Research Finds That Intellectual Humility Can Make Us Better Thinkers & People; Good Thing There’s a Free Course on Intellectual Humility

We may have grown used to hearing about the importance of critical thinking, and stowed away knowledge of logical fallacies and cognitive biases in our argumentative toolkit. But were we to return to the philosophical sources of informal logic, we would find that we only grasped at some of the principles of reason. The others involve questions of what we might call virtue or character—what for the Greeks fell into the categories of ethos and pathos. The principle of charity, for example, in which we give our opponents a fair hearing and respond to the best version of their arguments as we understand them. And the principle, exemplified by Plato’s Socrates, of intellectual humility. Or as one punk band put it in their Socratic tribute. “All I know is that I don’t know. All I know is that I don’t know nothing.”

Intellectual humility is not, contrary to most popular appearances, reflexively according equal weight to “both sides” of every argument or assuming that everyone’s opinion is equally valid. These are forms of mental laziness and ethical abdication. It is, however, believing in our own fallibility and opening ourselves up to hearing arguments without immediately forming a judgment about them or the people who make them. We do not abandon our reason and values, we strengthen them, argues Mark Leary, by “not being afraid of being wrong.” Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, is the lead author of a new study on intellectual humility that found “essentially no difference between liberals and conservatives or between religious and nonreligious people” when it comes to intellectual humility.




The study challenges many ideas that can prevent dialogue. “There are stereotypes about conservatives and religiously conservative people being less intellectually humble about their beliefs," says Leary. But he and his colleagues “didn’t find a shred of evidence to support that.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that such people have high degrees of intellectual humility, only that all of us, perhaps equally, possess fairly low levels of the trait. I’ll be the first to admit that it is not an easy one to develop, especially when we’re on the defensive for some seemingly good reasons—and when we live in a culture that encourages us to make decisions and take actions on the strength of an image, some minimal text, and a few buttons that lead us right to our bank accounts. (To quote Operation Ivy again, “We get told to decide. Just like as if I’m not gonna change my mind.”)

But in the Duke study, reports Alison Jones at Duke Today, “those who displayed intellectual humility did a better job of evaluating the quality of evidence.” They took their time to make careful considerations. And they were generally more charitable and “less likely to judge a writer’s character based on his or her views.” By contrast, “intellectually arrogant” people gave writers with whom they disagreed “low scores in morality, honesty, competence, and warmth.” As a former teacher of rhetoric, I wonder whether the researchers accounted for the quality and persuasiveness of the writing itself. Nonetheless, this observation underscores the problem of conflating an author’s work with his or her character. Moral judgment can inhibit intellectual curiosity and open-mindedness. Intellectually arrogant people often resort to insults and personal attacks over thoughtful analysis.

The enormous number of assumptions we bring to almost every conversation with people who differ from us can blind us to our own faults and to other people’s strengths. But intellectual humility is not genetically determined—it is a skill that can be learned, Leary believes. Big Think recommends a free MOOC from the University of Edinburgh on intellectual humility (see an introduction to the concept at the top and a series of lectures here). “Faced with difficult questions,” explains course lecturer Dr. Ian Church, “people often tend to dismiss and marginalize dissent…. The world needs more people who are sensitive to reasons both for and against their beliefs, and are willing to consider the possibility that their political, religious and moral beliefs might be mistaken.” The course offers three different levels of engagement, from casual to quite involved, and three separate class sections at Coursera: Theory, Practice, and Science.

It’s likely that many of us need some serious preparation before we’re willing to listen to those who hold certain views. And perhaps certain views don't actually deserve a hearing. But in most cases, if we can let our guard down, set aside feelings of hostility, and become willing to learn something even from those with whom we disagree, we might be able to do what so many psychologists continue to recommend. As Cindy Lamothe writes at New York Magazine’s Science of Us blog, “we have to be willing to expose ourselves to opposing perspectives in the first place—which means that, as daunting as it may seem, listening to friends and family with radically different views can be beneficial to our long-term intellectual progress.” The holidays are soon upon us. Let the healing—or at least the charitable tolerance if you can manage it—begin.

via Big Think

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Philosophy of Rick and Morty: What Everyone’s New Favorite Cartoon Has in Common with Albert Camus

"Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody's gonna die." So, in one episode of Rick and Morty, says the fourteen-year-old Morty Smith, one of the show's titular co-protagonists. With the other, a mad scientist by the name of Rick Sanchez, who also happens to be Morty's grandfather, he constitutes the animated team that has entertained thousands and thousands of viewers — and made insatiable fans of seemingly all of them — over the past four years. To those few who haven't yet seen the show, it may just look like a silly cartoon, but the true fans understand that underneath all of the memorable gags and quotable lines lies an unusual philosophical depth.

"The human desire to fulfill some special existential purpose has existed throughout history," says video essayist Will Schoder in his analysis of the philosophy of Rick and Morty. But the titular duo's adventures through all possible realities of the "multiverse" ensure that they experience firsthand the utter meaninglessness of each individual reality.




When Morty breaks that bleak-sounding news to his sister Summer with the now oft-quoted line above, he actually delivers a "comforting message": once you confront the randomness of the universe, as Rick and Morty constantly do, "the only option is to find importance in the stuff right in front of you," and their adventures show that "friends, family, and doing what we enjoy are far more important than any unsolvable questions about existence."

Schoder, also the author of a video essay on Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon's mythological storytelling technique as well as one we've previously featured about David Foster Wallace's critique of postmodernism, makes the clear philosophical connection to Albert Camus. The philosopher and author of The Stranger wrote and thought a great deal about the "contradiction between humans' desire to find meaning in life and the meaninglessness of the universe," and the absurdity that results, a notion the cartoon has dramatized over and over again, with an ever-heightening absurdity. We must, like Sisyphus eternally pushing his rock uphill, recognize the true nature of our situation yet defiantly continue "to explore and search for meaning." Morty, as any fan well knows, offers Summer another solution to her despair: "Come watch TV."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Philosophy of “Optimistic Nihilism,” Or How to Find Purpose in a Meaningless Universe

In one account of human affairs, an all-powerful deity rules over everything. Nothing can occur without the knowledge and sanction of the omnipotent creator god. In a much more recent iteration, we inhabit an unimaginably complex computer simulation, in which every thing—ourselves included—has been created by all-powerful programmers. The first scenario gives millions of people comfort, the second… well, maybe only a handful of cult-like Silicon Valley techo-futurists. But in either case, the question inevitably arises: how is it possible that there is any such thing as true freedom? The idea that free will is an illusion has haunted philosophical thought for at least a couple thousand years.

But in the existentialist view, the real fear is not that we may have too little freedom, but that we may have too much—indeed that we may have the ultimate freedom, that of conscious beings who appeared in the universe unbidden and by chance, and who can only determine for themselves what form and direction their being might take. This was the early view of Jean-Paul Sartre. “We are left alone, without excuse”—he famously wrote in his 1946 essay “Existentialism is a Humanism”—“This is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free.” Freedom is a burden; without gods, devils, or software engineers to fault for our actions, or any predetermined course of action we might take, each of us alone bears the full weight of responsibility for our lives and choices.




Emerging from comforting visions of humanity as the center of the universe—says the narrator in the video above from philosophical animation channel Kurzgesagt—“we learned that the twinkling lights are not shining beautifully for us, they just are. We learned that we are not at the center of what we now call the universe, and that it is much, much older than we thought.” We learned that we are alone in the cosmos, on a completely insignificant speck of space dust, more or less. Even the concepts we use to explain this overwhelming situation are totally arbitrary in the face of our profound ignorance. Add to this the problem of our infinitesimally brief lifespans and inevitable death and you’ve got the perfect recipe for existential dread.

For this condition, Kurzgesagt recommends a remedy: “Optimistic Nihilism,” a philosophy that posits ultimate freedom in the midst of, and solely enabled by, the utter meaninglessness of existence: “If our life is the only thing we get to experience, then it’s the only thing that matters. If the universe has no principles, then the only principles relevant are the ones we decide on. If the universe has no purpose, then we get to dictate what its purpose is.” This is more or less a paraphrase of Sartre, who made virtually identical claims in what he called his “atheistic existentialism,” but with the added force in his “doctrine” that “there is no reality except in action… Man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only in so far as he realizes himself.” We not only get to determine our purpose, he wrote, we have to do so, or we cannot be said to exist at all.

In the midst of this frighteningly radical freedom, Sartre saw the ultimate opportunity: to make of ourselves what we will. But this dizzying possibility may send us running back to comforting prefab illusions of meaning and purpose. How terrible, to have to decide for yourself the purpose of the entire universe, no? But the philosophy of “Optimistic Nihilism” goes on to expound a thesis similar to that of the Zen popularizer, Alan Watts, who has soothed many a case of existential dread with his response to the idea that we are somehow separate from the universe, either hovering above it or crushed beneath it. Humans are not, as Watts colorfully wrote, “isolated ‘egos’ inside bags of skin.” Instead, as the video goes on, “We are as much the universe as a neutron star, or a black hole, or a nebula. Even better, actually, we are its thinking and feeling part, the sensory organs of the universe.”

Neither Sartre nor Watts, with their very different approaches to the same set of existential concerns, would likely endorse the tidy summation offered by the philosophy of “Optimistic Nihilism.” But just as we would be foolish to expect a six-minute animated video to offer a complete philosophy of life, we would be painfully naïve to think of freedom as a condition of comfort and ease, built on rational certainties and absolute truths. For all of the disagreement about what we should do with radical existential freedom, everyone who recognizes it agrees that it entails radical uncertainty—the vertiginous sense of unknowing that is the source of our constant free-floating anxiety.

If we are to act in the face of doubt, mystery, ignorance, and the immensity of seemingly gratuitous suffering, we might heed John Keats’ prescription to develop “Negative Capability,” the ability to remain “content with half-knowledge.” This was not, as Lionel Trilling writes in an introduction to Keats’ letters, advice only for artists, but “a certain way of dealing with life”—one in which, Keats wrote elsewhere, “the only means of strengthening one’s intellect,” and thus a sense of identity, meaning, and purpose in life, “is to make up one’s mind about nothing—to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts.”

Keats' is a very Zen sentiment, a moody version of the "don't-know mind" that recognizes emptiness and suffering as hallmarks of existence, and finds in them not a reason for optimism but for the indefinite suspension of judgement. Still, the approach of Romantic poets and Buddhist monks is not for everyone, and even Sartre eventually turned to orthodox Marxism to impose a meaning upon existence that claimed dependence on the hard facts of material conditions rather than the unbounded abstractions of the intellect.

Perhaps we are are free, at least, to commit to an ideology to assuage our existential dread. We are also free to adopt the tragic defiance of another Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, who confessed to something of an “Optimistic Nihilism” of his own. Only he referred to it as a “pessimism of the intellect” and “optimism of the will”—an attitude that recognizes the severe social and material limits imposed on us by our often painful, short, seemingly meaningless existence in a material world, and that strives nonetheless toward impossible ideals.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Makes The Death of Socrates a Great Work of Art?: A Thought-Provoking Reading of David’s Philosophical & Political Painting

When we think of political propaganda, we do not typically think of French Neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David. There’s something debased about the term—it stinks of insincerity, staginess, emotional manipulation, qualities that cannot possibly belong to great art. But let us put aside this prejudice and consider David’s 1787 The Death of Socrates. Created two years before the start of the French Revolution, the painting “gave expression to the principle of resisting unjust authority,” and—like its source, Plato’s Phaedo—it makes a martyr of its hero, who is the soul of reason and a thorn in the side of dogma and tradition.

Nonetheless, as Evan Puschak, the Nerdwriter, shows us in the short video above, The Death of Socrates situates itself firmly within the traditions of European art, drawing heavily on classical sculptures and friezes as well as the greatest works of the Renaissance. There are echoes of da Vinci’s Last Supper in the number of figures and their placement, and a distinct reference of Raphael’s School of Athens in Socrates’ upward-pointing finger, which belongs to Plato in the earlier painting. Here, David has Plato, already an old man, seated at the foot of the bed, the scene arranged behind him as if “exploding from the back of his head.”




Socrates, says Puschak, “has been discussing at length the immortality of the soul, and he doesn’t even seem to care that he’s about to take the implement of his death in hand. On the contrary, Socrates is defiant… David idealizes him… he would have been 70 at the time and somewhat less muscular and beautiful than painted here.” He is a “symbol of strength over passion, of stoic commitment to an abstract ideal,” a theme David articulated with much less subtlety in an earlier painting, The Oath of the Horatii, with its Roman salutes and bundled swords—a “severe, moralistic canvas,” with which the artist “effectively invented the Neoclassical style.”

In The Death of Socrates, David refines his moralistic tendencies, and Puschak ties the composition loosely to a sense of prophecy about the coming Terror after the storming of the Bastille. The Nerdwriter summation of the painting’s angles and influences does help us see it anew. But Puschak’s vague historicizing doesn’t quite do the artist justice, failing to mention David’s direct part in the wave of bloody executions under Robespierre.

David was an active supporter of the Revolution and designed “uniforms, banners, triumphal arches, and inspirational props for the Jacobin Club’s propaganda,” notes a Boston College account. He was also “elected a Deputy form the city of Paris, and voted for the execution of Louis XVI.” Historians have identified over “300 victims for whom David signed execution orders.” The severity of his earlier classical scenes comes into greater focus in The Death of Socrates around the central figure, a great man of history, one whose heroic feats and tragic sacrifices drive the course of all events worth mentioning.

Indeed, we can see David’s work as a visual precursor to philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle’s theories of “the heroic in history.” (Carlyle also happened to write the 19th century’s definitive history of the French Revolution.) In 1793, David took his visual great man theory and Neoclassical style and applied them for the first time to a contemporary event, the murder of his friend Jean-Paul Marat, Swiss Jacobin journalist, by the Girondist Charlotte Corday. (Learn more in the Khan Academy video above.) This is one of three canvases David made of “martyrs of the Revolution”—the other two are lost to history. And it is here that we can see the evolution of his political painting from classical allegory to contemporary propaganda, in a canvas widely hailed, along with The Death of Socrates, as one of the greatest European paintings of the age.

We can look to David for both formal mastery and didactic intent. But we should not look to him for political constancy. He was no John Milton—the poet of the English Revolution who was still devoted to the cause even after the restoration of the monarch. David, on the other hand, "could easily be denounced as a brilliant cynic," writes Michael Glover at The Independent. Once Napoleon came to power and began his rapid ascension to the self-appointed role of Emperor, David quickly became court painter, and created the two most famous portraits of the ruler.

We’re quite familiar with The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, in which the subject stands in an awkward pose, his hand thrust into his waistcoat. And surely know Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass, above. Here, the finger pointing upward takes on an entirely new resonance than it has in The Death of Socrates. It is the gesture not of a man nobly prepared to leave the world behind, but of one who plans to conquer and subdue it under his absolute rule.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Three Huge Volumes of Stoic Writings by Seneca Now Free Online, Thanks to Tim Ferriss

"The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today," wrote Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger. "You are arranging what is in Fortune's control and abandoning what lies in yours." That still much-quoted observation from the first-century Roman philosopher and statesman, best known simply as Seneca, has a place in a much larger body of work. Seneca's writings stand, along with those of Zeno, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, as a pillar of Stoic philosophy, a system of thinking which emphasizes the primacy of personal virtue and the importance of observing oneself objectively and mastering, instead of being mastered by, one's own emotions.

The Stoics found their way of life beneficial indeed in the harsh reality of more than 2,000 years ago, but Stoicism loses none of its value when practiced by those of us living today.

"At its core, it teaches you how to separate what you can control from what you cannot, and it trains you to focus exclusively on the former," writes self-improvement maven Tim Ferriss in his introduction to The Tao of Seneca, the three-volume collection of Seneca's letters, illustration and lined modern commentary, that he's just published free on the internet. (For instructions on how to upload them to your Kindle, see this page.)

Of all the Stoics, he continues, "Seneca stands out as easy to read, memorable, and surprisingly practical. He covers specifics ranging from handling slander and backstabbing, to fasting, exercise, wealth, and death." (Ferriss has also created audiobook versions of the texts, which you can buy through Audible. Or get a couple for free by signing up for Audible's 30-day free trial program.)

Ferris suggests making Seneca "part of your daily routine. Set aside 10–15 minutes a day and read one letter. Whether over coffee in the morning, right before bed, or somewhere in between, digest one letter." He also adds that "Stoicism has spread like wildfire throughout Silicon Valley and the NFL in the last five years, becoming a mental toughness training system for CEOs, founders, coaches, and players alike," evidencing a results-oriented approach that may divide Stoicism enthusiasts, many of whom believe that the true Stoic should never consider the product, which will always lie outside one's realm of control, but only the process. But even the ancients would surely agree that any prompt to action is worth taking, especially when it asks the cost of not a single coin — drachma, denarius, penny, or bit.

The Tao of Seneca will be added to our collection, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kindle & Other Devices.

(via /r/stoicism)

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

“The Philosopher’s Web,” an Interactive Data Visualization Shows the Web of Influences Connecting Ancient & Modern Philosophers

How do we begin to read philosophy? Can we slide a book from the shelf, thumb through it casually, picking out the bits of wisdom that make sense?

Should we find a well-known “important” work, sit in a quiet study, read the preface, translator’s introduction, etc…

How soon we discover we know less about the book than when we started.

We go wandering, lose ourselves in secondary sources, glosses, footnotes, comments sections, Wikipedia articles…. The important book remains unread….




In-between these two extremes are a variety of approaches that work well for many an autodidact. When data scientist Grant Louis Oliveira decided he wanted to undertake a self-guided course of study to “more rigorously explore my ideas,” he began with the honest admission, “I find the world of philosophy a bit impenetrable.”

Where some of us might make an outline, a spreadsheet, or a humble reading list, Oliveira created a complex “social network visualization” of “a history of philosophy” to act as his guide.

“What I imagined,” he writes, “is something like a tree arranged down a timeline. More influential philosophers would be bigger nodes, and the size of the lines between the nodes would perhaps be variable by strength of influence.”

The project, called “Philosopher’s Web,” shows us an impressively dense collection of names—hundreds of names—held together by what look like the bendy filaments in a fiber-optic cable. Each blue dot represents a philosopher, the thin gray lines between the dots represent lines of influence.

The data for the project comes not from academic scholarship but from Wikipedia, whose “semantic companion” dbpedia Oliveira used to construct the web of “influenced” and “influenced by” connections. (Read about his method here.)

As you zoom in, click around, and access different views, the dots and lines wave like tendrils of a sea anemone. Oliveira describes the process thus: “the more influential the philosopher, the thicker and more numerous the lines emanating from him. You can click on any one of these nodes to see which philosopher it represents. If you click and hold, it will display the network of philosophers he has been influenced by, and has influenced. Each line has an arrow at the end to denote the direction of the relationship.” (Despite his use of the masculine pronoun, Oliveira's web of connections is not exclusively male.)

Both the project's site and Daily Nous have more nuanced, detailed instructions. While at first glance the Philosopher’s Web can itself seem a bit impenetrable, it reveals more of its inner workings the more you use it. Press and hold on one of the blue dots, and it expands into a smaller cluster of its own, showing a cloud of connections hovering around the central figure. Toggle the “focus” and you get secondary and tertiary relationships.

 

Click on the lines of influence and see, instead of an explanation, a somewhat mystifying “influence score.” Click on the “Filter” tab under "Settings" and find a range of filters that allow you to narrow or widen the scope of the map to certain historical periods.

In addition to individual philosophers, the web also contains the names of several writers, journalists, columnists, and popular public intellectuals, like Paul Krugman and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It also displays several movements or schools of thought as blue dots. Want to know the big names in “Insurrectionary Anarchism”? Click on the node and chose your levels of specificity.

The weaknesses of the approach are perhaps immediately apparent. What good is a cluster of unfamiliar names to the beginner, especially since each one appears devoid of historical and intellectual context? Oliveira discloses some other problems, including an issue with the software rendering accents and foreign characters (as you can see in Slavoj Žižek's entry above.)

But the more one uses the Philosopher’s Web, the more its utility becomes apparent. “Hopefully based on context,” writes Oliveira, “you should be able to figure out who these people are with a little bit of google.” Visualizing the connections between them gives one an instant sense of the communities and continuities to which they belong, and among each cluster will always be at least one or two familiar names, at least in passing, to act as an anchor.

All in all, the Philosopher’s Web should prove to be a useful application for a certain kind of learner, and it represents a step-up from the ritual of clicking through Wikipedia links to try and put the puzzle pieces together one at a time. The Philosopher's Web joins a number of other similar visualizations (see the links below) that aim at creating similar maps of the discipline.

Should you find the approach a little sterile and schematic, well... there's always that book you put down a few hours ago....

via Daily Nous

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch The Idea, the First Animated Film to Grapple with Big, Philosophical Ideas (1932)

A vague sense of disquiet settled over Europe in the period between World War I and World War II. As the slow burn of militant ultranationalism mingled with jingoist populism, authoritarian leaders and fascist factions found mounting support among a citizenry hungry for certainty. Europe’s growing trepidation fostered some of the 20th century’s most striking painterly, literary, and cinematic depictions of the totalitarianism that would soon follow. It was almost inevitable that this period would see the birth of the first deeply philosophical animated film, known as The Idea.

The Idea first emerged as a wordless novel in 1920, drawn by Frans Masereel. Masereel, a close friend of Dadaist and New Objectivist artist George Grosz, had created a stark, black-and-white story about the indomitable nature of ideas. Employing thick, aggressive lines obtained through woodcut printing, Masereel depicted a conservative political order’s fight against the birth of a new idea, which eventually flourished in spite of the establishment’s relentless attempts to suppress it.




Setting to work in 1930, a Czech film-maker named Berthold Bartosch spent two years animating The Idea. Bartosch’s visual style remained true to Masereel’s harsh, vivid lines. His version of the story, however, took a decidedly bleaker turn—one that was more reminiscent of the writings of his compatriot, Franz Kafka. Whereas Masereel believed that the purity of good ideas would overwhelm their opposition, Bartosch, working a decade closer to the Nazis' ascendancy, was wary of such idealism.

Above, you can watch what film historian William Moritz has called "the first animated film created as an artwork with serious, even tragic, social and philosophical themes." Paired with a haunting score composed by Arthur Honegger, the 25-minute animation is a powerfully moving meditation on art, struggle, purity of thought, and populist savagery that remains untarnished after eight decades.

You can find other great animations in our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

Note: This post originally appeared on our site in November, 2013. It was written by Ilia Blinderman. Follow him at @iliablinderman.

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