By Valerie Tiberius
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. This series of blog posts highlights key questions that emerged from that discussion.
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.
observed that there are people who are good by chance, but virtues have to have
a certain modal robustness (that is, when we say that someone is wise, it seems
to follow that they would have been wise even if their circumstances had been
somewhat different). The thought here, which many of us shared, is that people
become wise through an effortful process, not just by lucking into the right
process in particular that some think is relevant to producing wisdom is the
process of dealing with trauma. You have to “go through the fire” to become
wise. Is this true? Is it even true that this is what people tend to think
about wisdom? According to Judith, two thirds of the folk think you have to
have confronted a lot of difficulty to become wise. The third who don’t think
you need trial by fire think that you can learn wisdom from books or experts.
Paul Baltes and Monica Ardelt (two psychologists who work on wisdom) split with
the folk: Baltes is on the side of the one third, whereas Ardelt emphasizes the
need for traumatic events.
observed that what difficult times do is they shake your views about your own
strengths and capacities and this sheds light on yourself that you can’t get in
any other way. But Tori also pointed out that reading novels can help by making
you think “OK, there are good ways of going through this, there are bad ways of
going through this…” Importantly, reading novels can help us with experiences
we haven’t had yet. Reading about how characters deal with dying, for example,
can help us think about how to deal with dying ourselves, even if we’re not yet
at that stage of life. This point about literature reveals a middle ground
between the two opposing views mentioned above. Learning wisdom from reflecting
on our own lives and the lives of others (including fictional characters) does
require an effortful process, but it does not require literally going through a
traumatic experience. So, wisdom could require conscious effort without
requiring traumatic events.
view that fits best with the group’s consensus thus far is that traumatic experiences
can help to encourage the development of wisdom (by giving you a perspective
you would not otherwise have had), but these experiences are not necessary
since the perspective can be achieved in other ways (e.g., through reading and
reflection). This leaves open the question about whether there could be
“natural” wisdom. Given the group’s emphasis on reflection as a component of
wisdom, it seems unlikely that people who make no conscious effort (to
understand themselves, other people, what matters in life) could really be
-Do People Have Wisdom Naturally, or Does it Require Effort? will be continued in January 2011-
Explanatory Processes: Reflexivity, Dialectic
If trauma or, as suggested, reading novels involving tragic deaths, can help move one toward wisdom, the question might be: How? What is the underlying mechanism(s)?
One possible explanation may be found in the process of reflexivity (see, for example, Holland, 1999). The lived experience of confronting trauma in the lifeworld, or of vicariously encountering it through fiction, may catalyze reflection which leads to an assessment of one’s everyday assumptions, worldviews, and the like. I suggest that such reflection opens up one’s way of being to potential reordering of both cognitive and affective frameworks beyond their prior patterns. This expansion of prior constraints broadens perspective through a process of self-questioning (What's it all about?). This process of reflection clears mental space for potential new valuations and appreciations, even for ambiguities and contradictions. Thus, trauma — or its surrogates — can be a catalyst to dialectic. Furthermore, I suggest that wisdom is the product a dialectical mind (see, for example, Riegel, 1975, 1979).
Holland, R. (1999). Reflexivity. Human Relations, 52(4), 463. doi:10.1177/001872679905200403Riegel, K. F. (1975). Toward a dialectical theory of development. Human Development, 18(1-2), 50-64. doi:10.1159/000271475Riegel, K. F. (1979). Foundations of dialectical psychology. New York, NY: Academic Press.
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