Epistemic Humility vs. Epistemic Humility

Which is humbler?

Ismael Kherroubi Garcia
3 min readMay 30, 2021
A water fist clashes with a fire fist! No humility to be found
Image by Iván Tamás from Pixabay

This is a very tentative distinction that I think might be worth making in philosophy of science: that there are two senses of epistemic humility.

The first sense of epistemic humility is captured by Popper’s falsificationist account of science, which hinges on claims such as “our ignorance is sobering and boundless” (Popper, 1969?: 87). Falsificationsim maintains, in short, that “statements or systems of statements, in order to be ranked as scientific, must be capable of conflicting with possible, or conceivable observations” (Popper 1962: 39). Science is, then, constantly seeking to falsify or, at the very least, test its own findings. Dewey sees an “importance of uncertainty” (1933, 1997: 12) in a science constantly grappling with doubt. There is a need for scientists to continuously “ask of others Why?, to demand from them reasons for their claims and conclusions that are continuously liable to a mobile tribunal of ongoing rational assessment, criticism, and further observation” (Leslie, 2020; see also Leslie, 2016).

The second sense of epistemic humility plays a more emancipatory role. Epistemic humility is about “having a humble and self-questioning attitude toward one’s cognitive repertoire” (Medina, 2013: 43). The emphasis is not on human knowledge at large, but one’s own cognitive limitations. What epistemic humility allows for is the acknowledgement of one’s bounded rationality(Kahneman, 2003), or one’s proclivity to generate knowledge on the basis of unfounded biases and assumptions. This form of epistemic humility is a virtue in science that we might more generally find amongst oppressed populations. This is because they have access to evidence whereby they develop “heuristics necessary to understand and to navigate dimensions of the social and natural world that the comparatively privileged rarely engage, or are invested in avoiding” (Wylie, 2012: 63).

This is not to say both senses are not deeply interlinked or that we need two distinct terms. For example, both senses could be meant by statements like Socrates’ infamously paraphrased “I know that I know nothing”. On the one hand, the statement is deeply troubling: how can one of the most influential philosophers know nothing? It seems Socrates is acknowledging that, no matter what is known, there is a great vastness of knowledge still untapped: our knowledge is so limited in comparison to what there is to know, that we might as well say we know nothing.

On the other hand, Socrates’ statement seems to emphasise his own limitations — it is I who knows what I know, and it is I who knows nothing. It is almost the perfect excuse to endlessly roam the streets of Athens and pester passers-by to ask about their lives and their notions of “courage, love, reverence, moderation, and the state of their souls” (Nails, 2020). More explicitly, it is the perfect excuse to engage with others and develop more inclusive conceptualisations by virtue of acknowledging our own limitations.



Ismael Kherroubi Garcia

Currently studying MSc in Philosophy of the Social Sciences at the LSE. Previously managed research governance at the UK’s national AI institute. Assoc CIPD.