The last few decades have seen a growth in the scientific study of wisdom. But what is the science of wisdom? And what gets left out of these accounts?
Welcome to the final lesson in this short course on wisdom. Over the past weeks, we've explored a rich range of traditions to try and get a handle on what wisdom is (if it is anything at all), how it matters (if it matters), and how to cultivate it (if it is the kind of thing you can cultivate).
We've covered a lot of ground over the past few weeks. So in this lesson, we're going to take a quick tour of the territory we have explored. And then we're going to come right up to date by asking about what contemporary science has to say about wisdom.
For some scientists, although wisdom was once the domain of philosophy and religion, it is now increasingly something that we can understand scientifically. This being the case, they argue, we no longer have any need of philosophy. But is this true? And is wisdom so easily tamed?
On the way to wisdom
But before we talk about all this, let's go back to the beginning. In the first class, we started out by asking what wisdom is. Drawing on a range of philosophical approaches, we saw that wisdom involves a combination of clear-sightedness, skill in navigating the world, the ability to effectively manage our lives, and the ability to communicate all this to others.
We also saw how, although wisdom might seem an elevated goal, it is also often quite ordinary. Wisdom isn't just about abstruse theories. It is also about how we go about our lives. However clever somebody might be, if they spend their practical lives getting into all kinds of scrapes, it's not clear we could call them wise. So in the second class, we looked at Aristotle, and the distinction he makes between phronesis (practical wisdom, or wisdom associated with praxis) and theoria (theoretical wisdom).
What makes Aristotle's account challenging is that he upends many of our assumptions about the relationship between theory and practice. For him, practical wisdom can never be simply about applying theory to specific circumstances. Instead, Aristotle insists that practical wisdom is a wholly different kind of thing from theoretical wisdom. In practical wisdom, he argues, the specific circumstances always have a greater weight than any general rules. This makes practical wisdom a kind of navigational skill (as we saw in the story of our two seafarers in lesson two).