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Philosopher Heather Battaly talks to former bartender Rosie Schaap, author of Drinking with Men and the forthcoming memoir The Slow Road North, about if and how intellectual humility shows up in bar culture.


Sara Ivry: Hi everyone! I’m Sara Ivry, the features editor at JSTOR Daily, and I’m excited to tell you about a special podcast series we’ve posted on our website about intellectual humility. Broadly defined, that is an openness to being wrong. In the episode that follows, you’ll be treated to a conversation between Professor Heather Battaly and Rosie Schaap on how to be intellectually humble in a bar where alcohol might inflame your passions and opinions. Heather Battaly is a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut. Rosie Schaap is a former bartender, and she’s also the author of Drinking With Men: A Memoir and Becoming a Sommelier. So pour yourself a belt if you’d like one or some tea and enjoy their conversation.

Heather Battaly: So folks might wonder why, as a philosophy professor, I’m talking with a bartender. One of the reasons we’re talking today is that in addition to spending a lot of time thinking about vices like close mindedness and arrogance, I spend a lot of time thinking about intellectual humility, and intellectual humility we can roughly think of it as a way of owning our cognitive limitations and a way of being aware of and admitting our ignorance and gaps in knowledge. And so, we wanted to bring this conversation outside the academy and get Rosie’s input about whether—and, if so, how—intellectual humility might be relevant to what happens in a bar. Can you just start by telling us a little bit about how you became a bartender?

Rosie Schaap:  Sure. Strangely enough, I kind of always wanted to be a bartender. You know, speaking of vice, Heather, I started sneaking into bars fairly young. I won’t say how young, but I grew up in New York City, and back then, I think it was easier than it is now. And it always seemed like a really great office to me. You got to interact with all these different people, make them happy, ideally, have great conversations, and—I’m sure we’ll get into this a little more—what I what I discovered early on, you got to learn from a lot of people, so it always appealed to me. You know, it’s like a small stage. I was never a very good actor, but a little stage always appealed to me. And of course, as a as a college student, I really wanted to make a little more money and just, you know, the atmosphere of a good bar made lots possible for me.

Battaly: So, can you say a little bit about why you thought you might be good at being a bartender? Like what kinds of people skills you thought you might have that would lend themselves to bartending, and what kinds of cognitive skills might be involved in bartending?

Schaap: You know, I don’t think I was thinking about cognitive skills at all when I first started bartending. I did think I was good with people. I’m always interested in people. And always interested in the people brought together by bars. I like to think I make a nice drink. So all of these things came together, and I don’t think this is an uncommon story for bartenders. I started working in a bar where I had been a regular.

Battaly: I imagine depending on what the clientele of the bar is, you might be getting more diversity among patrons or less diversity among patrons in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, class, age. So, what kinds of conversations might happen in the community where you have been a bartender on a sort of typical night?

Schaap: It’s a long list. Heather, you know, so I’ll try to narrow it down, but first I want to say that, you’re right. All of those factors play a part in the kinds of conversations that might happen in a bar. So, thinking back again to my earliest bartending experience in a very small-town bar in a very small college town in Vermont, it was certainly a mix of students, staff, faculty from the college, but also local people. And, you know, I think it would’ve been hard not to notice a difference in class. So there could be very different conversations going on. And I think, you know, a kind of code switching comes into it in some way, where, for example, Heather, it might not shock you to hear, I had a philosophy professor who came round fairly often for a drink, and literature professors, and they would talk about their subject. And then with regulars, there was a wonderful man in the bar who was an auto mechanic, and I knew nothing, nothing about—I still don’t drive—I’m fifty-two now, and I still don’t drive. So that tells you how much.

Battaly: You were a New Yorker originally, so. Yeah.

Schaap: Thank you for kind of giving me a pass there. But if he wanted to talk about his day in the auto repair shop, that was fine. If I was clueless—and I think this was probably my first intimation of something like intellectual humility, even if I would not have recognized it as such at the time—what is that? You know, I don’t know what a carburetor is. Or tell me all about your day at work, but I’m going to tell you, most of it won’t make any sense to me at all.

Battaly: Right. So some conversations might come up where you don’t know anything, and an intellectually humble response might be something like just admitting you don’t know instead of like, nodding along and pretending you know, right? Or trying to steer the conversation around to something that you already know something about. Asking questions about carburetors.

Schaap: Well, I’d love to hear a little more about that, Heather. You know, because I’m still pretty new to this whole intellectual humility idea, and I’m finding it fascinating. And I know that in your work on it, one of the issues, you know, there’s such a thing as too little intellectual humility, but there’s also such a thing, perhaps, as too much.

Battaly: Yeah. I mean, I guess one way of thinking about when intellectual humility is good and when it might be a virtue, is to think about the contrast cases when having too much intellectual humility might be really bad, when it might result in something like being servile or something like that. When somebody might think they don’t know things that they really do know or underestimate their skills, or not trust their skills and abilities, or defer to other people when they shouldn’t be deferring other people. So that’s one way, I think, in which intellectual humility might go wrong. But the more common way are cases where somebody doesn’t have enough intellectual humility, where they’re arrogant, right. It’s that they’re completely oblivious to the fact that they’re ignorant about all kinds of things.

Schaap: Yeah, I’ve come across a few customers like that once in a while.

Battaly: I bet you have.

Schaap: You know, one thing, working in service, in hospitality, you know, there’s often this assumption that a bartender—especially I have found this in New York—has to be something else, that it’s not a real job. There’s a certain kind of customer who doesn’t see it as, as a proper, grown-up, professional kind of job. And, you know, that was a kind of arrogance and lack of humility that I think I saw quite a bit of.

One quick story I thought I would tell you: I was still working at a bar in Brooklyn part time, when I was writing the monthly column for the New York Times Magazine. And one day a customer brought his visiting mother from out of town, and he was a regular at the bar, and he, you know, was introducing me, and I could see—and I think you can often see this when you work in hospitality—she was not going to be easy. So anyway, her son said, “Oh, you know, this is Rosie. She writes a lot about food and drink,” and without skipping a beat, his mother said, “Oh, like, for a little local paper?” And, uh, I said, “Yes, for a little local paper.”

Battaly: Right.

Schaap: But here’s the thing. And I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I’ve been getting ready for our talk. I think, you know, one of the things I love about bars is that every person brings their own knowledge into the bar, you know, so if there’s that guy who’s the expert on car repair, great. And listen, I know soccer pretty well, but I always had regulars who knew more than I do. And, you know, but the conversations felt more or less equal. We could banter. We could talk about it. You know, as I wrote about it and Drinking With Men in a bar where I was regular in lower Manhattan in the ’90s was full of artists. And I learned so much in that room, I thought I was a sophisticated New York person, and in some ways I was, but the people I met in that bar, you know, they were working artists. They knew so much. They had lived in New York in this time that seemed much cooler and more radical than the New York I grew up in in the ’70s, going to Max’s Kansas City. And it was like a classroom, like an alternative shadow, art school for me, or art history school, I should say. So I loved that they, you know, brought themselves as artists into the bar. And I never felt they were being didactic or performative in any way. This was just their life.

Battaly: That actually connects up with some of your work on sommeliers, I think. One of the risks of becoming a sommelier, it seems, is that patrons of restaurants might be scared to talk to you. They’re afraid, maybe because they don’t know much about wine. Or maybe, because they don’t have a lot of money to spend on a bottle of wine, so they’re afraid of being embarrassed. Can you speak a little bit about how that might play out for sommeliers and what they might try to do to address that?

Schaap: Yeah, I can. When I wrote that book, I profiled two fantastic sommeliers, Roger Dagorn and Amanda Smeltz. And I had chosen Roger Dagorn because he’s the first sommelier I ever encountered when my first husband and I, we both love food. And, you know, we’d save money in the ’90s to go out for an event of a dinner. And we always wanted to go to this restaurant, it no longer exists, but it was a wonderful restaurant called Chanterelle. And, you know, this kind of thing, you peek through the window at this kind of beautiful, serene place and think, someday. And the someday came for us. And my husband, he knew much more about wine than I did. He grew up in a small wine producing part of California, and he worked in wineries. So he who I would say was a much shyer, more reserved person than I am—he felt fine. I had a little flutter of worry as the sommelier approached the table, but it completely evaporated once Roger started talking and we made it clear, you know, that we could only spend X amount. And we told him, you know, what we liked. And he was just so gracious and so kind, that we were absolutely disarmed. And I think he’s a real exemplar of an anti-snob approach.

Amanda Smeltz, the other sommelier featured in the book, she’s a rare, wonderful character in so many ways. She grew up in a very working-class family in Pennsylvania. There was never wine at their table. She came up, you know, working in regular family restaurants in Pennsylvania. And then when she went to college in Milwaukee, started working at a kind of upscale hotel restaurant, and just got really excited about wine and really rose and rose and rose in her twenties, um, through all of these very trendy New York restaurants. But she always made it clear she’s like, ‘I think of my family and how I would want us as a working-class family to be treated anywhere.’ Humility, interestingly, is a word she uses more than or she used more than once in our conversation. She demands humility of herself and of her staff. And I don’t know if she conceives of it as intellectual humility, but I bet she does. I bet she sees it in in all its dimensions.

Battaly: One of the things we were talking about earlier was this idea that sometimes too much humility can be a bad thing. And of course, not enough humility can be a bad thing, too. And it seems differences in gender, class, race, ethnicity, age might put us at higher risk for being arrogant or put us at higher risk for having too much humility. And I wonder if you think there are ways in which class differences in particular could play out.

Schaap: Yeah. I certainly think a kind of entitlement and arrogance can come along with wealth. And there are some examples in Becoming a Sommelier of that happening; just people who can’t be satisfied, can’t be made happy, can’t be wrong, you know, when it comes to ordering a bottle, who will insist that the bottle is off even when it’s not. And, you know, this isn’t true of all people of great means, but I think there is generally a greater sense of entitlement, and I would dare to say superiority. And remember, you know, when we talk about bartending or being a sommelier or being a server, we’re serving, we’re servants. And I think that that’s much more visible and meaningful to some patrons and customers than to others. So, yes, I think sommelier can get that kind of grief.

You know, with Amanda, I think, you know, being a woman, you know, just like being a woman bartender immediately with a certain kind of customer diminishes your authority, which is of course, wrong and, uh, preposterous. You know, Amanda, I mean, she—she’s just so interesting. It’s hard to think of her as deferential. Exactly. Amanda, you know, makes it clear that she would not be a sommelier, she would not find the work interesting if she weren’t in a position to teach people something. She felt like there was no point if they were just going to order, or if the restaurant where she was selecting the wines for the wine program just had the same old, same old. She found it kind of pointless. And she’s a really brilliant teacher. You know, her language is so precise, but it’s not haughty. It’s, it’s just precise. So, you know, when I watched her with customers, she’s never going to tell a customer “You’re wrong.” You know, even if an expensive bottle they claimed was no good, it was corked. Even if they were patently wrong, she wasn’t going to argue with them, but she certainly felt it was her responsibility and privilege to introduce them to something new and something she loved.

Battaly: I wanted to shift and start thinking about your role as a regular in a bar. So as you explained at the beginning of our discussion, being a regular at a bar was part of what led you to becoming a bartender. And so one of the questions I had is whether you think intellectual humility specifically has a role to play in building community within a bar?

Schaap: Yeah. I certainly think it plays a part in, in building community. It’s hard for the know-it-all, the, you know, show off—I mean, of course they exist everywhere, but I think at a certain point in this great community of, of a bar we recognize as regulars that, you know, that woman, she has an unbelievable story, and I might stand not only to hear a great story about being a sculptor in New York in the ’70s, but really learn something from her. Or, you know, that guy, you know, he’s worked as a press man for a New York newspaper, and everybody has their thing in a bar. But I think a kind of openness to people generally, which I guess is a kind of, general kind of humility, but also, you know, an awareness that, you know, they might know, not might, they surely know lots of stuff you don’t know.

Battaly: So that’s really interesting. So it seems like having an overall attitude, openness to new knowledge, being aware of and maybe having some pride in what topics you know something about and that you can share with other people, but also being aware of your ignorance about topics and having an attitude of love of learning, um, and curiosity and.

Schaap: And I hope, love of people.

Battaly: Yeah. Yeah. That’s right. Love of people as well. Yeah. That’s wonderful. Well, thank you so much for this conversation, Rosie.

Schaap: Thank you.

Battaly: I hope that this has given all of us an opportunity to think about the ways in which scholarly topic, like intellectual humility, is relevant in our everyday lives.

Ivry: That was Professor Heather Battaly and writer Rosie Schaap. We’ve got other equally riveting conversations about intellectual humility, what it is and how it might be applied. On our website, We’ve also got a reading list about intellectual humility. We hope you’ll check it all out and share it. I’m Sara Ivry the features editor at JSTOR daily. This conversation was produced by Julie Subrin with help from JSTOR Daily’s Cathy Halley and from me.

Funding for this project was provided by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center as part of its expanding awareness of the Science of Intellectual Humility initiative, which is supported by the John Templeton Foundation. Thank you so much for listening.

Listen to the rest of the “Conversations on Intellectual Humility” series on the JSTOR Daily website, or wherever you get your favorite podcasts.

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Metaphilosophy, Vol. 41, No. 1/2, SPECIAL ISSUE: VIRTUE AND VICE, MORAL AND EPISTEMIC (January 2010), pp. 1-21
Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 94, No. 3 (MAY, 2017), pp. 509-539
International Phenomenological Society