Studying or Seeking Wisdom

by Ricca Edmondson, Discover Society

Every so often we encounter media reports of a ‘resentment of experts’. People feel that they have ‘had enough’ of experts who claim ‘they know what’s best,’ even though they often turn out not to know what is best at all. It is exasperating when people believe they can be completely definite about what to do, or what to tell other people to do, about bringing up their children, choosing a career, or adjudicating on a vast range of political questions that need debate, not pontificating. So it’s galling when these people put themselves on pedestals, uniquely entitled to make pronouncements. Why do they do it?

People often feel entitled to issue recipes for action when they believe they have generated certain knowledge on the basis of objective facts, or identified ‘best practice’ in teaching, say, or social work; surely, no more need be said. What is the alternative, after all? Irrational prejudice, the heart rather than the head?

It might have seemed more obvious a couple of hundred years ago that the head-heart dilemma is a false dichotomy. Experts who are rightly resented today are among those who feel that recommendations about action ought to be firmly based upon facts – because, they fear, otherwise all conclusions would be wishy-washy, just a matter of preference and feeling rather than clear-cut reasoning. Either you know or you don’t. But in fact we often really don’t know, even cannot know in principle, and the harder the question, the more likely this is to be the case. This would not necessarily be a disaster, except for our current crisis about what reasoning is.

It used to be said that difficult questions, those requiring thought, commitment and character, demanded wisdom. Wisdom is still referred to – open any newspaper – when assessing the fitness of politicians or generals, or when summing up the lifetime of a friend. When clearly unwise behaviour is at issue, particularly in public office, complaints are very vocal. The problem is now to see what wisdom might mean, in theory and in practice, and how to support it.

On the one hand, our culture promotes an over-rationalised conception of thinking, perceiving it as purely ‘cognitive’ and hoping for ‘objectivity’; on the other, we don’t seem to be able to see how arguments about politics or ethics can be reasonable at all. This latter development was predicted in Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 book, After Virtue: he complained that people were taking moral expressions as equivalent to expressions about their feelings, making ‘I think it’s wrong,’ equivalent to ‘I don’t like it.’ Hence, perhaps, the extreme contemporary reluctance to make statements that give offence; hurting people’s feelings seems to be the only thing it is clearly not right to do.

This cultural predicament has a dangerous corollary; it consigns everything from politics to psychotherapy to the realm of the irrational. People who despise the old-fashioned economists’ model of the rational consumer, someone who knows what he or she wants and need only consider how to go about getting it, nonetheless find it hard to imagine an alternative. People who decisively reject manipulation, propaganda and lies – deceptive reasoning – find it hard to be clear about what good reasoning might be, or what anyone’s qualifications might be to attempt it. These are some of the areas that the study of wisdom has traditionally addressed.

Traditions of Wisdom

It follows that a major reason for studying wisdom is to open up and explore the broad but neglected territory between the exactitude of logic – crucial to good reasoning, but insufficient to offer convincing arguments about practice – and the whirlpools of unrestrained emotion, manipulation and lies. It is in this territory that the potential reasonableness of ethics, politics and everyday life can be revealed and interrogated. It can be promoted in the public good, as Cicero would have said.

There are several approaches to this field. Not least, we can study what is going on when people behave in ways others appreciate as wise; we can aim for a better understanding of how reasoning and deliberation are carried out in practice; and we can study the rich and various wisdom traditions that human beings have developed throughout history.

This does not mean we should assume that all these traditions somehow support the same concept of wisdom. It cannot be taken for granted that there exists a single phenomenon, wisdom, which all societies have imagined in compatible ways. Some contain elements that seem familiar. For example, Ptah-hotep’s Maxims of Good Discourse, composed in Egypt over four thousand years ago, stresses that no-one is born wise; its author is keen to pass on what he has learned, to make others wiser – not least through urging them to become good listeners and to realise that wisdom can be found among the humblest members of society (even women!).

But many traditions of wisdom conceive of it in contrasting ways; some see it as perfect and complete, a divine gift from God, for instance, or discoverable in the pronouncements of authoritative sages, while others see it as a process always subject to personal development. Some stress transcendent aspects of wisdom, others don’t. The first of these views can be seen among other places in some of the Biblical wisdom literature, but there are many other images of wisdom in the Bible, not least Wisdom as God’s beloved child, dancing before him before he had formed even the mountains. Especially relevant to our current predicaments, in my view, are positions that see wisdom as tentative, developing between people, and subject to the enabling or constraining influence of social circumstances.

To understand these different traditions we need to be sensitive to what they have meant, not always obvious at face value. It is often claimed, for instance, that many proverbs are contradictory; do too many cooks spoil the broth, or do many hands make light work? Is it that birds of a feather flock together or do opposites attract? But the point about ancient proverbs was not to offer factual information about task organisation; it was to encourage us to judge, which is apposite in a given situation.

Particularly relevant for today’s predicaments is the tradition starting from Socrates and Aristotle, and including Cicero and Quintilian: one that explores how people can be educated to reason well as citizens, responsible for their own and their communities’ conduct, and responsive to key dilemmas in the worlds they inhabit. This is just one of the wisdom traditions that stress its connection to a form of life.

This view accepts that emotional dispositions affect our thinking; as Aristotle pointed out, we reason differently when we are angry and resentful and when we are well disposed and friendly. This doesn’t mean we should try not to be emotional at all; if reasoning about human affairs is inherently emotional, social and ethical, it is up to us to become clearer about what this implies and when it is beneficial or harmful. Within the neglected territory I have alluded to, we can see that, indispensable as logic, clarity, and scientific exploration are, they are not enough. Reasoning about political, ethical and personal questions inevitably demands other assumptions too. These include assumptions about what we can reasonably expect from human beings, for instance, or about how it is sensible to react to certain sorts of situation. These can never be entirely replaced by science – whatever the experts may say – though they can be informed by it: wise reasoning remains essentially contested.

Wise reasoning and wise people

By far the preponderant approach to wisdom in contemporary scholarship is aligned to the interests of (‘positive’) psychology; it focuses strongly on questions of personhood and character, what wise people are like. Psychologists tend to explore the wisdom or otherwise of single individuals, sometimes asking them about their own lives and how wisely they feel they have behaved on different occasions. Ursula Staudinger, for example, explores ways in which people may respond more wisely to others’ problems than their own; Judith Glück suggests that, if they possess capacities such as openness to experience or realism about their own emotional traits, individuals may benefit from life challenges. Monika Ardelt stresses the need for wisdom in cognitive, reflective and emotional respects, not least the capacity for compassion.

Robert Sternberg explores wise decision-making as using often-tacit knowledge to balance intrapersonal, interpersonal, and extra-personal interests in any given predicament – with the aim of achieving the best available outcome for all: the common good. The Berlin Group founded by Paul Baltes stresses features like being able to understand other people’s values tolerantly, in terms of their social and cultural contexts, without abandoning one’s own. For the Berlin group, as for Cicero, having extensive knowledge about people and what happens to them is important – but being comfortable with handling uncertainty is also key, a capacity that can be enhanced by long, intensive practice.

A more interactionist, sociological approach can complement this work by piecing together how people co-construct their behaviour in situations where relatively wise outcomes are aimed for, examining such processes as they occur in different times, places and disciplines. Much of what we do when we debate what action to take – about refugee policy, say, or how to achieve peace in Syria – is intended to dismantle others’ barriers to perceiving problems in a certain way, or to bring them to imagine them more sensitively. Many of those we call wise don’t so much give advice as spur others (sometimes even themselves) into positions from which they can perceive issues differently. Reasoning together seems key: human beings exist in dialogue with one another.

‘Experts’, in the sense people complain about, are those with fixed ideas about what should be done in specific situations, working from recipes with the aim of instant results. They avoid or prohibit dialogue, and tend to ignore not only that deliberation takes time but also that it entails the capacity to recognise others’ positions. Encouraging social and political wisdom – perhaps through supporting dialogic habits in local democracy – demands bringing about situations in which co-deliberation is likely to be wiser: even if dramatic but foolish decisions can be taken more quickly.

Further Reading

Michel Ferrari and Nic Weststrate, eds (2012), The Scientific Study of Personal Wisdom: From Contemplative Traditions to Neuroscience. New York: Springer.

Ricca Edmondson and Jane Pearce (2007), ‘The Practice of Health Care: Wisdom as a Model’, in Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 10(3): pp.233-244; on-line edition 2006.

Ricca Edmondson and Karlheinz Hülser, eds (2012) Politics of Practical Reasoning: Integrating Action, Discourse and Argument. Rowman and Littlefield: Lexington Books.

Markus Woerner and Ricca Edmondson (2009), ‘Towards a Taxonomy of Types of Wisdom’, Yearbook of the Irish Philosophical Society: 148-163.

Ricca Edmondson is Professor emerita of Political Science and Sociology in the National University of Ireland, Galway. She has been writing about the sociality of reasoning since her book Rhetoric in Sociology (Macmillan, 1984). Her latest book is Ageing, Insight and Wisdom: Meaning and Practice Across the Life Course (Policy Press, 2015).

Read the article: Edmondson, R. (2017, April 5). Studying or seeking wisdom. Discover Society. Retrieved from

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