A truly honest question, in light of today's NY Times science article, "If Smart is the Norm, Stupidity Gets More Interesting."  Perhaps, as usual, scientists could use some conceptual help.  Just curious on your thoughts.  Here is one line of query: what is stupidity as opposed to mild mental retardation?  "Stupid" is, after all, still an acceptable predicate to toss around at both people and their actions.  On what basis?  What is it tracking if not an incapacity?  (Or perhaps it is targeting an incapacity, in which case how could there be warrant for what seems a responsibility predication?)

12 Replies to “What Is Stupidity?

  1. Good question. I’m feeling pretty stupid at the moment. Few quick points though:
    1. Oftentimes, when we use the word stupid in an acceptable way, we say things like ‘don’t be stupid’. This seems to suggest that the other person can help whether or not they are stupid. They have the capacities and they are choosing not to use them. I take it that if someone is retarded they are lacking some capabilities in contrast.
    2. What seems to be objectionable about both “stupid” and “mild mental retardation” is that they seem to function as thick concepts that include both a description of someone’s ability and an evaluative judgment of thinking worse of the person as a result. Not words that I would want to use. One nice way to avoid this is to talk about learning difficulties or special needs. This seems more neutral to me and of course it has thankfully been adopted in education.
    3. Finally, many philosophers I talk to (myself included) are quite sceptical about the IQ tests and classifying people to intelligent and stupid on the basis of them. They do seem track abilities to solve certain puzzles (going along in the same way as others, following the rule comes to mind). Do they show anything else about a person’s cognitive capabilities? I remain sceptical.

  2. Thanks Jussi. Regarding 1, what are the relevant capacities in such cases? And why think that people are “choosing” whether or not to use them?
    Regarding 2, I wasn’t taking “mild mental retardation” to be an evaluative judgment, nor was I taking it to be objectionable. It’s a straightforward medical description of those who have IQs ranging roughly from 50 to 69. My thought was that it would be objectionable to call a mildly mentally retarded person “stupid,” but it does not seem objectionable to call others stupid. What’s the difference and why? (And the terminology of “learning difficulties” or “special needs” has not been uniformly adopted in education. Indeed, as I said, “mental retardation” is still the preferred clinical term, as far as I can tell, as there are degrees that matter for diagnostic purposes, e.g., mild, moderate, severe, profound.)
    Regarding 3, do we classify people as stupid on the basis of IQ tests? (I know this is what is suggested by the linked article, but I seriously doubt it’s true.) I’m trying to get a handle on our everyday use of the term, its use both as self-predication and other-predication, and what we have in mind in deploying it, especially when it seems to have responsibility-implications. (Think here of “Oh man, what a stupid question I/you just asked!” or “I/you am/are just so stupid!”)

  3. Hi David
    about 1. I’m thinking of ought implying can. If someone says don’t be so stupid, that seems like they are making an ought claim and assuming that the person can help it. The relevant capacities: I assume being stupid is often a matter of not thinking things through – just going with the gut reaction. So, I guess deliberation is the relevant capacity that people fail to use but could do so.
    Maybe, with respect 2, there is a difference between UK and US. My girlfriend works in a special needs school and could never use the word retarded of her pupils. This would clearly be taken to be an insult here (even if it might also be a clinical term). I’m no expert on the ordinary usage but it seems to me that most uses of stupid are objectionable. I know that in some cases you can jokingly use the term (a bit like Blackburn’s thumps up rude! use).
    I am inclined to think that many people do classify people as stupid on the basis of IQ tests. I wonder if this is because we tend to trust experts and scientists. I guess for me the usages you give in the end go back to point 1. These would not seem to be judgments of people’s properties but rather of their use of them.

  4. Hi David,
    You say: I’m trying to get a handle on our everyday use of the term, its use both as self-predication and other-predication, and what we have in mind in deploying it, especially when it seems to have responsibility-implications.
    Just reporting, but myself and (as far as I can tell) my peer group tend to use ‘stupid’ to refer to actions and attitudes (e.g., that was a stupid thing to believe/do/ask/say/want) rather than persons wholesale.
    In particular, it gets used to refer to attitudes or actions the having or doing of which was obviously irrational in light of the reasons available to one — including those reasons one might not be aware of, but could easily be — but which one has or does anyway. I tend to think of it as a more heavy-handed (evaluatively speaking) way of calling someone irrational, and that’s the way I usually hear it being used, for what it’s worth. (I’m including my non-philosopher peers.)
    My bet is this use isn’t idiosyncratic. Its widespread use is evidenced by the fact that, if you ask someone why, for instance, it was stupid to phi, they will usually point to the easily accesible reasons against phi-ing.

  5. Thanks, Nate and Jussi. Jussi, you seem to think the matter is one of poor deliberation, whereas Nate seems to think the matter is one of poor judgment (about reasons). Both of you seem to agree that the predicate most, or perhaps exclusively, applies to actions or attitudes.
    Perhaps I should wait to see if there are more conceptual analyses forthcoming, but for now I’ll say a few things. First, again Jussi, I’m thinking of “stupid” as something we may merely think of people who we clearly don’t think are retarded (or , if you will, learning or cognitively disabled). So one thought might be that we are doing so as a kind of “somewhat socially acceptable” judgment targeting those people in-between “intelligent” and “retarded” on an IQ scale. I very much doubt this is the case, though, as we sometimes apply “stupid” to the actions of the very intelligent (“That chess grandmaster just made an inexplicably stupid move.”)
    But regarding the resistance of application of the term to persons, hmmm. I seem to see very many stupid people on TV, on reality shows and on cable news networks. And I myself am extremely stupid on many fronts, e.g., with respect to understanding mathematical logic, but also with respect to everyday matters like simple household repairs. It’s not that I have deliberated poorly in repairing the broken birdhouse in a way that makes it worse than it was when originally broken, or that I’m irrational in doing so; it’s instead that I just don’t see how to do it in ways that many others do fairly easily (or perhaps I could see how to do it if I spent a ton of time on it; it’s just much harder for me than for others). This suggests a kind of incapacity (or a reduced capacity?), but not necessarily one akin to the general incapacities of those with low IQs (although perhaps it is in this one respect). But if so, then do we abandon talk of stupidity as unfair (if targeted to incapacity) or do we think such responsibility-judgments don’t have to track capacities? (I know Jussi’s answer is probably the former.)

  6. Hi Dave,
    I doubt that ordinary usage conforms to Jussi’s suggestion. I think, in other words, that we often call actions and people stupid for failings they had no power to avoid.
    Many stupid mistakes are the result of failures to perceive and interpret one’s environment in the way that a normal, mature person would if they had their wits about them and put in some effort. There are also failures to act on the basis of sound perception and interpretation, and these executive failures may normally be under our control, I think many of the perceptual and interpretative failures are not.
    The key here is that we can (i) lack the capacity to perceive and interpret our environment in the way that a normal, mature person would if they had their wits about them and put in some effort, but still (ii) be someone who “could have” developed that capacity or is now be able to develop it. I take it that we think it is wrong to call someone who is retarded ‘stupid’ because one or both conditions fail to be met.

  7. Of course things are very different when we talk about animals. I might say, “My stupid dog keeps chasing cars on my street, even though it has been hit three times!” Here their is no assumption that a normal mature dog would get the point.

  8. In setting the second condition in terms of past or present capacity to develop the (normal) capacity, I intend to include cases in which the person is “blameless” for the failure to develop.
    It might well be that the emotional stupidity of people on reality TV is the result of being poorly raised, and that their failure to seek better role models, influences, etc. might not be negligent.
    On the Mathematical logic case: I bet the standard-setting class can move from normal mature humans to philosophy professors in a context like the one you have in mind.

  9. Thanks a lot, Brad. I’ve been thinking along some of these lines too, in particular wondering about the two senses of capacity that are raised in discussions of responsibility. In one sense, I have the capacity to speak Arabic and in another sense I don’t. For the latter, what’s necessary are some “here and now” abilities. The former is a kind of a capacity to form a capacity: I have the capacity to learn Arabic such that at some point in the future I could have developed the capacity (in the second sense) to speak it. Stupidity may thus implicate the second capacity but not the first. Perhaps various degrees of mental retardation implicate the first. One might think, then, that “ought implies can” implicates the second sense as well. Perhaps, though, it merely implicates the first. Or perhaps unavoidability (where we’re talking in terms of the second sort of incapacity) doesn’t undermine responsibility-predications. I’m sort of inclined to go with the latter option.
    Incidentally, “retard” isn’t the predicate I had in mind. Rather, I was simply saying that a judgment that someone (or their act) was stupid was definitely not a judgment that that person was retarded.
    (This is somewhat similar to an old episode of the (American) “Office,” in which Michael Scott has taken to calling his employees “gay” for doing certain types of things. But he becomes horrified when he finds out that one of the employees to which he’d used the term was actually gay. “If I’d known he was gay,” says Michael, “I would never have called him gay.”)

  10. Ha! Classic.
    This also brings to mind a point Berofsky makes about “actual” capacity (in his Liberation from Self). He points out that Dimaggio had the capacity to hit safely in 56 games straight (he did it after all), but that he was not free to exercise that capacity at will, and, as Berofsky puts it, “no clear impediment could be identified.” So perhaps some instances of stupid mistakes involve failures to exercise an actual capacity on currently has (in some sense), but not failures to do the most one could.

  11. Very interesting Berofsky stuff, Brad, thanks. I’ll have to look at that. I think the “some instances” caveat is key here, though, because sometimes we also refer to failures to do our best as stupid too. I can see Dimaggio kicking himself for missing an easy pitch during the 57th game.

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