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Do you practice epistemological modesty?

“Epistemology” is one of the big, fancy words I encountered in graduate school and have rarely encountered since.

You’ll usually see it defined as something like “theory of knowledge,” which I take to mean “what can we know and how can we know it.” Basically, what are we justified in believing.

It may not be an everyday word, but I think it is an essential word when it comes to how we approach learning – at least if we are going to approach learning wholeheartedly and honestly. To be truly available for learning, we must embrace what David Brooks, in The Social Animal (recommended), calls “epistemological modesty.” As Brooks sees it,

Epistemological modesty is an attitude toward life. This attitude is built on the awareness that we don’t know ourselves. Most of what we think and believe is unavailable to conscious review. We are our own deepest mystery. Not knowing ourselves, we also have trouble fully understanding others.

David Brooks

You may also sometimes find epistemological modesty referred to as epistemic modesty – slightly different meaning but getting at the same general concept. Either is grounded in the belief that we must always be learning, adjusting, adapting, growing.

The opposite, is arrogance, a force that can be truly damaging to productive learning. As Nassim Taleb puts it (with his usual candor) in The Black Swan (also recommended):

Epistemic arrogance bears a double effect: we overestimate what we know, and underestimate uncertainty, by compressing the range of possible uncertain states (i.e., by reducing the space of the unknown).

The applications of this distortion extend beyond the mere pursuit of knowledge: just look into the lives of the people around you. Literally any decision pertaining to the future is likely to be infected by it. Our human race is affected by a chronic underestimation of the possibility of the future straying from the course initially envisioned (in addition to other biases that sometimes exert a compounding effect).

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Underestimation of the possibilities limits our ability to find creative solutions to complex problems. It may may lead us to underestimate risk, as Taleb suggests, but it also may foreclose the range of productive risks we are willing to take. And, of course, it may help blind us to the many biases that impact our every life and learning.

Whether you come at it from the view point of modesty – epistemological modesty, epistemic modesty – or arrogance – epistemological arrogance, epistemic arrogance – having a sense that “what can we know and how can we know it” is rarely, if ever, easily defined, keeps the doors to learning open.


P.S. – On a related note, this Vox article on intellectual humility  is well worth reading.

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