On Wisdom

What is wisdom? And why do modern philosophers hardly talk about it?


“And here, O men of Athens, I must beg you not to interrupt me, even if I seem to say something extravagant. For the word which I will speak is not mine. I will refer you to a witness who is worthy of credit, and will tell you about my wisdom — whether I have any, and of what sort — and that witness shall be the god of Delphi. You must have known Chaerephon; he was early a friend of mine, and also a friend of yours, for he shared in the exile of the people, and returned with you. Well, Chaerephon, as you know, was very impetuous in all his doings, and he went to Delphi and boldly asked the oracle to tell him whether — as I was saying, I must beg you not to interrupt — he asked the oracle to tell him whether there was anyone wiser than I was, and the Pythian prophetess answered that there was no man wiser. Chaerephon is dead himself, but his brother, who is in court, will confirm the truth of this story.”

So speaks Socrates in defense of his life in Plato’s Apology. That is how we come to know that Socrates was the wisest man alive. But what, exactly, is wisdom anyway? This is the sort of question that Socrates and the early philosophers would have been caught endlessly debating in the Agora, Athens’ public space, or in the Forum of Rome. And yet, you would be hard pressed to find much written by contemporary, professional, philosophers on that subject.

One exception is a short article in the prestigious Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, penned by Sharon Ryan, of West Virginia University. Ryan runs through five philosophical accounts (I don’t like the word “theory,” since I don’t think philosophy is in the business of producing theories) of what wisdom is. Let’s take a look.

The first candidate is wisdom as epistemic humility. As Ryan puts it, somewhat formally: S is wise iff S believes s/he is not wise.

This will not do, for a number of reasons, beginning with the fact that, for instance, Socrates himself clearly believes the Oracle at Delphi, and would thus not be wise according to this definition.

The second option is wisdom as epistemic accuracy: S is wise iff for all p, (S believes S knows p iff S knows p.)

But of course even wise people can make mistakes, so at the very least this should be amended to something like “iff S’s belief in p is highly justified.” Moreover, even in the amended form, doesn’t our judgment that a person is wise depend on what sort of knowledge she possesses? I mean, I have a friend who is highly knowledgeable about certain kinds of amusement activities, and I’m sure that his beliefs in that domain are highly justified. That, however, doesn’t make him wise. (He may be wise nonetheless, but not for those reasons.)

Option three, wisdom as knowledge-1: S is wise iff S has extensive factual knowledge about science, history, philosophy, literature, music, etc. Uhm, no. I personally know a lot of scientists, as well as other academics, who definitely have extensive factual knowledge and yet whom I would never dream of calling wise. Indeed, if factual knowledge were the crucial component of wisdom then all the (allegedly) wise figures of the past, from Socrates to Buddha to Confucius, would be no such thing, since modern knowledge in pretty much any area far surpasses, and often even contradicts, theirs.

But there is a variant of this option that we may want to consider, wisdom as knowledge-2: S is wise iff S knows how to live well.

That sounds a bit more promising, as certainly the Greco-Romans (as well as a number of Eastern traditions) did associate wisdom with knowledge of how to live well — which usually meant living virtuously and morally, not having lots of material goods and sexual partners (though the Cyrenaics actually advocated pretty much just that).

Robert Nozick seems to have endorsed something like this view when he wrote (as quoted by Ryan): “Wisdom is not just knowing fundamental truths, if these are unconnected with the guidance of life or with a perspective on its meaning,” which sounds like a rejection of the first variant of “wisdom-as-knowledge” and an endorsement of the second one.

Ryan is rather dissatisfied with this account, but it isn’t clear why. At some point, for instance, she wants to add a further clause: “and (ii) S is successful at living well,” to make clear that we are talking about practical, not just theoretical, matters. Fine, but there may be all sorts of external impediments to a eudaimonic life (unless you are a Cynic or a Stoic) which really ought not to count against the wisdom of a given individual. So I rather like the idea of wisdom as knowledge of how to live well.

Still, let us proceed to the next candidate, the hybrid “theory” of wisdom: S is wise iff i) S has extensive factual and theoretical knowledge. ii) S knows how to live well. iii) S is successful at living well. iv) S has very few unjustified beliefs.

This seems to mix and match too many things, some of which are not actually necessary at all. As we have seen, the wise person needs knowledge, but of a particular sort, only a small section of which can be labelled “factual” or even “theoretical” (for instance, one needs relatively little, if any, scientific knowledge to know how to live a good life). We have also seen why “success” doesn’t necessarily enter into it, unless it is the highly qualified form of success that, say, the Cynics and Stoics described (i.e., independent of external goods, centered on the individual’s exercise of her virtues). As for the business of unjustified beliefs, this is a version of the epistemic humility clause discussed at the beginning. And yes, probably wise people are epistemically modest (like Socrates), but that seems to be more a consequence of their wisdom than an integral definitional component of it.

The last option on the table is wisdom as (deep) rationality: S is wise iff i) S has a wide variety of epistemically justified beliefs on a wide variety of valuable academic subjects. ii) S has a wide variety of justified beliefs on how to live rationally (epistemically, morally, and practically). iii) S is committed to living rationally. iv) S has very few unjustified beliefs and is sensitive to her limitations.

This is the option that Ryan favors, but I see a number of problems with it. To begin with, again, (i) seems to be entirely besides the point: academic knowledge simply has little or nothing to do with wisdom. The second clause is okay, though by itself it is covered under option 3b above. The third entry in the list should be entailed by the second one. I mean, would anyone really have justified beliefs about how to live wisely and yet not be committed to at the least try to live that way? Wouldn’t one of those beliefs be that one ought to live in such manner? And as for the last entry, again, we can agree that a reasonable degree of epistemic humility is the wise attitude to take given human fallibility, but that would simply be a consequence of being wise.

So, in the end, what is wisdom? I still like Socrates’ own conception of it, as it emerges, for example, from the Euthydemus: wisdom is the most important virtue (indeed, the only one, since all others are aspects of it) as well as the Chief Good, because it is that ability that tells us how to use anything else in life. One can be good at, say, making musical instruments, but not necessarily at playing them; or one could be good at writing political speeches, but not necessarily at delivering them. But if one is wise, then one knows what to do under all circumstances (within the limits of human fallibility), and one also knows how to properly use all other skills. That is why for Socrates the practice of wisdom was pretty much the same thing as living the good life.