“Quite possibly the best fish and chips in central London.” “Probably the oldest pub in Oxford.” “Might well be the finest Indian curry in Euston.”
These are signs I saw on my travels through Britain this past week—advertisements promoted by the restaurants themselves, mind you, not lukewarm reviews on Yelp.com. They struck me in part because they’re so different from the blatantly boastful ads common in the U.S., and also because they seemed like minor examples of a weighty virtue: cognitive humility.
She goes on to discuss what cognitive humility might involve: “avoiding overconfidence” and “overcoming the ‘curse of expertise.’” She observes that one can learn such humility by spending time in another country or picking up a new skill.
While these are important observations, there are complications to them. Humility can often mask as arrogance and vice versa. Moreover, outward manifestations (of humility, arrogance, and anything in between) can be a reflection of cultural norms, not of internal attitudes. Beyond that, humility depends on a kind of arrogance or boldness.
Let’s begin with the road signs. Does “Quite possibly” really attenuate the claim “the best fish and chips in central London”? It seems instead to harden it. First, it projects politeness (a cultural norm); “we’re most kindly suggesting that these may be the best fish and chips you have ever had.” Second, it is immune to contradiction; if someone names a better fish and chips place, one could reply, “We only said ‘quite possibly.’”
There’s a paradox here: by wrapping one’s assertions in expressions of doubt, one may actually be shielding them from challenge. That could turn into a kind of arrogance in itself. (“My preferred pedagogical method may have significant advantages over the others.”) Conversely, by putting forth a point boldly, one may be exposing it to judgment, and thus exercising humility.
Even when learning a language, one needs a combination of assertiveness and doubt. When I was fourteen, we spent a year in the Soviet Union. I wanted to be in the ninth grade (the equivalent of our tenth and eleventh) because of the literature curriculum, so I insisted on it. This made me a year younger than my classmates, just as in the U.S. Once at school, I realized that the teachers had not added me to the class lists; they didn’t mind if I just sat there. I wanted to be treated as a regular student, so I asked them to add me. Then I asked them to call on me. Precisely because of my assertiveness, I had the opportunity to stand at the front of the room and get things wrong–an experience of humility. (And I got to read Russian literature in the original.)
Even when absorbed in one’s own thoughts, one can benefit from a mixture of humility and boldness. I have seen students get stuck in a text because they doubted their early hunches about it. Their immediate reaction was, “I might be wrong.” As soon as they actually followed the hunch (which takes some boldness), they were able to determine whether or not it was correct. It is good to be aware that one might be wrong–but it is just as important to go ahead and risk being so.
To make this even more complicated, some of the most outwardly arrogant writers, scholars, and others are secretly humble–that is, they have spent their lives refining their work, which requires recognition of its weaknesses. Their seeming arrogance is directed in those who have not undertaken the process. Nabokov is an example: he frequently called out the mediocrity of other writers (as he saw it) but could not have achieved his own work without a great deal of humility.
Cognitive humility is immensely important; it’s just trickier than it appears.