What’s wisdom?

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.”

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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14 Responses to What’s wisdom?

  1. Rob says:

    “…an intentional self-deception based on a truthful insight.”

    Supposing this guy was motivated by an ineluctably terminal diagnosis, and that there can be wisdom in “an intentional self-deception based on a truthful insight,” I wonder how that motivation is supposed to be structured for him to qualify as wise.


  2. Huenemann says:

    I think that guy may have missed an important truthful insight.


  3. Maybe wisdom doesn’t come in a neat box, maybe wisdom is the word we apply after we’ve done something or accomplished something that has turned out the way we wanted it to.


  4. Conceivably, wisdom might consist in knowing that nothing is important. (Such knowledge, it seems to me, would still be consistent with leading the life of a paradigmatically “wise” man, particular since the fact that nothing is important would be, perforce, unimportant.)


  5. Huenemann says:

    Paul: I think that’s often true. We luck out, and then either consciously or subconsciously devise a story which makes it seem like we had wise foresight. Still, it does seem to me that sometimes we really do make wise choices, and knowingly.

    Michael: I did consider that, but (maybe because of my shallow mind) it’s hard for me to imagine anyone really carrying that insight through. If I truly believe nothing is important, what sort of life would I lead? Some anarchic, random life, in which I accepted all things as equally value-less? Would that plausibly be judged a wise life to live?


  6. Rob says:

    I don’t see how importance can be fully discarded, rather than displaced. If nothing is important and wisdom consists in living in some way which properly reflects, absorbs or manifests this truth, then some kind(s) of life (or lives) are in some way better than others. So the fact that nothing is important would indeed be important, no?


  7. Kleiner says:

    Don’t forget the importance of identity politics regarding the question of wisdom:

    This from the WSJ on the Sotomayor appointment:

    ‘In a speech published in the Berkeley La Raza Law Journal in 2002, Judge Sotomayor offered her own interpretation of this jurisprudence. “Justice [Sandra Day] O’Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases,” she declared. “I am . . . not so sure that I agree with the statement. First, . . . there can never be a universal definition of wise. Second, I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” ‘

    Perhaps we should stop seeking wisdom, since our wisdom won’t be as wise as a minority’s wisdom.



  8. Huenemann says:

    See Brian Leiter’s take on this Sotomayor quote, which apparently is being taken out of context by various people:



  9. Must I really be bothered to enlarge upon my gnomic utterances? Well, alright. What I have in mind is a person who realizes that nothing matters, but nonetheless is instinctively motivated to engage in fulfilling, and to all appearances “wise” activity. I take it from my own experience that being in the grip of the cosmic unimportance of my life is consistent with exhilarated engagement in the world and catatonic despair of it. In my active guise, I am more “wise,” but I’m not (in those moods) *aware* of knowing that anything is more “important” than anything else. (To be Socratic in response to Rob’s query, the only thing I know that is of importance is that nothing is of importance.) So second-order awareness of “what’s important” doesn’t seem necessarily to play a part in motivating wise (or at least wiser) sorts of worldly engagement.

    Of course maybe this is the evaluative equivalent of blindsight (or if you like economics, of “revealed preference”), since my “meaningful” activity seems to betray a commitment to meaningful things. Maybe I’m collapsing all the useful distinctions between meaning, value, importance and other related evaluative concepts. Or perhaps I’m trading on the standard ambiguities that attach when relativistic considerations are implicated (e.g., why suppose cosmic or objective unimportance crowds out subjective importance?). Who the hell cares?!


  10. Huenemann says:

    Emerson: “Our moods do not believe in one another.”


  11. For a few moments, the secrets of the universe are opened to us….

    But then the genius, the savant, has to hand over the controls to the next guy down the pike, most likely the guy who just wants to eat potato chips, and insight and brilliance and salvation are all entrusted to a moron or a hedonist or a narcoleptic.

    The only way out of this mess, of course, is to take steps to ensure that you control the idiots that you become.

    –Jonathan Nolan, “Memento Mori”


  12. Huenemann says:

    The impetus behind the Constitution, no?


  13. Rob says:

    I wonder if anyone with Leonard’s disorder (at least in the film, as I’ve not read the short story) can ever be wise, since all of his decisions are made on such a fragile, if not entirely conjectural, basis periodically subject to erasure. (And setting aside the implication — again, at least in the film — that Leonard is insane, or that what transpires in the film is the figment of his insanity.) Of course, with such a narrative mindfuck of a film, I could be totally wrong about it.


  14. Mike says:

    Wisdom is just the ability to recognize how stupid you are a bit faster.


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