On Epistemic Humility

There are so many frameworks and meta-frameworks that discuss what we know and why we know it (epistemology)—they are usually extraordinary assemblies of language and intellect.

But at the heart of epistemology lies an assumption that there is a relationship between what we know and what rational beings do, such that the former should guide the latter. We don’t want knowledge for its own sake; we want it because it will guide us in our actions. It will help us to make decisions, whether practical ones, like whether to carry an umbrella, or social ones, such as whether a friend will prove reliable, or public ones, such as policy decisions to remediate poverty, or ethical or spiritual ones, such as “how shall I live?” Knowledge is the hymnbook for rational beings, even if the songs are relativistic or nihilistic.

This is important because it means that there is an implicit imperative to conform our actions to whatever we believe to be true. Knowledge is not just a tool, it is the golden calf that summons us to coherent action. We invest authority into the artifacts of our knowledge, the workings of our intellect. They are our guides; they tell us how we should act. If we do not comply with what we know or believe to be true, do we not become fools or hypocrites? Do we not experience dissonance, anxiety, and the need for repair? In this way axiology insinuates itself into epistemology and give birth to ideology.

What is ideology, after all, but bloated epistemology? Bloated claims about what is known and bloated demands of compliance? Ideology is a kind of cancerous epistemology—a swelling of claims that crowd out others, and a swelling of expectations around compliance. It becomes worse when we make values or norms the objects of knowledge. In this way, the “right-thinking” of epistemology is merely the cub we feed while ideology is the feral beast that grows to devour us.

But perhaps there is something we can do to curb the growth of ideology. Advancing knowledge seems to be about convincing people to see the world as one does. Rather than saying: do you see the world as I see it?, we say: do you see the world rightly, as I do? In this way, trading in knowledge is different from trading in art. With the latter, we indulge anxiety and uncertainty. With the former, we annihilate them in our arrogance and insist upon using our own intellectual currency.

What would happen if we began at a different starting point? What if we adopted an attitude of epistemic humility, an attitude that acknowledged that there are good reasons to think a great many different things, even if we don’t personally find the reasons or conclusions compelling. Maybe we don’t have the necessary experiences or skills or imagination or embodiment to understand them. This isn’t an argument for relativism or quietism. It doesn’t end the conversation; it actually makes one possible. It means that at the conclusion of a satisfactory or unsatisfactory conversation, both interlocutors shrug their shoulders and say “who knows what is really the case, but this is what I am going to personally believe for now. I may be wrong. I probably am. But then, we are probably both wrong.”

In the same way that curiosity is the antidote to judgment, humility inoculates us from ideology. If one remains open to being wrong, to being fallible, if one remains curious about the many ways of thinking and knowing and being in the world, one can practice epistemology without being conscripted into ideology. A little humility acknowledges that we are all puttering about in the dark. We are fumblers. We are all trying to find a basis to personal action because the stakes are so high. We are trying to figure out how our world works because we have an unquenchable curiosity. Because our lives matter.

Epistemic humility invites us to explore any question and to forward any claim we like, so long as it is an offering, a personal gesture, and not a demand. A humble epistemology is about the joy of inquiry, not inquisition. It is about the solidarity of imperfection and longing that lies beneath the asking.

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