What are intellectual virtues?

“Intellectual virtues” are the deep personal qualities or character strengths required for good thinking and learning.

To better pinpoint this concept, consider: What do we tend to associate with good thinking and learning? One familiar answer is knowledge. Good thinkers often know a lot; at a minimum, they aren’t ignorant. Another familiar answer is raw cognitive ability. Good thinkers also tend to be intelligent or to have a reasonably high IQ.

 


 

 


 

However, a person can be very knowledgeable and intellectually “gifted” while also being intellectually hasty, lazy, dishonest, arrogant, servile, distracted, superficial, careless, or closed-minded. These latter qualities prevent a person from thinking or learning well. And they are “characterological” in nature. They are cultivated dispositions to act, think, and feel in particular ways.

These considerations underscore the fact that good thinking and learning have a character-based dimension. They require the practice of qualities like intellectual carefulness, perseverance, honesty, humility, attentiveness, and thoroughness. These are intellectual virtues.

 


 

"A person can be very knowledgeable and intellectually gifted while also being intellectually hasty, lazy, dishonest, arrogant, servile, distracted, superficial, careless, or closed-minded."

 


 

Often when we think or talk about “virtues,” we have in mind moral or civic virtues. However, while related to moral and civic virtues in important ways, intellectual virtues are distinct. Moral virtues can be thought of as the character strengths of a good “neighbor” (e.g. kindness, compassion, generosity) and civic virtues as the character strengths of a good citizen (e.g. tolerance, respect, civic responsibility). Intellectual virtues, by contrast, are the character strengths of a good thinker or learner (e.g. curiosity, attentiveness, intellectual courage). While they intersect with moral and civic virtues in interesting ways, it is important to maintain a distinction between intellectual virtues and these other types of virtues.

Click here for a list and brief definitions of nine core intellectual virtues.