Culture Block

assumptions about ‘the other’…

Given the coarsened and churlish nature of much public discourse in recent years, a review of intellectual virtues may be in order. Intellectual virtues were strongly promoted by the thinkers of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. These virtues have been recognized by Western Culture since Classical Antiquity as valuable traits or attitudes to be cultivated by the authentic critical thinker. Benjamin Franklin, a product of these traditions, drew attention to two of the virtues—intellectual empathy and intellectual humility— in his “Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America.”

Intellectual humility is about entertaining the possibility that you are wrong because you know you have been wrong before while thinking you were right and you understand we all have limitations on our thinking abilities. Intellectual empathy refers to the ability to imaginatively project yourself into another person’s world view in order to better understand their argument. On the other end of the spectrum, the traits arrogance and egomania obviously won’t be much help in coming to an understanding.

“Remarks Concerning…” has been controversial since about the time the ink dried. Most of the recent debate concerns questions about Franklin’s tone. Is it literal and in earnest, or is it mocking and satirical? Which of the two groups involved seems to exhibit the most empathy and humility? Does either group appear to understand the other’s point of view? Is either side trying to understand the other? Does the narrative voice itself contain any language choices that reveal a point of view? Is it straight-forward or ironic?

Savages we call them, because their Manners differ from ours, which we think the Perfection of Civility. They think the same of theirs.
Perhaps if we could examine the Manners of different Nations with Impartiality, we should find no People so rude as to be without Rules of Politeness, nor any so polite as not to have some Remains of Rudeness
The Indian Men when young are Hunters and Warriors; when old, Counsellors; for all their Government is by Counsel of the Sages; there is no Force there are no Prisons, no Officers to compel Obedience, or inflict Punishment.—Hence they generally study Oratory; the best Speaker having the most Influence. The Indian Women till the Ground, dress the Food, nurse and bring up the Children, & preserve & hand down to Posterity the Memory of public Transactions. These Employments of Men and Women are accounted natural & honorable, Having few artificial Wants, they have abundance of Leisure for Improvement by Conversation. Our laborious Manner of Life compar’d with theirs, they esteem slavish & base; and the Learning on which we value ourselves, they regard as frivolous & useless. An Instance of this occurr’d at the Treaty of Lancaster in Pensilvania, anno 1744, between the Government of Virginia and the Six Nations. After the principal Business was settled, the Commissioners from Virginia acquainted the Indians by a Speech, that there was at Williamsburg a College, with a Fund for Educating Indian youth; and that if the Six Nations would send down half a dozen of their young Lads to that College, the Government would take Care that they should be well provided for, and instructed in all the Learning of the White People. It is one of the Indian Rules of Politeness not to answer a public Proposition the same day that it is made; they think it would be treating it as a light matter, and that they show it Respect by taking time to consider it, as of a Matter important. They therefore deferr’d their Answer till the Day following; when their Speaker began by expressing their deep Sense of the Kindness of the Virginia Government in making them that Offer, for we know, says he, that you highly esteem the kind of Learning taught in those Colleges, and that the Maintenance of our young Men while with you, would be very expensive to you. We are convinc’d therefore that you mean to do us Good by your Proposal, and we thank you heartily. But you who are wise must know, that different Nations have different Conceptions of Things, and you will therefore not take it amiss if our Ideas of this kind of Education happen not to be the same with yours. We have had some Experience of it: Several of our young People were formerly brought up at the Colleges of the Northern Provinces; they were instructed in all your Sciences; but when they came back to us they were bad Runners ignorant of every means of living in the Woods, unable to bear either Cold or Hunger, knew neither how to build a Cabin, take a Deer or kill an Enemy, spoke our Language imperfectly, were therefore neither fit for Hunters Warriors, or Counsellors, they were totally good for nothing. We are however not the less oblig’d by your kind Offer tho’ we decline accepting it; and to show our grateful Sense of it, if the Gentlemen of Virginia will send us a Dozen of their Sons, we will take great Care of their Education, instruct them in all we know, and make Men of them.—

passage from “Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America,” Benjamin Franklin

The Intellectual Virtues are intellectual humility, intellectual courage, intellectual empathy, intellectual autonomy, intellectual integrity, intellectual perseverance, confidence in reason, and fair-mindedness. Look for further discussion of these in future posts.


Author: Craig Butcher

Craig Butcher is an award-winning educator who has taught critical thinking skills for more than two decades. In addition, he has worked on Capitol Hill as a congressional staffer and has been a top-rated broadcaster.