A Journey Toward A Theory Of Stupidity 6 | The First Stupidologist Part 2

After establishing his three new laws of human stupidity to compliment Cipolla’s, Livraghi went on to talk briefly on a number of other subjects. While I won’t summarize his thoughts, as I think he did a good enough job of that himself, I will list them here so that the breadth of his inquiry can be appreciated: power, bureaucracy, ignorance, fear, habit, haste, cunning, technology, complexity, idolatry, obscurantism, and superstition. The gauntlet of related terms aside, he continues by attacking a common misconception about stupidity (that it is harmless, which it most certainly is not), gives some quotations from a number of sources (that are good food for thought), talks about being human and its relationship to stupidity some more, and finally gives some basic prescriptions for combating stupidity. When I finished reading his book I was mystified and intrigued. But I have to say that looking back at his work now I’m less impressed. In a way, you could say that Livraghi was more concerned with breadth than depth and with that in mind I have only one true complaint of his work and him as a stupidologist in general:

Livraghi never took “the philosophical plunge”. “The plunge” that we all need.

Part of this is due to Livraghi’s insistence that humanity is essentially stupid. His first law (that there is a stupid factor in everyone and it’s always larger than we suppose) not only makes that case but it also has a few other side effects: if this is true then a person can’t become completely intelligent and likewise they can’t overestimate their own stupidity. For the former I agree (albeit for different reasons); for the latter I disagree completely. We’ll take the former: as we know, stupidity has to do with how we evaluate our own thinking. This is to say that if we were to be intelligent at all times we would have to have literally perfect thinking — the best possible thinking — constantly. This does not seem feasible. However, we might be able to get close enough that the vast majority of stupidity is avoided; that possibility doesn’t appear to Livraghi. In the case of the latter though, I would argue that if it is possible for people to be mostly intelligent then it’s also possible for them to understate their own intelligence if they begin to regress back into stupidity. As we’ll soon see with the next guy, stupidity and intelligence are not a one-way street and if we can go from stupid to intelligent then we can certainly go back.

The other part of why Livraghi doesn’t “take the plunge” that I’d like to rebuff is that he doesn’t want to make our understanding of stupidity too complicated. I think this is at the heart of his fascination with the concept of intuition and its ability to serve as a guide in combating stupidity. Personally, I’m a bit more hesitant in accepting the legitimacy of something whose functions aren’t clear cut. Taken in it’s best light, we might think of intuition as a kind of unconscious thinking, one that is in line with the best possible thinking. If it’s possible to automate that kind of thinking and do it instinctively then intuition would be a great use. But taken at it’s worst, intuition would be no more grounded in reality than any superstition. It might be construed as some kind of knowledge based on however this makes me feel or some other fickle subjective state. That kind of thinking won’t do so if we’re going to rely on intuition we need to distinguish it from other inclinations we have about the world that are not based in reality but instead self-referential to our own minds. This distinction would be a handy way of looking at the breakdown in thinking in stupid people:

The worst thinking may be the result of people confusing their interpretation of reality with reality itself. Essentially a lapse into methodological solipsism.

On this account Livraghi is right to be against overly complicated interpretations of reality (such as the reality of stupidity). Adding too much into the pot of stuff we use to make sense of the world can lead us astray — I’ll acknowledge that. But if we’re to be fair about simplicity and complexity then another observation here is that it might be just as problematic if we had an overly simplistic interpretation of reality (such as the reality of stupidity). In that case we’d miss crucial insights simply because we lack the right stuff to make sense of the world. It’s on this front that I have a major problem with Livraghi: he repeatedly rejects the use of theory in understanding stupidity and glosses over defining the word (while he also says that defining it would be very helpful) even though he acknowledges this understanding of the problems with simplicity. I simply don’t understand this at all. If he understood that, why not “take the philosophical plunge”? It confounds me to no end. And the hypocrisy is stunning: Livraghi could learn a lot from his own words in his chapter about The Subtle Art of Simplicity (if you don’t read anything else, read this!) in that his work is ultimately superficial, not simplistic. That’s a distinction he made and I have no problem levying against him.

But I suppose hindsight is 20-20.

Regardless of my complaints with his methodology, Livraghi did make a few more advancements in the philosophy of stupidity that should be acknowledged and can be in the following points:

  • He clarifies our conception of stupidity to some extent.
    • Gives a large collection of literature on the subject that is worth looking into.
    • Informally (and rightfully) designates stupidity as a problem to be solved.
      • This creates the foundation for stupidology.
    • Connects stupidity with the question of “why things go wrong”.
      • Sets the “boundaries” of the philosophy of stupidity as potentially infinite. There is nothing that stupidity does not touch that humanity does not also touch as long as we can make mistakes with regard to it.
    • Informally addresses the contention between the philosophy of stupidity and existentialism by providing an alternative account of being human.
      • Places the problem of stupidity at the level of the individual. This is incredibly important because that means that the only way that we can constructively fight it is from within ourselves.
        • This necessitates that stupidology be very critical of one’s self first and foremost.
  • He provides some insight into how stupidity works.
    • Demonstrates that stupidity is more problematic with group efforts: when we work together, the effects are multiplied not added.
      • This necessitates that stupidologists be very critical of social systems and the behaviors that are allowed in them. These things are inherently more dangerous than individuals.
  • He brings up the importance of complexity and simplicity in understanding.
    • He rightly acknowledges that if we are to fight stupidity then we cannot have an overly complex (convoluted is the word he was looking for) understanding of it or an overly simplistic one (superficial).
    • With both of those in mind we have a goal in any theory or definition work to make sure that the end product takes these into account.

And that’s the important stuff. I’m leaving out a lot that I’m sure might be helpful too. I do think that Livaghi’s book is still necessary reading for the aspiring stupidologist, however it should be taken with a grain of salt: while all of the things he talks about are interesting and he has compelling things to say, he doesn’t ever get to the main issue at hand. You can talk about stupidity as a problem in as many contexts as you want, but until you provide answers on how to go about solving it in very specific, concrete ways all of that is practically worthless. I can say that reading Livraghi’s work had a large impact on me: as I continued thinking about stupidity a deep-seeded hatred of it was born in me. And from that hatred I found purpose. I now knew my mission in life: I was to fight stupidity — destroy it if I can. And this would come to be the great intelligent task for the stupidologist: if stupidity can be eliminated, it must.

But what is it we’re trying to get rid of? I still needed a definition; my journey needed to be completed. And to do that I needed to go through one more philosopher of stupidity. Someone whose thoughts would give me the ultimate ammunition for making my own theory and therefore allow me to finally get to the definition that I so craved for.

To Be Continued





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