Friday, June 29, 2007

"Humbling" Experiences?

I'm packing up now for a vacation until the 17th (to see relatives and friends in Maryland and Florida). I'll try to keep posting (and Dan Haybron is still mid-run as a guest blogger), but since I don't have access to my books and articles, things will be a little less formal.

Informally, then: If I ever I receive a major award, then maybe I'll know what's on people's minds when they call such awards "humbling" (Google humbling award for some examples). On the face of it, receiving awards seems generally to be the opposite of humbling. Nobel Prize and Academy Award receipients aren't, as a class, the humblest of folks. Nor do winners of lesser awards (various academic prizes, for example) seem generally to made more humble by the experience. (A friend of mine went on a blind date with a winner of a MacArthur Fellowship. He handed her his business card, with "certified genius" embossed on it! Unfortunately, she forget to ask for his autograph.)

Let's assume, then, that -- unlike truly humbling experiences -- winning awards doesn't make one humble. Yet the phrase is so common, I suspect there's something to it. Momentarily, at least, one can feel humbled by an award.

Here's my thought: If I receive an award that puts me in elevated company or that represents a very high appraisal of me by a group I respect, there may be a mismatch between my self-conception and the conception that others seem to have of me. My sense that I don't quite deserve to belong may be experienced as something like humility. However, ordinarily that feeling will pass. I'll adjust my self-conception upward; I'll slowly start to think of myself in terms of the award (since I'm so impressed by it!); it will be hard for me not to think less of those who haven't reached such heights.

Perversely, then, it may be exactly those people who are inclined to think of an award as "humbling" who are made less humble by attaining it. Those who were already arrogant will be unchanged -- they knew they deserved the award all along, and it's about time! And the type of person who is deeply, intrinsically humble (if there are any such people) may not be sufficiently inclined to see the award as a legitimate mark of comparison between oneself and other folks to have any striking experience of humility -- any "wow, me?!" -- in the face of it.

8 comments:

Erika said...

I think that winning an award can be a truly humbling experience. The award itself might do the opposite of “humble” a person, but that the person may humble his or her self in light of receiving the award. For example, if a person doesn’t feel worthy of being counted amongst the other “geniuses” who have received the award, they will feel meek or that their accomplishments are modest in comparison to those of others. A person may also feel awkward or uncomfortable receiving laud and glory, when they feel it is their “work”, if anything, that deserves to be celebrated. If a person is truly humble by nature, then being put in such a position would likely bring out their humility.

Conversely, a prideful person may strongly believe they deserved the award more than anyone else, and not even for a moment truly feel humility. But assuming humility is a desirable trait (or at least that no one likes boasters like Mr. “Certified Genius”), it seems natural that some or even most people would prefer to represent themselves as being humbled by an award, whether or not it is true.

But I agree that in some cases the humility may be due to a lag between self-conception and level of recognition by others.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Erika. It's hard to disagree with you!

Jim said...

Unfortunately my internal speech patterns never represent me as humble. When offered an external award or honor things then quickly get out-of-hand internally. In fact if the word humility ever comes sailing through my stream of consciousness it is usually something to the effect that "you showed them, you are no. 1 in humility."

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

{chuckle} Did Hume say that humility was not a virtue, but only the appearance of humility?

Anonymous said...

Well Eric, I think you have raised a great question that will indeed bring forth varying opinions. My opinion on the matter is that one who is truly humbled by the experience will have shown that humility throughout the entire production for which the award has been granted, in which case the individual who humbled himself was exalted and the those that were for sure that they had done all the hard work and deserved the award are humbled. Winning the award may have an adverse affect, in such that I recently read about a member of a church who was awarded a pendant for being the most humble person in the church and on the following Sunday the member wore the pendant and they took it away from him. Pride is sneaky and catches you when you least expect it and that is why I feel that so many try to lift others up with them in their glory is to let the world know that it was not by their individual efforts that they have achieved significance, but by the efforts of a whole in which they are only part. This is not true in many cases where people wil simply parade their trophy or award around and say a couple of hello's to family and friends. Thanks for the intriguing question and giving me somrthing to ponder momentarily.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, anonymous. I love the story about the pendant!

Tanya Bilsbury said...

I never thought of cross-questioning the idea that people are 'humbled' by prizes, so I had a good laugh out of it. I found this posting quite funny and clever :)

Anonymous said...

Always been wondering what a "humbling experience" implies, especially as it pertains to celebrities receiving awards. Is humility that is result of a comparison and a feeling of inferior achievements true humility?