Stupidity is a very specific cognitive failing.

Crudely put, it occurs when you don’t have the right conceptual tools for the job.

The result is an inability to make sense of what is happening and a resulting tendency to force phenomena into crude, distorting pigeonholes.

Stupidity will often arise when an outdated conceptual framework is forced into service, mangling the user’s grip on some new phenomenon. It is important to distinguish this from mere error.

We make mistakes for all kinds of reasons. Stupidity is rather one specific and stubborn cause of error.

Stupidity has two features that make it particularly dangerous when compared with other vices.

First, unlike character flaws, stupidity is primarily a property of groups or traditions, not individuals: after all, we get most of our concepts, our mental tools, from the society we are raised in.

Second, stupidity begets more stupidity due to a profound ambiguity in its nature. If stupidity is a matter of the wrong tools for the job, whether an action is stupid will depend on what the job is; just as a hammer is perfect for some tasks and wrong for others.

Take politics, where stupidity is particularly catching: a stupid slogan chimes with a stupid voter, it mirrors the way they see the world. The result is that stupidity can, ironically, be extremely effective in the right environment: a kind of incapacity is in effect being selected for.

Source: Aeon magazine Dec 2021

Sacha Golobis a reader in philosophy at King’s College London and co-director of the Centre for Philosophy and Visual Arts (CPVA). He has published extensively on modern French and German philosophy and the philosophy of art. His current research explores moral progress and decline.