Being Stupid

Wednesday, 21st December 2016

From Dec. 21, 2016

Here’s a chunk of text from a contribution I’m making to a volume in African philosophy. This is not just about African philosophy, obviously, but about what it means to be stupid. It strikes me that a) we are all stupid some times (I certainly am), because it’s really hard not to be; b) not being stupid is something we should strive for; and c) we need to distinguish between several types of failures of epistemology and/or cognition, because they call for different types of response. Oh, and maybe d) there’s great emotional satisfaction in putting a label on someone, but it doesn’t get us very far, and only serves to harden battle lines.


Being stupid is a rather specific state of affairs. It is not the same as lacking knowledge (that is ignorance), or being unable to use the tools of intelligence (that is dull-wittedness), or being poorly trained (that is incompetence). It is not the same as being illogical, nor the same as making mistakes. Very intelligent, well trained people can nonetheless be stupid. It is not even the same as being unreflective or un-self-aware. It is possible to know something so well, such as a cognitive task, that one is no longer aware of doing it. Indeed, we can imagine an expert who is unreflective but for whom reflection would actually compromise their activity (e.g., the basketball player who thinks about making free throws, the guitarist who focuses on fingering, the free-climber who thinks about the climb). We might confuse the stupid with the mad, but it isn’t exactly that either. Madness has a long history of being theorized, from Plato on up through Freud and Lacan to Foucault and beyond. These seem like edges of thought, the edge of the problematic in which thought can make its way. It seems like it is what cannot be thought.

So if stupidity is not all that, it is something else. In the terms I have tried to develop here, it is simply this: It is what is not asked. It is not that which cannot be asked – that merely shows our own limitations. It is not that which we refuse to ask – that just shows our obtuseness, or perhaps our investment in certain knowledge not coming to light, or perhaps just our fear. This is not a lack of information, or even a lack of will, but an inability to frame a question in a new way when that is what is demanded or appropriate by a place. Jason Wirth, in a book on Schelling [Schelling’s Practice of the Wild], put it this way:

“Let us be clear: the violence of la bêtise lies in a madness, but a very particular one and one that is supremely destructive. namely, the insanity of the self-grounded ego to still the ground of thinking with grand conclusions, lest it stupefy one with the abyssal force of death itself. Was this not Pecuchet’s greatest desire, standing before the noose, of utterly mastering philosophy so that he could solve all problems by solving a problem so vast that it contained and thereby simultaneously resolved all other possible problems? Derrida picks up on the same concern. ln his critique of Auguste Comte’s positivistic bêtise, Flaubert warns that “ineptitude consists in wanting to conclude…. It is not understanding twilight, it’s wanting only noon or midnight. . . . Yes, bêtise consists in wanting to conclude”‘ (BS, 161). Bêtise is the rule of the result.” [Wirth 107]

Bêtise is, then, also an orientation toward propositions, narratives, or positions as if they are the only intellectually existing thing, as if they do not exist in a world of further questions, or for that matter, of people who hold them and places from which they come. It is a form of dogmatism for Schelling. We see this as far back as the Stoics, and in a variety of figures up to the present, including Deleuze.

We think of stupidity as a kind of intellectual moral failing – how could we not? There is a potency to the concept, like the concept of race. It is overwhelmingly the charge used against others in online chat boards and comment areas – I’m smart and you’re stupid, although as we have seen, it is probably used incorrectly most of the time. … And, the “rule of the result” is almost irresistible, whether that result is the well-formed position on some issue or the result of productivity in a professional environment. For Schelling and others, it is more than just remaining open to possibilities. Openness in itself is inert, passive. There is no necessary problematic created.


Anyway, this occurs to me as I look at comment boards and see the overwhelming number of posts which look for some label of mental or cognitive failure in someone else. There are many kinds of failure, and they are not just a catalogue of cognitive biases or informal logic fallacies.

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