Whatever happened to wisdom?

SocratesThe question of wisdom, and especially of why it is barely talked about at all in the halls of philosophy departments is one that I tackled in a recent essay for The Philosophers’ Magazine Online.

I started with a passage from Plato’s Apology, where we find out that Socrates was the wisest man in Greece (until he was killed by his Athenian compatriots for corrupting their youth — and I’m pretty sure they were not talking about a sex scandal…).

I then moved on to discuss in some detail a good article on wisdom published by Sharon Ryan, of West Virginia University, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. That article explores a number of conceptions of wisdom:

  • wisdom as epistemic humility
  • wisdom as epistemic accuracy
  • wisdom as knowledge (two variants)
  • a hybrid theory of wisdom
  • wisdom as (deep) rationality

Ryan favors this last option, though I think there are some problems with it. On my part, I still like Socrates’ own conception of it, as it emerges, for example, from the Euthydemus: wisdom is the most important virtue (indeed, the only one, since all others are aspects of it) as well as the Chief Good, because it is that ability that tells us how to use anything else in life. One can be good at, say, making musical instruments, but not necessarily at playing them; or one could be good at writing political speeches, but not necessarily at delivering them. But if one is wise, then one knows what to do under all circumstances (within the limits of human fallibility), and one also knows how to properly use all other skills. That is why for Socrates the practice of wisdom was pretty much the same thing as living the good life.

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80 thoughts on “Whatever happened to wisdom?

  1. Socratic,

    “where’s the normal “Friday suggestions”?”

    Ah, demanding readers! I’m traveling back to New York as I type, so apologies for the delay. But this week’s Plato’s suggestions were just published. Enjoy!

    Coel, Socratic,

    I agree with your more nuanced understanding of Hume. But then it seems to me that much of the bite in the discussion between you and labnut gets lost. We agree that both emotions (and desires, etc.) can be pre-rational thought and influence the latter, but can also be in turn influenced by rational decision making.

    Coel,

    Needless to say, I wholly disagree that discussing wisdom isn’t worthwhile. And this very thread is an obvious testament to the value of such discussions…

    It should also go without saying that just because a concept isn’t neatly definable and/or simple it doesn’t follow that it isn’t worth pursuing its clarification. If that were true we could give up immediately not just philosophy, but science too.

    Moreover, modern Stoics like Lawrence Becker definitely agree that moral judgments are often going to be in conflict with each other (they do not “cohere”), and that one therefore needs to reason his way through prioritizing. But no, that doesn’t imply any strongly realist conception of morality.

    Thomas,

    “but Socrates’s rationale in the Crito to my mind raises the question whether his decision demonstrates wisdom–however it might be defined–in a practical sense.”

    One of the things that I like about virtue ethics is that it is not absolutist. Different decisions can be seen as virtuous, even though they disagree with each other. I think Socrates was indeed virtuous, but that doesn’t mean that other courses of action wouldn’t have been also.

    labnut,

    I’m beginning to think that lightly thrown around labels of “scientismist” don’t really help the discussion, which is what I want to do here. Why don’t we refrain from a liberal use, especially when referring directly to another reader/commenter?

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  2. Massimo,

    Again I’m confused. I would consider meta-analysis(explanation) and reductionism(definition) to be significant aspects of philosophy.

    The only other option I can think of is to analogize.

    Am I missing something?

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  3. brodix,

    ” I would consider meta-analysis(explanation) and reductionism(definition) to be significant aspects of philosophy”

    Meta-analysis is not synonymous with explanation. It is only one level (the meta one) of explanation. Reductionism is not the same as definition, and it too is useful in some cases but not others.

    More generally, you don’t see me going back to Plato *every* time I discuss something, despite the name of this blog, right?

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  4. Massimo,
    I’m beginning to think that lightly thrown around labels of “scientismist” don’t really help the discussion, which is what I want to do here.

    I don’t agree with you and think that I have indeed been trying to make a thoughtful contribution to the central point of the post. I have been researching this issue carefully and have been building up a strong case to back up my assertions. But regardless, I respect your wishes and will leave matters as they are.

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  5. Finally, per Massimo, doing my NYT-recommended sarcasm for life extension, I tweeted the author of that Stone piece as follows: I chose to identify as “carbon-based life” to avoid “phylumism.”

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  6. Massimo,

    I’m assuming you are irked that I alluded to the distinction between consciousness and thought as an extension of my point about the dichotomy of energy and form, as opposing arrows of time.

    It was though, in reply to Socratic’s comment, “of why Hume made his famous “whenever I try to grasp myself” comment about consciousness, which has certainly anticipated modern cognitive science and philosophy.” So I didn’t feel I was overstepping any bounds. Consciousness, like energy, is difficult to describe, other than in terms of the forms it expresses. When the subject is wisdom, which would seem to largely involve the conscious navigation of the multitude of cognitive options and determining a course of action, I thought it might be a distinction worth noting.

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  7. labnut,

    no need to get defensive, I absolutely appreciate your constructive contributions to this and other discussions. I just think that throwing that single word around a little more selectively would help the general feeling of intellectual conversation.

    brodix,

    “I’m assuming you are irked that I alluded to the distinction between consciousness and thought as an extension of my point about the dichotomy of energy and form, as opposing arrows of time”

    Right. You *always* go back to energy and the arrow of time. And I frankly don’t find it particularly useful.

    “Consciousness, like energy, is difficult to describe”

    Maybe. But the similarities seem to end there.

    “When the subject is wisdom, which would seem to largely involve the conscious navigation of the multitude of cognitive options and determining a course of action, I thought it might be a distinction worth noting”

    Energy and the arrow of time have even less to do with wisdom as discussed here. That’s precisely what I mean when I ask not to go back to the basics every time.

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  8. Massimo,

    I can certainly take the hint, but that leaves me to extract the topic of conversation from the point I was trying to make;

    So how do I explain and/or define wisdom, separate from the process of observing/decision making, good or bad, that occurs over time? So far as I understand it, it does involve some accumulation of cognitive input and the conscious decision of a course of action. Which would involve the conversation of emotion propelling our desires forward and our reason selecting a course of action.

    Yes that is basic, so the point of departure for a conversation focused on wisdom would seem to be what distinguishes the good from the bad choices.

    Which then goes back to the conversation of what determines what is beneficial and what is detrimental. As in ethics and morality. Possibly the short, medium, or long term. Now the term wisdom would seem to apply to those decisions which produce benefits to the medium and long term.

    That would necessarily involve how one manages one’s resources and ultimately that goes to the Gaia hypothesis, given the degree to which humanity is straining at its limits and trampling resources in the interim, in not particularly wise ways.

    Now I realize I’m probably getting under your skin, but these seem like logical discussions, if we are to analyze the function of wisdom in the modern world and why it seems to be neglected.

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  9. Okay guys, I’ve looked a bit further at David Hume, and yes he does seem quite “wise.” But so what? Shall I then display his motif as a personal identity, as Socratic and Massimo somewhat do? Well yes perhaps I shall, since I also support local sports teams. Nevertheless I believe that we must seek something much bigger than the personal validation which comes with “If the David Hume team wins, then I also win.”

    I do agree with Coel that this ‘wisdom’ question shouldn’t be all that critical. First I think we should formally acknowledge that there are no ‘true’ definitions (noted earlier by me), but rather only more and less ‘useful’ definitions in respect to their associated arguments. (So we should check ourselves every time we ask ‘What is…?’, since apparently there isn’t.) But if I were able to develop an extremely useful definition for the term ‘wise,’ would this help me become wise? Surely not inherently! Regardless I’d be far more impressed if the academy were to develop an extremely useful definition for the term ‘consciousness,’ or an idea should have tremendous practical applications for both scientists and philosophers to figure some things out.

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  10. Hi Brodix,

    Though Massimo is certainly a good friend to each of us, we must also acknowledge that this site does happen to be his exclusive property, and so his interests shall remain central. Yes each of us do hope to show him that his interests conform quite well with ours, but how indeed might he be convinced? Successful theorists may need the same sort of optimism which we each display, but far more in addition.

    One thought is that perhaps he would find each of us a bit more respectable, if we weren’t quite so available? Perhaps there are various other places that we should be spending a good deal of our free time? Surely old friends are welcomed more heartily than friends that you see every day.

    I do realize that I’ve left you hanging in a number of conversations here, but in my defense, the window has been too tight for me, and of course we do tend to get off the post’s topic. So why not grab yourself an anonymous email address, and then you and I can discuss our ideas without bothering Massimo?

    Email: thephilosophereric@gmail.com

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  11. Eric,

    I hope I’m not coming across as a troll, or at least not too much of one. I did happen to reload the thread this morning, just minutes after your previous post loaded and liked it, but that was coincidence, not stalking.
    There are certainly lots of conversations on the internet, but it does seem to be a fairly narrow range of what I find productive and that will tolerate my somewhat divergent views. I realize it is Massimo’s blog, but I assume he puts it up to attract different opinions, not just to schmooze.
    As for my own views, I don’t try to hide that I have a fairly basic and settled viewpoint, but it is one I feel I’ve hammered out over many years, though much effort, debate and observation. There are lots of ideas I have shed, because I have encountered better ideas and should someone show me where I’m currently mistaken, I would continue to alter my views, given that it’s not as though I’m gaining anything from this, other than my own enlightenment.
    Safe to say, if I no longer found the conversation to be interesting and informative, I would certainly move on.

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  12. Eric,

    “so what? Shall I then display his motif as a personal identity, as Socratic and Massimo somewhat do? Well yes perhaps I shall, since I also support local sports teams”

    I really don’t think that seeking role models to emulate in life is quite in the same ballpark of supporting sports teams.

    “I do agree with Coel that this ‘wisdom’ question shouldn’t be all that critical”

    I obviously disagree. I’ve actually become convinced that putting back the emphasis on character, virtue, and therefore wisdom would do a lot of good to humanity.

    “I were able to develop an extremely useful definition for the term ‘wise,’ would this help me become wise? Surely not inherently!”

    Right. That’s why you need role models to emulate. That said, I think an exploration of the concept of wisdom is something valuable, and that can actually aid in one’s practice. That’s not at all the same as coming up with a precise definition, which I don’t think is either possible or desirable (or wise).

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  13. Massimo,

    “I’ve actually become convinced that putting back the emphasis on character, virtue, and therefore wisdom would do a lot of good to humanity.”

    I do think labnut made an interesting point about this, that unfortunately was buried by his own critical tone and use of the word scientism.

    “The answer to that question is that critical thinking happened. Wisdom is a constructive, generative form of reasoning while critical thinking is deconstructive and negative. Sages are humble in their knowledge of the enormous possibilities that exist. Critical thinkers are arrogant in their pride at deconstructing opponents and their arguments. We live in an age of hubris where the humility of the sage does not win respect.”

    If I may use the analogy, it is like a tree growing wood and a carpenter turning it into furniture. Issues such as character, wisdom, virtue, etc. are organically generative, while logic, critical thinking, reason, etc, are naturally reductive, so there is a bit of conflict/feedback that might be interesting to address, as to the evolution of wisdom.

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  14. Brodix please, hear my words. You and I are weak. If either of us are ever to become strong, care will need to be taken. Are you a “troll”? HELL NO! But that this would even be one of your ToM worries, does suggest that you’ve been beaten down just a bit. No, I come to you in friendship. It’s your choice, but our next correspondence should be private.

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  15. Yes Massimo, there is quite a difference between working out how to live your life, and supporting a sports team. I was not quite intelligent enough to foresee such a rebuttal. My point was simply that many on the philosophy blogs do derive great “sporting” satisfaction through the people they support. Consider the Sam Harris fans. But this only digs me in deeper given that you and Socratic are nothing like them. I gave convenient examples rather than good ones. I’ll shut up now, and simply apologize.

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  16. Hi Massimo,

    I’ve actually become convinced that putting back the emphasis on character, virtue, and therefore wisdom would do a lot of good to humanity.

    I actually agree with that, and it wasn’t that that I disagreed with. Rather, I was suggesting that trying to encapsulate “wisdom” in a sentence-long definition (the main theme of the articles discussed in the OP) is not going to work. (Something which you also say in that comment.)

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  17. Eric,

    “I was not quite intelligent enough to foresee such a rebuttal.”

    Apologies if I offended, it was not my intention.

    “My point was simply that many on the philosophy blogs do derive great “sporting” satisfaction through the people they support”

    Maybe so, but I still fail to see the relevance to what we were discussing (wisdom), and I’m not trying to be dense.

    “Consider the Sam Harris fans. But this only digs me in deeper given that you and Socratic are nothing like them”

    Exactly 😉

    Coel,

    “I was suggesting that trying to encapsulate “wisdom” in a sentence-long definition (the main theme of the articles discussed in the OP) is not going to work.”

    Agreed, though I don’t think that’s what the SEP article was trying to do. Rather, it was providing an overview of different conceptualizations of wisdom, which I, for one, found useful in sharpening my own thoughts on the topic.

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