When I say my attempt at being a historian of the philosophy of stupidity was cheap, I mean it in a very literal sense: I was going to do it entirely for free since I didn’t have the money to buy ANY books at the time. That meant that if I were to find out what other people were saying about stupidity I would have to glean it through online articles/summaries about the books I saw as promising or find versions of the books for free online. I remember distinctly (during the time of compiling what I’d write about in this “historical section”) looking through every single page of books on Amazon after searching for “stupidity” and writing down all the ones I wanted to read…to my disappointment finding that the vast majority of them I couldn’t get a hold of. I never did end up reading them because I still lack the money to do so. (So much for historicising, eh?) However, I was lucky enough to have already found something on stupidity online that was along the lines of what I was looking for that gave me some assurance that this wasn’t the end of the world as well as confirming an observation I made throughout this activity:
Surprisingly, there’s actually not a lot of literature written on stupidity.
I found again and again, page after page, the exact same books just different versions. Actually, there were only somewhere around 50 unique books on the subject in just this search (possibly less — I’m being generous) and most of them weren’t even concerned with stupidity as a subject of study. Eventually curiosity got the best of me and so I also looked into books on intelligence but found the EXACT opposite case: there were so many that going through them all would be impossible and a good portion of them were academic in nature. (To this day this fact baffles me. Why?! That doesn’t make any sense!) Ultimately I decided that I would only work with the books on stupidity (that I found anyway; I realize this was pretty poor historicism on my part in retrospect) and that I could cut out a lot of them that were likely 1) not concerned with stupidity academically, 2) biased (such as books concerning political stupidity), or 3) too specific in content to talk meaningfully about one or all of the aspects of stupidity I already identified (worth, perception, action). This left me with, astonishingly, only four pieces of non-scientific literature, one of which the one I mentioned earlier*:
- A Short Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity by Walter B. Pitkin
- The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity by Carlo M. Cipolla
- The Power of Stupidity by Giancarlo Livraghi*
- Understanding Stupidity by James F. Welles
But even more importantly for me was that three of these are completely free to read on the Internet in their entirety. (I linked them for you so if you’d like to read them you can. They are certainly worth your time.) Now, this may seem like the extraordinary amount of serendipity I needed for the EXACT material I was looking for being free online is too good to be true but I would wager that this probably wasn’t an accident; these people must have also understood how important this subject was and had their work put on the Internet for free reading because of that. The only one that I couldn’t get in any form, and would prove tricky to find even minute details about on the web, would be Pitkin’s book. (If anyone would be so kind as to aid in the “Bring Pitkin To The Internet Fund” I would be more than happy to if I had the book and could comment on it line by line as that’s how I take notes.) However, those three alone would prove to be all I needed on this end and there would be one other piece of literature that would also go a long way (perhaps the longest of all of them) in helping me construct my definition.
After finishing my days long search through Amazon for books on stupidity (writing that now sounds kind of silly, but I guess it worked out in the end), I decided to turn to scientific journals to see what I could find. To make a long and boring story of me sitting in front of a computer screen short, I found a good amount on intelligence but (surprise-surprise) I also found that there is likely no scientific study naming stupidity as its research topic. However, I did look up perception and in reading about it eventually made my way over to a list of cognitive biases on Wikipedia and inspected each one for its relevance to my writing. Sure enough I soon stumbled upon a paper that I had heard about before but hadn’t made the connection to until it hit me in this moment:
Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments — Justin Kruger and David Dunning.
In reading this and more about it there was a word that kept popping up that I couldn’t help but think was important. That word was “meta-cognitive” — in other words “thinking about thinking”. The basic gist of the “Dunning-Kruger effect”, as it’s famously called, is that in many cases incompetent people lack the skills in thinking to recognize their own incompetence in a certain activity (such as mathematics). In finally coming to that understanding there was this sort of surreal realization of exactly what it was I was dealing with in conceptualizing stupidity; going back to the definitions of intelligence and common sense that I got from the online dictionary earlier it was easy to conclude that stupidity is a kind of incompetence. But not just any kind of incompetence — an incompetence in terms of our own practical judgments built on what we think we know about thinking itself. In other words, stupid people are bad at thinking and they’re unaware of it. And, according to this paper, that means that a subset of the human population might be collectively waltzing around with an inflated self-assessment of its own ability to think.
…Ugh. Just the thought of that still makes me shudder…
However, this did make a lot of sense given my raw understanding of stupidity so far and tied in perfectly with my insight that stupidity has to do with how we evaluate subjective states of affairs. Moreover this single insight could feasibly explain pretty much every poor decision one could possibly attempt to explain: if poor judgements in practical affairs are based on poor evaluations of our own thinking and this is due to a lack of sufficient knowledge to make better judgements, and if that knowledge is gained through thinking in a sort of practical affair aimed at getting that knowledge then the knowledge to get out of this mess would likely stay unknown — not because the person doesn’t want of it but because they literally don’t know how to evaluate their own thinking in attempting to figure out how to go about evaluating their own thinking (in gaining the knowledge to do so). Therefore stupid people tend to stay stupid simply by virtue of being stupid and for no other reason.
Eek! Stupidity causes itself! That is terrifying!
Yes, in some important way then, stupidity is a psychologically-induced, meta-cognitive trap — a downward spiral into terrible decisions with almost no way out. Now I had an even more compelling reason to figure this subject out: this was way more important that I could’ve imagined. But regardless the connections between all of the fields I mentioned before had now been solidified: I needed to know how we obtain knowledge (epistemology) and then I needed to know how to evaluate things (axiology) and then I could figure out how to evaluate thinking (phenomenology) and escape the meta-cognitive trap of bad thinking (psychology) that promotes poor decisions (pragmatic) and then finally I would have a full understanding of stupidity within my grasp (the philosophy of stupidity). …That was a pretty tall order. But I was determined to make that formal definition despite all of the undeniably strange philosophical implications that were cropping up (and I’m the kind of person that if I have to overturn all of what we think we know about anything in order to do so, I would without hesitation). But that would have to wait until I’d finished reading and summarizing what I’d read for history’s sake.
History in the philosophy of stupidity that would live on in my final definition.
To Be Continued