What is Wisdom?

An article in the April 7th, 2012 edition of The Economist contained a small gem, a description of how some psychologists define wise reasoning:

  1. Willingness to seek opportunities to resolve conflict;
  2. Willingness to search for compromise;
  3. Recognition of the limits of personal knowledge;
  4. Awareness that more than one perspective on a problem can exist;
  5. Appreciation of the fact that things may get worse before they get better.

Thomas Wilfred’s “Opus 161" used in the film The Tree of Life.

When I read this it prompted me to look for other ways of defining and understanding the nature of “wisdom.” One interesting project comes out of The University of Chicago. They have an interdisciplinary initiative called the Defining Wisdom Research Network (http://wisdomresearch.org/), “a $2 million research program on the nature and benefits of wisdom.”

One of the efforts was a series of workshops to define and explore the nature of wisdom. Some of the group’s thoughts are:

As one might expect, a variety of different characterizations of wisdom were employed throughout the weekend. Simine Vazire (Washington University, philosophy) takes wisdom to be akin to self-knowledge.

Tori McGreer (Princeton University, philosophy), drawing on George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, takes the development of wisdom to require progress along two dimensions: moral energy that sustains our drive to action and moral vision that informs us about what it’s like to be another.

Michael Sargent (Bates College, psychology) liked this idea, that wisdom involves a kind of discounting of one’s selfish interests, and added that wisdom should also include a temporal discount function that mitigates our tendency to downplay future consequences of our actions.

Judith Glück (Alpen-Adria Universität, psychology) favors the MORE model of wisdom, which defines wisdom in terms of Mastery (where this includes an appreciation of the lack of control that we have over much of our lives), Openness to experience, Reflectiveness, and Empathy/Emotion.

Eddy Nahmias (Georgia State University, philosophy and neuroscience) defines wisdom as the psychological capacities involved in decision-making and action control that contribute to people living good or flourishing lives.

Valerie Tiberius (University of Minnesota, philosophy) thinks of wisdom similarly, as the skills, habits and dispositions that are necessary for judging and choosing what matters.

The fact that wisdom does seem to involve so many capacities (empathy, self-knowledge, reflection, and so on) made some of us worry that wisdom is too amorphous. If wisdom just colonizes every useful capacity we have, it doesn’t really seem like a single virtue.

At our meeting, different answers to this worry were expressed. A first thought was that since wisdom concerns judgment and decision-making in particular, it will not include every virtue. Generosity, for example, might seem unnecessary for good decision-making. But this way of thinking didn’t hold up for two reasons. First, virtues that aren’t virtues of judgment can nevertheless improve judgment by changing the inputs to the process.

For example, generosity can improve decision-making when others’ needs are at stake by ensuring that generous actions are presented as attractive and viable options. Second, we agreed that practical wisdom involves not just good judgment but also acting consistently with that judgment. If this is the case, then many virtues are necessary for wisdom. As Tori pointed out, even courage seems like something that could be cultivated as part of the project of becoming wiser, because courage helps us to bring our actions in line with what we think is important.

Simine’s answer was to deny that there is really a problem here: why not just think that wisdom is everything good that is in our control? One reason has to do with problems that have come up for the unity of the virtues. The thesis of the unity of the virtues says that you can’t have any virtue without having practical wisdom and if you have practical wisdom, you have all the other virtues. Plato held this view, but it is not a popular position now, because there seems to be a lot of evidence that people can be virtuous in one dimension without being virtuous in all. For example, some people are very kind but not courageous, or temperate but not generous.

Our discussion led us to favor the view that there is a limited kind of unity, an asymmetrical unity such that you can’t have wisdom without having the other virtues, though you can have the other virtues (to some degree) without having wisdom. One could interpret this view in one of two ways: First, one could hold that wisdom is comprised of the other virtues such that any virtue is a part of wisdom. Or, second, one could hold that wisdom only comprises those virtues that have to do with deliberation, judgment, and decision-making; virtues that have to do with producing appropriate action may contribute to the same end as wisdom but they are not a part of wisdom.

It may not matter much which of these interpretations one takes. One might even think that wisdom has a narrow and a broad sense so that both views get something right. We can think of it in its narrow sense when we want to distinguish it from other virtues that we want to discuss separately, but we can also think of it in its broad sense when we are thinking about who has wisdom and we find ourselves reluctant to ascribe real wisdom to people who lack action-oriented virtues like courage.

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