How much intelligence does a philosophy student need?

Velvel asked:

How intelligent do you need to be to study philosophy?

Answer by Peter Jones

This is a great question. Not particularly would be my answer.

It may seem obvious that the more intelligent we are the quicker we will make progress and the further we will go. But it is possible to be too clever for our own good, and then to go very quickly a long way in completely the wrong direction.

The problem is that the more clever we are the better we will be at defending our prejudices with sophistry. We see the evidence for this all the time in the literature. Better to be a bit simple-minded but dispassionate and honest. Then we forced to simplify the issues to the point we can understand them, and cannot distort them to our own ends by fancy footwork.

In the end the answer would probably depend on what sort of philosophy we want to do, and what exactly we mean by ‘intelligence’. I would say that we don’t need to be above averagely intelligent to succeed at philosophy, just as long as we are sufficiently intelligent to be able to see the essential simplicity of the issues. Being highly intelligent may lead us to make the issues more and more complicated and put any understanding forever out of reach.

The advantage of not being particularly intelligent is that we are more likely to go slowly and cautiously, and thus to naturally follow Descartes’ rule for philosophical progress, which seems to me very good advice.

‘We ought to give the whole of our attention to the most insignificant and most easily mastered facts, and remain a long time in contemplation of them until we are accustomed to behold the truth clearly and distinctly.’
Rene Descartes – Rules for the Direction of Mind Rule IX

Very intelligent people tend to ignore this advice, and the result is that philosophy is made to seem like we would have to be equally intelligent to understand it. It’s like asking how intelligent we would have to be to understand a steam-train. It would all depend on what sort of understanding we want, and whether we would prefer an explanation from the driver or a theoretical physicist. How intelligent we would have to be to understand the explanation would depend on who we ask.


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