↑ Log In to contribute
Brian (8)

My post-discussion contemplations on WISDOM

A Contemplation on the Nature of Wisdom

Wisdom is an attribute or trait or label which we typically apply to specific people who act in ways which are unusual and interesting.
I have yet to run into a single thinker who claims that this thing called wisdom is not a trait to admire - and therefore to pursue. That is unusual. Many of the so-called desirable or virtuous human traits are contested and subject to much disagreement.
So it seemed worth my while to apply some effort to understanding the nature of wisdom.

Fortunately I have been able to discuss the subject with a number of thoughtful friends in recent weeks - and also to do a little reading on the subject.

This essay is an attempt to get my current views on the subject into some sort of order. It is my provisional answer to the fundamental question:
What is wisdom?
I apologise in advance for the several excursions into related fields  – it’s an unfortunate personal trait to be easily distracted.

Being technical by nature, I’ll start in a place of comfort by trying to categorise wisdom. Where does wisdom seem to sit in the hierarchy of human perceptions and actions (or activities of the mind)?
A good start is the idea that the mind can work at four levels when trying to make sense of (and respond to) events in the world around it. It seems to me that this is the primary activity of any conscious mind.

The four levels can be labelled (in order of complexity – and usefulness?) as follows: Data; Information; Knowledge; and Wisdom.

DATA is the basic language used by the mind to interact, via our neuronal networks, with the world. Every input to, or output from, the mind is carried via a stream of data running between the brain and our various sensory organs – like 1’s and 0’s in a digital computer’s interactions with its interfaces. But data can also exist beyond our neuronal network. For example the odometer in your car can read 120,056. That number, once perceived by the mind, is a data input from the world. There are endless examples.

INFORMATION builds off data. It is the first step a mind takes when it looks at data. As useful as raw data can be to the autonomous processes of life - it is completely useless to the conscious mind. It needs to be converted into information to start being useful. So when your mind perceives the odometer reading of 120,056 you run that through your mind’s ‘information processor’ which gives you the following information: my car has now completed 120,056 kilometers. This is the direct meaning of that received data. Here you might object by saying “ but now I know that my car’s mileage is 120,056 – so this must qualify as KNOWLEDGE!” I respond by asking you to be patient. I am trying to use the words ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’ in a more precise way than they are usually used. I fear that we will never get a clear idea of the nature of wisdom if we use imprecise language!

KNOWLEDGE builds off information. It is a little tricky to clearly demarcate the boundary between information and knowledge but I will try! Once we have the information about the distance our car has travelled we can process that information further to attain some knowledge. For example we can ask what this means for the servicing of the car. So we draw into consideration other separate information which may be useful (like the service history or the fact that there is a strange noise emanating from the engine etc) and put this through the ‘knowledge processor’ to reach the conclusion that the car should be booked for a service. This is knowledge (albeit trivial knowledge). I think the key criterion is that the mind is taking different pieces of information and synthesising them into a single piece of knowledge. A much more interesting example would be the discoveries of science (such as the laws of gravity or of quantum mechanics) or of engineering (such as how to build and launch a space station or to build a bridge). These things amount to KNOWLEDGE – useful capacities which our minds have developed by working with data and information which we have collected from different sources. But no amount of synthesising of information alone seems to deliver wisdom.

So to WISDOM. I think we can start saying what wisdom is NOT data, information nor knowledge. I often find it useful, when trying to grasp the nature of some complex idea, to start narrowing the field by excluding possibilities.
So having excluded data, information and knowledge can we exclude anything else?

What about intelligence? Can we say that intelligence is the same thing as wisdom? It seems not. There are plenty of examples of very intelligent people who could never be considered wise. Anyone who has studied at university has witnessed the professor with a high IQ but no sign of wisdom. History is crowded with highly intelligent people who would never make it onto a list of the wise – particularly in the fields of politics (whether democratic or dictatorial)!  Researcher Robert Sternberg1 has pointed to a key difference between wisdom and intelligence. He claims that intelligence seeks knowledge in order to eliminate ambiguity (science being an excellent example of this); whereas wisdom seeks knowledge in order to understand ambiguity better, to grasp the deeper meaning of what is known and to understand the limits of knowledge

It could be said that intelligence seeks to eliminate uncertainty while wisdom seeks to understand and embrace it.

It could also be proposed that good judgement is the same thing as wisdom. Some people might call this “common sense”. Now good judgement in, say, the tactics of rugby does not amount to wisdom. But could it be said that a person with good judgement in all things must be wise.  Hmmmm – interesting thought. A person could have good judgement on the best way to murder someone. He could also have good judgement on the morally right way to act in a particular difficult situation. If this ‘good judge’ was then to go about carrying out the murder, then it becomes difficult to call him wise – in spite of his good judgement on the moral question. On the other hand if he acts according to his moral good judgement – but simply leaves the murderous good judgement as an intellectual exercise in his mind – then it may be possible for him to qualify as wise. I think this shows that good judgement is not the same thing as wisdom. Good judgement is not action – and in the end wisdom is about action. We consider people to be wise based on the actions they have taken in their lives – not just their intellectual capacities and contemplations. So good judgement may be a necessary component of wisdom – but no more.

The example above raises the question: Is morality a part of wisdom? Could we say that a wholly moral person is automatically a wise person? In simpler terms: Can a wise person be a bad person? A dictator who wishes to conduct a campaign of genocide could exhibit ‘good’ judgement in his executing of the campaign. Does that make him wise? Not if morality is a part of wisdom. We will need to dig more deeply before answering this question. I will come back to it.

Having found that possessing wisdom is not the same thing as possessing intelligence, knowledge or good judgement; we are saying these things are not synonymous with wisdom. Self-evidently a person is going to need at least a smattering of these traits in order to attain wisdom. Wisdom would be hard to find in a person with no knowledge or no intelligence or no common sense!

The next logical step is to try to determine what attributes (traits) are necessary ‘components’ of wisdom. Can we construct a list of traits which, together, amount to wisdom?

When asked what wisdom is, most people start by thinking about specific people that they feel are/were wise. People such as Ghandi, Budda, Mandela, Socrates, Jesus, the Dalai Lama, a grandmother or a memorable school-teacher, would be some common examples. One may then try to work out what it is that makes these people wise. This is the approach taken by most of the formal researchers into wisdom.

A good example is the work done by wisdom researcher Monika Ardelt2. She has used her research to construct a three dimensional model to define wisdom: cognitive, reflective and affective
• The cognitive dimension includes the desire to deeply know and understand things, including the limits of our knowing. 
• The reflective dimension represents the capacity for self-reflection, and the capacity to see things from many perspectives. 
• The affective dimension of wisdom is empathy and compassion. 
So she claims that a wise person is one who desires to deeply understand things; who is humble and aware of the limitations of knowing; who can see things from many perspectives (avoiding black and white thinking); and who exhibits empathy and compassion. She is claiming that all these traits are necessary to achieve wisdom.

Now let’s subject Ardelt’s model to some Socratic investigation in two steps. Firstly, can we find any traits in her model which are not a necessary part of wisdom? Secondly can we find any additional traits (not covered in her model) which are essential to wisdom?

The Cognitive dimension: Do wise people have a thirst for deep knowledge and do they embrace the limits to that knowledge? Well it is difficult to imagine a wise person not being keen to learn and to understand more about the world. But why are the limits to our knowledge important? I know of 3 sorts of limits to knowledge:

• knowledge which exists but is not known by a particular individual;
• knowledge which is potentially able to be known but is, as yet, unknown by any individual (eg future scientific discoveries) and
• knowledge which will always be beyond mankind’s capability to know (as demonstrated by the likes of Kant, Popper and Godel).

I could spend several pages on this but will simply summarise by stating that it seems hard to imagine how a person could attain wisdom without being dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, and all it’s limits – at least in some fields of human activity.

The Reflective dimension. Do wise people look critically at their own characters, motivations and actions? Do they put themselves in “other people’s shoes” when trying to understand a situation? Well I should hope so!!! A person who chooses not to do these things is simply a bigot, a dogmatist or prejudiced. Certainly not wise.

The Affective dimension. It is hard to imagine a person being empathetic but not compassionate – and vice versa. The two go together. Now think about that list of people you consider wise - and try to find one of them who is/was not compassionate and empathetic to a noticeable degree. According to the dictionary the opposites of “compassion” are “cruelty, harshness, hatred, indifference, meanness, mercilessness and tyranny”. It’s a no-brainer!

So I have not found Ardelt’s model faulty in terms of it’s inclusions – but has she left anything out?

One trait we have touched on is whether morality plays a role in wisdom. Can bad people be wise? There was some disagreement on this question in my discussions with friends. I think it is a very important question.
If we go back to our lists of wise people we will not find anyone who could be generally considered a “bad person”. But now consider the question: Did any of the people on the list do anything bad? They all did at least some things which were morally problematic (apart from Jesus as depicted in the bible).  This leads us, necessarily, on a diversion from morality into some thinking on the ‘properties’ of wisdom.

Thoughts on the properties of wisdom lead me to the following questions:
• Is a wise person wise “in all things at all times”?
• Does a wise person wake up one morning wise – or is their wisdom gained via a never-ending process over time?

The answer to the second question seems obvious to me. Wisdom cannot be some sort of simplistic  ‘yes/no’ achievement like managing to run 100m in under 10 seconds. It is not some easily measurable threshold which you have either attained – or have not. It seems to be a continuous process – probably with no clear threshold or endpoint.

The first question is much harder. We must remember that wisdom is not knowledge. It is inconceivable that any person could have full knowledge of everything. Most people who are considered “knowledgeable” have great knowledge in a narrow field of endeavour. But is it inconceivable for a wise person to show wisdom in all fields of endeavour? If a wise person finds herself in a situation where she has negligible knowledge about a situation (say the pilot of the two-seater plane she is a passenger in collapses while in flight) she still has the possibility of taking wise actions. She does not have the knowledge to fly the plane but she is still able to make wise decisions on how to react. Socrates is the textbook example of this. It was claimed by the Oracle of Delphi that Socrates was the wisest man in Athens. Socrates response was that the only thing he knew for certain – is that he knew nothing with certainty. His starting point in trying to answer a question was that he had no knowledge – he only had further questions.
I am thus inclined to the view that wisdom is not context-specific as a general rule. But it seems possible that a person who is on the road to gaining wisdom may be wiser in some contexts than in others at certain times in their progression.
This “unevenness” of the gaining of wisdom could also apply to the rate at which wisdom is attained. Researchers have claimed that traumatic events and adversity tend to accelerate the attaining of wisdom (at least in some people). So the climbing of the mountain of wisdom has steep bits, easy bits and different terrains by which to achieve altitude/wisdom. And of course the peak (of perfect wisdom) is unattainable!

So back to the question of whether morality is a part of wisdom. Big question. A quick way to look at this would be to take the traditional list of 7 virtues (good moral behaviours) and 7 vices (bad moral behaviours). Then to ask whether we can conceive of a wise person having any of the vices as a character trait.
The Seven traits are:
Humility v Arrogance/Egotism
Charity v Greed
Diligence v Sloth
Patience v Wrath
Kindness v Envy
Chastity v Lust
Temperance v Gluttony

So do any of the people on our wise lists exhibit arrogance, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, lust and gluttony? Remember we believe that wisdom is not some perfect state – so we are asking whether any of these vices were/are a foundational aspiration or goal for our wise people. At worst I reckon the wise have typically fought against these vices in their own lives and would have discouraged them in others. I think the opposite could be said about the virtues.
If you find this to be an arguable statement on my part – great. We are about to launch into an investigation of the virtues and vices in our Socratic Forum discussions so feel free to come along and object (End of commercial!)

So I would contend that wisdom does have a moral dimension. Ardelt’s model does not spell this out - although her Affective dimension has strong moral underpinnings.

Has Ardelt neglected any other traits in her model? I cannot find any – but will continue to contemplate the question.
If you have managed to read this essay without falling to sleep please let me know if you have found anything missing from the model.

So my provisional answer to the question: What is Wisdom?

Wisdom is made up of four essential dimensions as follows:

Cognitive – the desire to deeply know and understand things, including the limits of our knowing. This includes embracing uncertainty and doubt as being fundamental and permanent aspects of existence.

Reflective - the capacity for self-reflection, and the capacity to see things from different perspectives.

Affective – the capacity for empathy and compassion.

Moral – a desire to act in a morally good way.


I have not addressed the question:
How can a person become wise?
That is for another time. But I will finish with Proust’s view on the matter:

We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, and effort which no one can spare us”.- Marcel Proust

1. http://www.amazon.com/Wisdom-Its-Nature-Origins-Development/dp/0521367182
2. http://users.clas.ufl.edu/ardelt/How_wise_people_cope.pdf