Elusive and Ubiquitous Stupidity

by Critical Asia

by Nobutaka Otobe, Dec. 2020】

Alongside of the rise of populist leaders in the last few of years, it has become increasingly popular to describe the actions of politicians and voters as “stupid”. For example, the New Yorker summed up the year 2019 as “the year in stupidity,[1]” mainly referring to the Trump presidency. Throughout 2020, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic seems only to have exacerbated this tendency. Reluctance to admit the severity of the pandemic, ignoring scientific discoveries, blaming another country based on a conspiracy theory instead of cooperating, sticking to wishful thinking, not wearing face masks when they are the easiest way to save the lives of others as well as our own—these phenomena may indeed appear stupid to many. Thus economist Ted Snyder asks: “Are we being stupid about Covid-19?” His answer is: “Of course.[2]

The abundance of these allegations of stupidity, however, raises a series of questions: Firstly, if they—or we—are so stupid, what exactly is stupid about the current situation? For example, attacking a political opponent for saying that they will listen to the scientists sounds blatantly stupid.[3] How can we dismiss science in fighting disease? However, our reaction to the pandemic tells us that listening to scientists can be stupid, too. In the initial stage of the pandemic, many journalists and scientists expressed skepticism about the wearing of face masks.[4] It is true that many of them did also mention that face masks can prevent infected people from transmitting the virus to others. But this disclaimer very quickly disappeared. An influential news website added the following headline to a medical doctor’s article on face masks: “A Grave Misunderstanding that Face Masks prevent the Coronavirus.[5]” Some medical doctors tweeted “it is meaningless for those without symptoms to wear face masks,[6]” when the Ministry of Health and Labor had already warned that people without symptoms can infect others.[7]

Moreover, when we look more closely at seemingly stupid phenomena, we find that they contain some rationality, and even reasonableness. Concerning the face mask debate, it is easily understandable that a person’s willingness to cover their mouth varies according their cultural norms. With regard to the value of science, it is not only President Trump who does not follow the scientists. Political leaders all around the world weigh in the balance the scientists’ recommendation for the imposition of deep and wide-reaching restrictions by government on the one hand and the respect for individual freedom one the other. In addition, many canonical political thinkers in the past—including Hannah Arendt—argue that politics and science should be separated, arguing that politics should respect plural perspectives among people of which science constitute one.

The rationality and reasonableness that may underlie apparent stupidity makes us wonder if we label our political opponents with the epithet too easily. In his lecture entitled “On Stupidity,” Robert Musil argues that the reproach of stupidity often involves the imprecise use of words and leads to mindlessness[8]. There seems nothing more stupid than calling others stupid.

Is it nonsense to perceive stupidity in our current situation, then? No it isn’t. My aim here is not to defend Trump’s handling of the pandemic. But there is certainly something stupid about the approach of the Trump administration and our world in general. However, this something is much more elusive than the burgeoning discourses of reproach seem to assume. As we have seen, stupidity is not in contradiction to rationality and reason. In fact, stupidity goes hand in hand with intelligence. While there are only a few studies on stupidity, they all more or less point out that there is an intelligent quality to stupidity. Immanuel Kant, for example, observes that stupidity (Dummheit) appears among highly intelligent people:

The lack of the power of judgment is that which is properly called stupidity, and such a failing is not to be helped. A dull or limited head, which is lacking nothing but the appropriate degree of understanding and its proper concepts, may well be trained through instruction, even to the point of becoming learned. But since it would usually still lack the power of judgment (the secunda Petri), it is not at all uncommon to encounter very learned men who in the use of their science frequently give glimpses of that lack, which is never to be ameliorated.[9]

Musil distinguishes stupidity into an “honorable and straightforward stupidity” and a “higher, pretentious form of stupidity.” While the former arises from the weak intellect, the latter is even viewed as a sign of intelligence.”[10] What strike us as stupid in the current global health crisis belongs to the latter kind of stupidity.

But what is stupidity? If stupidity has some relation with intelligence, how can we dissociate stupidity from it? In an attempt to clearly demarcate the realm of stupidity, philosophers and writers define stupidity as a deficiency of intelligence. Kant, for example, defines stupidity as “lack of judgment” (my italics). On the other hand, Musil emphasizes the intelligent quality of stupidity. But he too relies on the notion of “incompetence” in order to provide a clear demarcation[11]. These attempts at demarcation, however, tend to externalize stupidity from our intelligence, thus making stupidity look as if it were an easy target.[12] Instead, here I want to follow Gustave Flaubert’s definition: “Stupidity lies in wanting to draw conclusions.[13]” Arriving at a conclusion enables us to stop thinking when there remains much to be thought. This explains why reproach of other’s stupidity itself becomes stupid. By concluding that our opponent is merely stupid, we no longer have to take them seriously.

However, this Flaubertian insight leads to another conundrum: our helplessness in the face of stupidity. At the end of the day, is every thought a conclusion? And surely not all conclusions are stupid. Stupidity lies in wanting to reach conclusions. Nonetheless, it is also true that we cannot help but want conclusions. Still, can we not avoid stupidity? This sense of helplessness is shared by others. Kant states that stupidity is “never to be ameliorated.[14]” Friedrich Schiller states “against stupidity the very gods themselves fight in vain.”[15] What should we do vis-à-vis stupidity?

One tempting strategy may be not to want any conclusions. We can find in Herman Melville’s Bartleby a person who strives to avoid any conclusion. Instead of making any statement and taking any action, Bartleby only utters the phrase: “I prefer not to.” In so doing, as Georgio Agamben suggests, he can be seen retaining thinking in its potentiality without turning into actuality, which is vulnerable to stupidity.[16]

However, contra Agamben, I find this strategy to lack promise in terms of preserving the power of thinking against threats including stupidity. First, even the “I prefer not to” can turn into a stupid conclusion. By wanting not to, we still want to reach the conclusion that we prefer not to. Second, by trying to avoid stupidity, we shy away from the power of stupidity altogether. While concluding that someone or something is stupid forecloses further reflection, experiencing stupidity—whether an encounter with the stupidity of others or the realization of our own stupidity—can give rise to reflection. Experiences of stupidity stupefy us, but in so doing they help us to think anew.

It has already become a commonplace to identify increasing partisanship as a source of current political upheavals. Accusations of stupidity seem to stem from this partisanship as such an accusation shows an unwillingness to take our adversary seriously. Nonetheless, our accusations of stupidity also seem to imply that we do perceive something stupid. Moreover, it is unlikely that this something can be dispelled through reasonable deliberation and rational scientific procedure, which most critics of partisanship recommend as an antidote to bipartisanship, because stupidity is not the other of intelligence, rationality, and reason. As such, our perception of stupidity provides us, to borrow the words of Martin Heidegger, with “food for thought.[17]

Nobutaka Otobe, Osaka University, Japan


[1] Naomi Fly “The Year in Stupidity,” The New Yorker, December 13, 2020. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/2019-in-review/the-year-in-stupidity

[2] Ted Snyder, “Are We Stupid about Covid-19?” The Hill, October 10, 2020. https://thehill.com/opinion/healthcare/520397-are-we-being-stupid-about-covid-19

[3] “Trump says if Biden’s elected, “he’ll listen to the scientists”,” Axios, October 19, 2020.

[4] See, for example, Kami Masahiro, “A Medical Doctor Points out Six Misunderstandings,” Bunshun-online, January 30, 2020. https://bunshun.jp/articles/-/30234 ; “New Coronavirus Infection: Are Face-Masks Necessary or Not?,” The Sankei News, April 6, 2020. https://www.sankei.com/premium/news/200406/prm2004060004-n1.html

[5] President Online, January 30, 2020. https://president.jp/articles/-/32636

[6] https://togetter.com/li/1474802

[7] https://www.mhlw.go.jp/stf/seisakunitsuite/newpage_00006.html

[8] Robert Musil, “On Stupidity,” in Precision and Soul: Essays and Addresses, edited and translated by Burton Pike and David S. Luft, University of Chicago Press, 1995, p. 280.

[9] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, translated by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood, Cambridge UP, 1998, B172.

[10] Musil “On Stupidity,” 282-3.

[11] Musil, “On Stupidity,” 284.

[12] I explored the problem of such externalization in my book. Cf. Nobutaka Otobe, Stupidity in Politics, Routledge, 2020.

[13] Gustave Flaubert, The Letters of Gustave Flaubert: 1830-1857, edited and Translated by Francis Steegmuller, Harvard University Press, 1980, 128.

[14] Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B172.

[15] Friedrich Schiller, The Maid of Orleans.

[16] Georgio Agamben, “Bartleby, or On Contingency.” In Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford UP, 1999, pp. 243-271.

[17] Martin Heidegger, What is Called Thinking, translated by J Glenn Gray and Fred Wieck, Harper & Row, 1968.

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