A blog from the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)

Honest questions examining our intellectual sinfulness

Pär SegerdahlWhy should we hold our philosophical tradition in high esteem? Why should we admire Socrates and other great thinkers? Because they strengthened reason? Because they taught humanity to set emotions aside and instead purify facts and logic?

If that were true, we should admire the philosophers for armoring humanity. For turning us into clever neurotics without contact with our emotional life.

I believe the greatness of these philosophers is more simple, humble and human. They were embarrassingly aware of their own intellectual sinfulness. They had the courage to confess their sins and to examine them closely. They had the courage to know themselves.

That sincere humility, I believe, marks true thinkers from all parts of the world. Just as Socrates, in the middle of a discourse, could hear an inner voice stop him from speaking with intellectual authority on some topic, Lao Tzu saw it as a disease to speak as if we knew what we do not know.

These genuine thinkers hardly spoke with intellectual certainty. At least not in their most creative moments. They probably felt ashamed of the cocksure voice that marks many of our intellectual discussions about prestigious topics. They probably spoke tentatively and reasoned hesitantly.

We are all fallible. Philosophy is, at heart, intense awareness of this human fact. How does such awareness manifest in a thinker? Usually through questions that openly confess that, I know that I do not know. A philosophical inquiry is a long series of confessions. It is a series of sincere questions exposing a deep-rooted will to control intellectually the essence of various matters. The questions become clearer as we come to see more distinctly how this will to power operates in us. When we see how our desire to dictate intellectually what must be true, blinds us to what is true.

Do you and I, as academics, dare to admit our intellectual sinfulness? Do we dare to confess that we do not know? Do we have the courage to speak tentatively and to reason hesitantly?

I believe that we would do a great service to ourselves and to humanity if we more often dared to speak openly in such a voice. However, we are facing a difficulty of the will. For there is an expectation that researchers should master facts and logic. Surely, we are not paid to be ignorant and irrational. Therefore, must we not rather disseminate our knowledge and our expertise?

Of course! However, without awareness of our intellectual sinfulness, which could stop Socrates in the middle of a sentence, we run the risk of contributing to the disease that he treated in himself. We display not only what we happen to know, but also a shiny facade that gives the impression that we control the truth about important matters.

In short, we run the risk of behaving like intellectual Pharisees, exhibiting an always well-polished surface. Below that surface, we wither away, together with the society to which we want to contribute. We lose touch with what truly is alive in us. It succumbs under the pressure of our general doctrines about what must be true. Intellectualism is a devastating form of fact denialism. In its craving for generality, it denies what is closest to us.

Do not armor yourself with rationalism as if truth could be controlled. Instead, do what the greatest thinkers in the history of all of humanity did. Open yourself to what you do not know and explore it in earnest.

You are vaster than your imagined knowledge. Know yourself!

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

We like critical thinking : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se


  1. SoundEagle ?ೋღஜஇ

    Hello Prof. Pär Segerdahl,

    Thank you for your very thoughtful post about human beings being honest about our own fallabilities.

    Let’s restate your statements as follows:

    I believe the greatness of these philosophers is more simple, humble and human. They were embarrassingly aware of their own intellectual sinfulness. They had the courage to confess their sins and to examine them closely. They had the courage to know themselves.

    That sincere humility, I believe, marks true thinkers from all parts of the world.

    I am of the opinion that we cannot change what we do not acknowledge.

    May you find this autumn very much to your liking and highly conducive to your writing, thinking and questioning!

    I would like to invite you to examine some of the similar issues discussed in my very detailed and lengthy post at http://soundeagle.wordpress.com/2017/10/18/the-quotation-fallacy/

    • Pär Segerdahl

      Thanks a lot for this comment. I agree with you, we cannot change what we do not acknowledge. Acknowledging itself makes a big difference. Thanks also for the link to your thoughtful essay on quotations. I wish you a wonderful autumn!

      • SoundEagle ?ೋღஜஇ

        Hi Prof. Pär Segerdahl,

        You are very welcome, as I have always enjoyed reading and commenting on your essays.

        Indeed, one’s ability to critically evaluate aspects of one’s faculty is often proportional to one’s willingness to unreservedly admit or recognize one’s flaws, inadequacies and vulnerabilities.

        It would be an honour if you could kindly give me a comment or feedback at the comment section of my said essay, which has a great deal to do with critical thinking from the perspectives of logic and philosophy as well as social and behavioural sciences.

        There is a navigational menu at both the start and the end of the essay, thus allowing you to quickly jump to any section within the essay.

        Thank you in anticipation.

  2. chrisbocay

    Dear Professor Segerdahl,

    I think this was a very nice and inspiring article. I found it to be a very calm and relaxing read, with an unusually perceptive view of the current academic establishment and its intellectual flavor. (I am myself no longer hired by any philosophy department, but I have been there, and seen it in real life.)

    One good point is that of “intellectual sinfulness”. Although I wouldn’t have used the term “sinfulness” myself in this connexion, I do agree with the point that you’re making. For there certainly IS a sort of “indulgence” in “rationality” and “certainty” in the academic community.

    So either the academic philosophers (and scientists!) haven’t read enough philosophy of science to know that no theory, whether “scientific” or “philosophical”, is ever conclusively proven (“theory-ladenness”, “underdetermination”; Quine, Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos, Feyerabend, etc.), or they simply choose to “forget” it (thus “sinfulness”). In other words, it’s either incompetence, or cheating.

    But, pondering the role of the professors, I think this situation naturally arises from the simple observation that the academic project is one of “societal control” and “supreme expertise”. The universities really ARE portraying their professors as “true experts”. So they MUST (appear to) be sure. This is why places like Harvard University can charge $46,340 in tuition for a year (https://www.harvard.edu/about-harvard/harvard-glance).

    For if the professors themselves were NOT sure about their theories or their so-called “facts”, who in the world would ever think about going to the university? And who would ever be interested in using a university professor in any societal or political connexion, interviewing them about current events? Or as an “expert witness” in court? Or as a “strategic intelligence analyst”, etc. So as I see it, the image of “expertise” of professors is a crucial component to uphold in the “keeping-society-in-check” project.

    So a popular way of thinking, prevalent in many academic departments, is that “We now know so much MORE than Plato, or Socrates, etc.” Thus, “We can surely study Plato and Socrates to learn a little about the good old Greeks; but for ‘real’ philosophy, we must study the MODERN stuff, which represent the “pinnacle” of our “evolution of knowledge” of humanity. Therefore, let’s now learn instead from professors Rawls, Singer, Nussbaum, Churchland, and Dworkin, etc.!”

    But what they are missing, I think, is the typology/taxonomy issue: for there is IMPORTANT knowledge and NON-important knowledge. And there is also CORRECT knowledge and INCORRECT knowledge.

    What we mostly have today in academia is A LOT of non-important knowledge, most of which, I think, is also incorrect. In contrast, the status of the IMPORTANT knowledge is, in academic circles, LESS than what the ancient Greeks had. For even Socrates understood, as you so nicely present in your article, that the most important thing to know is that “I know that I do not know.”

    So I do wholeheartedly agree with your concluding words: “You are vaster than your imagined knowledge. Know yourself!”

    Best wishes!

    • Pär Segerdahl

      Thank you, and I found your comment calm, relaxing and perceptive!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.