Thursday, January 28, 2010

What is Wisdom?

Wikipedia has this to say about the etymology of the word ‘philosophy’.

The word "Philosophy" comes from the Greek φιλοσοφία [philosophia], which literally means "love of wisdom".

But surprisingly little work has been done in the discipline to examine just what ‘wisdom’ means (one cursory search of the Philosopher’s Index shows that there has been a dearth of philosophical papers written on this subject). Just about every important concept to humans has come under the philosopher's sharp knife of analysis but it would seem that at least one important concept has been left out which is of central concern to the very understanding of the discipline of philosophy itself.

Some might say that wisdom is like porn; you can’t give a satisfactory definition of it but you’ll know it when you see it.

I’ll not take such a defeatist approach and actually attempt an examination of this concept. Most people have a fuzzy understanding of it and there may be many possible definitions but I'd like to give a definition I think reflects a philosophical import. Comments are welcome as to modifications and objections.

The dictionary defines wisdom as “knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action; sagacity, discernment, or insight.” This seems basically right to me but leaves much to be desired. What does it mean to have just judgment as to action and to know what’s right? The definition captures some of what we mean by the term but something essential seems lost in terms of clarity and breadth of our general understanding. Most of us have a tacit understanding of what wisdom means and can differentiate instances of it and instances of knowledgeable simpliciter. Not all knowledgeable individuals are wise; that seems obvious to me and I’d suspect to most people as well. On one internet discussion forum, I once engaged in a discussion with someone who asked me, in all seriousness, what the difference between these two things were when I had appealed to the difference to make a point. This individual was a reasonably intelligent fellow and English was his first language but he insisted that wisdom is nothing but knowledge. That strikes me as obviously wrong but I had no explicit way to defining then just what that difference was other than, perfunctorily, giving him the link to the dictionary definition which was not satisfactory neither to me, as I wanted to make my point more palpable to him, and to him seeing that he still wasn’t convinced after our discussion that there was a substantive difference.

That’s what led me to write this; to try to give more structure and clarity to where there was less; to hopefully understand the difference better myself and to draw out the consequences stemming from implications of that difference.

First, I think it obvious that wisdom is a virtue (or perhaps a set of virtues). In fact, it may be the most important virtue (or the most important collectively identifiable set of virtues). Now I take Aristotle to be correct in believing that a virtue has two basic components , namely, a dispositional/affective component and a cognitive one as well. What is meant by dispositional/affective is that there is an emotive aspect; one involving the sentiments and a certain kind of procedural knowledge that usually comes with having well refined emotive development. Cultivating such a refinement might include cultivating a sensibility to react in a certain way, emotionally and behaviorally, to the actions or speech of others and to those behaviors or thoughts and feelings of oneself, for example.

What I mean by a “cognitive” component is that wisdom contains a part that is like what normal factual knowledge. It has, what philosophers call, intentional content. There is something any particular piece of knowledge is about. There is a fact of the matter about it; whether or not it is true is determined by whether or not the state-of-affairs it represents obtains.

Normally when we talk about knowledge what we mean is what I will hence forth call first-order knowledge. This is to be distinguished from procedural knowledge (such as much of the knowledge of how to play the guitar, e.g. or how to be a good friend to someone. This kind of knowledge is not intentional, it does not represent a state-of-affairs). A Jeopardy champ, for example, will have lots of this kind of knowledge but not necessarily will be very knowledgeable in procedural knowledge (indeed, most of us can come up with many personal examples of people like this).

Our Jeopardy champ might also be a good example of someone that is both very knowledgeable but unwise. Let’s call such a philistine genius, Phil.

Like I said, I think wisdom does have a kind of component that is similar in kind to the kind of knowledge when we normally speak of someone being knowledgeable, i.e., when they have lots of first-order knowledge. To see the distinction between the cognitive component in wisdom and more humdrum notions of knowledge such as the knowledge used by Phil to win his prize money, a wise person can be said to know some things that a knowledgeable but unwise person does not know. This component of her knowledge also is intentional. But here is where the difference lies; the relevant intentional knowledge a wise person has, under my definition, is not first-order. It is best described as second-order knowledge or perhaps meta-knowledge . That is, it is literally, knowledge about knowledge (or maybe beliefs that are likely true) or knowledge about methods of reliable acquisitions of knowledge.

One kind of second-order knowledge might be the knowledge of how far one’s own epistemic limitations extend. Hence, Socrates was wise because he claimed he didn’t really know much of anything but only came upon the truth through detailed and rigorous examination with his interlocutor(s). And Confucius claimed that a wise person must maintain that he knows when he really does know and be maintain silence when he does not know. Knowing where the boundaries of one’s ken lies must be a kind of knowledge and it can be either accurate or not; whether or not it is, is determined by some facts about the world (namely, which portion of one’s beliefs are likely true or have good reasons to believe them true and which do not). Certainly, that boundary must have fuzzy borders but just as certainly, there is distinction to be made. Some of our beliefs are surely true and we have good reasons to believe them. Some of our beliefs are not so well supported. Others may exist at some border-vague area. The point is that some people, due to too much “epistemic hubris,” say, may have inaccurate estimations of their belief system. They may not know as much as they think. Still others may underestimate themselves by quite a bit. They lack epistemic confidence or self-efficacy. Both these instances are cases that, under my conception, display a substantial lack of second-order knowledge. Both will suffer because their actions will often be imprudent due to this inaccuracy of estimation of their own knowledge.

Additionally, one displays another kind of second-order knowledge when one knows what methods are reliable to arrive at the truth and what methods are not so reliable. Those that understand that claims that have withstood the demands of scientific rigor by going through and surviving the gauntlet of the scientific journal review processes and subsequent follow-up experimentation, for example, ceteris paribus, are more reliable than, say, counter claims that have not, display a kind of second-order knowledge. A person that insists that her reliance on astrology to arrive at some claim is better than someone who denies that claim based on much more reliable means does not display wise behavior. She does not have good knowledge of reliable methods to arrive at knowledge. Even more quotidian forms of examination such as applying common sense and engaging in balanced, nonbiased, rational debate are ways far more likely to arrive at the truth than other less reasonable methods (such as unreasonable argumentation, or being dogmatic, for example).

A person who knows that arriving at genuine knowledge and understanding of some phenomenon is in many instances a difficult journey requiring lots of effort, clear thinking, and systematic investigation, may be said to display another kind of second-order knowledge. This knowledge of Truth’s demands, is the opposite of epistemic naivety, it indicates a kind of epistemic refinement, maturity or sophistication.

There may be other kinds of second-order knowledge I haven’t talked about but it should be somewhat clear by now of what I mean by second-order knowledge. Those who have quite a bit of this kind of knowledge probably also usually have certain kinds of character traits. I think it reasonable to suggest that having acquired a lot of such second-order knowledge as described above is usually done only through a life-time of persistent and conscientious pursuit of Truth. The epistemic journey I suggest engenders certain feelings and dispositions in people. Perhaps a certain amount of respect and reverence for well-supported beliefs and those individuals who hold them dear because one knows oneself how difficult it is to attain them. Perhaps a disdain for bullshit and indignation at bullshitters is also inculcated by pursuing the path of wisdom.

Another character trait of the wise person might be a certain kind of epistemic humility without a deficiency of epistemic confidence (epistemic efficacy in matters regarding one’s well supported beliefs). Knowing that one’s own beliefs are subject to the demands of fair critique and rational debate and that one should revise even a long held belief when sufficient evidence becomes available to warrant the revision, but a willingness to subject one’s beliefs despite the possibility of such revisions manifest this kind of character trait, I suggest. Not taking such criticisms personal, but even actively seeking it out and subjecting one’s own beliefs to such critical-examinations using the same standards one subjects to views contrary to one’s own, displays, also, a kind of humility, fair-mindedness, and integrity, or maybe a kind of confidence oneself without displaying an ego as well.

To sum up, I think wisdom to have two major kinds of components. One is a kind of knowledge I called ‘second-order knowledge’ or knowledge about knowledge (how it’s reliably obtained, what the limitations of one’s own ken are, etc). The other major component is a set of dispositions or sensibilities which are indicative of an intellectually mature mind with the requisite intellectual integrity required for seeking and loving the Truth. It's what a sage values most deeply.

Einstein reportedly once said: "Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school." Wisdom is what I take Einstein to be talking about here by his use of "education." What one is taught directly in school is first-order knowledge about the world but once one forgets these facts, something far more valuable remains.

Addendum: there may be lots of other kinds of second-order knowledge that I haven't mentioned but still relevant to an analysis of wisdom and there may be other kinds of dispositions or sensibilities important for the non-cognitive portion of knowledge as well. If you have a suggestion, please bring it up in the comments section.

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