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  • Writer's pictureFred Guerin

What is Wisdom?

By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest. [Confucius, Analects]

Wisdom comes with the ability to be still. Just look and just listen. No more is needed. Being still, looking, and listening activates the non-conceptual intelligence within you. Let stillness direct your words and actions. [Eckhart Tolle, Stillness Speaks]

Knowledge can be communicated but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it. [Herman Hesse, Siddhartha]

Wondering; this is where wisdom begins and nowhere else. [Plato, Theatetus]

Wisdom is an elusive concept. We may not know exactly what it is, but somehow we are able to recognize it when we see it in others. When we say ‘so and so is a wise person’ we don’t only mean that they are an expert or that they know many things. There are many gardeners, judges, mechanics, janitors, teachers and stock-analysts that appear to know a lot, but would not be considered wise. Wisdom involves more than mere quantitative knowledge of facts.

When we ‘say so and so is a wise person’ perhaps we mean, in a more qualitative sense that they are adept at seeing connections, making distinctions or just grasping the essence, the truth, or the reality of things. The judgments of the wise are often surprising and arresting simply because by contrast to the many who stumble and struggle to understand something, the wise person abruptly gets ‘right to the heart of the matter’!

A scientist might say that wisdom is the capacity to grasp or see a relation, a possibility or a phenomenon of the physical world that others have missed; or perhaps he or she just grasps the world as a whole in a novel or revolutionary way.

This kind of scientific or theoretical wisdom is sometimes distinguished from what we might call ‘practical wisdom’. In the Nicomachean Ethics the Greek philosopher Aristotle tells us that “the mark of a man of practical wisdom is to be able to deliberate well about what is good and expedient for himself, not in some particular respect, e.g. about what sorts of things conduce to health or to strength, but about what sorts of things conduce to the good life in general”. The Greeks, as always, had an expansive and nuanced understanding of different kinds of knowing and wisdom. Here are just a few:

Sophia: Philosophical Wisdom or Contemplation This is considered by Aristotle to be the ‘highest’ form of wisdom because it is ‘disinterested’ knowledge of the ‘highest objects’—it has no end beyond itself. In a certain sense when we reach the level of pure thinking that is represented in Sophia we glimpse the divine element that is present within all of us that allows us to share in philosophical wisdom

Episteme: Scientific reasoning and wisdom about the natural world. This is a way of knowing that is concerned with laws and principles of nature. This is a world that is governed by necessity or that which cannot be otherwise—

Techne: Craftsmanship, Skill This is the kind of wisdom that is crucial when we want to make or produce something.

Poiesis: Creative making The kind of wisdom involved in imaginative creation in the arts: poetry, painting sculpture

Phronesis: Practical Wisdom This is considered by Aristotle to be an intellectual virtue that enables us to grasp how to best realize the virtues of character such as temperance, justice courage. Aristotle describes it as the "reasoned and true state of capacity to act with regard to human goods"

Nous: Intellect: This is what might be referred to as ‘insight’ or intuitiveness. Nous or insight is an intellectual capacity that enables us to interpret beyond the obvious, to see beneath the surface of things, and suddenly grasp the ethical, moral or political implications of what was said or what needs to be done.

When we cultivate our reasoning capacity in ethics (phronesis) by choosing the right means, or by determining the right course of action, in the right way, at the right time, we are also creating a space of possibility for insight or nous. That is, we are opening up a horizon of thinking possibility in experience where we are able to abruptly ‘see’ or intelligently grasp something we had not previously anticipated. When we experience insight things coalesce, connect or come together in sudden flash. Sometimes this will happen in the midst of deliberating; at other times we can have an insight about the veracity, prudence or rightness of what we have previously decided based on a new experience. ‘Seeing’ in this sense does follow from a logical deduction. Nous describes a spontaneous thrust or upsurge of understanding where something that might have been occluded from our view is suddenly made transparent to us.

From a practical perspective, the many different ways of knowing interpenetrate. For example, medical doctors have scientific and theoretical knowledge of the body and how its various systems interact. They also can have long experience and therefore insight into what will best heal a person with suffering from certain symptoms; additionally they may also have a related surgical skill (techne) which is honed through experience.

The crucial point to take away from Aristotle’s epistemic divisions and clarifications is, therefore, that episteme, sophia, techne, poiesis, nous and phronesis are distinct but not necessarily mutually exclusive in the practical world of activity. They often occur together in a seamless fashion.

What all of these variations of wisdom presuppose is not just the ability to reason well within a specific domain, whether science or morals, but also a kind of intellectual power, sometimes referred to as ‘insight’—what Aristotle called nous or the ‘eye of the soul’. This is why wisdom is often understood as simply good judgment.

But how are things like insight and judgment related to wisdom? Moreover, on what basis do we judge one person to be more wise that another? Are wisdom, insight and the capacity to ‘judge well’ things that can be taught? How is wisdom related to experience? Do we all have the ability to become wise, or is wisdom a club that only allows very special people in? Finally, is the wise person a threat to the status quo--as Socrates was?

The great jazz musician and composer Miles Davis said that ‘knowledge is freedom and ignorance is slavery’. He steeped himself in the music of great classical composers like Stravinsky and Prokofiev not in order to slavishly copy them, but to create a space of freedom, of continuous possibility and invention.

He was right. Reading great literature, philosophy and poetry broadens our horizon of possibility. It provides us with new interpretations and different ways of understanding our world and ourselves. It opens up new opportunities and choices we never knew were available. To have the courage to continuously ask and answer these questions is not only to open up a path toward individual freedom, but also to begin the first leg of a long, courageous and fascinating journey towards wisdom.

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