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, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.