QA 17. (August 09) The path of stupidity

What a mess we make when a person’s worth is measured by their perceived intelligence. The “smart” ones strive to distinguish themselves and the “stupid” ones struggle to get by. It’s precisely a stupid mess, both cruel and irrational. How could anything thrive in such bitter soil?


We have begun to realise that there is more to intelligence than was believed back in the glory days of phrenology, eugenics and IQ tests. Now we recognise different kinds of intelligence and tend to accept a more open-ended concept of human potential. This is well and good: our ability to appreciate others increases as our understanding of intelligence becomes more complex. But it doesn’t go far enough to break the “smart-is-good/stupid-is-rubbish” bind. While the fundamental mistake is to think that there is a quality by which some people can safely be deemed more worthwhile than others, I am here today to praise stupidity.

I became a philosopher because I’m stupid. Really and truly. As a kid, I never had a clue and gobbled down books frantically just trying to figure things out. This resulted in schoolwork coming fairly easily to me and so I was mislabelled as “bright”. (One can only be grateful not to have been saddled with “gifted”.)

I’m talking about a particular kind of stupidity, where there is something you should know, but you don’t, and you want to. Borrowing an image from the US philosopher John D Caputo, it’s the stupidity of the guy who runs around in the middle of whatever’s happening, shouting What’s happening? The Latin root of “stupid” is stupere, to be stunned or amazed. It’s like that. Not yet burdened by shame or despair, there’s a sense of innocence to it. It can be difficult, but it’s workable. It’s good soil. Being stupid is nothing grand; it’s not the Christian mystic’s “cloud of unknowing”. Nor is it technical, like the not-knowing found in Eastern philosophy or Greek scepticism. It isn’t a question of suspending belief – one simply doesn’t know what to believe!

This path isn’t for everyone. Some people really do know what’s going on and what to do about it, and some of those who don’t know aren’t terribly fussed about it. That’s all fine. Problems tend to crop up when we think we know and we don’t, or when we respond to ignorance (our own and others’) with fear and loathing. These are the roots of terrible stupidities, characterised by close-mindedness, rigidity, envy and arrogance, and fuelled precisely by the fear engendered when so much rides on being seen as “smart”.

When I was almost 40, I went back to university to study philosophy. The first course I signed up for – with great relief – was called “Learning how to learn. On becoming less stupid”. Sometimes, when it’s given its due and neither denied nor clung to, stupidity is the gift by which we can become a little less stupid. And sometimes a pit can become a well.

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