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.

8 thoughts on “QA 17. (August 09) The path of stupidity”

  1. We live in a conditioned world, from birth to death, we are prisoners (of labels as well – stupidity etc etc). Just recognizing this is enough, no need to do anything. Exploration beyond labels, beyond language, is the new/old and exciting/dull frontier. The world of non-dualism and no game playing. This is a contradictory statement on one level and that is ok and is bad/good – we all want safety and security at any cost – just to recognize this is enough!! Fear makes us label and fear is just thought gone “wrong”/”right”.

  2. What about Howard Gardiner’s theory of different intelligences? That we can be intelligent in some areas, and clueless in others

  3. On behalf of Susan:
    Oooh, not yet ready to be ‘out there’ on blogs….but such a groovy topic. Love the lightness. Reminds me of images of the fool. Feels makes a lot possible as is very unstuck. So, mmm, maybe we promote st

  4. On behalf of S:

    Thank you, you manage to make stupid sound terribly clever!

    Of course the norm is: knowing is smart, and not knowing is unforgivable. Your thoughts are applicable to the practice of advocacy where we seek to encourage people to speak on their own behalf. This means that often it is people who feel stupid and fail to see their own legitimacy, speaking to and teaching people who believe themselves rather clever and fail to see the legitimacy of the ‘stupid’ people.

    (I spent extra time in this email trying to appear clever and then gave up)

  5. On behalf of Annemarie:

    Fine question rising.

    I was, however, a little troubled by a ‘fear and loathing’ response being called the ‘roots of terrible stupidities’. Can one really label close-mindedness, rigidity, envy and arrogance ‘stupidities’?

      1. On behalf of Annemarie:

        OK thanks. I’d rather label them something else – something which better represents how awful they are.

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