Research Paper By Ovidiu Mihai
(Business Coach, ROMANIA)
What is it that makes someone wise, or one person wiser than another? Wisdom consists in the knowledge of how to live well and that this knowledge of how to live well is constituted by various further kinds of knowledge. One concern for this view is that knowledge is not needed for wisdom but rather some state short of knowledge, such as having rational or justified beliefs about various topics. Another concern is that the emphasis on knowing how to live well fails to do justice to the ancient tradition of “theoretical wisdom.”
Some people are wise in domain-specific ways. For instance, someone could be a wise gardener, or a wise stock analyst, or a wise mechanic. But there also seem to be people who are wise in a more general sense. Thus, it is no paradox to say of someone that while he might be a wise stock analyst, he is not wise “overall”—where this latter description is supposed to pick out a more pervasive, more holistic property of a person.
The knowledge of how to live well is a complex state that can be broken down into various components. Knowing how to live well is constituted by the following further types of knowledge, all of which, I believe, are individually necessary for wisdom:
- Knowledge of what is good or important for well-being.
- Knowledge of one’s standing relative to what is good or important for wellbeing.
- Knowledge of a strategy for obtaining what is good or important for wellbeing.
Completely vs Incipiently wise
There is a tradition of thinking that someone is wise only if is fully or completely wise. On the other hand, we sometimes call people wise who fall short of full or complete wisdom but who are nevertheless “on the path” towards complete wisdom. These later people are, as it were, incipiently wise; they are pointed in the direction of wisdom and seem equipped to make progress on the path.
Adding further detail, we can say that someone is fully wise if he not only knows what is good or important for well-being but if he has attained those goods. Suppose with Socrates we take knowledge of things like justice, goodness, and beauty to be crucial to wellbeing. Then the ideally wise person would not just know that this sort of knowledge is crucial to well-being but would have achieved it; that is, he would know the true nature of justice, goodness, and beauty. Or suppose with the Stoics we take tranquility to be central to well-being. Then the ideally wise person would not just be aware of the importance of that but would have achieved it.
For the Stoics, the ideally wise person would be the sage, and according to many Stoics, a true sage has never existed. This rarity is also reflected in the Abrahamic claim that “God alone is wise.” When Socrates disavowed any sort of serious wisdom, it was therefore ideal wisdom (what he sometimes called “divine wisdom”) he had in mind. The transitional moment in which a human being finally and fully recognizes that only virtue (consistency) is good is momentous: this is the moment in which a fool becomes a wise person [Cicero, De fin. 3.20–22].
Surely, to be consistent here the Stoics must mean that in acquiring the knowledge that virtue alone is good a person only becomes incipiently wise—on the path or progressing towards wisdom, but not perfectly or ideally wise, as the sage is wise. Seneca indeed had his own name for people in this state: he called them “progressors” (proficiens) people who were not ideally wise but who were nevertheless pointed in the right direction. Properly speaking is the incipient wisdom: a state that involves knowledge of what is good or important for wellbeing, an accurate sense of where one stands with respect to that good sand a strategy for realizing them. One advantage of thinking of wisdom in this way is that it naturally captures the sense in which wisdom comes in degrees. Someone could, therefore, be much wiser than she was five years ago in virtue of having, e.g., more detailed, knowledge of what is good or important for well-being, or more specific strategies for realizing those goods.
Wisdom, therefore, seems to be essentially an in-process state for human beings at least—more like away (a Tao), than a settled destination. Perhaps “incipient” then is not the best description for this state because it suggests only the early or initial stages of wisdom and seems to leave out someone such as Socrates who has been on the path for quite some time.
Good vs Important
One of the most common claims about the wise person is that he has a wide experience of life. This is the sense in which wisdom and age are often thought to go hand in hand. Nevertheless, it seems clear that experience alone is not enough for wisdom, even in an incipient sense. Virtually everyone who reaches old age has a wide experience of life, but a much smaller percentage of them are regarded as wise. So, what is it that certain people learn from experience that sets them on the right path? What sort of knowledge do they acquire? They learn from experience what is good or important for wellbeing.
More exactly, they learn what is more or less important for wellbeing. As Joel Kupperman puts it, the experience offers
knowledge of what has the high, low, or negative value
both at the general level and especially in particular situations. For example: Suppose I think that losing my job is one of the worst things that could possibly happen to me. But then it happens, and I realize that I can struggle through—it is not as devastating as I had thought. I also come to see that there are much worse things I could have lost than my jobs, such as my integrity, or my friendships, or my health.
One thing that experiences can, therefore, teach us is what different possibilities are like and thus how to weigh or value them appropriately. In this sense, the elderly, wise or not, are important repositories of wisdom because they can help provide evidence about what different alternatives are like and thereby help us to assign different values to those alternatives. There is some variability here, both across the lifespan of a single person and across different people. What was very important to me at 20 might not be very important to me at 60. But there does appear to be implicit objectivity even across this variability. When we are looking for advice about life, we do not turn to people who seem to have flawed priorities. Instead, we turn to people who seem to have the “right priorities,” and can discern how to properly respect these priorities in our situation.
A wise person has effective strategies, at least of a general kind, for achieving his or her ends. Similarly, in Buddhism, the aim is to empty the self. But how does one do that? Among other things, by using breathing methods to bring one’s mind away from the insistent demands of the self and to focus one’s attention on the oneness of all things. In Christianity, the goal is to love God and serve others in love. But how does one do that? Through prayer, reminding oneself what Jesus would do in the same situation and so on.
Knowledge vs Rationality
An important challenge posed by Sharon Ryan to the effect that what is required for wisdom is not knowledge but rather rationality. In Ryan’s view, what is problematic about knowledge is that it requires truth, but if he is right it is possible to be wise in the absence of truth. So long as someone has rational beliefs about “a wide variety of valuable academic subjects” and about “how to live rationally”, then the person can qualify as wise, even if his or her beliefs end up being mistaken.
“A sit turned out, most of Ptolemy’s justified beliefs about the solar system were false. If he had a lot of false, but highly justified beliefs about a wide variety of subjects, he should not, on that basis alone, be excluded from the honor of being a genuinely wise person. Since so much of what was considered knowledge has been abandoned or has evolved over time, a theory that requires truth (through a knowledge condition) would exclude almost all people who are now long dead, including Hypatia, Socrates, Aristotle, Homer, Lao Tzu, etc., from the list of the wise. What matters, as far as being wise goes, is not that a wise person has the knowledge, but that she has highly justified and rational beliefs about a wide variety of subjects, including knowing how to live well, science, philosophy, mathematics, history, geography, art, literature, psychology, and so on…”
Refection and Conclusions
From the Coaching perspective, WISDOM (Wise, Inner, Solution, and Designed with Ovidiu Mihai) could represent the concept of finding the right path, together with the client, to an inner journey of unlimited possibilities. It is the way of acknowledging the client about the resources available to him (knowledge, experiences), to highlight the uncovered potential and to clarify the borderline between rational, emotional, and intuition, aiming to bring balance and clarity in order to fulfill the client’s purpose.
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