Does stupidity exist?

14 min readFeb 13, 2021


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“Common sense is the most widely shared thing in the world, for everyone thinks of it so well provided that even those who are the most difficult to content with anything else have no habit of wanting more than they do. have “. Descartes begins the Discourse of the method by the observation that no one will complain about his stupidity. One deplores, in fact, his lack of strength, beauty, wealth or memory — his lack of intelligence, never. In fact, in tales, when a hero has the wonderful opportunity to obtain a good through the intervention of a higher power, it is never a supplement of intelligence that he claims.

Stupidity is always the fault of others. Admittedly, we will recognize without difficulty that we said or that we made “stupidities”, but stupidity is not a stupidity — which can be linguistic (a banality, an incongruity, an error) or practical (a inappropriate behavior). The stupidity is substantial, and not accidental as a stupidity.

But so determined, one might wonder if stupidity really exists. It seems, indeed, to burst only by escapements in the interstices of social existence (can one be stupid alone?). “Common sense is the thing of the world best shared”: we can admit this statement without irony or ulterior motive. Any reasonable being, whatever his culture, shows a certain intelligence in his own domain. Natural selection and the logic of history favor intelligence and condemn stupidity for obvious reasons. We can not imagine stupidity lasting indefinitely.

Another factor is likely to make the determination of stupidity problematic as a substantial lack of intelligence: those who make this diagnosis in others exclude themselves de facto. One must not be stupid — in theory — to consider that others are. Now, as we shall see about racist and misogynistic jokes, a widespread form of stupidity consists precisely in taxing others, some others, with stupidity. The intelligence itself, when it advances behind the mask of culture, is far from being protected against stupidity.

But there is more problematic still. We are inclined to regard as beasts those who express themselves in a manner which we judge gross; they speak louder than we, and their manners are abrupt. Is not stupidity, all things considered, a question of style? A question of class — in both senses that this word can convey: to belong to a class, to have class. The same content of speech, according to whether it will be said in a cheerful or heavy, neutral or pathetic way, can be judged sometimes spiritual sometimes stupid. Behind stupidity, as the etymology suggests, there is always the animal. Now, in a human society, it is the members of the lower classes or the wild societies who occupy the place of the animal.

These precautions taken, these reservations made, stupidity must however have a meaning since it is given a — besides the relativity of a phenomenon, far from implying its inexistence, presupposes on the contrary its actual reality.

We will begin by observing that stupidity, which is a form of negative, a modality of evil, has no opposite, and yet it appears indefinable if we do not start (as we have already done) from the intelligence, which designates both a certain mental faculty and all its results. There is no faculty of stupidity as there is a faculty of intelligence. It is the failures of the intellect as exercise of the thought and product of this exercise that determine stupidity. For the intelligence to take leave (never permanently for the rest), it must exist in freedom. The animal, therefore, is never stupid, when it seems so to us, it is because we place it in situations to which it is not adapted by instinct.

The lack of intelligence has been designated in many ways. In this area, the vocabulary is not in pain. Slang develops a litany of substantives to say stupidity and a list no less long to express the fact of not understanding. But science has not been in trouble either. In the nineteenth century, we could distinguish the idiot (mental age of 0 to 2 years) who can not communicate by speech, the idiot (mental age of 2 to 6 years) unable to read and write and the mentally retarded or the fool (mental age of 7 to 12 years) who does not reason or behave in a normal way. Now that psychology tends to recognize the logic of other or altered functioning of thought and behavior, even among autistic and Alzheimer’s patients, these ways of proceeding which give intellectual credibility to insult are abandoned. As for intelligence quotient and intelligence tests, they have lost much of their prestige. From now on, science leaves to the common language the task of stigmatizing. The scientific nomenclature and typology of stupidity are no longer valid.

Lack of intelligence or judgment does not mean their complete absence: every man manifests a certain degree of lucidity in given circumstances and context. And since intelligence can be perfected in historical time, once-adequate behaviors may end up becoming signs of stupidity (maladjustment between thought and reality, or between action and reality) — we could cite the case of some superstitions.

The opposition between intelligence and stupidity is marked by a series of dualities: adaptation / maladjustment, inventiveness / repetition, concept / general idea, concern for objectivity / inability to get out of oneself.

While intelligence is inventive, stimulated by the novelty that it is itself able to create elsewhere, stupidity is compact, stagnant, it gets stuck in things, and flees time. It is the thought that has become mechanical, the body changed into an automaton. It turns life into a tic machine. Hence his comic power (see Bergson who said of the comic that he is mechanics plated on the living). With stupidity, we fall lower than man, hence the use of object metaphors (jug, gourd, broom, moon …), vegetable (squash, gherkin, potato …), and animal (donkey, turkey, goose, canary, starling …) to designate it.

The stupidity is at ease in what does not change; it is conservative by nature, it would like to stop the duration and the existence, also hates everything that makes a check on the stability of things and beings: contradiction, chance, adventure, complexity. It acts as a force of inertia, and offers no hold to its adversaries (which enrages of this fact). It is the principle of regression: stupidity is involutive. His forms of expression are stereotyped (proverbs, commonplaces, clichés, prejudices, rumors …). The labels replace the words and the opinions made by the thought. In his breviary of stupidity, the philosopher Alain Roger defines stupidity as a systematic application of the identity principle: “We are as we are! “, “ It’s life ! »…

A stupidity is doxocentric. She feels at home and stays there. The Other represents a threat to her, she hates him like a freedom that escapes her. It is in front of him that stupidity (just like intelligence, for that matter) becomes a social force: Robinson Crusoe is doomed to be intelligent while he remains alone on his island; with Friday, he can not help being stupid. Is there anything more stupid than the desire for domination?

The stupidity has ideas, but crooked. As we swallow, she thinks wrong. It makes use of general ideas that are to the concept what noise is to music. It is incapable of true universal — which is translated by the Greek etymology of the term “idiot”, which means “particular”. The categorization to which it proceeds affects human groups first: thus each people will be characterized by an adjective (a stupidity to which Kant has repeatedly given, proof that no intelligence is immune). Individuals are classified in large abstract classes (“the young” and “old”, “men” and “women”, “native French” and “immigrants” etc.). That is why the dictionaries of quotations, which should present the fine flower of intelligence, are often the involuntary conservatories of a deep, silly stupidity. From the point of view of stupidity, substances and attributes are eternal. The stupidity extrapolates to an appearance of universality (she loves superlative adverbs like “all”, “never”, “always”), in which she singles the concept.

She is no less ignorant of the individual than the universal. The stupidity rejects the singularity, whether of the event, the work or the person. Every thing, every being, according to her, is a “species of” — it is not by chance that the expression is insulting.

The stupidity which does not know how stupid and who thinks itself to be intelligent laughs willingly of the stupidity imagined of another stereotyped in fatal category. The jokes about Belgians and blondes are funny only for those who presume that Belgians and blondes are unintelligent. Without this prejudice, not only the joke falls flat, but it can turn into a word of mind, so an expression of intelligence. A Belgian lost in the Sahara meets a Tuareg: “- Where is the sea? — By that, 3000 kilometers! — Nice beach! “. The word is stupid only on the condition that one has first removed the spirit from the Belgian. That we replace this one by any figure, then the stupidity becomes a touch of humor. Therefore, if stupidity is indeed present in the jokes about Belgians and blondes, it is not, contrary to what those who like them believe, in the very content of these stories, but in the stereotype assumed in all unconsciousness by the one who peddles them, who has been the object of his own enjoyment.

An analogous mechanism of reversion is observable in the blooper-who have this unfortunate tendency to mix completely heterogeneous types of discourse and attitudes: in these anthologies of a special kind, we find pell-mell objective marks of ignorance, real nonsense, absurdities and indisputable banalities, but also simple clumsiness, and even just and strong ideas, even subtle, deep paradoxes that the author stupidly pointed — so that the conclusion that one draws from this reading is analogous to that which is deduced from the jokes mentioned above: the stupidity of the blooper is less in the content of their articles than in the project of the author who has collected them, it is on the side of his enunciation , and not that of statements. Added to this is the painful impression that the author of the sottisier places himself a priori and very generously in the camp of the intelligence and exercises a censorship function which he is quite incapable of assuring.

Today the bloopers have entered the age and the sphere of the audio-visual one. They proliferate on television and on the Internet. The falls and lapses (this word means “fall” precisely) form the content of almost all of these brief filmed sequences that manifest, as before, only the stupidity of those who believe them stupid and those who, at their next, laugh. A slip of the tongue, clumsiness and failure are not signs of stupidity but that is how they are given to hear. The message common to these stagings (most of these sequences supposed to have been taken on the spot were arranged) that the author shares with the audience, is this: they are stupid, unlike me.

The use of the principle of identity in the discourse of stupidity has been mentioned above. “I am as I am” is the perfect application of this principle since identity is at the same time the form, as a principle, and the content, as an affirmation of identity. The stupidity does not want to know anything about the others and the world, because it believes everything to know (position of the non-dupe). In her essay The stupidity improves, Belinda Cannone shows what inflections stupidity knows in the present society. One is not stupid on a television set or in a radio studio as one was stupid at the court of Versailles, even if the fool of today is the partial heir of the fat of formerly (a precisely fallen word obsolete). Individualism has passed by, with its two growing pathologies: egocentrism and narcissism. No longer being able to be interested in anything other than oneself, no longer being able to have any other object of love than oneself: here is assuredly the psychic frame within which the present stupidity can unfold all at his ease. So the “Be yourself! Which, for a time, was a liberating injunction against the powers that hindered the self, has become, under the guise of authenticity, a categorical imperative for stupidity. The media is rehashing it. A note in passing: it is not impossible that depression, which the World Health Organization says will be the disease of the twenty-first century, is, at the same time as its effect, an unconscious way to escape pressures of a world that continues to cultivate this narcissistic stupidity.

Just as one is indignant only at what others do (hence the extraordinary popularity of this affect), one no longer laughs at oneself, which the geniuses of burlesque cinema knew how to do. It is hardly surprising that laughter, which is the manifestation of a symbolic revenge on the pains of existence, has become the dominant expression of stupidity. In the form of derision, which Spinoza tied to sadness and contrasted with laughter of joy, laughter hides the absence of thought while making one believe in one’s own critical freedom. The current media are full of this derision that draws the territory of a community without power or intelligence.

Consent to stupidity is one of the ordinary cowardice that is most difficult to escape. The co-worker who would not laugh after hearing a machismo or racist joke would then show an intolerable pretense, so his inability to stay on the team. There is a despotism of stupidity (the use of Hitler’s greeting was a caricatural example) which immediately indicates, without the mediation of the word, the excluded of the group. The stupidity can be cultivated, in the sense of maintained. Totalitarianisms embody it. But there is also a democratic stupidity, which is expressed in words and values ​​of consensus.

If the commonplace is characterized by its inertia, it has a specific efficiency. One could even argue that it states less than it acts. His use is (to borrow John Langshaw Austin’s concept) performative. The commonplace is more of an action than a judgment. The one who, indeed, reflects it, does not think (many commonplaces — not all! — are false or inept); on the other hand, it gives itself the imaginary force of the society of which it forms part and whose common place is the symbolic equivalent. When the TV reporter announces “a great moment of emotion” or that the politician says he has “no lesson to receive from anyone”, they provoke stimuli similar to the ringtones that announce the meals or the end of class.

If stupidity did not enjoy, it would not be so widespread. Foolishness always has a certain power, sometimes it has it, supreme. Note that this is the power of evil and that is why we can not reduce stupidity to a problem of aesthetics. Most of the intellectuals who wrote about stupidity — Flaubert, Léon Bloy, and Robert Musil — had an aesthetic stance on her. All in all, what they criticized above all for stupidity is its lack of taste and style. It is no coincidence that Flaubert was doubly obsessed with stupidity and style. But stupidity does more than faults of taste, and if it makes us ashamed to be men, it’s because wars and genocides are its most abominable expressions.

In a mass individualistic society such as ours, tempted at the same time by the scattering of ideas and minds and by consensus, commonplaces are a means of making or redoing the link. With the commonplace, I am no longer alone. The stupidity is warm, and gives heart to the work. Is not the number a sufficient criterion of certainty? The old consensus argument is still implicit: what I think is true since everyone thinks so!

It is therefore understandable why the commonplace signals the democratic age of societies. In the aristocratic societies of the old regime, a ready-made expression scarcely exceeded the narrow sphere of a caste. The people had proverbs to the extent that they did not have the floor. It is no surprise, then, that with the characteristic speech of the democratic age, proverbs tend to disappear: in fact, today there are hardly any more than the old ones to recall one from time to time, the younger generations no longer know proverbs (no more sayings). The common place can therefore be understood as the substitute for the proverb — and also, one could add, as the substitute for the quotation (which a sociology of language could study the similar disappearance).

The commonplaces of yesterday are often difficult to understand. In the Dictionary we read Flaubert’s received ideas at the entry “Official”: “Impose respect whatever the function it fulfills” and at the entrance “Olive oil”: “Never good “or at the entrance” Smell of the feet “:” Sign of health “. No Frenchman of 2014 will believe like his ancestors of 1870 that there is “everywhere arsenic but that yet people eat it”. It is to such notations that we realize that stupidity is also a matter of fashion … The stupidity has a story like everything that comes out of the human brain. That said, there are themes that resist the moods of the moment. Thus the weather he has done has remained that “eternal subject of conversation” which Flaubert mocked.

It should be noted in passing that, contrary to what almost every philosopher, since Plato, has argued, a commonplace is not necessarily false. It happens indeed that public opinion is right, even against sneers and critics intellectuals: thus the idea pinned by Flaubert on the photograph: “Will destroy the painting”, can it no longer be declared, a hundred and fifty years later, foolish or absurd, it seems obvious to us that the extraordinary metamorphosis of painting from Impressionism, which has progressively removed it from the duty of representing the sensitive reality as faithfully as possible, is in part because this goal was achieved much more accurately and quickly by photography. It happens therefore, reason of trouble, that stupidity is right.

In the Age of Enlightenment, Rousseau was almost the only one to sense the existence of perils that intelligence could impose on the human being. Intelligence willingly produces social evil: to humiliate, to exploit the other, to kill it is very far from being the prerogative of stupidity. Intelligence has legitimized and forged servitude as surely as emancipation. Moreover, what can the intelligence be worth since it protects neither ignorance nor vulgarity, nor even, as we have seen, stupidity? Putting into the service of power, of a will to power that is not Nietzschean, intelligence can be more formidable than stupidity. Many disasters in history have been caused by intelligent people. Nietzsche said that with knowledge humanity now had a great means to destroy itself. Modern technoscience shows us enough what disasters the most sophisticated sciences and techniques are capable of provoking. But, will it be said, is this not precisely the sign of the most disturbing stupidity? Max Weber showed the possibility of a divorce between what he called the rationality of means and the rationality of ends. Man is able to deploy treasures of intelligence at the service of inept ends. In the face of the now unchallengeable power of modern techniques, Hannah Arendt and Günther Anders drew this terrified observation: the human being is no longer able to think what he is doing. Such is the banality of evil — no longer be able to think what one does. But what is stupidity, if not the absence of thought? Conclusion: intelligence (that of science and technology) stupefies humanity to an unprecedented degree.

Such a contrast is also observable in the economic sphere, and is likely to relativize traditional indignations. What represents a foolishly uttered foolishness, denounced (not without jubilation) by the esthete, beside the deep stupidity of ambition and greed that lead the world today? Yes, stupidity exists, but not at first among those we used to laugh since Aristophanes. The stupidity of the “prose of the world” (to use Hegel’s expression) is disturbing, it has the strength of the most powerful weapons, surveillance and control techniques, that of financial mathematics. in the sense of destruction that it goes: devastation of the environment, disintegration of society and, finally, liquidation of the human being himself. What greater harm could one conceive?




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