Humility or “epistemic humility”

There is great virtue in being able to say, “I did not know that.  Thanks for telling me.”

Also, “I do not understand.  Will you teach me?”

Likewise, a teacher simply must be comfortable saying “I don’t know, but I’ll ask” and “I don’t know how to explain it, but we do know at least this much about it.”

And no one should grow to adulthood without a strong “Look it up!” habit.

Being willing to admit ignorance is part of being teachable.  There is, then, a place for “epistemic humility” properly understood:  learning that a proper estimate of my understanding involves recognizing the boundary between what I know and what I do not.

But that recognition has two components, not one.

It is not humility, but arrogance and folly, to think that if I am uncertain about it presently, there must be no one who could teach me to understand the matter more precisely and confidently.  It makes my present knowledge, or really my feelings about my present knowledge, the criterion of all possible knowledge.

It is bigotry to object when I am told that others have learned, and that if I intend to honor my obligation to truth I ought to listen to what they have learned.

Humility means knowing that some things can be learned, and some of those things can be taught, and therefore that I can learn some of them when I am teachable (and prudent about my choice of teachers).

That means that it is humble to stand on what you have learned, friend.  It is admitting that neither you nor I are, in our momentary wishes and feelings of assurance, the absolute limit and criterion of all possible understanding.

It is acknowledging that the young, the old, the living, the dead, the very holy, the rather profane, the erudite, the crude, the refined, the simple–all may well have something to teach, just as all assuredly have something to learn.

So when you have learned something, do not let the latest wave of uncertainty hatched by someone’s attempt to shame you deceive you.  Do not let bigots drive you away from what others have, in better spirit, taught you.

Have the humility of your convictions.

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