Wisdom Is Overrated

At the time of writing, there is a growing emphasis on “wisdom” within acad­emia and elsewhere, where people are arguing for the promotion of the term and its importance in society. A lot of this stuff is interesting and prom­ising. The best source of information at the time of writing is the website Evidence Based Wisdom, which is run by the mathematician Cha­r­les Cassidy. Among the proponents of wisdom you can find philosophers, theolog­ians, psych­ologists, sociologists, educational scientists, mindfulness inst­ruc­tors, business leaders and quite a few spiritually inclined authors – often employ­ing terms such as “trans­form­ational learning” and “self-leader­­ship”. The adult develop­ment research­ers tend to shout with the best of them (my own teacher Michael Commons being an exception to this rule). Within these settings, wisdom has been defined in many different ways – the three most prominent definitions perhaps being the so-called Berlin Wis­dom Paradigm, the Balance Theory of Wisdom and the Three-Dimen­sional Wisdom Scale.

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One’. This is the first book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. What you will read below is from the chapter on wisdom called “Wisdom Troubles”; a chapter that discusses some of the fallacies related to the hyped and relatively overrated notion of wisdom and spiritual enlightenment.

”Belief in ‘wisdom’ is the belief that there is a variable that is always good, and the more of it, the better. Has there ever been such a variable? Not in the world I live in, at least.”

Wisdom is always defined as something entirely beneficial and unprob­lem­atic. It is argued by more people than I could name, that “wisdom” is what humanity needs to solve its multifaceted crisis. Given all the em­phasis that I have put on discussing adult development (and the existential aspects thereof) in my book The Listening Society, I might be expected to enthusiast­ically supp­ort this trend. Yet, over the years, I have increasingly taken a skep­tical position.

The reason for this skepticism is rather simple: I have yet to see a cred­ible attempt to “operationalize” the concept; to make it workable. If wis­dom is such a serious matter, how come all its proponents only ever come up with vague and indirect ways of seeing it and measuring it? And what exactly is it that wisdom “does” – exactly how does it solve all manner of problems and “wicked issues”? People say that “higher consciousness” is necessary for humanity to solve the great problems we are facing. What exactly is it that people with all this wisdom and “higher consciousness” can do, that others cannot? These questions have been answered, but not quite convincingly.

The proponents of wisdom are certainly on to something. Surely, it makes sense to say that higher consciousness is what humanity needs. As I see it, what the wisdom people are scenting is the importance of seeing inner dimen­sions of people and society and the possibility of an active and deliberate dev­el­op­ment of these.

But the problem is that the wisdom people haven’t done their analytical homework. In other words, the researchers of this field – and other pro­po­nents – haven’t figured out exactly what they’re talking about. And the result is anything but productive. I should say, anything but “wise”.

Do you think I am exaggerating and being unfair? Andreas Fischer, a psychology professor at Heidelberg University, recently published a paper in The International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, titled “Wis­dom – The Answer to All the Questions Really Worth Asking.” As far as I can tell, the title is not ironically meant, and it’s not very different from others in the field. This is a scholar who has read through many of the different def­initions in ancient teachers and modern researchers alike; he is perfectly up-to-date. His paper is well-written and quite interesting – as are many others in the field – but does its very title not underscore that people take wisdom to be a magic bullet?

Fischer’s own suggestion is to see wisdom as fundamental and general insights about how to live a good life. But this definition more or less just says that wisdom is good, and lack of wisdom is bad. Fischer brings up some universally occurring insights in wisdom teach­ers, such as treating others well, going beyond materialism and selfish­ness, the importance of being good­hearted rather than successful, and so forth. He also shows that there is research supporting such claims (that following these guidelines tends to lead to happiness and mental health). Such advice can be useful, but it takes little account of people’s different developmental cap­abilities and personalities, let alone what society they live in and how this wisdom can ever evolve and change. How come so few of the classical wisdom teachers taught us about sustainability (with some North American excep­tions) or animal rights (with some Eastern exceptions)?

Making arguments for “wisdom” and “higher consciousness” without know­­­ing exactly what you are talking about can easily get out of hand. The researchers all try to be specific. But the problem persists – because it has to do with the concept of wisdom itself. It’s just not a very high-quality variable, simply because it is taken to be unambiguously good. My mentor Michael Commons (the creator of the Model of Hierarchical complexity, read this post if you want an introduction) would have said: “It’s a crap variable”.

Our search for the wise person easily becomes a search for the perfect person. Should it then surprise us that most people considered “wise” tend to be semi-mythic figures such as Jesus, the Buddha, Lao-Tze or Con­fuc­ius? The real people always run up against their equally real limitations.

Belief in “wisdom” is the belief that there is a variable that is always good, and the more of it, the better. Has there ever been such a variable? Not in the world I live in, at least. Where I come from, many variables always work together to create patterns and equilibriums. Too much of one single variable always has downsides.

So the proponents of wisdom are in fact defending a project that must by necess­ity be a fantasy. If they can’t say in which context this wisdom is good and when it is not, it’s just not a real variable. And if they can’t say how wisdom grows, through which mechanisms, and how it works, and what its limitations are, it is apparently an imagined magic bullet. It is fond hopes and dreams, not much more.

”Wisdom, after all, is most often just taken to mean: ‘you folks should be more like me’. This way, wisdom is simply the speaker’s received wisdom.”

Of Wisdom and Wise-Guys

The proponents of wisdom fail to differentiate between pretty much all of the dimensions I’ve explored in The Listening Society: cognitive com­plexity, IQ, symbolic code, subjective state, existential depth (and the light­ness or dark­ness of that depth), mental health and having a well-integrated person­ality, Eriksonian life phases – the list goes on. Especially, people tend to have an irresistible urge for blending in those Eriksonian life pha­ses, which messes up their theories.

For certain, people who study wisdom generally have several com­ponents in their models (being both smart, patient, humble, emotionally stable, and so forth – see for instance Stephen Hall’s 2010 book Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience), but in turn all of these variables tend to be taken as unambiguously good and there is no serious con­sider­ation of what happens when people develop in one such variable but not another.

Without analytical distinctions it becomes quite difficult to know what you are talking about. Try this out:

  • Is Nelly, a low-complexity (MHC stage 10 Abstract), great-depth, low-state, old and exper­ienced, psychologically stable person who has “inst­all­­ed” the symbol-stage E Modern, “wise” or not?
  • Is Eckhart Tolle wise (a New Age wisdom teacher with high state and great depth) or is he plain stupid (believing that flowers are “enlight­­en­ed plants” and that a wave of New Age mindlessness will save humanity from im­pend­ing destruction and that he is leading the fray by giving often lousy therapeutic advice to people who actually need psychiatric care)? Does he have “high consciousness”?
  • Or how about the great ruler of northern India in the 3rd century BCE, Asho­ka? After times of conquest and war, he turned to Budd­hism and pacifism. In his great compassion he decided, among other things, to let all his prisoners out for fresh air once a year.

In these examples, the answer depends on how wisdom is defined. Which brings us to the third problem. With sloppy variables, no reliable measure­­ments and no stringent definitions (even if the researchers do attempt to be stringent), the field is wide open for people to have just about anything in mind when they talk about “wisdom”. And people always seem to assume that they themselves possess wisdom, and that people who they don’t like don’t. The wisdom movement goes: “Yeah man! You like wisdom too? Me too! Let’s do it, y’all!”

Think about it. The concept of wisdom becomes a projection screen, upon which we can project pretty, wishful images. We can paint anything that feels good onto this “super-duper-variable”. The problem is that it would break down into a giant slugfest of disappointment and conflict if operationalized in society: people would have to start arguing about who is wise, really, and why, and what that means. And a lot of people would force a lot of low quality “wisdom” down other people’s throats. Or sell it to them by means of expensive consulting and motivational speeches. Wisdom, after all, is most often just taken to mean: “you folks should be more like me”. This way, wisdom is simply the speaker’s received wisdom.

So here’s my take on a narrower, stricter, definition. Wisdom is great depth, plain and simple. Nothing more, nothing less. So, the way I use the term, wisdom has to do with things like spirituality and transcendence but not really with being smart or “proficient at living a good life”. With this defin­ition the answer is: yes, Eckhart Tolle is wise. To a highly com­plex but low-depth thinker like Richard Dawkins, Eckhart Tolle simply appears to be a fraud; to his enthused followership, he appears to be a sage. The truth is, quite simply, he has high state, great depth and relativ­ely low complexity.

The first example person, Nelly (great depth, low state, low complex­ity), is also wise, even if she lives in a darker subjective world than Eckhart Tolle. They are both wise, but perhaps not very clever. What can I say?

With this stricter definition, the rural Mongol shaman, for instance, can be viewed as wiser than an average modern person. The same goes for the Tibetan nun. With the definition I propose, they can be called “wiser” simply by virtue of having greater depth. We are being specific about what we mean. And a psych­ologically healthy, complex thinker, who is of old age and at peace with herself is not wise, unless she also has great depth – even if the clichés hold that she “should” be wise.

All this lets wisdom be specific, measurable, and just one piece in the puzzle (rather than being a universal fix-it-all). What we might lose by mak­ing the term more narrow, we regain manifold by clarifying what we are actually talking about.

We might try another definition if you like, a more inclusive one: wisdom is the combination of mental health, high complexity and great depth. This might let Ashoka qualify as wise (assuming that he, as a succ­essful ruler, was also a complex thinker). With this definition, people can be “wise” regardless of which symbolic code they have (so you can have a wise person in ancient India, even if he’s hardly progressive by modern standards). With this defin­ition it becomes more difficult to answer the question of who is wise, but strictly speaking neither Nelly nor Eckart Tolle would be categorized as such. Ashoka might.

The devil isn’t just in the details. He’s in the definitions. And, most of all, he’s in the analytical distinctions: in the ability to tell one thing apart from another. To not mix things up. So before you preach the gospel of wisdom, please consult the devil. It would be wise.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here.


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11 thoughts on “Wisdom Is Overrated

  1. I believe your definition of wisdom though good is lacking. You say that you have yet to see a cred­ible attempt to “operationalize” the concept.

    The following is an attempt at that. I believe practical wisdom can be summarized as followed.

    Primary goal; Minimize suffering for sentient beings.

    Secondary goal; Maximize wellbeing for sentient being.

    Do this as efficiently as possible and as soon as possible.

    Have the law or policy of an organisation or state or whatever be centered around these goals and make the law dynamic so that it can be updated continuously.

    See the problem as a scientific problem and approach using the scientific method to determine the best coarse of action in each and every individual case as people are different and in many ways need different things to excape suffering and enjoy happiness.

    Also use creativity so that we are no stiffled by a too positivistic approach which the scientific community has had a tendency of doing.

    Run simulations and role play policy and take in feedback from the populace but also have people play the roles of trees and animals so we may have a more multipronged approach.

    Iterate, iterate, iterate, there is no such thing as perfection but it can be approached.

    A wise action is an action which reduces suffering and increases wellbeing as efficiently as possible. Its true that we cannot know if our actions are truly wise as perhaps a great act of compassion that saves millions from torture and death means that one of the survivors 20 years hence becomes the worst dictator in history and kills 90% and reduces earth to a smoldering pockfaced wasteland. As such we must approach practical wisdom with humility and understand that in a life that ever goes on and where every action has infinate unforseen consequences we can never be certain of the utility of our actions but there are better ways to act and worse ways to act as far as we know. We now have the technologies needed to create a great feedback loop from the citizens of the world where they can tell us their mood, general sentiments towards life, their likes and dislikes. This data can then be used to create a world where they can live as merrily as possible.

    without the sophic goal or what Karl Popper called reverse utilitarianism we will have a society where people talk around each other all wanting to have their suffering cease but not understanding how interconnected they are and how there are better answers than others. Occupy wallstreet largly fell apart because we listened too much and didnt understand that the truth is the truth is the truth and instead of talking we could attempt to consult the extreme trove of data at hand and use it to act instead of keeping on talking.

    1. Hello, thanks for your input.

      The formulation of wisdom you suggest may be useful, but still begs the question of how to measure it as a “trait” or variable in an organism. Also, it is one that would probably be dismissed by most theorists on wisdom. What you have then, is just your own attempt to spread your received wisdom as “universal wisdom”.

      So I think your argument brings us back to my position: wisdom is a fussy term, and thus seductive, but still overrated.

      1. The formulation I use is simply in respons to your assertion that there is no good way to “operationalize” the concept, i.e. wisdom in practice. I believe the formula devised is a great way to move forward in practical matters with wisdom at the core. In all honesty I find the notion that wisdom is overrated as opposed to saying that its poorly understood to be rather dangerous in a world where the fools rule.

        You are correct that from a neurobiological and psychological perspective it’s perhaps difficult to pinpoint what wisdom exactly is as it relates to many different things. But so is intelligence, we can speak of many types of intelligence. Social, musical, logical, spacial, general, etc, The G-factor attempts to bring these together but is still rather fuzzy. But we can still call someone intelligent and have an understanding of what that means and we wouldnt call intelligence overrated.
        I would say that intelligence is to knowledge what wisdom is to understanding, the more intelligent you are the better you are at consuming, storing and organizing knowledge but that doesnt mean you can understand the big picture that the puzzle pieces of knowledge you have is showing, there are many intelligent fools in this world who have great knowledge but dont have any understanding of what to do with this knowledge or how everything is interconnected.

        The G-factor came about by the psychologist Charles Spearman who saw that some students performance across seemingly unrelated subjects were positively correlated.
        In the same way if we take on the Buddhist view of what correct action is which I’ve attempted to formulize, then the practical actions, the trait of the wise, would be to bring peace to the world as immediately and efficiently as possible. The better you are at this the wiser you could be said to be. The stronger the trait of wisdom is expressed in you.

        You could boil the trait of wisdom down to two main categories. Intellectual wisdom and emotional wisdom.

        I would say that Intellectual wisdom as a trait starts with the Socratic premise which is “all I know is that I know nothing”
        The world could be all in my mind, it could be the DMT trip of a higher dimensional being, or a lower dimensional being, could be some asshole future kids playing a simulation of what the world would look like if Trump was president, etc, because we can never fully know how or what the truth is we must start from the vantage point of humility.
        The truth as we can know it is therefore a matter of probability, in order to decipher it accurately we need critical thinking and an awareness of our own biases.
        Thus the scientific method is their guide to truth. However creativity is important as a supplement to the positivistic nature of science in practice. Also something I call smart luck, which is to try random shit out and scientifically log and measure the outcomes. Maybe we can stumble upon the next penicillin that way.
        The wise in order to achieve the goal of efficiently making things better would need a great foundation of knowledge and insight, though one can be wise without it, it certainly helps to have a strong reservior of facts so one may make a more informed decision un order to be wise in practice.

        Traits of the intellectually wise;
        Humility and open mindedness.
        Critical thinking/scientific thinking.
        Awareness of the limits and biases of the subjective perspective.

        We can be intellectually wise and know what should be done but still not do it. For instance I can know how I should respond to Steve being a dick with empathy and understanding but he pisses me off so I lose my temper and punch him. We are all connected, through empathy our suffering is transferable and as such I cant commit a hurtful action without hurting myself. As a matter of logic, if I wish to be as happy as I can be, I must ensure the happiness of those around me. Even if you subscribe to the idea that there are psychopaths who dont care about others, (I think thats not true and some part of them do feel empathy but its hidden to them but this is inconsequential here) they do have to live around others. When people are miserable they perform worse at their tasks and be more surly which makes life harder for the psychopaths and as such the misery around them will still effect them negatvely. Having this knowledge means I know I cannot harm someone without harming myself, this is an important insight for the wise. Yet knowing doesnt necessarily mean I wont do it as i may not be emotionally wise.

        Traits of the emotionally wise;
        Compassion/pro-social behaviour
        Emotional self-regulation
        Decisiveness despite limited information
        Acting instead of reacting

        Im sure more can be added to the list of traits.

        Why would the defintion probably be dismissed by most theorists on wisdom? You say this but offer no reason.

        Love and Logic


      2. Hanzi,

        Thanks for the articles. I’m really enjoying your site. Isn’t it a hallmark of the modern to obsess over quantifiability and verification? Shouldn’t metamodernism see, like the Pomo, that this is a one-sided, if incredibly useful viewpoint? I don’t think any ancient wisfom teacher would talk about wisdom as something quantifiable within an organism. And I think we ought to take that seriously. By not doing so, your critique boils down to saying that wisdom is not scientific and therefore not worthy of serious consideration. This seems against the fundamental idea if metamodernism.

        1. Hello Brian,

          As I see it, there isn’t really any fundamental divide between the scientific and the non-scientific, except for the non-scientific realm of phenomenological experience itself, which naturally cannot be intersubjectively verified or falsified. Hence, whenever someone makes claims about there being a “wisdom” and they mean anything else than their own experience, they -are- in fact making a scientific claim. They are making a claim about the relative nature of things in reality (this person is wise, that one isn’t). And as such, there really is no reason to exempt such claims from the same scrutiny as any other claims. If we do confide in “the great depths of wisdom teachers” as a source of non-scientific authority, we leave ourselves open to people making claims that none-one can check, but we still feel compelled to accept or believe in.

    1. Hello Simon,

      “Depth” is defined in the book, “The Listening Society”. A definition, here taken somewhat out of context:

      “Depth is a person’s intimate, embodied acquaintance with subjective states. A person’s inner depth increases through her felt, lived and intuitive knowledge of a new subjective state (lower or higher than previously experienced)—and when the intimate acquaintance of that state becomes an integrated part of her psycho-logical constitution; a part, if you will, of her personality.”

      But then you need the definition of “state” also.

  2. Thank you for your article. It might interest the reader to complement it with the perspective on wisdom of most meditation traditions.

    The vipassana tradition, for example, teaches exactly the technique of “how wisdom grows, through which mechanisms, and how it works” (and what its limitations are).

    As outlined in an earlier comment, the definition of wisdom in these traditions is simple; developing towards fewer actions that hurt other beings, more actions that benefit other beings, as well as increasing efforts to help others progress in this direction. These tendencies develop naturally as one gains insight into the constant flux and impermanence of all nature, through direct experience of this law of nature within one’s own being. Wisdom is simple because it’s universal: it can be attained by anyone who practices, regardless of their intellectual or personal traits.

    Scholarly dissection and analysis is far removed from the practical nature of wisdom. Quantifying and intellectualizing wisdom is a pastime that is intrinsically unable to promote any improvement in the human condition. Wisdom is the result of first hand practical experience, which manifests in ‘real-time’ in a person’s actions as the person progresses in their practice.

    Scientific discourse on the concept of wisdom is a closed circuit, which although maybe not harmful to anyone, can be misleading in proposing that wisdom could be meaningfully increased through intellectual means. The only way for wisdom to develop in a person is through the practice of applied self-observational techniques. Wisdom can’t be developed without continuous practice, and intellectual endeavors are irrelevant to it.

    For more on this viewpoint see http://www.dhamma.org

  3. Being involved in integral research on practical wisdom, I would like to comment on your section stating that “Wisdom Is Overrated”. Your discussion criticises rightly certain interpretations of “hyped wisdom,” but they do not do justice to what practical wisdom may offer also for a metamodern political practice and praxis.
    Cha¬r¬les Cassidy Evidence Based Wisdom, Berlin Wis¬dom Paradigm, the Balance Theory of Wisdom and the Three-Dimen¬sional Wisdom Scale are selective sources, and yes partly very problematic and full of fallacies.
    I have trouble with your “Wisdom Troubles” as a “relatively overrated notion of wisdom and spiritual enlightenment”.
    Wisdom does necessary entail believing in “a variable that is always good, and the more of it, the better”. (connotation of goodness and normative, perfectionising progress orientations are historical relative, constructs, to be deconstructed and misunderstanding wisdom in the sense of a resentful and self-righteous moralism to be attacked by all means!
    For me wisdom is not “entirely beneficial and unprob¬lem¬atic” While sharing your scepticism there are attempt to “operationalize” the concept; to make it workable and it is possible to show what and how wisdom is a practice (not only for solving wicked problems)
    That wisdom is appropriated by preacher of ascending “higher consciousness” does not exclude its relevance of being an embodied down-to earth practice
    Wisdom is not (only) about “ inner dimen¬sions of people and society and the possibility of an active and deliberate dev¬el¬op¬ment of these”. I developed an integral and interrelational understanding of practical wisdom that criticises and leaves those reductive ideas behind.
    I and many wisdom researchers have done “ analytical homework” (and before generalising, and stating such claims you may do your homework of a more comprehensive research 🙂
    Andreas Fischer is a problematic example indeed, being a representative of school of revived Humanism.
    And yes we need to consider different developmental cap¬abilities and context, influencing wisdom as a processual culture-dependent practice evolve!
    I and other colleagues do speak systematically speak about the nexus of t sustainability and wisdom (and plan to publish a book and special issue on this). There is empirical research on showing in which context and “mechanisms” wisdom has what kind of complex effects (not always “good”, sometimes even tragic!). If you are interested in “how wisdom grows” I can provide you with our book and articles on wisdom learning we published, that also reflect its limitations.
    We may work together how a critical understanding of practical wisdom can be related to those dimensions in The Listening Society …..
    Yes, you are right, there is a danger that the concept of wisdom becomes a projection folio for wishful images and desires, and like you I am in favour of specific, operationable “stricter” definition, related to an uplifting “great depth” and we could discuss the status of complexity of the same.
    Although the quest and question and methodological challenges of measurability required an elaborated investigation and practice in empirical research.
    Wisdom is (not only a combination but) an proto-integral development practice of bodily, mental social structural systemic health, with high processual complexity and uplifting great depth.
    The devil and the divine is in both the definition and theoretical and empirical research details which indeed call for clear analytical distinctions
    Let us be both not preacher of any gospels but consult the divine devil and devilish divine … Instead let us explore what an art of a meta modern practical wisdom for political praxis mean and imply!
    Considering a more comprehensive understanding and the actualisable potential of a practice of wisdom for meta-modernism and its politics: that would be wise.