October 6, 2023
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
I recently attended a conference in which the speaker mentioned that, despite all of humanity’s vast resources, there has been no visible or recognizable increase in human wisdom. The speaker desired proof of some growth in wisdom which would demonstrate that, over time, humans learn from their mistakes. In the speaker’s estimation, current cultures should theoretically be much wiser than their predecessors after thousands of years with mythology, oral story, narrative, history, science, philosophy, education, etc.
Wisdom is one of the great ideas that we study, though to be honest, I have never put much thought into what communal wisdom might look like. As usual, I have many questions. For example, how would we measure wisdom? Or, who determines the difference between wise and unwise behavior? How exactly is communal wisdom different from individual wisdom? Can we equate the two? If we can assume that some wisdom is passed down generationally, then could familial and cultural knowledge represent a sort of communal wisdom? To push that further, I do know people whom I might categorize as wise, so if they have achieved a level of human wisdom that I admire, how did they do it? Can their wisdom be transmitted to others? Perhaps more importantly, could we agree upon who might be considered wise? Finally, what pursuits might represent the pursuit of wisdom? Philosophy comes to mind. So does religion. Technological advances demonstrate intelligence, but do they also demonstrate wisdom? Do actions speak louder than words when it comes to wisdom?
Depending on which philosopher you read, there will be different answers to all of these questions. In the Syntopicon, Mortimer Adler introduces the section on wisdom by stating: “The individual may grow in wisdom. The race does not seem to.” He then ventures through a number of philosophers and theologians who disagree on the meaning of wisdom.
Merriam-Webster defines wisdom as “ability to discern inner qualities and relationships” (or insight); “good sense” (or judgment); “generally accepted belief;” “accumulated philosophical or scientific learning” (or knowledge); “a wise attitude, belief, or course of action;” and finally, “the teachings of the ancient wise men.” Wisdom is more than the accumulation of knowledge: it is the right use of knowledge.
Does Adler (and others) imply that wisdom cannot be advanced? If so, is wisdom real? Is it more than an illusory figment of our imagination, or an unreachable divine attribute? Where do we see wisdom and how can we replicate it? In short, how does wisdom not only grow, but spread?
Those who have written about or described transcendental experiences (I’m thinking of Pascal or Emerson here) describe intensely personal experiences. Reading about these experiences allows us to connect only on a superficial level, which makes them difficult to explain and even harder to share. Yet, without personal connection, can the readers connect with the author’s feelings? Moments of enlightenment seem to be isolated to individual experience, and even then they are fleeting in nature. Some authors even lament the fact that, despite trying, an original feeling of enlightenment never returned. These intensely personal experiences simply don’t translate to us without the same heightened emotional connection. So, how does something of such a personal nature turn into universal knowledge? As I keep thinking about it, the potential for communal wisdom just seems to move farther and farther away.
Wisdom may involve personal journey, which signifies individual work, which further indicates that wisdom, communal or not, won’t be an easy achievement or a trophy on the shelf. What might motivate a community to strive toward wisdom? More vitally, what might encourage that same community to see wisdom with similar defining features?
Why does wisdom have such an elusive nature? Why does it show a glimmer only to duck out of sight again? If I am impatient or ungrateful, it is a reminder that things of such grand scale take infinitely longer than a single human life span. Wisdom, if attainable, would seem to be a necessary counterbalance to the absurdity of political skirmishes. Media-driven hyperbole and outlandish reality shows would be seen as distractions. According to Plotinus, wisdom involves repose. It makes sense to me, then, that we have not moved closer toward it. Instead, technology has only increased distraction and multi-tasking.
I think part of my frustration stems from the way that we tend to separate everything. Perhaps Julian Baggini is onto something when he asks for a more comparative approach to philosophy. In How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy, he writes:
“It is perhaps no coincidence that insight as a source of knowledge is stressed most in the traditions the West finds least philosophical. Western philosophy’s self-image has largely been constructed by distancing itself from ideas of the philosopher as a sage or guru who penetrates the deep mysteries of the universe like some kind of seer. This distancing has blinded it to the obvious truth that all good philosophy requires some kind of insight. There are innumerable very clever, very scholarly philosophers who can pick apart an argument better than anyone but who don’t have anything worthwhile to contribute to their discipline. What they lack is not an ability to be even more systematic in their analysis, but an ability to spot what is at stake, what matters. Insight without analysis and critique is just intuition taken on faith. But analysis without insight is empty intellectual game-playing. The world’s philosophies offer not just insights but ideas about how to achieve them, and we would profit by sympathetically but critically engaging with both.”
I thank Baggini for these words, but wonder what that combined effort might look like. I also like that the wise have an ability to spot what matters, though this certainly doesn’t offer clarity on what that is or how to identify it. After wandering through all these thoughts, I arrive at my own very obvious bias. For some reason, I feel that humans should progress toward wisdom. I’m not sure why I desire some form of progress, or even how I came to that conclusion. What informs my bias – whether it be culture, family, environment, education, language, etc. – I really don’t know. But I do know that, for me, understanding wise behavior feels more important now than ever.