Epistemic Humility


By Ann K Johnson


Isn’t it frustrating when someone thinks their view point should not involve your input?  When someone thinks they know more than they do?  When someone flat out denies your reality or attempts to completely annihilate it?


If the answer is yes, then epistemic humility is something you can get behind.




Epistemic humility asserts that there are limits to human understanding.  It is the beginning of becoming conscious of one’s own limitations regarding the objective world.  It expresses the basic ontological conditions of one’s boundaries of what one can know, which is where the epistemic part comes in.  It is a first step toward admitting ignorance about some things, which is where the humility part comes in.




Immanuel Kant is one of the most famous philosophers (outside of our friend Socractes!), who supported the application of epistemic humility.  He did this in order to assuage the problems of Rationalism, while not going the complete opposite direction into complete skepticism of the Empiricists.  He considered Rationalism important because it offered universal conditions for knowing, ones that grounded the understanding of objects.  However, Rationalist thinkers often made claims to what could not offer empirical validation, which Kant thought essential for establishing the content of knowledge and science.  Examples of such things would include the existence of God.  Kant believed that we could not glean evidence of knowledge of God in any way that was certain.  Such knowledge was outside the bounds of human understanding.  His view did not negate the possibility of God’s existence, merely our inability to grasp such understanding with our own powers.  Further, he could not abide by the skeptical conclusion that we could not know anything at all, for how could we then explain anything.  Indeed, how could there even be a world in which to say we did not know?  We would have to deny our very eyes as they open each morning and the view of light that enters them!  Both views denied the phenomenal world in similar ways:  they both denied our ability to know objects in the world as existent.  What a dilemma!  For Kant, without a serious reckoning of these views, we could not claim to offer any grounds for our own knowing, much less for scientific investigation which was gaining more and more import.




But, outside the exposition of Kant, what does epistemic humility offer you?


It enables you to accept that you cannot know everything, that the thoughts of others and the content of the world are informative to your own limited perspective.  It enables you to be open to listening to these thoughts and even feelings of others.  In other words, it facilitates intersubjectivity, which is the ground condition for human relationships, that is, the condition of individual being as predicated on the presence of others.  What a concept!




The problem with a failure to be epistemically humble is that it creates the inability to dialogue with others in a way that admits to the immanent provisional status of your own position for the sake of hearing out the view of another.  This provisional standpoint is not about leaving behind your position necessarily, but is about the suspending of it in favor of a hospitable relation with another, even another that does not think, believe, or live as you do.  Epistemic humility is a vital first level skill operative towards higher level skills of perspective-taking that facilitate objectivity, a mindset intent on seeing the bigger picture.  And, who couldn’t benefit from seeing the bigger picture?


When we look around at the world today and wonder if there is any hope, first ask yourself if you are doing your part in facilitating the open-minded and open-hearted goals of which epistemic humility remind us.  What is at stake is our very objective reality, a reality shared with everyone else and which lives on tenuous grounds when attacked by the vanguards of certainty, those who would rather suffer the fate of self-isolation and broken relationships for the sake of being right.


I welcome you to walk the gentler path of one who can listen and breath the fresh air of connection.  We live in a world that needs this connection and only we can make it happen.  What is nice about epistemic humility is that it is something we can work on every day.  We can admit our limitations of knowing and recognize the others who cross our paths as fellow travelers and sometimes even friends.


© 2018 Arete Center for Excellence, LLC.


If you are interested in reading more on Kant’s views, I recommend his very hearty Critique of Pure Reason, but I think that you would also do well to check out Hannah Arend’s Lectures on Kant, a topic I will take up at a later date.

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