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 running the World in the long run. 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 science?
Is stupidity more than one thing? One “father of errors”, flaw of human nature hiding behind many dissimilar faces? Are we too interested to see clear? Is stupidity relative to standards ever changing?
Probably, to understand, we must move - as usual, to the N ±1 level - deeper or higher, away, or closer. Or we must observe the observer, the one who identifies it 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 the innocent stupidity of “rosy-cheeked” silly persons we call stupid at a glance - because their mind appears to lack the minimal horse-power of current intelligence - and that other malfunction which concerns me deeper, the widely shared forms of normal, educated, intelligent human stupidity – words by which we seem to decry - without much theory - the manifest failing of expected common sense, good judgement and adequate performance by people who could obviously do better.
What it is intelligent stupidity?
I will use a lived working definition for my hunt:
stupidity is the manifest rupture with the adequate common sense of given situation, place, group of people or task.
I sense that without understanding this sobering meaning of stupidity committed and carried on by normally intelligent people and even very bright ones, the intelligence and wisdom it ruins cannot be understood either.
Whoever wants to increase wisdom must look beyond the slowness or pathology, retardation, primitive ignorance, dullness of intellect to observe the higher order causes of failing and of the collapse of common sense in people whose mind seems to work well.
As you see, I make some 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"; for understanding normal human stupidity the sadly real model of the mentally handicapped is as misleading as the infuse essence of stupidness. Beyond the obvious perils of stumbling upon some hopelessly dull or dangerously senseless people, beyond the pathetic helplessness of the feeble-minded which appeals to our charity, there is much worse than sub-normal intelligence.
I set aside the search for an abstract essence of stupidity because such scholastic pursuit is as sterile as the one after absolute evil. Moreover, I let aside the vagueness of expressions like "being stupid" - a state of mind or "anti-faculty" seen as a cause of what we do, and consider instead “committing stupidities”- the conduct, the acts deserving such a depreciative evaluation.
I postponed to include the state of obstinate narrowness, the blind fanaticism better called folly or madness, of people who appear stuck in their rigid excess, unable to consider other points of view or fact contrary to their conviction. But I am aware that normal or even exceptional people become very stupid when fallen into such traps.
My concern is that we are afflicted by flaws which prevent sensible, sound-minded people to do things adequately or to live a good life or even push them to do foolish and silly things against their best interest.
These are surprising flaws and errors – call them gaps, selective perception, deviations, discrepancies - widely found, committed, said, written and often established, turned into institutions and customs in all walks of life. Such stupidness is practised by normal, even very intelligent, well informed people and groups of people whom we cannot sweep out of the way by simply calling them impaired. But they are so: they are impaired functionally, so that their intelligence misfires.That intelligent stupidity is the subject I wrestle with.
Stupid, is not something we are but something we do or let happen.
One thing that makes stupidity hard to explain and fight is that - for good reason - people misunderstand it and are often slow to recognise it before it is proven by results or even reluctant to recognize what it is; thus we often fail to grasp the enemy from the first signs; To help detection 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 and distorted and abused by bad faith usage to a degree which prevents critical thinking. We must 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.
The challenge of attending to this orphan subject is to reveal an omnipresent public enemy hidden behind a smoke screen of denial and patronizing derision - labelling a few handicapped (or different) people as idiots, imbeciles or morons instead of looking into the mirror to see the grand foolishness and weaknesses in our lives and in society. Those poor creatures are like trees preventing us to see the woods.
Stupidity 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 indicates passing intuitive judgement expressed in the vernacular of common sense: remarks tainted with emotion, punctuated with attention marks. This is a bad subject 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.
Its substance, being assumed to be absence of something or less of something, like lack of knowing or lesser intelligence (imagine the difficulty of defining the presence of ignorance!), stupidity does not seem to have a substance, to be a behaviour measurable distinctly, thus it does not appear worth studying in itself; 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 part of human nature; 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 who will never say it openly, only count on it.
Medically seen, stupidity seems presumed to be some kind of steady-state or unchanging attribute of incapacity, low performance; an abnormality which you find in morons, idiots, cretins and other disadvantaged people evaluated scientifically. The word “stupid”, referring to the things they do is thus eliminated as useless.
For such reasons of hypocrisy and academic unattractiveness, the research of the vague subject – an elephant too big to really exist - is left to the story-tellers, preachers and occasional irritated thinkers, for 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 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 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 so well.
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 with a longer description:
I propose 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 (often agreed among 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 experienced as stupid; such verbal labels signal and expose apparent practical dysfunctions of understanding, of prudent judgement or of action which - for various causes - appear as manifestly inadequate and incompetent against the 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 common-sense 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 the notion always “lived” and relative to a local context, repels the lovers of precision; the object signified by the subjective label is nevertheless heavy with meaning 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 exclusively in a given context and according to the respective 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 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 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, counterproductive against objectives, occasion or participants. The list is long. To be dismissed as stupid a performance appears as 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; ignorance, 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 must 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.
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 from weakness of mind but weaknesses of the way the 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 the stupefying bugs of human nature.
As for wisdom, maybe we grow wiser less by profound thoughts and high knowledge than by becoming aware and in control of our inherent human stupidity, our limits, and strings, more prudent to avoid being misled by our own subtlety, more able to detect and redress promptly our stupidities, 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.
* 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.."