What Is Wisdom?

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Every time I utter the word ‘wisdom’, someone giggles or sneers. Wisdom, more so even than expertise, does not sit comfortably in a democratic, anti-elitist society. In an age dominated by science and technology, by specialization and compartmentalization, it is too loose and mysterious a concept. With our heads in our smartphones and tablets, our pay slips and bank statements, we simply do not have the mental time and space for it.

But things were not always thus. The word wisdom occurs 222 times in the Old Testament, which includes all of seven so-called ‘wisdom books’: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon, the Book of Wisdom, and Sirach. ‘For wisdom is a defence, and money is a defence: but the excellency of knowledge is, that wisdom giveth life to them that have it’ (Ecclesiastes 7:12).

The word ‘philosophy’ literally means ‘the love of wisdom’, and wisdom is the overarching aim of philosophy, or, at least, ancient philosophy. In Plato’s Lysis, Socrates tells the young Lysis that, without wisdom, he would be of no interest to anyone: “…if you are wise, all men will be your friends and kindred, for you will be useful and good; but if you are not wise, neither father, nor mother, nor kindred, nor anyone else, will be your friends.” The patron of Athens, the city in which the Lysis is set, is no less than Athena, goddess of wisdom, who sprung out in full armour from the skull of Zeus. Her symbol, and the symbol of wisdom, is the owl, which can see through darkness.

In fact, ‘wisdom’ derives from the Proto-Indo-European root weid-, ‘to see’, and is related to a great number of words including: advice, druid, evident, guide, Hades, history, idea, idol, idyll, view, Veda, vision, and visit. In Norse mythology, the god Odin gouged out one of his eyes and offered it to Mimir in exchange for a drink from the well of knowledge and wisdom, thereby trading one mode of perception for another, higher one.

And the very name of our species, Homo sapiens, means ‘wise man’.

Wisdom in perspective

So what exactly is wisdom? People often speak of ‘knowledge and wisdom’ as though they might be closely related or even the same thing, so maybe wisdom is knowledge, or a great deal of knowledge. If wisdom is knowledge, then it has to be a certain kind of knowledge, or else learning the phonebook, or the names of all the rivers in the world, might count as wisdom. And if wisdom is a certain kind of knowledge, then it is not scientific or technical knowledge, or else modern people would be wiser than even the wisest of ancient people. Any 21st century school-leaver would be wiser than Socrates.

Once upon a time, Chaerephon asked the oracle at Delphi whether there was anyone wiser than Socrates, and the Pythian priestess replied that there was no one wiser. To discover the meaning of this divine utterance, Socrates questioned a number of men who laid claim to wisdom—politicians, generals, poets, craftsmen—and in each case concluded, ‘I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.’ From then on, Socrates dedicated himself to the service of the gods by seeking out anyone who might be wise and, ‘if he is not, showing him that he is not’. He offended so many people with his questioning that, eventually, they condemned him to death.

The Bible tells us, ‘When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom’ (Proverbs 11:2). Socrates was the wisest of all people not because he knew everything or anything, but because he knew what he did not know, or, to put it somewhat differently, because he knew the limits of the little that he did know. Shakespeare put it best in As You Like It, ‘The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.’ Still, there seems to be more to wisdom than mere ‘negative knowledge’, or else I could just be super-skeptical about everything and count myself wise… Or maybe wisdom consists in having very high epistemic standards, that is, in having a very high bar for believing something, and an even higher bar for calling that thing knowledge. But then we are back to a picture of wisdom as something like scientific knowledge.

In Plato’s Meno, Socrates says that people of wisdom and virtue seem to be very poor at imparting those qualities: Themistocles was able to teach his son Cleophantus skills such as standing upright on horseback and shooting javelins, but no one ever said of Cleophantus that he was wise, and the same could be said for Lysimachus and his son Artistides, Pericles and his sons Paralus and Xanthippus, and Thucydides and his sons Melesias and Stephanus. And if wisdom cannot be taught, then it is not a kind of knowledge.

If wisdom cannot be taught, how, asks Meno, did good people come into existence? Socrates replies that right action is possible under guidance other than that of knowledge: a person who has knowledge about the way to Larisa may make a good guide, but a person who has only correct opinion about the way, but has never been and does not know, might make an equally good guide. Since wisdom cannot be taught, it cannot be knowledge; and if it cannot be knowledge, then it must be correct opinion—which explains why wise men such as Themistocles, Lysimachus, and Pericles are unable to impart their wisdom even unto their own sons. These men are no different from soothsayers, prophets, and poets, who say many true things when they are divinely inspired but have no real knowledge of what they are saying.

Aristotle gives us another important clue in the Metaphysics, when he says that wisdom is the understanding of causes. None of the senses are regarded as wisdom because, although they give the most authoritative knowledge of particulars, they do not reveal the distal causes of anything. Similarly, we suppose artists to be wiser than people of experience because artists know the ‘why’ or the cause, and can therefore teach, whereas people of experience do not, and cannot. In other words, wisdom is the understanding of the right relations between things, which calls for more distant and removed perspectives. In the Tusculan Disputations, Cicero cites as an example of wisdom the pre-Socratic philosopher Anaxagoras, who, upon being told of the death of his son, said, “I knew that I begot a mortal”.

So wisdom is not so much a kind of knowledge as a way of seeing, or ways of seeing. When we take a few steps back, like when we stand under the shower or go on holiday, we begin to see the bigger picture. In every day speech, ‘wisdom’ has two opposites: ‘foolishness’ and ‘folly’, which involve, respectively, lack and loss of perspective. In cultivating a broader perspective, it helps, of course, to be knowledgeable, but it also helps to be intelligent, reflective, open-minded, and disinterested—which is why we often seek out ‘independent’ advice. But above all it helps to be courageous, because the view from up there, though it can be exhilarating and ultimately liberating, is at first terrifying—whence, no doubt, the giggles and the sneers.

Courage, said Aristotle, is the first of human qualities because it is the one which guarantees all the others.

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The Five Enemies of Reason

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If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles. —Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The enemies of rational thought can take one of several overlapping forms, including formal fallacy and informal fallacy, cognitive bias, cognitive distortion, and self-deception. If these are difficult to define, they are even more difficult to distinguish.

A fallacy is some kind of defect in an argument, and may be either intentional (aimed at deceiving) or, more commonly, unintentional. A formal fallacy is an invalid type of argument. It is a deductive argument with an invalid form, for example: Some A are B. Some B are C. Therefore, some A are C. If you cannot see that this argument is invalid, complete A, B, and C with ‘insects’, ‘herbivores’, and ‘mammals’. Insects are clearly not mammals!

A formal fallacy is built into the structure of an argument, and is invalid irrespective of the content of the argument. In contrast, an informal fallacy is one that can be identified only through an analysis of the content of the argument. Informal fallacies often turn on the misuse of language, for example, using a key term or phrase in an ambiguous way, with one meaning in one part of the argument and another meaning in another part (fallacy of equivocation). Informal fallacies can also distract from the weakness of an argument, or appeal to the emotions rather than to reason.

As I argued in Hide and Seek, all self-deception can be understood in terms of ego defence. In psychoanalytic theory, an ego defence is one of several unconscious processes that we deploy to diffuse the fear and anxiety that arise when we who we truly are (our unconscious ‘id’) comes into conflict with who we think we are or who we think we should be (our conscious ‘superego’). For example, a person who buys a $10,000 watch instead of a $1,000 watch because “you can really tell the difference in quality” is not only hiding his (unrecognized) craving to be loved, but also disguising it as an ego-enhancing virtue, namely, a concern for quality. Whereas formal and informal fallacies are more about faulty reasoning, self-deception is more about hiding from, or protecting, oneself.

Cognitive bias is sloppy, although not necessarily faulty, reasoning: a mental shortcut or heuristic intended to spare us time, effort, or discomfort, often while reinforcing our image of the self or the world, but at the cost of accuracy or reliability. For example, in explaining the behaviour of other people, our tendency is to overestimate the role of character traits over situational factors—a bias, called the correspondence bias or attribution effect, that goes into reverse when it comes to explaining our own behaviour. So, if Charlotte omits to mow the lawn, I indict her with forgetfulness, laziness, or spite; but if I omit to mow the lawn, I excuse myself on the grounds of busyness, tiredness, or bad weather. Another important cognitive bias is confirmation, or my-side, bias, which is the propensity to search for or recall only those facts and arguments that are in keeping with our pre-existing beliefs while filtering out those that conflict with them—which, especially on social media, can lead us to inhabit a so-called echo chamber.

Cognitive distortion is a concept from cognitive-behavioural therapy, developed by psychiatrist Aaron Beck in the 1960s and used in the treatment of depression and other mental disorders. Cognitive distortion involves interpreting events and situations so that they conform to and reinforce our outlook or frame of mind, typically on the basis of very scant or partial evidence, or even no evidence at all. Common cognitive distortions in depression include selective abstraction and catastrophic thinking. Selective abstraction is to focus on a single negative event or condition to the exclusion of other, more positive ones, for example, “My partner hates me. He gave me an annoyed look three days ago (even though he spends all his spare time with me).” Catastrophic thinking is to exaggerate the consequences of an event or situation, for example, “The pain in my knee is getting worse. When I’m reduced to a wheelchair, I won’t be able to go to work and pay the mortgage. So, I’ll end up losing my house and dying in the street.” Cognitive distortions can give rise to a chicken-and-egg situation: the cognitive distortions aliment the depression, which in turn aliments the cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortion as broadly understood is not limited to depression and other mental disorders, but is also a feature of, among others, poor self-esteem, jealousy, and marital or relationship conflict.

Are there any other enemies of rational thought? Please name them in the comments section.

The Psychology and Philosophy of Imagination

Einstein held that imagination is more important than knowledge: “Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

I define imagination as the faculty of the mind that forms and manipulates images, propositions, concepts, emotions, and sensations above and beyond, and sometimes independently of, incoming stimuli, to open up the realms of the abstract, the figurative, the possible, the hypothetical, and the universal.

Imagination comes in many forms and by many degrees, ranging from scientific reasoning to musical appreciation, and overlaps with a number of other cognitive constructs including belief, desire, emotion, memory, supposition, and fantasy. Belief, like perception, aims at according with reality, while desire aims at altering reality. Emotion also aims at according with reality, but more particularly at reflecting the significance of its object, or class of object, for the subject—an aspect that it shares with many forms of imagination. Like imagination, memory can involve remote imagery. But unlike imagination, it is rooted in reality and serves primarily to frame belief and guide action. Memories are often more vivid than imaginings, which are, in turn, more vivid than suppositions. Suppositions tend to be cold and cognitive, and lacking in the emotional and existential dimensions of imagination. Finally, fantasy may be understood as a subtype of imagination, namely, imagination for the improbable.

I say the improbable rather than the impossible, because there is a theory that, just as perception justifies beliefs about actuality, so imagination justifies beliefs about possibility (or at least, metaphysical as opposed to natural possibility). To quote Hume, ‘It is an established maxim in metaphysics, that whatever the mind clearly conceives, includes the idea of possible existence, or in other words, that nothing we imagine is absolutely impossible.’ Could ghosts, the devil, time travel etc. really be possible? I think inconceivability may be a better guide to impossibility than conceivability to possibility. But what does it mean for something to be conceivable or inconceivable, and by whom?

It has to be said that, until very recently, most human societies did not mark a strict divide between imagination and belief, or fiction and reality, with each one informing and enriching the other. In fact, it could be argued that, in many important respects, the fiction primed over the reality—and even that this has been, and perhaps still is, one of the hallmarks of our species. Today, there are pills for people who confuse imaginings and beliefs, but back then no one ever thought that life, with its much harder hardships, might be meaningless—which I think tells us quite a bit about imagination and its uses, and also about mental illness.

The uses of imagination are many, more than I can enumerate. Most children begin to develop pretend play at around 15 months of age. What are children doing when they pretend play? And why are they so absorbed in works of imagination? When I was seven years old, I would devour book after book, and plead with my parents for those not already on the shelves. By playing out scenarios and stretching themselves beyond their limited experience, children seek to make sense of the world and to find their place within it. This meaning-making is joyful and exciting, and has an echo in every act of creation.

When we look at the Mona Lisa, we see much more than just the brushstrokes. In fact, we barely see the brushstrokes at all. In imagination as in our dreams, we ascribe form, pattern, and significance to things, and then reflect them back onto those things. Without this work of interpreting and assimilating, the world would be no more than an endless stream of sense impressions, as it might sometimes seem to those who lack imagination, with no hope of escape or reprieve.

More than that, by imagination we are able to complete the world, or our world, by conjuring up the missing parts, and even to inhabit entirely other worlds such as Middle-earth or the Seven Kingdoms. Imagination remains highly active throughout adulthood, and what is chick lit or even pornography if not an aid to the adult imagination? In one year (2017), Pornhub recorded 28.5 billion visits, equivalent to about four times the world population—and that’s just on the one site.

If imagination enables us to feel at home in the world, it also enables us to do things in the world. Science progresses by hypothesis, which is a product of imagination, and philosophy makes frequent use of thought experiments such as the brain in the vat, the trolley problem, and up to Plato’s Republic. Imagination makes knowledge applicable by forming associations and connections. It opens up possibilities, and guides decision-making by playing out those possibilities. So many of our failures, and some of our successes, are in fact failures of the imagination.

Imagination also enables us to talk to one another, understand one another, and work together. Without it, there could be no metaphor, no irony, no humor, no past or future tense, and no conditional. Indeed, there could be no language at all, for what are words if not symbols and representations? By imagination, we can put ourselves in other people’s shoes, think what they think, and feel what they feel. Problems in autism, which can be interpreted as a disorder of imagination, include abnormalities in patterns of communication, impairments in social interactions, and a restricted repertoire of behaviors, interests, and activities.

I’m lucky to have received a decent education, but one thing it didn’t do is cultivate my imagination. In recent years, I’ve been trying to recover the bright and vivid imagination that I left behind in childhood.

I’ve been doing just three things, all of them very simple—or, at least, very simple to explain.

  • Being aware of the importance of imagination.
  • Making time for sleep and idleness.
  • Taking inspiration from nature.

I’ll conclude with these few words from William Blake, which hint at the significance of the natural world and the transcending power of imagination,

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.

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