Knotty problems call for sound advice. Use philosophy to find the intellectually dependable amid the frauds and egotists
Need to know
We need others’ help to figure out what and how to think. Many issues are just too complex for us to tackle on our own. They’re often the subject of bewildering and vociferous debate, and it’s not always easy to know whom to turn to as a guide. We have to make difficult decisions about who should influence our thinking. Given these circumstances, it helps to have an idea of the kind of person we should allow to aid our deliberations. That’s where philosophy comes in handy, as it helps us to establish a set of heuristics for whom to trust with our intellectual lives.
Think about any complex issue you’ve recently considered. Perhaps you’ve been thinking through where you land on the antiracism protests, on reopening the economy after the pandemic, or on the presidential election in the United States. You’re almost certainly not considering any of this in an isolated vacuum. You’re depending on others, for better or worse.
I know this is true for me. I regularly worry about gaps in my understanding, and I’m extremely grateful when others help me fill these in. For example, I’ve got blind spots that derive from growing up as a white male in the southern US, and blind spots that derive from being embedded in a predominantly Left-leaning world of academia. I often find myself at the mercy of others when trying to understand the other side of issues that are all too easily oversimplified.
This sort of dependence, like any sort of dependence, comes with vulnerabilities. Those we depend on can let us down in various ways. Politicians can lie for personal gain. Misinformation spreads on social media, tearing at the fabric of democracy. Opportunists prey on the vulnerable. Coworkers conceal their knowledge from the group in order to, among other reasons, get ahead – costing companies multiple billions of dollars every year.
You might think we could fix this problem simply by asking the experts. They know what they’re talking about, even if the rest of us don’t. This is sound advice as far as it goes – but it doesn’t go far enough. Sometimes it’s hard to identify who the experts are. Sometimes the experts themselves disagree. Sometimes we lack access to experts. Sometimes experts are manipulated by perverse incentives.
Even more importantly, expertise alone can rarely settle the questions that matter to us. This is because settling these issues isn’t just about making a list of facts. It’s about deliberating about these facts in light of our values and objectives. We have to figure out what we, in our particular situation, should do about the facts. And we can’t figure that out without moral clarity and knowledge of ourselves.
That’s why we often turn to people we trust for guidance. We look at what they’re saying, in light of the broader public discussion. We ask them questions. We share our current, precarious thoughts with them in the hopes that they might help us firm them up. We build up our knowledge of the world within our own personal networks of intellectual dependence.
What we need within these networks is intellectually dependable people. It’s these people – and their opposites – that this guide is all about. Below, we’ll map out five of the virtues of intellectually dependable people, and contrast each of these with the vices of their undependable counterparts. Looking out for these signs of intellectual trustworthiness can help us do a better job, as we think through, together, the issues that matter to us.
What to do
The most important mark of intellectual dependability is that someone genuinely cares about your intellectual wellbeing. They want to help you get to the truth, gain knowledge, deepen your understanding, and develop your skills for enquiry. They possess the foundational virtue of intellectual benevolence.
As a virtue, intellectual benevolence involves patterns of emotion and thought, not just actions. The intellectually benevolent person cares when other people make intellectual gains, and takes pleasure in this. They also have mature views about the relative importance of such gains. They understand, for example, that it’s better for a person to develop skills that can help them acquire a wide array of knowledge about a subject than it is for them to be served up with a short list of facts.
The American geneticist Barbara McClintock was known for these qualities. Around 1930, she identified a pathway for establishing the chromosomal basis of genetics through her work with corn seeds. Rather than insisting on pursuing this research on her own, she gave the project to her brightest graduate student, Harriet Creighton, who subsequently gained worldwide recognition for the discovery, alongside McClintock.
There are many ways a person can fail to be intellectually benevolent. The most obvious, and most extreme, is by being intellectually malevolent. This kind of person is motivated to do intellectual harm to others. They enjoy it when people make mistakes or look stupid, and like to cause confusion.
A more subtle form of intellectual unreliability is social vigilantism. Social vigilantes are individuals who are highly motivated to influence others’ views. They want to win arguments and to lead people to see things their way. They think they’ve gotten things right, and they believe that those who get things things right have a responsibility to lead others to get things right, too.
At first, it might seem that there’s something attractive about the idea that those who are intellectually better-off should help those less intellectually well-off. And at least social vigilantes care how others think – which also seems good. But the problem is that they care in the wrong way. They don’t care that other people have correct views; they care that other people share their views. They don’t care for other people to make discoveries; they care that they themselves are the ones to lead others to their conclusions.
Research reveals that social vigilantism is correlated with a number of problematic traits and behaviours – for example, tending to gravitate toward more extreme views about divisive topics such as climate change. Social vigilantes vigorously advocate for their extreme positions, and champion others who do the same. In this way, they polarise beliefs in their communities, rather than promoting mutual understanding and discovery.
It’s not always easy to sort the intellectually benevolent person from the social vigilante. But one way to do it is to pay attention to what they get excited about. Are they gladdened by your intellectual progress in general, or only when they succeed in influencing your thinking?
A second sign of intellectual reliability is that the person tends to share their perspective with you faithfully, out of a motivation to help you progress. They recognise that sometimes – though not always – they’re in a position to strengthen your perspective by sharing their own. And they’re skilled in identifying their own perspective, and in helping you enter into it and appreciate it. They possess the virtue of intellectual transparency.
The English philosopher G E Moore was described by his students in a way that suggests he was especially transparent in his teaching. In one lecture, he would put forward a position he was inclined to embrace, only to begin the next lecture explaining why his previous view was wrong. In some cases, if he couldn’t see an obvious logical pathway forward, he would announce that he was going to ‘make a jump’ and see if this might lead to greater understanding.
There are several ways a person can fail to be intellectually transparent. One is by being intellectually vain. A vain person wants others to think well of them. They are concerned with their reputation. When they share their views, they do so with this worry in mind. Unlike the transparent person, the vain don’t share their perspective in order to promote your intellectual wellbeing. Instead, they share it selectively, to convey the best impression of themselves. Often, the vain inflate their intellectual standing, pretending to know things they don’t, or to have stronger evidence than they do, to win approval.
Another way to fail to be transparent is by being intellectually timid. In contrast with the vain, the timid tend to adopt negative attitudes toward their intellectual features. They hold a poor opinion of the state of their knowledge, and are fearful of being exposed for their ignorance. This leads them to shy away from the limelight, and to refrain from contributing to group knowledge even when they have something to say. They’d rather keep quiet to avoid the harm to their self-esteem that would come from revealing themselves to be uninformed. So they might refrain from telling you what they know, even when they could help you.
How can you tell the difference between the transparent person, and the vain or timid one? Focus on how they react to others’ opinions of their ideas. Fearfulness about how their ideas will be perceived, or over-eagerness for their ideas to please you or others, are signs that they might lack transparency.
A third mark of intellectual dependability is that the person tends to remove or resolve sources of ambiguity when they’re communicating with you. They recognise that they can help you only if you understand them, and that ambiguity gets in the way of understanding. Thus, this person removes or resolves any ambiguity so that you grasp what they mean. They have the virtue of communicative clarity.
There are many techniques for resolving ambiguity. Clear communicators stress their main points, and distinguish them from what is merely incidental. They define key words or phrases. They explain how their views contrast with others that might be confused with them. Their communications are structured to be easy to follow, where the function of each part is apparent to you.
One way to fail to be a clear communicator is to be susceptible to pseudo-profundity. Such people are especially open to and receptive toward potentially deep insights. This receptivity can lead them to misidentify gibberish as containing profound meaning. In tasks designed to assess individuals for their level of susceptibility to pseudo-profundity, participants were asked to rate the profundity of randomly generated combinations of abstract buzzwords such as ‘Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty’. People in general rated these statements as somewhat profound; those who rated their profundity higher were more susceptible to pseudo-profundity.
While valuing insight is a good thing, the proclivity to see through profundity-coloured glasses is a liability when it comes to being intellectually dependable. Those with a pseudo-profound streak also tend to be more susceptible to misidentifying fake news as real news. Moreover, these individuals might be motivated to make themselves sound profound, even when they have little of substance to say. They might dress up their empty ideas with seductive trappings and even gain substantial followings, all the while leading their followers into confusion.
Fortunately, you can sort out the virtuously clear communicator from those susceptible to pseudo-profundity. If someone has said something you couldn’t understand, ask them to put it in a way you can understand. If they shy away from this or insist that it’s you who has the problem, this indicates a lack of communicative virtue.
A fourth sign of intellectual reliability is that people with this quality appreciate the distinctive features of their audience. They pay attention to your particular views, experiences, abilities and tendencies. They fit their communications to your predicament to help you advance, and display the virtue of audience sensitivity.
By contrast, one form of audience-insensitivity is when people pay little attention to their listeners, obsessing more over their own features, a trait that psychologists call self-consciousness. Such people tend to agree strongly with claims such as ‘I’m always trying to figure myself out.’ As a result, self-conscious people don’t have time to figure out their audiences.
People can also be too selective in their attention. Judgmental people, for example, are highly alert to embarrassing, bad or problematic features of their listeners, while they’re less interested in their audiences’ strengths. Or they might be alert to features of their audience that reflect well on themselves: they’re motivated to see themselves as superior, and so look out for others’ comparative weaknesses. This gives them a distorted view of their listeners.
To determine whether someone you’re depending on is virtuously sensitive, you might ask yourself the following. Do they demonstrate that they understand your point of view, your intellectual needs, your abilities? Do they ask you about these features, trying to learn about you? Do they communicate with you in a way that’s personal to who you are? If the answer is no, they might not make a reliable intellectual guide.
Finally, the intellectually trustworthy person displays a certain open-ended wisdom in supporting you with your enquiries. They appreciate the many decisions involved in seeking knowledge. They understand that people make choices about when to gather more evidence, where to look for it, and how to weigh it, as well as which methods to use and whom to rely on. They’re skilled in helping you navigate the potential risks and benefits that present themselves in your pursuit of learning. They possess the virtue of intellectual guidance.
In contrast, some people have a psychological need for closure. Such people are highly motivated to complete enquiries, and are turned off by ambiguity. They want definite answers quickly, and they want to stick with them. Psychologists call the twin components of this need ‘seizing’ and ‘freezing’. Those with a strong need for closure seize quickly on any information that promises to resolve their questions – and once they’ve chosen an answer, they tend to ignore any contradictory information, freezing on the answer they’ve come to.
A strong need for closure isn’t always problematic. Decisiveness is, after all, a highly valued ability in leaders. Yet this need can be an impediment when it comes to nuanced topics necessitating methodical, careful reflection – precisely the sorts of topics about which you so often need others’ guidance. Such ambiguous matters demand the kind of thinking that those who need closure can’t put up with. Instead, they’re likely to offer you unwise advice that oversimplifies the issue.
A key feature to look for in an intellectual guide is patience. Does the person you’re depending on take the time to appreciate the complexities of your predicament, or are they too quick to jump in and try to ‘fix it’?
Whether a person is intellectually dependable or undependable will tend to reveal itself in their emotions, thoughts and actions. The better we attend to these signs, the better we can function within our networks, and the better we can figure out what to think about the complex problems we confront.
Ask yourself these questions about those you might depend on:
- Do they get excited when I make intellectual progress, or only when they influence my views? The foundational virtue of an intellectually trustworthy person is a genuine care for your intellectual wellbeing. If they’re interested only in influencing your views, research suggests that they might attempt to lead you in more extreme directions.
- Are they fearful about sharing their ideas? Are they over-eager for others to approve of their ideas? What you need is someone who’s transparent in sharing their perspective with you. If the other person is too fearful or eager to please, this can lead them to misrepresent their views, leaving you misinformed.
- Are they willing and able to clarify their meaning if I ask them to? Intellectually dependable people realise that beneficial communication needs to make sense. If the other person shies away from clarifying their meaning, or insists it’s your problem for not getting it, you’re unlikely to learn much from them.
- Do they demonstrate an appreciation of my unique perspective, needs and abilities? It’s important for those you depend on to fit their communications to who you are. If they’re too interested in themselves to pay attention to you, or if they take a distorted view of who you are, this can prevent them from sharing what it’s most important for you to know.
- Do they show patience in trying to understand the complexities of my predicament, or are they in a hurry to identify a solution? A hallmark of the wisdom demanded by an intellectual guide is the ability to patiently suss out the intricacies of the dilemmas you face. Being over-eager to recommend a solution can lead the other person to misdiagnose your case.
An interesting fact about the virtues of intellectual dependability is that they are both intellectual and moral virtues. They’re ‘intellectual’ in the sense that they’re concerned with intellectual goods such as knowledge and understanding; but they’re moral virtues too, because they’re concerned with the intellectual goods of others. Indeed, the moral, other-regarding features of these virtues are especially central in a way that’s different to other intellectual virtues, such as inquisitiveness or intellectual perseverance.
It is in part because of the centrality of their other-regarding dimensions that the virtues of intellectual dependability haven’t taken on a larger role in education. The reigning paradigm of what we should aim for in education is that of the critical thinker. But being a critical thinker doesn’t necessarily mean that you possess other-regarding qualities, such as the virtues of intellectual dependability.
While we might lament this fact when it comes to formal education, we can still make efforts to become more intellectually dependable on our own. And we arguably should try to do so. After all, it’s not just us who are in need of dependable guides in our networks – we need to be intellectually dependable for the sake others, too.
If we want to grow in these virtues of intellectual dependability – to become more benevolent, transparent and so on – what can we do? The following are four strategies that researchers tend to agree can help us grow in intellectual virtue.
A first strategy is direct instruction – learning about the nature of particular intellectual virtues that we hope to cultivate. Ideally, we’ll gain an account of what the virtue involves, and we might learn about the vices that oppose it. Part of the reason why direct instruction is important is that it helps to reduce our cognitive load. It gives us a framework to think through our intellectual life. It also helps us set a target to aim for.
A second strategy is to think how intellectual virtues apply in particular situations, considering what the intellectual virtue – and perhaps also its opposing vices – looks like in action. You might select some historical, contemporary or even fictional examples of people who appear to act in accordance with the virtue or its opposing vice. By encountering exemplars, you might gain a taste or sensibility for the virtue, and a person to emulate. More generally, this exercise can help you to practise evaluating scenarios in which intellectual virtues can influence behaviour. When done well, this can help you appreciate the variety of contexts in which intellectual virtues make a difference, and the different kinds of behaviour they lead to.
A third strategy is to practise the behaviours characteristic of the particular virtue. There are many different ways to do this, ranging from one-off attempts, once a day in a particular context, to larger-scale projects of self-cultivation, in which you might keep a diary of your efforts over a longer period of time. The more you allow your knowledge of the virtues to permeate your daily life, and the more you allow your aspirations towards these virtues to guide your conduct, the more you’ll approximate their excellence.
A final strategy is virtue-based feedback, where you seek out input on how you’re doing in your pursuit of virtue. You might get this from a trusted – ideally, intellectually dependable – friend. You want them to comment on ways they have seen you practising the virtues you want to learn, as well as areas where you might improve. Another option, which can take some determination, is to conduct self-assessments. You can seek out scales that are used to measure some of the virtues or vices discussed in this Guide, and score yourself to see how you’re tracking.