Full Intellectual Humility

We all have them.  It is inconceivable to live in the world as a human, now or at any point in history, without a mentor (or many mentors).  They do not need to be your parents, or your teachers, or your friends, and it does not matter what they mentor you to do — think of the difference between having the Dalai Lama as a mentor as opposed to a mafia boss — but they must be a crucial part of each of our lives.  One of the most important things that such mentors do as mentors is what the first humans did for themselves in the Creation Story in the Torah in order to prepare themselves to leave God’s care (the wisdom of that decision can be questioned): like Adam and Eve, mentors the world over help to distinguish good from bad, constantly refining which sources or information, and types of information, can reliably be imported into the worldview of a ‘right-thinking person’ such as themselves.  The hubris involved in this system might be criticized, but it is inevitable.  We all function in the world, to greater or lesser degrees, with the understanding that — once we reach adulthood — we have a decent grasp on the basic nature of reality, even as that grasp may change over the course of our adulthood.

Just as it is obvious that we all need mentors to guide us through our lives, it is equally clear that this similarity belies untold diversity when it comes to what mentors the world over actually do for those who look up to them.  There are many fundamentally different ways to look at, and interact with, the world, and these world views are given continuity through the transmission of the ideas central to them from mentor to pupil.  As Daniel Gordis recently wrote:

A family that has lived in Bavaria for centuries has different traditions, memories, and very different conceptions of loyalty, honour and love, from a family that has deep roots in Turkey.  They will raise their children differently, and urge them to read different books.  They will worship in different ways, and they will be willing to die for different causes.

My concern, however, is that now, like no other time in history, we are constantly colliding with other world views, and it is incumbent upon all of us to learn how to live peaceably with those whose very identity is bound up in different ways of seeing the world and our place in it.  One of the major stumbling blocks in our way, I believe, is one of insufficient intellectual humility.  Many of the traditions that mentors and cultures pass on include the idea that the heroes and esteemed thinkers that gave rise to their specific way of interacting with the world are to be revered and treated with the utmost respect and intellectual humility.  In other words, it would be brash for a young musician to claim that her skills were superior to those of Bach, or for a budding Torah scholar to claim greater mastery of the text than Rashi.  I think that this is a crucial component to approaching the world alive to history.  Understanding that, just in virtue of being born, we all stand on the shoulders of giants, and living one’s life with the humility that entails, is virtuous.

However, I believe that this narrow sense of intellectual humility is not enough.  It is often paired with a belief that, while we are giants in the eyes of those who came before us in our particular worldview, we tower (intellectually, spiritually, etc.) over all those who do not share our worldview.  We must, instead, have a second, higher tier of intellectual humility with respect to wholly other ways of seeing the world.  This requires a security in one’s own identity that allows for self-criticism, of oneself and the dominant traditions that shape each of us.  As I read Jewish history, it is clear to me that great Jewish leaders have always tried to sift through the best wisdom the world had to offer and incorporate it into their own lives and thinking (see Maimonides’ Introduction to his commentary to Tractate Avot).  It is crucial for us all to continue along that path, and remember that none of us are perfect, past or present, and we all need help understanding the greatest mysteries facing us.

This argument hinges primarily on pragmatic grounds.  If we staked less of our identity on being exclusive bearers of any Truth, we would be more likely to cultivate peaceful relations even with those we disagree with.  I happen to believe a stronger version of the argument, namely that we — in fact — do not have the ability to make exclusive knowledge claims (for the most part) and therefore it is a blemish on all of our traditions that we maintain any such claims.  However, I believe that the motivation of continued existence on this planet should suffice as a foundation for my argument.

So, in that spirit, please voice your opinions and share just how I need to widen my own views of the world and the place of authority in it.

*These thoughts were spurred in large part from reflecting on The End of Faith.


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