Philosophy Intellectual Humility
Casey Johnson, Hanna Gunn, Michael P. Lynch, Nathan Sheff
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0347


Intellectual humility is a concept in progress—philosophers and psychologists are in the process of defining and coming to understand what intellectual humility is and what place it has in our theories. Most accounts of intellectual humility build from work in virtue epistemology, the study of knowledge as the state that results when agents are epistemically virtuous (or, perhaps, the view that the proper object of study for epistemology is the intellectually virtuous agent). This work, in turn, builds on the long tradition of virtue ethics. Because of this etiology, one dominant approach has been to conceive of intellectual humility as a particularly epistemic way of being more generally humble. Much of the current philosophical literature on intellectual humility concerns how best to characterize or define the concept. One emerging disagreement between researchers working on intellectual humility concerns differing kinds of models of the concept. One camp takes intellectual humility to be a unique and unified trait—this is what we call monism about intellectual humility. The alternative theories take intellectual humility to be a collection of related traits. We call this pluralism about intellectual humility. There are, of course, disagreements within each of these camps, but being aware of this central difference between the kinds of views is helpful in understanding the current debates in the philosophical literature. In addition, there are ongoing attempts to understand intellectual humility in an empirically informed way. Empirical studies, by philosophers and psychologists, try to understand both the psychological dispositions that make a person intellectually humble, and what agents mean when they describe themselves or their peers as intellectually humble, intellectually diffident, or intellectually arrogant. This work both benefits from—and can help supplement—the more theoretical work being done in virtue epistemology. Even as work is done to attempt a precise understanding of the trait or traits that make a person intellectually humble, theorists and educators are applying the concept in various and fruitful ways. We are becoming increasingly aware of the ways in which our discourse is hampered by prejudice, dogmatism, and cognitive biases. One exciting hypothesis is that cultivating intellectual humility or even just being aware of the concept of intellectual humility might help agents to overcome these difficulties. If this is the case then intellectual humility may help us with a variety of educational goals, and also improve public and political discourse.

General Background: Humility and Intellectual Virtue

The work on intellectual humility is borne out of the observation that the progress philosophers have made in understanding virtues in the moral domain can be elucidating in the epistemic domain as well. Because of this, the notion of intellectual humility has its roots in humility more generally. As such, important background reading for exploration of intellectual humility deals with broader concepts such as virtue, epistemic virtue, and humility simpliciter. We provide some of that background reading in this section. With one exception, the articles in this section fall into two rough categories: general discussions of humility that have been influential for discussions of intellectual humility, and discussions of intellectual virtues, of which intellectual humility is one. In the first category, Driver 1989 and Snow 1995 are both influential and often cited (for examples see section on Philosophical Concepts of Intellectual Humility). Driver’s paper offers an analysis of virtue generally, investigating whether virtues could ever be based on ignorance. Snow’s paper investigates different kinds of humility, and argues for the value of the virtue. A more recent discussion of humility is available in Garcia 2006, which speaks to concerns raised in Driver’s paper. In the second category, Zagzebski 1996 offers an account of intellectual virtues according to which they are the subclass of moral virtues aimed at knowledge, while Code 1987 offers an account of responsibilist virtue epistemology. Further background and a contrast between reliabilist and responsibilist accounts of intellectual virtues are available in Battaly 2008. Crisp 2010 offers additional discussion of virtue epistemology by relating it to Aristotelian virtue ethics. Brady and Pritchard 2003 is the introduction to a special issue on moral and epistemic virtues. The entire issue is useful, but the introduction, in particular, offers a clear explanation of the motivations for and history of virtue epistemology. Finally, Baehr 2011 is an overview of intellectual virtues, with some discussion of intellectual humility. The only exception is Heft, et al. 2011, which uses the concept of intellectual humility in an explicitly religious context. This use of the concept is distinct from most of its contemporary philosophical uses, but can serve as a contrast for them.

  • Baehr, Jason. The Inquiring Mind: On Intellectual Virtues and Virtue Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199604074.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Baehr advocates for a responsibilist form of virtue epistemology that prioritizes intellectual character virtues (e.g., open-mindedness, courage, etc.) over intellectual faculties (e.g., memory, perception, etc.). He proposes what he terms a “personal worth” account of intellectual virtue, which seems to tie into his endorsement of a weak autonomous view of intellectual virtue—one must conduct one’s intellectual endeavors with the right intentions.

  • Battaly, Heather. “Virtue Epistemology.” Philosophy Compass 3.4 (2008): 639–663.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2008.00146.xE-mail Citation »

    Battaly gives a general introduction to virtue epistemology and its relation to mainstream analytic epistemology. She outlines the differences between the two main camps in virtue epistemology: virtue reliabilism and virtue responsibilism. For reliabilists, epistemic virtues are stable and reliable faculties or competences; responsibilists instead argue that epistemic virtues are character traits of excellent knowers. Battaly also discusses virtue-eliminativism and virtue-expansionism.

  • Brady, Michael S., and Duncan Pritchard. “Moral and Epistemic Virtues.” Metaphilosophy 34.1–2 (2003): 1–11.

    DOI: 10.1111/1467-9973.00256E-mail Citation »

    In this introduction to a special issue on the topic, Brady and Pritchard offer an explanation of the shift from virtue ethics to virtue epistemology as well as the appeal of each. This is a useful history for orienting to the literature. The authors then go on to describe the papers in the special issue, and provide a useful bibliography for virtue epistemology.

  • Code, Lorraine. Epistemic Responsibility. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1987.

    E-mail Citation »

    Code’s book is an early formulation of the responsibilist approach to virtue epistemology, wherein she develops her account of epistemic responsibility by examining cases of success and failure of such responsibility. This book should be of interest to those who want to consider intellectual humility through a responsibilist lens.

  • Crisp, Roger. “Virtue Ethics and Virtue Epistemology.” Metaphilosophy 41.1–2 (2010): 22–40.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9973.2009.01621.xE-mail Citation »

    Crisp offers an interesting (and comprehensive) discussion of how one might construct virtue epistemology by using Aristotelian virtue ethics as a model to work from. He also suggests an explanation for why theorists are drawn to either responsibilist or reliabilist theories: those attracted to utility-maximizing accounts are likely to be reliabilists, while those who are drawn to virtue ethics are more likely to be responsibilists.

  • Driver, Julia. “The Virtues of Ignorance.” The Journal of Philosophy 86.7 (1989): 373–384.

    DOI: 10.2307/2027146E-mail Citation »

    Driver argues that some virtues are based on ignorance by analyzing modesty as essentially involving ignorance and arguing that modesty is a character virtue. Driver considers three accounts of modesty: the behavioral account, the understatement account, and the underestimation account. She argues that only the underestimation account describes the virtue of modesty. She claims that modesty and humility are closely related, except that a humble person could have an accurate self-assessment.

  • Garcia, J. L. A. “Being Unimpressed with Ourselves: Reconceiving Humility.” Philosophia 34.4 (2006): 417–435.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11406-006-9032-xE-mail Citation »

    Garcia defends an account of humility according to which the trait is an internal de-emphasis of the self. So, a person is humble with respect to some valued trait x to the extent that she is unimpressed that she has the disposition to play down the significance of her having trait x. A person is humble simpliciter when she is humble about enough of her valued or valuable traits.

  • Heft, James L., R. Firestone, and O. Safi, eds. Learned Ignorance: Intellectual Humility among Jews, Christians and Muslims. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

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    A presentation of some of the religiously connoted work on intellectual humility. The authors look at three major religions and examine the ways in which acknowledged ignorance, doubt, and certainty can be useful, virtuous, or even necessary for a relationship with God. The text uses the notion of intellectual humility in a specific way.

  • Snow, Nancy E. “Humility.” The Journal of Value Inquiry 29.2 (1995): 203–216.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF01079834E-mail Citation »

    Snow’s article is a comparatively early and influential account of humility generally. Her method is to analyze ordinary language attributions of humility and being humbled and then to understand humility in light of this analysis. From these attributions, Snow gleans two distinct senses of humility: narrow humility and existential humility. According to Snow, both kinds of humility can help explain the character of a paradigmatically humble person.

  • Zagzebski, Linda T. Virtues of the Mind: An Inquiry into the Nature of Virtue and the Ethical Foundations of Knowledge. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139174763E-mail Citation »

    Zagzebski argues that virtues are central to ethics and epistemology. She defines virtues as an enduring and acquired excellence of a person that involves both that person’s deep motivations to bring about well-being for others and a degree of reliable success at doing so. Zagzebski understands intellectual virtues as a subclass of virtues more generally. And, more controversially, she argues that the intellectual virtues are a subclass of moral virtues.

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