Paradoxical Teaching and the Art of Pedagogically Demonstrating Intellectual Humility, Brian Robinson

Can a teacher act intellectually humble and then point to that action as a good example of intellect humility for students to emulate? This is the question to which Noel Clemente draws our attention in his recent paper (2023). The idea that humility generally or intellectual humility specifically are paradoxical is not new. (See my chapter, Robinson (2021), for a history of the topic and discussion of five different apparent paradoxes of humility.) By focusing on pedagogical modeling of intellectual humility, Clemente accomplishes two worthwhile things. … [please read below the rest of the article].

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Article Citation:

Robinson, Brian. 2023. “Paradoxical Teaching and the Art of Pedagogically Demonstrating Intellectual Humility.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (4): 10–15.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

This article replies to:

❧ Clemente, Noel L. 2023. “‘Here’s Me Being Humble’: The Strangeness of Modeling Intellectual Humility.” Social Epistemology 1–14. doi: 10.1080/02691728.2022.2161859.

First, he offers a novel and enlightening analysis of apparently conflicting accounts of intellectual humility. This project of sorting through different theories of intellectual humility has been somewhat in vogue of late in the literature. Clemente’s approach provides a new lens through which to see this discussion.

Second, Clemente laudably focuses our attention on the much-needed topic of education and intellectual humility. If intellectual humility is in fact a virtue, then it is good to help others develop it, especially in educational contexts. There has been insufficient attention to education in both the intellectual humility literature and contemporary philosophical work on virtues generally. Clemente’s article is a much needed move in this direction.

All that said, the article raises several questions for me. I present them here not as refutation of Clemente’s conclusions or even criticism of the work. Rather, I offer these questions as part of a larger dialogue on intellectual humility in hopes of spurring greater wisdom by Clemente or others. In total, I have four questions to discuss below.

1. Summary of Clemente’s View

Before turning to those questions, it is worthwhile to begin with a brief recapitulation of Clemente’s arguments. He begins by distinguishing three different, apparently distinct theories of intellectual humility: Low Self-Assessment, Low Concern, and Limitation-Owning. Low Self-Assessment, which Clemente traces to Driver (2001) and has roots at least as far back as Aquinas (ST II-II, Q 161), understands intellectual humility as an underestimating of oneself, especially one’s intellectual or epistemic capacities. Low Concern, by contrast, is the disposition of typically being inattentive to one’s merits or accomplishments, especially things like one’s intellectual abilities or the vastness of how much one knows. Lastly, Limitation-Owning is the trait of recognizing and being willing to acknowledge (publicly or privately) one’s limitations, especially intellectual shortcomings, liability for errors in judgment, or the possibility of being wrong about what one thinks one knows.

Prima facie, each of these accounts of intellectual humility face a paradox: typically, one cannot truthfully assert that they possess the virtue. While the paradoxical nature of humility (generally) and intellectual humility (specifically) have previously been noted, Clemente proposes focusing what he calls the modeling paradox of intellectual humility. Here, the speaker does not assert that they are intellectual humble, but rather asserts that something they just did the moment before was an example of intellectual humility, presumably so others (e.g., students) can model that same behavior. Clemente wants to assess whether any of the competing accounts of intellectual humility result in a modeling paradox. So, he has three speakers make the following three statements (2023, 9–10):

(M-LSA) “That is an example of an act of Low Self-Assessment.”

(M-LC) “That is an example of an act of Low Concern.”

(M-LO) “That is an example of an act of Limitation-Owning.”

After analyzing each utterance, Clemente conclusions are as follows.[1] First, there can be a modeling paradox for Low Self-Assessment, but not necessarily so; it can be uttered without contradiction in certain circumstances. Second, the Low Concern account of intellectual humility unavoidably produces a modeling paradox. Third, the Limitation-Owning account of intellectual humility, however, does not generate a modeling paradox.

2. Four Questions

As I mentioned, there is much to be esteemed in Clemente’s discussion of the modeling paradoxes of intellectual humility, and all that follows here is not meant as a criticism, but rather as jumping off points for future discussions. The article prompted four questions for me. First, how many different accounts of intellectual humility are there actually? Clemente presents three. Previously, I contrasted only Low Concern (which I called the inattentive account) and Low Self-Assessment (Robinson 2021). I took limitation owning to be a variant of Low Self-Assessment. Recently, Ballantyne also presented three different accounts of intellectual humility, albeit a different three than Clemente (Ballantyne 2023). Ballantyne reviews the literature and finds “Attitude Management,” “Realistic Self-Assessment,” and “low self-concern” (201). Obviously, the last of these matches one of Clemente’s accounts, and realistic self-assessment is very similar to Limitation-Owning. But presumably, this means that there is a fourth account of intellectual humility in the literature and both Clemente and Ballantyne missed one each.

2.1 Accounts of Intellectual Humility

I wonder then how much of these various accounts of intellectual humility actually are in competition and mutually exclusive. For example, despite my previous work, I can see a link between Limitation-Owning and Low Concern. If someone—let’s call them Bellamy—has little concern for their epistemic abilities and intellectual achievements, then it seems quite plausible that to suppose that Bellamy is also aware of their intellectual limitations. This is not to say that someone cannot possess Limitation-Owning without Low Concern; of course, that is possible to have one but not the other. The point instead is that perhaps for Bellamy to possess the virtue of intellectual humility requires that Bellamy has both Limitation-Owning and Low Concern. So to analyze intellectual humility solely in terms of one or the other is mistaken.[2]

This suggestion of linking one or more allegedly distinct accounts of intellectual humility is motivated by two things. First, note that some accounts are defined negatively while others are defined positively. Low Concern/Inattentive accounts of intellectual humility are defined negatively; they focus primarily on what a humble person will not do or say. Limitation-Owning, by contrast, is positively defined in terms of what an intellectually humble person will typically do, namely recognize and admit their intellectual limitations. Second, in previous research, colleagues and I conducted a lexical analysis of the semantic dimensions of intellectual humility (Christen et al. 2014; 2019). We found three distinct clusters of synonyms: sensibility, knowledge, and unpretentiousness. For antonymous of intellectual humility, we likewise found distinct ways people can lack the virtue. In general, lacking intellectual humility boils down to either overrating yourself or underrating others.

All this is to say that in the end, Clemente’s analysis of the modeling paradox of intellectual humility prompts me to question how many truly distinct accounts of intellectual humility there are and whether, in trying to contrast them with one another, we have missed something of the larger picture about intellectual humility in the process.

2.2 State or Trait?

My second question ponders whether Clemente’s findings about modeling paradoxes for various accounts of intellectual humility is perhaps an artifact of a deeper ontological confusion about the nature of intellectual humility. To be clear, I am not asserting that Clemente’s analysis was founded on a confusion. But I’m also not certain it isn’t either.

The potential problem is that currently the ontological status of intellectual humility is controversial. As Ballantyne puts it, “There is no consensus over whether [intellectual humility] is a mindset, a disposition, a personality trait, an intellectual virtue, a set of self-regulatory abilities, a cluster of attitudes, or an absence of intellectual vice” (203). To simplify that list, it is unclear if intellectual humility is trait or a state. If it is a trait, then intellectual humility has some permeance; it is fixed and long lasting, prompting a reliable pattern of behavior for someone with the trait. Alternatively, if it is a state, then it is a momentary mindset that one can quickly slip in and out of.

I take Clemente to being aiming for an analysis of intellectual humility as a trait. Yet, I worry that the modeling paradox—and in particular the utterances (M-LSA), (M-LC), and (M-LO)—encourage or require an analysis of intellectual humility as a state. Recall the context of these utterances. An agent has just performed some intellectually humble action (more specifically an utterance indicative of Low Self-Assessment, Low Concern, or Limitation-Owning). They then utter (M-LSA), (M-LC), or (M-LO). One way to avoid a paradox would be to see intellectual humility as a state. Since mental states can be fleeting, we can interpret the agent as having been in the state when performing the action, but then ceasing to be in that state when they made the utterance. The agent no longer must be in the state of intellectual humility to accurately report without contradiction that they were in the state a moment ago.

As mentioned above, Clemente claims that only the Low Concern account of intellectual humility necessarily results in a modeling paradox. Yet, he mentions a way of avoiding it, a way that relies upon seeing intellectual humility as a state instead of trait. He notes that there might be two different motivations for the initial utterance (in which the speaker demurred when praised.) “Did she respond as such in order to demonstrate an act of Low Concern, or did she say it simply out of her having Low Concern and only recognized it as an act of Low Concern afterward?” (Clemente 2023, 10) Clemente only considers the former option, noting the modeling paradox that results. But the second option is intriguing. This is the possibility that the agent acted with humility and then realized it immediately afterwards. Seeing intellectual humility as a fleeting state perfectly corresponds with this possibility. Most significantly, it does not similar result in a modeling paradox.

The point of this reflection is to note that whether or not a particular conception of intellectual humility results in a modeling paradox may come down to whether we treat intellectual humility as a trait or a state. For the one conception of intellectual humility that Clemente says must produce a modeling paradox (Low Concern), we have just seen that paradox evaporates if intellectual humility is a state. For the other two conceptions where—according to Clemente—a  modeling paradox does not exist (Limitation-Owning) or it only might exist (Low Self-Assessment), I worry that the lack of a modelling paradox may similarly be due to switching to a state-based account of intellectual humility. I am not certain that is the case. This is merely a suggestion for further investigation into the modeling paradox of intellectual humility.

2.3 Is This Modeling?

My third question has to do with the peculiarity of the modeling utterances that Clemente provides. They remind me of the modeling clay I received as a kid. I don’t know what to make of it. Why would any pedagogue act this way? It seems a strange way to model any virtue, let alone intellectual humility. Who talks like this? It is never explained or argued why modeling intellectual humility (or any virtue for that matter) requires or even permits actions like the second speech act as directly and explicitly holding up one’s actions as an example. I can find no such claim in Baehr (2013), whom Clemente cites as a sources on modeling. For Baehr, authentic modeling of intellectual humility consists in acting intellectually humble, not pointing to one’s own intellectually humble behavior. Baehr emphasize the value of students seeing actual examples of open-mindedness, as opposed merely reading about examples (2015, 424). That approach does not, however, require a pedagogue to explicitly point to themselves and specific behaviors as examples of intellectual humility.

For a parallel, consider courage. Following Clemente’s line of reasoning would stipulate that modeling courage requires a two-step process of acting courageously and then saying, “See, that was an act of courage!” Yet, no one argues that modeling courage requires the second step. So why does intellectual humility require such modeling? Clemente could of course respond that it is not required, but neither is it forbidden. A pedagogue may model intellectual humility in this way, thereby seemingly creating a paradox (which Clemente then explores). I worry, however, the modeling paradox is artificial. It is based on an utterance that we neither require nor expect of teachers of virtues. In fact, I suspect that such explicit pointing to a virtuous behavior would seem to undermine the modeling (and not just for intellectual humility, courage and other virtues too).

2.4 Empirical Question

My last question is rather straightforward. In trying to determine whether or not an account of intellectual humility is susceptible to the modeling paradox, is this a question that is better assessed empirically?

This question arose for me from my own teaching. I regular teach an Applied Ethics course, part of which focuses on humility. I try not to boast about having published on the topic (but do not hide it either). Some semesters I have administered to my students the scale for measuring intellectual humility that I co-authored (Alfano et al. 2017). More than once, students have asked if my research background in humility is counter-productive to trying to teach them about humility and get them to be humbler. In other words, they wonder if there was a paradox afoot. As I told them, it is a fair question.

My point is that if an account of intellectual humility is susceptible to a modeling paradox, perhaps this is most clearly demonstrated not in our conceptual analysis but via empirical testing. If a modeling paradox exists, then presumably there will be real work implications. For example, students may be more likely to say the instructor bragged or was disingenuous. Alternatively, they may be less likely to imitate the modeled behavior. So, an experiment could be conducted with four conditions, randomly assigning participants between them.

In the first three conditions, an experimental confederate praises the instructor who first demurs and then utters one of Clemente’s three modeling utterances. In the fourth condition (the control), the trait in question could be another virtue (e.g., courage) or a non-moral trait (e.g., punctuality). The instructor behaves in a way consistent with that trait and then says, “That is an example of…” Afterwards, participants could be given a series of statements about the instructor (asking if they bragged or should be taken seriously, etc.). If a behavioral assessment is preferred, participants could be placed in a situation that elicits the same type of behavior as the instructor performed. Researchers could then observe whether they imitated the instructor. The results would provide an interesting assessment of whether intellectual humility is subject to a modeling paradox.

3. Conclusion

I want to thank Clemente for an engaging paper. Discussion of how to teach and instill virtues is critical. Anglophone philosophers of late have paid far too little attention to the topic. For greater focus on the issue, Clemente is to be commended. The paper, in its analysis of the modeling paradox, is also engaging. It prompted new thoughts and new questions for me, which is always a sign of worthwhile philosophical scholarship. Paradoxes are an opportunity for new thoughts, and Clemente has given us a good one.

It is my hope that the four questions I raise here will prove insightful to Clemente and other readers, being regarded not as criticisms but as new avenues of investigation.

Author Information:

Brian Robinson,, Texas A&M University-Kingsville.


Alfano, Mark, Kathryn Iurino, Paul Stey, Brian Robinson, Markus Christen, Feng Yu, Daniel Laps. 2017. “Development and Validation Of A Multi-Dimensional Measure Of Intellectual Humility.” PLOS One 12 (8): e0182950. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0182950.

Aquinas, Thomas. 1981 (1274). The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Christian Classics.

Baehr, Jason. 2015. Cultivating Good Minds: A Philosophical & Practical Guide to Educating for Intellectual Virtues. Educating for Intellectual Virtues.

Baehr, Jason. 2013. “Educating for Intellectual Virtues: From Theory to Practice.” Journal of Philosophy of Education 47 (2): 248–262.

Ballantyne, Nathan. 2023. “Recent Work on Intellectual Humility: A Philosopher’s Perspective.” The Journal of Positive Psychology 18 (2): 200–220.

Christen, Markus, Mark Alfano, Brian Robinson. 2019. “A Cross-Cultural Assessment of the Semantic Dimensions of Intellectual Humility.” AI and Society 34: 785–801.

Christen, Markus, Mark Alfano, Brian Robinson. 2014. “The Semantic Space of Intellectual Humility.” CEUR Workshop Proceedings: Proceedings of the European Conference on Social Intelligence 1283: 40–49.

Clemente, Noel L. 2023. “‘Here’s Me Being Humble’: The Strangeness of Modeling Intellectual Humility.” Social Epistemology 1–14. doi: 10.1080/02691728.2022.2161859.

Driver, Julia. 2001. Uneasy Virtue. Cambridge University Press.

Robinson, Brian. 2021. “I’m SO Humble!”: On The Paradox of Humility.” In The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Humility edited by Mark Alfano, Michael P. Lynch, Alessandra Tanesini, 26–35. Routledge.

[1] I will not summarize Clemente’s arguments for these conclusions since they are not the focus of my response here. I do, however, encourage everyone to read them, since his analysis is interesting and ripe for future research.

[2] I do still take Low Self-Assessment to be both in contrast with this combined account of intellectual humility and also wrong. Intellectual humility does not consist in or require one to think lowly of oneself either accurately or not. That is one vice of deficiency of intellectual humility.

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