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Humility Is a Dynamic Embodied Capacity

Humility involves modest, selfless, and respectful action toward all.

Key points

  • When we define things as intellectual, we forget who we really are.
  • Humble, effortless action requires intergenerational developmental support.
  • Our actions are embodied (neurobiologically felt), embedded (varying by situation), and enactivist (action-based).

When compared with traditional communities around the world, U.S. culture today is far from what one could call humble. Its institutions and practices tend to be cruel (Serwer, 2021) rather than modest, selfless, and respectful, the typical characteristics of humility (Narvaez, 2019).

Spezio and Roberts (2019) define humility in relational terms. They emphasize judgments of four kinds: other-orientedness, positive expressiveness in relationship, regulation of self-oriented emotions, and an accurate view of the self. Although these cognitive and mechanistic notions (categorizing and separating functions) are useful in measurement, humility needs to be considered within the dynamic enterprise of living.

Following an updated cognitive science that emphasizes so-called 4E cognition—embodied, embedded, enactive, extended (Newen, De Bruin & Gallagher, 2018)—I expanded (2019) the definition of humility to include notions of embodiment (neurobiologically felt), embeddedness (varying by situation), and enactivism (action-based). In other words, the self-regulatory systems of the body that undergird social relations (e.g., vagus nerve, stress response, neuroendocrine systems like the oxytocinergic system) are well-functioning (Carter & Porges, 2013). Moreover, social skills and micro-skills are well developed (good right hemisphere development; Schore, 2019), and implicit social worldview is prosocial and trusting (Tomkins, 1965).

These capacities are capped by deliberate or conscious understandings and cultural stories that support relational cooperation (Four Arrows & Narvaez, in press). Interestingly, these capacities are initially shaped in early life by caregivers and communities, fostered when basic needs are fulfilled (Narvaez, 2018). Therefore, humility cannot be considered an individual characteristic alone but must involve multiple generations (Narvaez, 2019).

Concertedly the self-regulatory, social, worldview, and trait-like components lead to relational attunement and flexibility in the moment (Narvaez, 2014). Having well-functioning subsystems allows one to "lose the self" effortlessly in the flow of life (what the Taoists call wu-wei), with compassion and wisdom in social situations.

Wu-wei was documented by Sorenson (1998) around the world in hunter-gatherer societies and is the primary characteristic of virtuous being (Varela, 1999). Wu-wei contrasts with yu-wei, goal-directed thinking and action. Those who are learning skills often initially have to use a yu-wei approach to learn procedures before they reach automatic mastery.

The ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius (1998) encouraged his students to extend their imaginations into new situations to enable virtuous actions. But yu-wei is so commonplace now that we think it is normal to conduct our lives with goal-directedness. According to Taoist philosophy, yu-wei did indeed bring about civilization, leading to the downfall of well-being (Lent, 2021).

My definition of relational humility adds to Spezio and Roberts’ definition the following: appropriate embodied resonance and self-coordinated responsiveness to the other in the moment, enhancing their well-being through intersubjective interpersonal verbal and nonverbal communication. In traditional communities, the “others” include diverse humans and other than humans (e.g., animals, plants, rivers) (Four Arrows & Narvaez, in press).

This definition avoids a yu-wei, cognition-focused definition. It also represents a state of hypo-egoism that focuses on the situation and concrete action, avoiding too much introspection or social evaluation (Leary & Banker, 2019). Just like moral virtue, humility is not an intellectual thing but embodied other-orientation, a wu-wei.

Since at least literate culture if not before, the industrialized world has shifted to an emphasis on the intellect and yu-wei. That is, yu-wei morality has to do with reasoning well (objectively and logically) and acting on the reasoned right thing to do. It’s not a surprise that the persons who came up with these ideas were philosophers who spend a great deal of their time thinking, not nurturing the young. As philosopher, Annette Baier (1987) has noted, most of the philosophers who established western philosophical foundations were male “clerics, misogynists, and puritan bachelors” (p. 48).

Yu-wei morality is lauded as though humans are disembodied computers. Instead of conflating ethical behavior with disembodied judgment, wu-wei morality is embodied, embedded, enactivist (Narvaez, 2016), emphasizing the nature of our immediate coping with what we face (Varela, 1999).

To learn humble wu-wei, the best approach is to foster and maintain it within supportive communities that provide the evolved nest from the beginning of life (Narvaez, 2014). See more about how traditional societies grow humble members here.


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Four Arrows, & Narvaez, D. (in press). Restoring the kinship worldview: Indigenous voices introduce 28 precepts for rebalancing life on planet earth. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

Leary, M.R., & Banker, C.C. (2019). A Critical Examination and Reconceptualization of Humility. In J. Wright (Ed.), Humility (pp.). In book series, Multidisciplinary perspectives on virtues (N. Snow & D. Narvaez, series eds.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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