The no true Scot move

Nigel Warburton has a new blog. This post grabbed my attention the other day. It’s something I’ve wondered about often, I think. Is Anthony Grayling right to say that no truly intelligent mind can lack a sense of humour?

This sounds like a case of what Anthony Flew in his book Thinking About Thinking labelled ‘The No True Scotsman Move’. If someone says ‘No Scotsman could commit a gruesome murder’ and then is confronted with evidence that someone who was born in Scotland had committed such a murder, they explalin ‘Ah, but if they committed a murder like that, they’re not a true Scotsman’. Similarly if I manage to dig up some examples of very intelligent people who completely lack a sense of humour, no doubt Anthony Grayling will tell me they are not ‘truly intelligent’. Isn’t it wishful thinking to believe that a sense of humour should be a necessary constituent of intelligence?

Yes, maybe, and yet – and yet I think there’s something in the idea, even if the ‘no truly’ move isn’t quite the right one. No completely or no thoroughly might be a better one. People can be intelligent and yet curiously dense in certain areas – and that does (surely) tend to be part of our notion of their intelligence. A ‘yes but’ kind of thing. Yes but dang she is deaf to social nuances, sort of thing. So with a sense of humour, I think. There is something obtuse about no sense of humour – something, as I said there, dim, point-missing, obtuse, shuttered, blinkered, unobservant. Just not getting it. It’s still possible to be intelligent, but it is a flawed and incomplete kind of intelligence – even, I would claim, more flawed and incomplete than all intelligence naturally is. It’s a conspicuous cognitive flaw in an otherwise intelligent person. Wouldn’t you say? I’m not certain of this, it’s an intuition, but it seems right. Answers on a postcard.

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