On the Lookout for Wisdom

I was trying to understand the popularity of websites like Yelp.com and Digg.com. These sites rely on the so-called Wisdom of Crowds to identify the best places to eat, shop, etc. [Yelp] and to determine what news is REALLY news [Digg].  Apparently,  when we somehow aggregate the knowledge and information of a large number of people, we come up with better decisions than we would if left to our own devices. There is lots of criticism of this idea, and I’m not sure whether this really works, other than in highly controlled circumstances, but to me, it’s not really wisdom.

If you’re like me, you think you know what wisdom is, but you’re hard pressed to define it.  That puts us in good company.  The University of Chicago has  launched a $2 million research effort,The Defining Wisdom Project, to get a better handle on exactly what “wisdom” happens to be. I’m not sure I’d be willing to spend $2 million, but I applaud their efforts.

Look up the word “w-i-s-d-o-m” in the dictionary. Merriam-Webster offers several definitions, all of which seem to involve a combination of knowledge and insight, resulting in good judgment.   That feels right intuitively.  We think of wise people as those who know what to do when something difficult has to be done. We seek them out for advice because they’ve demonstrated that they know how things work, and how to get things done with minimum fuss and bother.

The ancient Greeks considered wisdom to be a virtue.  Socrates and Plato literally created philosophy [philo-sophia] as the Love of Wisdom.  Plato’s utopian philosopher kings would not only understand the right things to do — The Form of the Good — but would have the strength of character to do what what was right.  To Aristotle, wisdom was more than knowing that things worked in a certain way, but called for the deeper knowledge of why things were the way they were. In the Christian tradition, Thomas Aquinas called wisdom the “father” of all virtues.

The Inuits saw wisdom as the aim of all teaching. An Inuit elder supposedly said that people were wise when they could see what needed to be done and do it without being told.  That’s a sort of practical wisdom that the world could certainly use a lot more of.

Never willing to leave matters of the mind in the hands of philosophers, psychologists entered the debate about what wisdom really is.  I particularly enjoy the definition of wisdom found at Psychology Today Basics:

Like art and pornography, wisdom is hard to pin down, but people generally recognize it when they encounter it. Psychologists pretty much agree it involves an integration of knowledge, experience, and deep understanding that incorporates tolerance for the uncertainties of life as well as its ups and downs. There’s an awareness of how things play out over time, and it confers a sense of balance.”

I agree with most of that description, but have to take issue with the notion that we-know-it-when-we-see-it when it comes to wisdom.  I think we overlook the wisdom that can be found everywhere, both within us and in the world in general, because we simply don’t bother to look for it.  Worse, we may not know how to look for it.

To further complicate matters, at least some wisdom, [not the wisdom that Plato is so enamored with, based on innate and universal ethical principles], in the area of practical affairs, seems to be highly context sensitive.  For example, the purchase of Alaska in 1867 for $7.2 million was denounced at the time as “Seward’s Folly.” The discovery of gold in the 1890’s changed everyone’s view, and the storehouse of natural resources found in our 49th state makes Seward look like a particularly sagacious Secretary of State. Of course, Seward didn’t know about the gold, the oil, or much else about Alaska at the time of the purchase, so perhaps he was just a lucky fool with a great sense of timing.

As for me, while I’m not ready to go as far as author  Douglas McKee in his latest book, Already Wise: Our Inborn Ability to Make the Best Choices, and say that we  simply have to learn to unlock the nascent wisdom inside each of  us, I am on the lookout for wisdom, wherever I may happen to find it.

For today, I’ll leave the last word to Bard Will Shakespeare, who wrote in As You Like It [Act V, Scene 1 for those who care to look it up]:

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.



Join the Conversation


  1. Interesting post and topic. I have recently been pondering the same in the context of the Serenity Prayer – commonly recited at many support group meetings:
    “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change….the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference. Do we first need to develop serenity and courage before the wisdom, that is innate in all of us, can go to work in our lives? Although I have not read his work, I tend to agree with McKee’s assertion that we can unlock the wisdom inside of us.
    I will be interested to read more and to see how your blog develops!

    1. Thanks. The wisdom implied in the Serenity Prayer feels to me like a practical, real world sense about how the world works. Probably the reason why Reinhold Neibuhr – an American theologian and political commentator – is frequently cited as the author. He preached the importance of realism as opposed to blindly following ideological absolutes.

    1. Happy to do so.
      Even easier for both of us, set up an RSS feed [Your boys can show you how to do it] so that new posts will land in your e-mailbox

  2. Love the topic, David. And interesting photo. Where was it taken?

    I’m reading a book right now that talks about “The art of questioning”. I would think questioning is an important step when we’re on the lookout for wisdom. The author says, “Sometimes we may be afraid to question because we confuse it with doubt. Doubt leads to incapacitation, questioning leads to increased capacity…Questioning is what expands the journey, certainty is a very small space.”

    1. The photo was taken while playing golf at Carne Golf Links on the Belmullet peninsula in County Mayo, Republic of Ireland. The wisdom I was looking for in those grassy dunes was white, round and dimpled.

      I think that curiosity might be the key ingredient in the search for wisdom. Curious people aren’t satisfied with superficial answers. They like to dig into the nitty-gritty details about how things really work, and how things really are.

      I’m not sure that curiosity and doubt are in any sense related. Curiosity may just take doubt out of the equation altogether.

  3. I think you hit on something when you describe the dictionary’s definition of wisdom (a combination of knowledge and insight, resulting in good judgment), as “feeling right intuitively.” It seems to me that wisdom is predicated on intuition in addition to knowledge (which is why crowd-sourced info can be extensive, and possibly useful, but not wise, per se). A body of information elicits an intuitive response that, with the necessary ingredients of both self-awareness and good character, can yield wisdom.

    So perhaps wisdom is innate, as it sounds like McKee is suggesting, but self-awareness and good character (or “good intention,” or perhaps “selfless intention”) are traits that manifest all too rarely in my experience!, and ones that are likely often squelched in individuals by the so-called wisdom of crowds.

    1. Our friend Dr. Eric Gruver would agree with you 100%. He would trace “selfless intention” to the Platonic Ideal – which is humane behavior that advances all of humanity.
      Stay tuned for more……

  4. Hi Dave,
    A very interesting issue, and one that could consume a considerable amount of time and thought. I look forward to the next chapter.

  5. Lucius,
    I’m happy to hear that: a) you found the blog i a web search , and b0 you got a free lunch for your trouble.
    Hope you subscribe.

  6. It takes a commitment to writing, that’s all. You have to be willing to write, re-write, research to fill in gaps, and then have the courage to publish and put yourself – your words, at least – out there. Good luck.

  7. “Affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our lives.” ~ C. S. Lewis

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