I need – and we all need - to understand stupidity better; we crash into it often enough to admit what a resourceful, deadly enemy it is - one who keeps winning and crippling humanity in the long term. Such a foe deserves adequate respect.
Strange! It seems easy and obvious to recognize this old acquaintance when we meet it but how elusive to define what it is!
Why is a thing so easy to point at with our good sense so difficult to pin down with our reason? I would say that stupidity is from another realm than rational description and measurement; it is a lived subject of experiencing and comprehension in context.
Is stupidity more than one thing? Arguably so. For some, it is just one measurable deficit of something called "intelligence"; for others, a “father of errors” a flaw of functioning in our minds, hiding behind many dissimilar faces. Maybe we are we too interested in this phenomenon to see clear.
Probably, to understand, we must move - as usual - deeper or higher, away, or closer. We must observe the observer also, the one who experiences it and judges stupid as such; after all it is in the eyes of the beholder that stupidity takes form, the same way beauty does.
I will try to draw a practical view of stupidity, with tentative steps, one musing at a time.
It appears that there are plenty, too many sufficient signs of stupidity - when it happens - but the minimal necessary features to define and quantify stupidity as fact are not clear enough. The word is misleading and the measures imprecise; the scales float in the eyes of the witness.
The difference of genre is not made clear between two incommensurable sorts of stupidity:
One is the innocent, stupid-stupidity of , as Robert Musil* called it “rosy-cheeked” silly persons we call stupid at a glance - because their mind appears to lack the minimal horse-power of current, average intelligence. People are not all born equal in this and some are impaired by various pathologies. This is a subject of little promise, which I do not follow here. But there is another one, fascinating sort of stupidity: the intelligent one.
What is intelligent stupidity?
The other deeper sort of malfunction, the only which concerns me here, is the widely shared sort of normal, educated, intelligent-stupidity -which I would provisionally define as the manifest failing of expected common sense, good judgement, practical reason and adequate performance by people who could obviously do better.
As you can see, I use a phenomenal working definition for my hunt.
Stupidity is observed as the manifest rupture with the adequate common sense of given situation, place, group of people or task: in the way of perceiving, of understanding, of judging, of speaking, of responding, or in conduct.
I think that without understanding the stupidities committed and often persisted in by normally intelligent people, even very bright ones, geniuses not excepted, the intelligence and wisdom it ruins cannot be understood either. The study of wisdom must include understanding our own and other peoples' stupidity and learning to cope with it.
Whoever wants to understand and increase wisdom must observe the causes of failing and of the collapse of common sense in people "like you and me", people whose mind seems to work perfectly well.
As you see, I made some excluding choices from the beginning:
In this inquiry I set aside stupidity by deficient functioning of the brain. I omit considering the stupidness of "people being functionally stupid"; besides this pathetic helplessness of the feeble-minded which appeals to our charity, there is much worse in our world than sub-normal intelligence. The sadly real model of the mentally handicapped is moreover quite misleading for understanding normal human stupidity. Like a fig-leaf masking the really important issue.
I also hesitate concerning the collateral stupidity of ignorant and wicked people who seem to be proud of being and acting stupid. The obvious perils of stumbling upon barbarous, hopelessly dull or dangerously callous, reckless and senseless people engaged in exclusion and violence and other mindless deeds is a huge subject by itself. Maybe another time...
I will probably have to include in my inquiry on intelligent stupidity the attitude and state of obstinate narrowness, the blind fanaticism better called folly or madness, observable in otherwise intelligent people who appear stuck in dogma, militant creed, rigid excess, unable to consider other points of view or fact contrary to their conviction. I am aware that normal or even exceptional people become very stupid when fallen into such traps. Is this another corruption of human judgement?
I set aside the search for an abstract, logical essence of stupidity because such scholastic pursuit is as sterile as the one after absolute evil. Stupidity is practical, experiential, contextual, alive, not a deficient execution of algorithm.
Moreover, I let aside the vagueness of expressions like "being stupid" - as if it were a state of mind or "anti-faculty" seen as a cause of what we do poorly. I prefer instead to consider “committing stupidities”- the conduct, (the acts rather than the behaviours) deserving such a depreciative evaluation.
Stupid, is not something we are but something we do or let happen.
My concern is that all of us humans appear to be afflicted by flaws or ebbs of mind which prevent sensible, sound-minded people to do things adequately or occasionally cause them to do foolish and silly things against their best interest. Such eclipses deprive them, in spite of their manifest wisdom, from living the good life they seem capable of.
These are surprising dysfunctions, blind spots and mistakes– call them omissions, inattentions, biases, misinterpretations, misjudgements, confusions, blunders, faux-pas, miscommunication - widely observed, committed, said, written... Some of such "stupid" events become socially established, impersonal, turned into customs in all walks of life and even institutions.
Stupidness is then practised by normal, even very intelligent, well informed people and equally by whole groups of people - group-thinkers or mass followers whom we cannot sweep out of the way by simply calling them impaired. But they are so: they are impaired by some false direction, so that their intelligence fails or misfires. That intelligent stupidity is the subject I wrestle with. Heavens help me!
We must reclaim and re-define the word stupidity to cope with the intelligent sort of it.
One thing that makes stupidity hard to explain and fight is that - for good reason - people are often slow to anticipate it and tackle it before it is proven by some striking outcome.
We may be reluctant to recognise the precursors and sometimes misjudge the cause of the failure; thus we often fail to provide our plans to be foolproof against stupidity or at least to grasp the enemy from the first signs, as we advance; this may be because we do not have some good practical definition nor a list of diagnostic signs or even an explanation of how it works.
To help detect stupidity we need some image of reference; as the philosopher said: "... would we not, like archers in possession of a target, better hit on what is needed? If this is so, then one must try to grasp, in outline at least, whatever it is and to which of the sciences it belongs."**
The word “stupidity” was hijacked, occupied, distorted and abused by bad faith usage, to a degree which prevents critical thinking. Nowadays it became a politically incorrect word to avoid. We must go back and start from the beginning, individually reclaim this word and redefine it. In lack of agreement, we must dare to build our own meaning. We need to rectify the word.
Rectifying the word stupidity to account for intelligent stupidity is worth the effort. The challenge of this orphan subject is to reveal an omnipresent public enemy hidden behind a smoke screen of denial and patronising derision - labelling a few handicapped (or different) people as idiots, imbeciles or morons - instead of looking into the mirror and into our world to see the grand foolishness and weaknesses in our lives and in society. Those poor creatures, the "stupid", are like trees preventing us to see the luxuriant woods.
Stupidity is an everyday folk-word which did not enjoy the honour of being defined in the treatises and dictionaries of philosophy, not even those of psychology or any other science. It must be badthink as Orwell would say.
The word as used, indicates that someone is passing intuitive judgement expressed in the vernacular of common sense: remarks tainted with emotion and negative judgement, punctuated with attention marks. This is a fleeting subject, bad for stiff research, not good for academic careers; moreover, what is smart in one place, proves stupid in another; one man's novel idea is judged stupid by multitudes. This is not good material for extracting regularities experimentally proven and theoretically consistent.
Its substance, being assumed by habit to be absence of something or deficit of something, like lack of knowing or lesser intelligence (imagine the academic difficulty of defining the presence of ignorance or, worse, its size!), stupidity does not seem to have a substance, to be a behaviour measurable distinctly. Thus, during the Twentieth Century, it did not appear worth studying; rational intelligence and knowledge – believed to be opposed to stupidity - are measured and analysed instead of it. That should be sufficient. Hmm!
Is it then proven that less intelligence means more stupidity? That more intelligence means less stupidity?
It also seems politically incorrect to even consider that such a degrading flaw exists as a born, nurture-resistant feature creating inequality. To see it widespread is certainly anathema; the many cannot be called stupid in a democracy. You need reckless kings to do that. And marketing experts or spin-doctors who will never say it openly, but massively count on it.
Medically seen, constant stupidity (in the traditional sense) seems to be some kind of steady-state or unchanging attribute of incapacity, dis-adaptive bias, low performance; an abnormality which you find in morons, idiots, cretins and other disadvantaged people (like the utterly uneducated ignorant) evaluated scientifically.
For such reasons of hypocrisy and academic unattractiveness, the research on the vague subject – an elephant too big to really exist - is left to the story-tellers, preachers and occasional irritated thinkers, in their moments of despair.
In spite of all this unease, stupidity is too protuberant a subject to sweep under the carpet...
In lack of any conceptually substantial definition (same surprising situation as for the word "wisdom") the curious reader will find some helpful lexical, dictionary definitions of the word  - that is, descriptions of what the word means customarily, of how it is translated into various languages.
Unfortunately, the best dictionary definitions do not explain what something actually is or how it happens and how it works. You will find that the words “Stupidity” and “stupid” are mainly exemplified as being stupefied, incapable to perceive, to feel, to understand and reason properly. It is gross want of intelligence with a touch of stubbornness and foolishness; in short, the low end of humanity.
We receive an unexamined impression that stupidity is not normal among us; an insufficiency, emptiness, lack of intelligence, ignorance, to a near pathological degree.
Such reduction and neglect of study is strange in the face of widespread lament and agreement that shared stupidity produced, produces and will produce major damage in our world, maybe even destroy it entirely.
The dominant account of stupidity as lack of intellectual performance or of proper knowledge and rationality, that is lack of information, logic and processing horsepower is elegant, partial and blind to reality; for the least, plenty of logically thinking, reasonable people prove frequently stupid in what they understand, think, speak and do and even in domains where they are educated and familiar.
Computers too are logical and as stupid for us as can be, when unable to solve simple but new, unexpected problems not chewed for them in advance. Observe also that we call them stupid when we project into them, our abstract theories and then we find their responses unfit to our commonsense practice.
No, stupidity is not lack of knowledge and logic, and, surprisingly, not even lack of intelligence; the blunders of the intelligent and the learned are proverbial. Certainly, stupidity it is not just ignorance, absence of information or of true knowledge; I have met plenty of ignorant people very smart and wise in their familiar environment and very stupid-acting specialized specialists or learned generalists, adorned with high schooling and doctor's degrees. Mine did not make me smarter in the occasions when I misjudged, spoke and acted stupid, neglecting the very psychology I knew.
Mystified by yet another apartheid of Humanity separating with a numerate geometry-based asses' bridge the quick and smart from the slow and bewildered, the educated from the uneducated, looms the disastrous kingdom of contagious, man-made stupidity that impairs everybody, including the most excellent of us:
occasion-induced “inexplicable” delusion and impairment of judgement,
ignoring of conspicuous facts everybody knows except the (otherwise very intelligent) person concerned
the mishaps of the habit not to pay attention to mere people-issues and " local situations",
the unexamined everyday use of thought-preventing horse-blinkering words and expressions,
the mind-closing education of pre-judged dogma, taboos, received opinions, dispensed to entire generations
the spread, like recurrent pest, across the social body, of indefensible ideas of prey and hate,
the cultivated and complacent public slumber turning people desensitised in full view of violence, iniquity and danger
the sheep like imitation epidemics of fashion,
the inexorable persistence of harmful habits like smoking, bad eating, waste, pollution and the like
the Kafkaesque institutions we perpetuate,
the utopian laws, the stupid bosses and politicians we obey,
the mindless corporations eating up the world, incapable to consider end-results of short-term gain
and on top of everything
the enslaving creeds or ideologies, the "causes" we serve faithfully, for which so many fools are ready to kill and die
all the above banking on proven public lack of critical sense, state which can fairly described as stupid.
If we rise from individual to society, how to describe as other than stupid the predictable biased judgement and destructive barbarianism of large groups, the madness of entire nations, the fascination of voluntary servitude, the eternally returning, self-defeating poor judgement of Humanity all together?
Since we evolved so much why do we, "Humanity" blessed with so many bright minds and learned people still behave like a species instead of acting like a Reason, the reason we worship nowadays? Isn't that stupidity of the largest scale possible? But what do I know? The genius of immense stupidity may propose more that that, things I cannot grasp.
Why is it that there is no historic regress of human stupidity - always ready to strike anew in form of war, waste and self-destruction - so little learning from history, in spite of so much accumulation and progress in knowledge-knowing-all and technology-omnipotent in making things?
How then to define stupidity?
Let me try my hand at a longer description:
I retain that "stupid" is a practical interpretation from the domain of common-sense.
Words like "stupid" or "silly" or "dumb" “mindless”, “heedless” “inept”, “mad” or "foolish", indicate in everyday language an impression or intuition (often agreed among several persons) obtained from observed fact, completed with common-sense psychology inferences of what could have happened in the head of the authors before or during the act which is experienced as stupid; such verbal labels signal and expose apparent practical dysfunctions of understanding, of appreciation of a task or context, omission of prudent judgement or maladroit action which - for various causes - appear as manifestly inadequate and incompetent against the assumed intentions of the authors, the expectations and norms of competence in a practical occasion and a given context.
The advantage of such an interpretation of stupidity as manifest failing of good-sense and phrónēsis (prudence, to simplify) is to invite one to review and classify the varieties of observed blunders - stupid speech, acts and conduct - particularly the serious ones, to investigate their roots and immediate causes and conditions, often neglected. We are led to consider why and how one comes to commit such stupid things - thought, told or done - instead of raising our arms to the sky in despair. This may offer some direction to understand the afflictions of stupidness, to avoid them, to face them, to work in their presence or to defend against them.
The imprecision of this notion denoting something “lived” and relative to a local context, repels the lovers of precision; the object signified by the subjective label is nevertheless heavy with meaning and consequences for our lives.
Some elements to define by description that which is named stupidity may be the following:
- It is the object of an evaluative social judgement, shared, consensual and comparative, regarding performance, a result, a product: a thing thought, said, written or done. The designation "stupid" is a sanction-label relevant in a given context and according to the local norms of comprehension, experience, knowledge available and competence expected. As I mentioned, the scales float in the eyes of the beholders; but many eyes see the same thing, repeatedly and multiple persons agree on them.
- Stupidity appears generally speaking as error and dysfunction but all errors are not deemed stupid; the errors known as stupid are those evaluated by common sense and local consensus as elementary, incongruous with the information available or readily accessible. Such errors are judged as normally avoidable by elementary prudence and attention; they are not to be expected from the person or group of that given qualification. The characteristic of the errors considered stupid is to be surprising, ridiculous and unjustifiable, against all normal expectation. It is with this cluster of intuitive appreciations that the label "stupid" is awarded.
- Our thoughts, discourse and practice are evaluated in their coherence and relational quality, supposed to connect us usefully and as purposeful agents to the surrounding reality of knowledge, things and people (or the world around us). One considers stupid that conduct which is perceived as flagrantly disconnected from expected common sense judgement, offbeat of normal expectations and context, counter-productive against the objectives at hand, occasion or participants. The list is long. To be dismissed as stupid, a performance appears utterly incompetent or inadequate: insufficient, ignorant, misunderstanding, insensible, tactless, inappropriate, untimely, inept, incongruous ... in short out of context and discordant with it. The act of stupidness appears as an external sign of inability to be adequate; by ignorance, distraction, awkwardness or poor judgement.
- Stupidity committed, appears to run against the own interest of the author and his overt purpose, against reputation, a move of "I lose and you lose" with boomerang effect and unexpected consequences.
- The implication, the deed, the discourse, seem most typically unintended or out of control, without being properly aware, while they appear obvious for other people, at least in retrospective. However we should consider the cases when we and other people do and persist in things we know to be stupid but still do them for various weakness related, defensive or opportunistic reasons.
Not lack of intelligence as much as lack of good sense.
One thing to retain: something thought, believed, said or done is not stupid because it were uninformed, illogical, irrational or insufficiently rational (which may be often the case) not even because of being erroneous, grossly false, contrary to truth (which certainly is not so good) but because of being a flagrant deficit of commonsense and of its shared good judgement, this translation in terms of human practice and life of the similar scientific adequacy to reality.
I would say that to competence and to intelligence, intelligent stupidness is not the contrary but the eclipse, the fall, the Achilles’ heel, the bug, the malfunction. I am now convinced that the major causes of the worse stupidities in judgement, decision, communication and action are not born from weakness of mind but weaknesses of the way the good mind is used, maybe also because of weakness of character. Intelligent stupidity is con-substantial with intelligence, reason and logic, coexisting paradoxically even with the wisdom which should be its opposite.
We, civilized humans are able of an erroneous relation with our knowledge and a distorted usage of our intellect. It seems to me that this could be a fruitful domain of study and object of a sustained effort to control in us some stupefying bugs of human nature.
As for wisdom, maybe we grow to act wiser less by profound thoughts and high knowledge than by becoming aware and in control of our inherent human risk of dysfunction, our limits, and strings, more prudent to avoid being misled by our own abstractions and subtlety, more able to detect and redress promptly the stupidities committed, while we learn from them, more able not to reproduce them.
We grow wiser by becoming less stupid; or at least by better understanding and controlling our stupidity.
* Musil, Robert, Über die Dummheit, 1937 (De la Bêtise, Allia, Paris 2009)
** Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics - A New Translation, Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D.Collins, The University of Chicago press, Chicago, 2011, Book I ch II, 20-25
 For an example, the Oxford English Dictionary ed. 2009, one of the best, enumerates for stupidity "1. Numbness, incapacity for sensation" "2. The condition of being deprived of the use of faculties; a state of stupor.", "3. Incapacity for emotion; lack of feeling or interest, apathy, indifference..." "4. Dullness or slowness of apprehension; gross want of intelligence.. A stupid idea, action, etc." and finally "5. Obstinacy." Stupidly also means foolishly.
Charmingly, the OED mentions "stupiditarian - One whose ruling principle is stupidity." a meaning unfortunately forgotten.
For the word "stupid" I retain "1. .. hyperbolically, stunned with surprise, grief, etc." "e. Emotionally or morally dull or insensible; apathetic, indifferent.", "2. As a characteristic of inanimate things: Destitute of sensation, consciousness, thought, or feeling." and of course "3. Wanting in or slow of mental perception; lacking ordinary activity of mind; slow-witted, dull." "5. Obstinate, stubborn."
"b. Of attributes, actions, ideas, etc.: Characterized by or indicating stupidity or dullness of comprehension." and "4. Void of interest, tiresome, boring, dull."
"c. Of the lower animals: Irrational. Also of an individual animal, its propensities, etc.: Lacking intelligence or animation, senseless, dull.."