The University of Chicago is hosting an interdisciplinary project called Defining Wisdom. The idea is to draw on work across disciplines – philosophy, psychology, sociology, etc. – to try to gain a better picture of the nature and benefits of wisdom. I like the idea, though the project is still in a very early stage, and not a lot has come of it yet. Psychologists like Dan Gilbert (see his TED talk here) have shown that “happiness” – or at least many features of happiness — is not unreachable through experimental methods. Why not think the same is true of “wisdom”? There is a rough consensus of when the label is used correctly, which makes it prima facie plausible that there is some real meaning behind the term.
My own sense is that wisdom simply means knowing what’s important. This could be over a narrow domain: a mechanic can be car-wise or a lawyer law-wise if they know their subjects well enough to sort through the noise and grasp what’s essential in the problems that come before them. Or the knowledge could be over the broad domain of life, as when people know what activities and relationships are important in life, and gear their lives toward them.
So how do you figure out what’s important? Through the tumble of experience, usually. You find out what’s not important the hard way – by spending too much time with it and realizing that your time has been wasted. If you are lucky, you will stumble across something that really feels significant, meaning (I guess) that it gives you a lasting happiness, or at least a lack of lasting unhappiness. Seems like most humans find good interpersonal relationships, mental stimulation, and physical health to be important. Some also get that significant feeling by joining into a humanitarian cause that extends their concerns beyond their own lives. (See Gilbert’s talk, linked above, about what generally leads to human happiness.)
Two concerns, though. First, it seems possible for someone to be wise without being anywhere near happiness. Think of Schopenhauer. It doesn’t seem at all wrong to call him a wise philosopher, but his wisdom consisted in the insight that all existence is suffering and it would have been better not to have been born. Second, I can imagine someone taking the stance that “just because you think you’ve found wisdom, and feel all happy about it, doesn’t mean you are genuinely wise.”
I think the Schopenhauer concern – and we could throw in the Stoics as well – shows that happiness isn’t the only measure of wisdom. There is a truth component to wisdom in addition to the emotional component. If I feel happiness as a result of false beliefs, I’m not wise. I’m just a lucky fool. On the other hand, if I self-consciously dupe myself with the aim of feeling happy, then maybe I am wise; maybe my wisdom is that happiness is the only valuable state, and one should seek whatever brings it about. But that would be an intentional self-deception based on a truthful insight. There is plenty of room for substantive discussion here – is it ever wise to dupe oneself? Are there truths we should avoid learning? But these are questions well worth asking. I hope the “Defining Wisdom” project gets on with discussing them.
This requirement – that wisdom has to be grounded in truth – goes a long way to answering the second concern as well. At any moment, I might think I am wise, and have found true bliss, etc. – but there’s always, always the possibility I’ve deceived myself and oversimplified the world. No, not just the possibility: the probability. As Dr. House teaches, “Everybody lies.”