Note: This article is part 2 of a six-part series on humility written by university faculty.
When students first encounter Socrates, it is not uncommon for them to imagine him as a paragon of humility, the philosopher who claimed to know only that he did not know anything.
Start a B.A. in philosophy at American Public University.
Somewhere along the way, students heard this bit of information and latched onto it as part of the claim that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Digging a bit deeper, they see Socrates was quite arrogant. He could mercilessly taunt men like Thrasymachus and Anytus in Plato’s “Meno,” who later was one of the accusers at Socrates’s trial. Maybe there was a bit of karma there. For the most part, though, humble philosophers are not remembered.
Still, Socrates is held up as a paradigm for philosophers, challenging claims of knowledge by others and being willing to be challenged in his beliefs. As Plato depicts him, Socrates seldom if ever backed away from a good challenge.
Philosophy Requires Some Humility
The key is that a good philosopher knows one can never be 100% sure of most theories. To claim otherwise is a perfect setup to prove “pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall,” according to Proverbs 16:18.
Before addressing pride properly as a virtue concerning honor in section 3 of Book IV of the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle claimed, “With regard to honor and dishonor the mean is proper pride, the excess is known as a sort of ‘empty vanity’, and the deficiency is undue humility….” If it is true, then you are not bragging, and the greater fault is to feign modesty or humility.
As with many things, philosophers are likely to over-process concepts like humility. In his article on Modesty and Humility, Nicolas Bommarito does an excellent job explaining both doxastic and non-doxastic accounts (having to do with beliefs) of what counts for both modesty and humility.
Just what these are is somewhat elusive and, as one can imagine, there are differences of opinion as to whether they are the same or different concepts. Bommarito says of both humility and modesty, “If you have it you won’t know it (and if you seem to know you have it, you probably don’t really!).” But there is a good argument that modesty deals more with perceived appearance by others, while humility is more of a self-concept.
Philosophy, Deductive Arguments and Inductive Arguments
On the whole, it may be hard to be humble and be a philosopher because one of the primary motives is to be and to convince others you are right on some theory. Yet philosophers have also been exposed to the rules of logic.
With that training comes the knowledge that deductive arguments do not teach us anything new and inductive arguments are necessarily inconclusive. And since most arguments concerning modesty and humility are inductive, any conclusions they produce will be have at least some chance of being wrong.
I have met some pretty pigheaded philosophers in my life, but if backed into a corner, most of them would admit, even if begrudgingly, that they could be wrong. This brings me to a claim by Justin Weinberg, a philosophy professor at the University of South Carolina, writing in Daily Nous, that may well sum up the attitude of the proper philosopher:
“Because the views we espouse are always open to objections and disagreement, our practice at its best nurtures in the philosopher a capacity to withstand huge shifts in her understanding of even her most deeply entrenched beliefs about how things are in the world. Good philosophy of all stripes fosters in the practitioner the virtue of epistemic humility.”
Weinberg goes on to opine: “The worst enemy of the best philosophy is ideology in all its forms. Philosophy at its best evinces deep skepticism about the stories powerful people and institutions tell about how Things Are.”
To the outside world, philosophers may look and sound arrogant. But good philosophers should, like Socrates, admit that at the core — even though we may think we are right because we cannot say you are wrong if we do not have a good idea of what’s right or should be — we must always remain open to being wrong ourselves.
American Public University’s Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy degree helps students develop their comprehension, analytical reasoning, critical thinking and effective communications skills. The program encourages the exchange of knowledge and openness to developing new ideas, one of them being the need for humility in our interactions with others.