While I wouldn’t argue that I’ve been exceptionally inclusive of all philosophers in the study of stupidity, in the last several posts I have noted several important lines of thinking from some of the more important people who studied the subject. It’s now time to connect them back to my original thoughts and show what they mean for my journey. If you recall, I started off with three main areas of interest that I would have to go through in order to define stupidity: worth, action and perception. We can now analyze how these philosophers understood stupidity through the lens of these concepts:
All three of the philosophers I studied made a connection (either formally or informally) between stupidity and ethics. In that sense they understood that stupidity does have to do with the nature of value, which is something we could conclude from this journey long before we started digging into their thoughts. Unfortunately, all three of them didn’t formally address the issue. Livraghi under-develops this concept the most — there’s very little in his book that talks about worth. On the other hand, Cipolla (I think) made the biggest — and most controversial — contribution to this in suggesting (although not formally) that gain and loss are real phenomena. Welles also seems to imply this through his account that people can perceive gains and losses incorrectly. This is interesting and of note because a gain can be attributed to a positive change in worth, so if we can be wrong about whether what we perceive to be a gain is actually a gain, then we can be wrong about whether the changes in worth we perceive are what we think they are. And if changes in worth are independent of mind, what then do we say about worth itself? The only logical conclusion, right?
Worth is real too.
This grounds my thoughts from earlier with the Dunning-Kruger effect that incompetence can be applied to evaluation. Yes, we can be wrong in evaluating actions — including the evaluation of our evaluating (which is itself an action). And if you’re anything less than consistently right about the value of an action then you would be incompetent at evaluating actions. After taking in all of the evidence, I believe this is a necessary component in our understanding of stupidity — without it we are lost in our conception. And that has some ramifications for “meaning making” projects (which is to say we determine what way to evaluate the world — what is good and what is not) based on the idea that there is no right way to evaluate: they are a farce. This is not to say that we don’t still choose the way that we evaluate, rather that that choice can also be a bad one. Therefore we can say that two of the things that any person who studies the philosophy of stupidity must do is accept that there is worth in the world (reject nihilism) and also reject that we cannot be wrong about the worth of actions (moral subjectivism).
On the concept of action, all three of our philosophers made some kind of connection between it and stupidity: there is unanimous agreement that stupidity is measured by the consequences of our behaviors. For Cipolla it was that the object we can measure is gain and loss. Through Livraghi we see how collective behaviors combine to amplify the effects that we can use to measure stupidity as well as how personal habits can keep stupidity around; therefore there are at least two “levels” upon which actions and their resulting stupidity can be judged: an individual level and a collective level. Even Welles who defines stupidity as a state of the mind to some extent accepts that there is a component of action in recognizing that this state is the case: maladaptation (whether on an individual level or on a collective level). However, we can also see in Welles another way in which action is connected to stupidity: for him maladaptation only occurs because a person is unable to adapt because of their broken belief system. Therefore we might say that a lack of action is just as fruitful to our understanding of stupidity.
Indeed, it might be that we are only consistently stupid because we get in our own way of being intelligent.
The second thing of note on this particular concept is Welles’ connection between belief and action. If we are to understand the actions rightly called stupid then we will necessarily have to understand belief, the human mind, and how these things work together to produce actions. (Easier said than done, but I’m up for the challenge.) Likewise, we can take our understanding of action on two different fronts: there are actions that we make within our own minds (thinking, for example, whether consciously or unconsciously) and there are actions that we make with our bodies (such as our interactions with our environment). If we are to understand the connection between action and belief fully we will have to explore how beliefs impact both of these spheres and even the connections our minds make between the two. The idea of a belief system, however, compounds this in that beliefs are not to be seen as disconnected from other beliefs. In order to understand the true difference in behavior that any individual belief makes we will necessarily have to untangle it from others. This will be a key function in our journey: clarifying our beliefs and what they mean for us.
Unfortunately, Cipolla had nothing to say about perception. Livraghi and Welles, on the other hand, did deal with it (more so the latter than the former). Livraghi’s view on the subject can be understood through a quote that he gives from the Italian writer Vitaliano Brancati:
“Fools are bored because they lack a subtle quality, discerning. An intelligent person discovers a thousand nuances in the same object, perceives the deep difference between two apparently similar facts. A fool doesn’t distinguish, doesn’t discern. He is proud of his power to think that different things are the same.”
There is an obvious connection here between stupidity, perception and linguistic skills (applying different words to different things to distinguish them). Welles makes the same observation but connects this to information. (To be fair, Livraghi does use the word information, however he doesn’t talk about it in this context in depth.) For him, we choose what information (a linguistic-perceptive phenomena) to believe in based on our values (it is a kind of evaluation). But Welles goes further and connects information to the environment which suggests an inherent connection between language and (at the very least) nature. It would seem that if we are to understand stupidity we will have to explore language, its relationship to information and therefore the relationship language has to reality itself. Likewise, given the linguistic nature of beliefs (as proposed by Welles) this investigation will help us to clarify what our beliefs mean as well as give us some clues on how we might be able to perceive things like worth correctly.
In other words, we are searching for a grounding for the worth of an action in information.
Therefore, the philosophy of stupidity will start with the philosophy of information (the crossing point between the philosophy of language and metaphysics). And that’s exactly where I started in my book.
To Be Continued