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The Limitations of the Limitations-Owning Account of Intellectual Humility


Intellectual humility is a hot topic. One of the key questions the literature is exploring is definitional: What is intellectual humility? In their recent paper, “Intellectual Humility: Owning our Limitations,” Dennis Whitcomb, Heather Battaly, Jason Baehr, and Daniel Howard-Snyder have proposed an answer: Intellectual humility is “proper attentiveness to, and owning of, one’s intellectual limitations” (2015). I highlight some limitations of the limitations-owning account of intellectual humility. And in conclusion, I suggest (i) that ultimately these are not limitations that any viable account of intellectual humility should own and (ii) that Whitcomb et al. should revise their view accordingly.

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  1. 1.

    See, for example: Roberts and Wood 2003; Roberts and Wood 2007; Hazlett 2012; Spiegel 2012; Christen et al. 2014; Hopkin et al. 2014; Davis et al. 2015; Samuelson et al. 2015; Church and Barrett forthcoming; Church forthcoming; Kallestrup and Pritchard forthcoming.

  2. 2.

    It is worth noting that it is not essential to this worry (as Whitcomb et al. or I have described it) that the given agent be fully intellectually humble while also being guilty of intellectual arrogance. Degrees of intellectual humility do not play an expressed role in this criticism. The criticism here, to be clear, is that it’s counterintuitive for a given account of intellectual humility to allow for a given agent to be at once intellectually humble and intellectually arrogant (within a single domain) to any significant degree. Thanks to an anonymous referee at Philosophia for encouraging me to make this point clear.

  3. 3.

    To be sure, there isn’t anything counterintuitive about the possibility of someone being intellectually arrogant within one domain (say, facts about basketball) and intellectually humble within another (say, astrophysics). The problem arises when a view allows for someone to be intellectually humble and intellectually arrogant within the same domain. Thanks to an anonymous referee at Philosophia for encouraging me to make this point clear.

  4. 4.

    According to (and following from) the limitations-owning view of intellectual humility, there are two ways for someone to be intellectually servile: either (i) by over-attending to or over-owning one’s intellectual limitations or (ii) by under-attending to (including ignoring) or under-owning one’s intellectual strengths. To be sure, we might wonder whether someone who simply fails to attend to her intellectual strengths is truly intellectually servile. That said, however, my objection to the limitations-owning account isn’t to object to its account of intellectual servility per se but rather to point out that the limitations-owning account’s own views of intellectual humility and intellectual servility lead to a counter-intuitive conclusion: that someone can be intellectually humble and intellectually servile at the same time within the same domain.

  5. 5.

    I owe a significant debt of gratitude to Philosophia referees for their apt criticism, which helped me better see this point.

  6. 6.

    And to be sure, I think there are a number of other worries facing the view that I have not discussed here. My aim in this paper, however, is to try to revise the view, not to reject it.


  1. Christen, M., Alfano, M., & Robinson, B. (2014). The semantic neighborhood of intellectual humility. In A. Herzig and E. Lorini (Ed.), Proceedings of the European Conference on Social Intelligence (pp. 40–49).

  2. Church, I. M. (forthcoming). A doxastic account of intellectual humility. Logos & Episteme.

  3. Church, I. M., & Barrett, J. L. (forthcoming). Intellectual humility. In The Routledge handbook of humility. Routledge.

  4. Davis, D. E., Rice, K., McElroy, S., DeBlaere, C., Choe, E., Van Tongeren, D. R., & Hook, J. N. (2015). Distinguishing intellectual humility and general humility. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1–10. doi:10.1080/17439760.2015.1048818.

  5. Hazlett, A. (2012). Higher-order epistemic attitudes and intellectual humility. Episteme, 9(3), 205–223.

  6. Hopkin, C. R., Hoyle, R. H., & Toner, K. (2014). Intellectual humility and reactions to opinions about religious beliefs. Journal of Psychology & Theology, 42(1), 50–61.

  7. Kallestrup, J., & Pritchard, D. (forthcoming). From epistemic anti-individualism to intellectual humility. Res Philosophica.

  8. Roberts, R. C., & Wood, W. J. (2003). Humility and epistemic goods. In Intellectual virtue: perspectives from ethics and epistemology (pp. 257–279). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  9. Roberts, R. C., & Wood, W. J. (2007). Intellectual virtues: an essay in regulative epistemology. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  10. Samuelson, P. L., Jarvinen, M. J., Paulus, T. B., Church, I. M., Hardy, S. A., & Barrett, J. L. (2015). Implicit theories of intellectual virtues and vices: a focus on intellectual humility. Journal of Positive Psychology, 10(5), 389–406.

  11. Spiegel, J. S. (2012). Open-mindedness and intellectual humility. Theory and Research in Education, 10(1), 27–38. doi:10.1177/1477878512437472.

  12. Whitcomb, D., Battaly, H., Baehr, J., & Howard-Snyder, D. (2015). Intellectual humility: owning our limitations. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 91(1).

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I’m grateful for the tremendously helpful comments I received from an anonymous referee at Philosophia. This work was supported in part by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

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Correspondence to Ian M. Church.

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Church, I.M. The Limitations of the Limitations-Owning Account of Intellectual Humility. Philosophia 45, 1077–1084 (2017).

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  • Intellectual humility
  • Intellectual arrogance
  • Intellectual servility
  • Intellectual virtues
  • Intellectual limitations