A Journey Toward A Theory Of Stupidity 1 | A Not-So-In-Depth Start At A Definition

The tale of how I even got to the point of looking into this weird subject aside, I actually started writing a book on stupidity a while back but realized (and was told by a few people who knew more about publication) it probably wouldn’t do very well. After finishing the first draft I decided to put the idea of publication on hold. However, I had organized my notes from my general inquiry into the subject and so it seemed like a waste to let it sit there and rot away. The following “philosophical journey” as I’ll call it (which will take up the next series of posts on this blog) will roughly follow the thoughts in the book that I wrote.

Thoughts, I might add, that start as any thoughts into any subject should start: by asking what it is.

…But like any tech-savvy millennial, my first inclination in answering this question was to put the word into a search engine, click on the very first thing that showed up in my search results and comment on it. (What can I say? The Internet is an amazing thing.) The result that popped up happened to be The Oxford Living English Dictionary (OLED) and similarly it just so happened that the first entry it had on stupidity read like this:

“Having or showing a great lack of intelligence or common sense.

…Kind of like starting the meat of a non-fiction book using an online dictionary entry.

Regardless of my own shortcomings in this area I rightly realized how underwhelming this definition is. Actually, if you think about it this particular definition doesn’t tell you jack. For some reason stupidity here is defined by its opposites and that wouldn’t do because I would have to know what those things are if I were to know what stupidity is. So I decided to look up “intelligence” and “common sense” in the OLED and comment on them as well. They read as follows:

Intelligence: “the ability to acquire knowledge and apply skills.”

Common sense: “good sense and sound judgement in practical matters.”

From here if we were to follow the logic of the original definition of stupidity then we could conclude from this that the full definition of stupidity provided by the OLED is “having or showing a great lack of [the ability to acquire knowledge and apply skills] or [good sense and sound judgement in practical matters].” That seemed like as good a place to start as any but it still bothered me somewhat that we were defining stupidity in terms of its opposites; the original question is “what is stupidity?” not “what isn’t stupidity?” — the latter of which is more along the lines of what this definition provides so the original question wasn’t technically answered formally. Being a stickler I wanted to answer it formally. Luckily this single definition provided me a few avenues to branch into that and I decided to start with the definition of common sense provided here.

The key words that stuck out to me were “good sense”. This begged the question: “What exactly constitutes ‘good sense’?” That was an odd question in that if we say that some “sense” can be “good” then we might also say that some “sense” can be “bad”. These are evaluative terms being applied in what is consider the subjective realm in contemporary thought. In other words, if we were to take this definition seriously then stupidity with have to do with how we evaluate subjective states of affairs. That got my attention and at that point I knew I was going all the way with this one; that told me that if I kept going with this inquiry I would stumble upon something big. Thinking back at it now I wish I had known more of the terms I do now as that would have help me immensely. I would have realized the implications this had for axiology and phenomenology but I wouldn’t get into those until much later. For now I knew that stupidity would have to do with the concepts of worth and perception and if I were to provide a definition I’d have to dig into these topics.

Moving along, the definition of common sense goes on to include “sound judgement in practical matters”. This was also interesting in that it centered an inquiry into stupidity squarely within the realm of the philosophical school of pragmatism, which I had already known about but the connection to which was not meaningfully established. But it was clear to me that stupidity had something to do with action. I suppose I could have also derived that from the definition of intelligence but in reading my work again I actually ignored the definition of intelligence and moved on in the inquiry. Unbeknownst to me this would prove important later when “the ability to acquire knowledge” would have me deep in epistemology and “apply skills” would have me looking at a set of studies in psychology. Altogether if I were to recount the fields I would be dealing in with this subject it would be these:

  • Axiology
  • Phenomenology
  • Pragmatism
  • Epistemology
  • Psychology

But for the purposes of the book I would only be focused on including the concepts of worth, perception and action into my formal definition. This would be the foundation upon which the entire inquiry would be shaped. However before that would happen I decided (for whatever reason) to steer off course for a bit and see what other people were saying about stupidity. I guess I thought that a good inquiry into stupidity wouldn’t be complete without a historical account of the philosophy of stupidity. In hindsight this would work out for the better, but it meant searching for a very specific kind of literature.

Literature that I would find to be few and far between.

To Be Continued

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