Wisdom is something that pretty much all philosophical and religious traditions seek. While it isn’t a popular concept in modern academic philosophy departments, that’s a bad reflection on the latter, not on the former.
The Greeks since Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics distinguished two different kinds of wisdom: phronesis, or practical wisdom, and sophia, or “transcendental” wisdom. To complicate things from a Stoic perspective, while phronesis is one of the four cardinal virtues (the others being temperance, courage, and justice), many Stoics thought — together with Socrates — that these are all aspects of one underlying virtue, which they referred to as wisdom. Clearly, a bit of unpacking is in order.
A good, if somewhat unusual, place where to start is a special issue of the journal Research in Human Development (volume 8, issue 2, 2011), which published a collection of essays on “Sophia and Phronesis in Psychology, Philosophy, and Traditional Wisdom,” as the title of the introductory article, by Richard Hawley Trowbridge and Michel Ferrari, spells out.
Until reading the paper, I was unaware, for instance, that psychologists have published over 100 articles featuring empirical research on wisdom, or of the existence of the Berlin Wisdom Paradigm, an ongoing research effort on wisdom based on principles of cognitive psychology.
In 2009, the same journal published another issue on wisdom (to which the 2011 one is a follow-up), which defined the subject matter in this way:
“Wisdom is a practice that reﬂects the developmental process by which individuals increase in self-knowledge, self-integration, nonattachment, self-transcendence, and compassion, as well as a deeper understanding of life. This practice involves better self regulation and ethical choices, resulting in greater good for oneself and others.”
Trowbridge and Ferrari then provide their readers with a brief historical overview of conceptions of wisdom. Beginning of course with early antiquity (i.e., before ancient Greek philosophy developed), they state that a number of thinkers throughout the Near East started teaching about wisdom, conceived initially as the “ability to live a full human life in accordance with [the] divine plan. Possessing wisdom meant knowing the rules that governed the natural world, the way people (both righteous and wicked) behaved, and the way the gods treat each person according to his or her merit.”
If we drop talk of somewhat anthropomorphic gods, this isn’t that different from the Stoic concept that in order to be wise one has to understand the way the world works (by studying “physics”) and locate one’s place in it. Not doing so leads to foolishness, not wisdom, because one begins to wish for things that are not “in accordance with nature.”
Then came the Greeks, and the focus became the human ability to reason and figure things out. Aristotle’s take on wisdom in the Nichomachean Ethics is summarized by Trowbridge and Ferrari: “Those with sophia ‘must not only know the conclusions that follow from his ﬁrst principles, but also have a true conception of those principles themselves’ (NE VI.7), making sophia a combination of nous (intuitive understanding) and episteme (scientiﬁc knowledge).”
So, again, while phronesis is a practical type of wisdom, sophia is more general, more abstract. It actually helped me recently to be reminded that the Romans translated phronesis as prudentia, or prudence, which comes from providentia, meaning “seeing ahead, sagacity,” and is the ability to govern and discipline oneself by the use of reason. If we follow the Romans, then the four cardinal Stoic virtues become prudence, temperance, justice and courage, and we can use the word “wisdom” for that kind of deeper understanding of things from which, presumably, the four virtues themselves spring. I find this solution of the one-vs-many virtues issue as well as of the difference between sophia and phronesis both elegant and helpful.
Interestingly, Trowbridge and Ferrari note that the emphasis on wisdom continued during the Middle Ages and into the Renaissaince, but tapered off after the Scientific Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries: “With the advent of modern science, this tradition ended up disparaged, forgotten, and ignored in the leading circles of learned thought in the West. In the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Smith wrote that after the mid–17th century, ‘wisdom is mentioned only in passing, or simply passed by altogether by philosophers’. Scholars in Europe increasingly turned from a pursuit of wisdom and happiness to a pursuit of truth and usefulness.”
That is highly unfortunate, particularly because wisdom and truth are most certainly not mutually exclusive, and “usefulness” should be regarded more broadly than just the idea that new gadgets will make our lives more pleasant. Do they also make it more meaningful?
This relegation of wisdom and the pursuit of virtue to a quixotic, if not even pernicious, way of thinking is something that we need to redress as a society. It is indeed wonderful that science and technology have made so many useful things available to us, not to mention having greatly expanded and refined our understanding of the cosmos. But ultimately, we all seek to live meaningful, not just entertaining, lives (even those who would deny such statement, I suspect), and science simply cannot be a source of transcendental wisdom, because that comes from experience and especially considered reflection. That is, it requires philosophy.