At end the of July, 2010, a small group of philosophers and psychologists met at the Rosewood Inn in Hastings, Minnesota to talk about wisdom. The workshop included five sessions. The first four sessions were organized around presentations by a philosopher and a psychologist on the capacities of practical wisdom. On the final session Sunday morning, six of us settled down to try to summarize what we had learned. This discussion series focuses on that conversation. In describing the proceedings, I have sometimes indicated who said what in order to give the feel of the conversation, but this report is not a transcript. I have taken some liberties with the order of things, provided some background where necessary, and added my own reflections about emerging points of consensus.
Participants in this conversation include:
Questions discussed in the coming weeks will include:
Please join our conversation by commenting on this discussion below.
Also, it should be noted that this workshop was funded by a grant from the University of Chicago’s Defining Wisdom Project and the John Templeton Foundation. Thanks are also due to the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science for administrative assistance.
As one might expect, a variety of different characterizations of wisdom were employed throughout the weekend. Simine Vazire (Washington University, philosophy) takes wisdom to be akin to self-knowledge. Tori McGreer (Princeton University, philosophy), drawing on George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, takes the development of wisdom to require progress along two dimensions: moral energy that sustains our drive to action and moral vision that informs us about what it’s like to be another. Michael Sargent (Bates College, psychology) liked this idea, that wisdom involves a kind of discounting of one’s selfish interests, and added that wisdom should also include a temporal discount function that mitigates our tendency to downplay future consequences of our actions. Judith Glück (Alpen-Adria Universität, psychology) favors the MORE model of wisdom, which defines wisdom in terms of Mastery (where this includes an appreciation of the lack of control that we have over much of our lives), Openness to experience, Refectiveness, and Empathy/Emotion. Eddy Nahmias (Georgia State University, philosophy and neuroscience) defines wisdom as the psychological capacities involved in decision making and action control that contribute to people living good or flourishing lives. Valerie Tiberius (University of Minnesota, philosophy) thinks of wisdom similarly, as the skills, habits and dispositions that are necessary for judging and choosing what matters.
What do we make of this apparent jumble of definitions? In discussion, we realized that we have more in common than at first appeared. First of all, some of the definitions include others. We could summarize the most abstract definition of wisdom this way: Practical wisdom consists in the capacities needed to make good judgments about what matters in life and to bring one’s actions into accordance, insofar as this is in one’s control. This general definition encompasses the MORE model, as long as the capacities listed in MORE are the ones that are needed for judging what matters and acting accordingly. Further, MORE can accommodate some of the other characterizations of wisdom. Insofar as self-knowledge is a kind of reflection, it would be accommodated by MORE. Eliot’s conception of wisdom is also compatible with MORE, since it makes empathy a central capacity of wisdom. Social and temporal discounting functions can also be seen as reflective capacities and hence would also fit into this model. What we have, then, is (1) an abstract philosophical definition, which tells us what we’re looking for without listing the particular capacities, (2) a general psychological definition, which lists the central capacities, and (3) detailed specifications of the required capacities. These different kinds of definitions no doubt reflect the different interests that researchers have.
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