Humility and Accusation

I have heard a number of times that to claim that knowledge is certain is incompatible with humility. A truly humble person, the argument goes, would never claim to be certain about anything (some call this getting “big T” truth, or “being a 100% certain” or “totally certain”). Now I agree that there is a way in which humility is connected with a certain admission of ignorance, but it doesn’t happen like this. Let me explain.

Humility grows primarily in those moments when we say “I was wrong” or “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure”. I would find it hard to accept any man as an adult until he had admitted to being an ignorant screw-up, and pledged himself to never do it again.

But to say “we can’t be certain” or “Human beings cannot get knowledge” requires no humility at all. It is not even a statement of humility, but an accusation. To admit to one’s own ignorance is one thing; the skeptic also insists that no one else is smarter than he is. What masquerades as humility is in fact destroying the possibility of humility- for it destroys the ability of a man to admit that he alone was a failure; or that he alone is low and in need of knowledge and virtue.

Knowledge, as I keep insisting, is a quality in the soul. If nothing in your soul shows itself as certain, fine. But our response to this should be to search for certainty, or at least for the most certain thing, not to soothe our secret pride with belly- aching stories about how nothing is certain.

1 Comment

  1. Led Zep said,

    April 28, 2006 at 10:15 pm

    Amen, brother. Academic philosophy these days is a dictatorship of Humean ‘humility’.

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