I mentioned a couple of years ago that Franny in J.D. Salinger’s delightful novel Franny and Zooey decided to drop out of college because, she said, “no one there talks about wisdom.” T.S. Elliot famously asked “Where is the wisdom we have lost with knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Both of these comments deserve further comment.

As a philosopher who has devoted his life to helping young minds grow, a “philo-sopher,” a “lover of wisdom,” I have often asked myself the same questions. In my field, I have found members of my profession lost in a cloud of jargon searching for the “philosopher’s stone,” the key to understanding the mysteries of the universe. This, in my experience, has translated itself into a bunch of academic introverts weaving themselves into a tangled web of abstruse verbiage splitting hairs with a wicked grin on their collective faces, playing one-up to see who is the cleverest.  One of my professors at Northwestern suggested that if I wanted to succeed in my profession I should find an obscure topic no one knows anything about and write journal articles about it. As Franny asked, what became of wisdom?

This question lead me back to the classics, which I have quoted of late in these posts, writers such as Euripides and Sophocles, who seem to have a better grasp of what it means to be wise. Socrates, reputed to be the wisest man in Athens, insisted that his wisdom (if such it be) consisted in the fact that he knew that he did not know. That is, he did not presume to know things about which he was ignorant — unlike our president-elect who presumes to know more than 97% of the world’s entire scientific community, or anyone else for that matter.

Some distinctions are in order. Wisdom is not about knowledge and it’s not about information. We have both in abundance. We also confuse information with education when we say things such as “she needs to be educated about child-rearing.” No, she needs to be informed about child-rearing. Education is what transforms information into knowledge. Knowledge coupled with experience and common sense may then become wisdom. It depends on many variables, and some have insisted that the experience must involve some degree of suffering. I suspect this is true. In any event, wisdom requires a certain amount of information and a certain amount of knowledge as well. But above all else it requires a sense of how to apply that knowledge and how to weed out the misinformation from the information — a growing problem with bogus news on the Internet, the Fox News channel, and our increasing tendency to reduce all truth to gut feelings.

I would suggest that wisdom is the knowledge of what is appropriate in a particular situation, what the situation calls for. It comes very close to what we loosely call “common sense.” And in my experience, women seem to have more of it than men. It is a wise person who knows what to do and when to do it. A large part of this comes with the skill of critical thinking, which can be taught — and which all college professors of all stripes insist they are teaching (though most are not). We cringe at the word “critical,” because we have been told not to be “judgmental” and criticism is a form of judgment. This, of course, is absurd. Judgment is what separates the wise from the unwise. And criticism allows us to wade through the tons of information and misinformation thrown at its each day and separate out those few items that are worth careful consideration. Education, above all else, involves the development of critical sensibility, the ability to grasp what is essential and important and reject nonsense and blatant falsehood.

Education, therefore, ought to be about wisdom, teaching the skills that allow us to use our minds critically and glean important information from the dreck that surrounds us — and how to apply that information. Too often it is about information, per se, teachings kids the skills they will need to get a job or filling their minds with the information their teachers and professors have decided is important for them to know. The ability to winnow the information ought to be the skill that is taught and we can then hope that the young person will be lucky enough to wed that to a bit of common sense — which I suspect we are born with. Or not. But, in any event, wisdom ought to be discussed in our colleges and universities.

I do believe it can best be discovered by reading the words written by wise men and women who have experience of the world, who know what is appropriate in any circumstance and who have a wealth of common sense. And who write well.


22 thoughts on “Wisdom

  1. “We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time.”
    Interesting to see you quote TS Eliot, I have been reading The Four Quartets (from which the quotation comes) over and over as it chimes with my current thinking and writing (not my blog). Wisdom is what we need when things look desperate. Let’s hope, to quote that poem – and Julian of Norwich – further, that despite all our worries and his ominous appointments, under Trump:
    “…all shall be well and
    All manner of things shall be well…”
    Although, reading the words of online sages, I have my doubts.

  2. To the minimal extent thatvI have gained wisdom from my studies and my teaching, I have become increasingly aware of the great extent of my own ignorance. I used to know so much more when I was a teenager!

  3. Hugh, Socrates’ definition of wisdom is timeless. We must also factor in the fragile human ego which impedes our asking more questions as we are afraid to reveal our ignorance. The truly wise person will ask questions to learn, not to show what they already know.

    What bothers me about today’s environment is we have a very uninformed society in this country who accepts what can be said wittily in 140 characters as wisdom. The wise person knows that our issues are far more complex than that and answers that brief betray the more holistic solutions.

    One of my favorite examples is when people say poverty is entirely due to too many single mother families. That is obviously one reason, but what causes that? And, how can we help those who find themselves in that predicament.

    Good post, Professor. Keith

    • Only a wise person knows what an unwise person does not know. As the wise person (Socrates would have it), is him that knows that he does not know, it appears that those who assert Otherwise must necessarily NOT be wise. The result of such reason seems conclusive.

    • The simplest observation here is that you speak of the “Wise Person” in the 3rd person.It’s as if the Fish that was eaten by the Shark was telling how Smart the Fish was, who was NOT eaten by the Shark. Entertaining, to say nothing of Tragic.

      • Virtue is the heart of Bravery and Honor in the name of Truth and Justice that fortifies the Heart of any person against the enemies of the Polis who would pull-down the Security of the General Welfare. Virtue is what makes the Man in the face of unmanliness, dishonor and the dishonesty, cowardice and duplicity of Politics. Virtue is giving your very life to oppose the overwhelming odds of unjust rule and tyranny, defending the General Welfare. Virtue is what makes life worth living, when nobody else is watching or cares.

      • Is THAT what you Conclude, after all your years of Teaching…dear Professor of mine? We may begin again, yet, to Respect Academics as a Source and Fountain of Historical Preservation for the Human Experience…some day, soon I hope. I pray that you will NOT be left alone in such Ivory Tower, as the last hours of our Experience rush upon US. You have yet some Force to inflict upon OUR enemies. I pray you find the way to wield IT.

  4. Oh Dear. While of this Piece is supremely sensible, the core of it regarding Wisdom reminds me of the distinction the Greeks made of this and Prudence. I do believe, dear Sir, that what you are describing as Wisdom is, in fact, Prudence so understood in the Tradition. I do not think you have failed to notice this distinction, but think that the sway of your Reason has persuaded you that Wisdom is something that actually CAN be taught, which I gathered once and observe now here.

    I remember this distinctly in certain lectures I’ve attended, but offered no objection to at the time. I just do NOT believe that Wisdom, proper, can be taught. And the distinction IS precisely upon Prudence and Sophia. Wisdom may well recommend a Course of Action that runs perfectly contrary to one’s own best interests, and even prove to be damning to their Success as conventionally understood within the Context of their Culture. I do not suppose this assertion requires Examples, as they are several and convincing for those who care to entertain the Notion, and the Faith.

    But the Point of Prudence IS, certainly, the Purpose of Education and the Practice of both a useful and artful living among healthy and well-adjusted mankind, to be sure. Prudence is nothing to sniff at, as falling somewhat short of Wisdom, as it offers every Ration Recourse to the obvious challenges of an objective existence, such as we meet every day of necessity. But, this is not barely Half of our concern in life, either with ourselves or others nearest us. In the final Analysis, Wisdom appears as an informed Act of stripping away what is NOT Necessary, which Prudence is almost strictly concerned with. What remains is where one only Begins to approach Wisdom, not an Object to be obtained or some piece of a puzzle to fit into our little corner of cognizance; but something utterly Other to our natural state, such as we are. I must say…Wisdom is Sacred, NOT Secular. How we obtain Wisdom is a Mystery, and NOT something to be taught, merely suggested; while Experience offers ALL the Material for the Venture for the Brave….if, IF only the lonely brave may take-up the challenge, and THIS is wholly inspired, wholly unpredictable (Nature’s Genius), and wholly without the Counsel of Prudence that comes before, except for the Moral Humility that Socrates was lauded for by the Oracle of Delphi pointing toward the humanely unobtainable treasure…the Philosopher’s Stone.

    • I tried to make clear that wisdom cannot be taught. I mentioned that it must be coupled with what I loosely called “common sense” which we are born with “Or not.” The Greeks thought to become wise it was necessary to suffer. Dostoyevsky agreed and seemed to think this was a central theme in the Gospels. In any event, we can teach critical thinking skills, but we cannot teach wisdom. Thanks for helping to make clear the distinction between wisdom and prudence! I do think, however, that wisdom is something we ought to be talking about at the collegiate level.

      • Of Course. There are few topics as worthy to be discussed and seriously studied. I would not pretend that Wisdom is a High Tower, apart or distinct from Man necessarily. It may come as Natural to Angels in Heaven as breath to Man, but is certainly still a fruit of Effort among mortals, no doubt. I would rather suggest that Wisdom is born of Faith, in that the first is the Result of a certain Leap of the Latter…a Means of Transcending the Mortal Coil, so to speak. I do not know how Socrates, for instance, could speak of his inner Daemon without such Faith, to whom he credited the moral restraint or sentiment to resist intellectual folly, his own and others.

        Probably enough said on that Score.

  5. However….it DOES occur to me, at the last moments before I retire for the Night, that IF Socrates was Prudent, he would have taken his friends advise and escaped his unjust Sentence of Hemlock. On the other hand, he DID accept the Sentence of his Peers, even though he must NOT have agreed with it. Such is the Distinction between Prudence and Wisdom, in a nutshell…seemingly.

      • I’ll tell you this here, Dear Professor, in the Darkest Night, at least in part because of others. But you have FAILED your Students, mostly because your have not exceeded what THEY must become in order to conquer the Evil that lays before US. Even YOU have confessed yourself INABLE to match the forces of Evil we face these days. I have NO idea how you overcome the memory of your vast conceits. But my friendship remains.

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