Plutarch's Table

Challenge 2011: be intellectually brave

January 20, 2011

Here is a challenge for the New Year, one that I think could be highly rewarding for almost anybody: be intellectually brave.

I have been thinking about this because of a phenomenon that has come out of the salons.  Many people, curious enough to come out to a salon but nervous about their ability to contribute, have confided in advance that they don’t think they will be smart enough.  I think that our society’s erroneous sense of a clear divide between ‘intellectuals’ and ‘lay people’ is to blame for the fact that many people who have a great deal to contribute to intelligent conversation hold back out of fear that they will find themselves in over their heads.  While the objective of the salons is precisely to demonstrate that everybody can participate in philosophical conversation without any explicit training, I think that you only see this if you can find the courage to just go ahead and offer up your own thoughts, especially when you’re not entirely certain.

For the sake of those who regularly find themselves too nervous to contribute to supposedly ‘intellectual’ discussion, I am going to share a secret I learned in grad school: when you’re not involved in the conversation, you always think everybody knows something you don’t, that there’s some big picture that everybody else gets, a shared understanding about which you’ll prove yourself ignorant if you speak up.  But what’s really going on is that those on the inside are doing something you aren’t doing, and that is really the only important difference, which you learn when you just dive in anyway and quickly discover that there is no shared idea at all, just a particular group of people controlling the discourse.  It only sounds like everyone is on the same page when you are not on that page yourself, and when you are you see that people are flipping through different pages without any real consistency, sometimes missing each others’ points entirely, sometimes picking up on what wasn’t really meant, but not suffering for any of this.

A discourse is not a smooth navigation around a transparent idea, but is more like a collective improvisation where pieces get put together and come apart and sometimes align in surprising ways and sometimes get diverted off topic – but sometimes it is the diversions that can lead down especially interesting paths.  If I knew more about jazz I would offer an improvisational jazz metaphor – I’m pretty sure it would work.  The point is that simply participating can be a huge revelation about ones own intellectual capacity. Getting something out there is the first step to being brought in, and as soon as you’re in you’ll know you’re worthy of being there.  I promise – and it took me a very long time to learn this for myself.

My own view is that those who are a little nervous have the potential to be the very best contributors to intelligent conversation.  Socrates was thought to be the wisest man because he alone was aware of his ignorance, and there is great merit in coming into a conversation with the sense that you have something to learn rather than something of which to convince your audience.  I always admire the person who asks the question that everybody else wants to ask but is too afraid.  This is what it means to be intellectually brave – not to pretend to know more than one does, but to be confident about ones capacity to engage in intelligent conversation while being candid about ones ignorance.  Any conversation where the only people talking are those who think they know a whole lot is not a genuinely philosophical event.  Our public discourse, and any good conversation, needs the bravery of those who know they don’t know with any certainty, and are willing to learn and contribute all the same.  And here’s one last insider’s tip: sometimes when ‘intellectuals’ are discussing something that sounds very heady and esoteric – sometimes they are talking total shit.  Sometimes.

So get out there and be brave.  Ask questions, offer comments, venture an opinion, get in over your head.  You’ll discover that fear makes intelligent discussion look far more intimidating than it really is.

About author

My name is Joanna Polley. I am a writer and a philosopher experimenting with ways of practicing and teaching philosophy outside of the university environment. I completed my PhD at the University of Toronto and have taught for several years in the departments of philosophy and literary studies, and am currently exploring ways to bring philosophy out of the ivory tower and into the wider public sphere. My specific research interests have been in the history of philosophy, philosophy of language and culture and the philosophy of literature, but I am interested in any philosophy that helps illuminate contemporary problems and deepens our experience of being alive. You can also visit me at for information about my philosophical therapy services.