaning identity), or does the belief express an aspiration that everyone gets their fair share of opportunity and resources?
As an academic, a teacher, a Christian who has extensively read other religious texts, a world traveler, a spouse, and a parent, I am constantly coming up against the question: How much do our beliefs and our confidence in our beliefs actually define who we are? I also approach this with a kind of “blue-collar” mentality that despite our different beliefs, we can get together to get things done. When two people get their hands dirty, say, to renovate a building or to cook a meal, their differing beliefs are often less important than the project they both accomplished. Further, certain beliefs may need to be set aside in order to accomplish the project.
In my home, I am the father of two insightful teenagers (one of a philosophical and statistical bent, and the other more literary and artistic), and I am also the husband of a successful translator and artistic spouse. Thus, I am privy to some engaging discussions on issues and concerns that transcend each of our private interests and are not “solved” by any of our particular approaches. Also, being a member of academia, and specifically, in a responsible role for Interdisciplinary Studies, I am professionally confronted by expectations of so-called intellectual humility. Certain projects, if explored from an interdisciplinary perspective, require intellectual humility in order to advance our knowledge of these projects. While intellectual humility is the awareness that beliefs are fallible, it is often understood that such humility is self-effacing; as such, its opposite is intellectual pride. More than just the recent research on intellectual honesty, a certain need for intellectual “meekness” makes itself evident. Meekness is itself a virtue, a middle path between the two extremes of intellectual pride (assuming correctness and authority from the beginning) and a version of humility (that assumes certain incorrectness and a lack of authority). The prideful version risks dominance and suppression of real questioning; the humble version runs the risk of giving up the pursuit altogether. I’d like to propose “Intellectual meekness” (IM) to designate this virtue that is the heart of intersubjective relationships where the members are together in pursuit of a better understanding or a greater fulfillment, or a wiser way of being. Intellectual meekness assumes neither authority nor incorrectness, but rather assumes fallibility – a persistent doubt about the validity of beliefs. Asking clear questions together seems to be a home for such intellectual honesty. It is an attitude of mutual exploration and discovery.
Certainly, the sharing of disciplinary perspectives does advance the knowledge, and perhaps wisdom, of each individual member. But even then, the conclusions are often not answers to problems as they are of a reasonable progression to suggestions for an improved questioning, that is, a kind of questioning that is more meaningful and more intimately connected with the authentic passions of the researchers. In my family, for example, my son adds to my knowledge of the statistical information that helps inform, say, the changes in the NBA, about which we are uniquely passionate. In the case of understanding the changes in the NBA, to follow this example, my son and I do not so much come up with definitive answers, but rather make progressions in reasoning that bring key questions out. In other words, we do not so much come out with answers as we place issues under more fruitful questions that are more deeply connected with each of our curiosity. Such examples demonstrate that each participant can arguably justify their own individual brilliance and take pride in it. However, something more is demanded: each person ought to be intellectually meek both because the individual participants deserve recognition (which is good for each of them), and because they both/each gain a broader understanding. Similarly, academic interdisciplinary projects show both of these general benefits for each researcher coming from their disciplinary background.
Intellectual meekness (IM) is demanded so that each individual is honored and respected, and so that the issue of concern is developed to the greatest possible understanding. We may not have definitive answers, but instead, we would acquire a kind of participatory confidence to continue questioning. If the participants are socially re-inforcing, they are confident enough to continue such “scientific” pursuits. That is, they will keep reasonably exploring and refining the types of questions in which they find themselves at home at any given moment. The interdisciplinary or intrafamily relationship is enough of a bond to hold the inevitable differences together in such a way so as not to jeopardize either each individual’s authentic development or the mutual gain in understanding and wisdom.
This initial conceptual framework for IM ought to provide us with a starting point to become aware of how this virtue can legitimately push us beyond the kind of fragmentations that appear politically, socially, and religiously.
One more caveat: IM is a kind of cornerstone disposition for functioning democratic cultures, and it appears outside of democratic cultures; it is a way of being. IM is not merely cognitive, as the John Templeton Foundation asserts about intellectual humility according to which being wrong about one thing is not life-altering, but merely one mistake that can be corrected cognitively. IM is different because it is a way of being that is more doxastic (a way of life pertaining to beliefs) than is given credit for. For the purpose of measurement, the John Templeton Foundation has limited its definition. The drawback, of course, when we limit the subject of a study by how we can measure it is that we don’t see the subject in its full context.
IM and the research
As I have hinted at, Intellectual Meekness has not been studied very thoroughly, and psychologists have tended to narrow their search down to intellectual humility as a cognitive orientation so that it can be measured neuro-scientifically. This is typical of much of the direction of a type of reasoning that is at home within academic Psychology. In other words, within the parameters of Western Psychology: change a small behaviour but retain the self. But there is more than neuroscientific reasoning and psychological motivations that exist behind the search. There is a “being-in-the-world” reality that necessitates a way of questioning that alters our reality of, and not merely our understanding of, being authentic individuals within a common world. If one understands only the cognitive portion of fallibility, one retains the deeper assumption of the stable, atomistic self behind it. And so, the retention of the atomistic self with only minor alterations to the way in which we hold on to beliefs treats the beliefs as if they are mere propositions that can be accepted or rejected. The advocacy for intellectual humility is not enough to live well in our realities as individuals. We are living now in a situation where we must question the structures of our very reality rather than simply a mere proposition. Intellectual meekness is not simply a tactic for resolving particular conflicts of opinion; rather, it is a strategy for inhabiting the same reality. As such, while IM may resolve particular differences of opinion (which is meaningful progress, don’t get me wrong), it also is an embodied way of being that not only recognizes differences of opinion as a matter of course, and does not fear it – but rather anticipates it. An individual with IM occupies a reality in which one is comfortable with having more questions than answers – celebrates duly the answers she comes up with – but lives with a kind of confidence and faith that having questions is one essential part of being authentically human. IM, in other words, lives with gratitude for her human condition.
In the next series of articles, I’d like to explore more deeply the following:
- The difference between intellectual humility and intellectual meekness;
- Why intellectual meekness is one way to recognize authentic and inauthentic behaviour;
- The importance of intellectual meekness for living together well; and,
- Intellectual Meekness and the Human Condition
Please join me as I do…