The University of Chicago is hosting an interdisciplinary project called Defining Wisdom. The idea is to draw on work across disciplines – philosophy, psychology, sociology, etc. – to try to gain a better picture of the nature and benefits of wisdom. I like the idea, though the project is still in a very early stage, and not a lot has come of it yet. Psychologists like Dan Gilbert (see his TED talk here) have shown that “happiness” – or at least many features of happiness — is not unreachable through experimental methods. Why not think the same is true of “wisdom”? There is a rough consensus of when the label is used correctly, which makes it prima facie plausible that there is some real meaning behind the term.
My own sense is that wisdom simply means knowing what’s important. This could be over a narrow domain: a mechanic can be car-wise or a lawyer law-wise if they know their subjects well enough to sort through the noise and grasp what’s essential in the problems that come before them. Or the knowledge could be over the broad domain of life, as when people know what activities and relationships are important in life, and gear their lives toward them.
So how do you figure out what’s important? Through the tumble of experience, usually. You find out what’s not important the hard way – by spending too much time with it and realizing that your time has been wasted. If you are lucky, you will stumble across something that really feels significant, meaning (I guess) that it gives you a lasting happiness, or at least a lack of lasting unhappiness. Seems like most humans find good interpersonal relationships, mental stimulation, and physical health to be important. Some also get that significant feeling by joining into a humanitarian cause that extends their concerns beyond their own lives. (See Gilbert’s talk, linked above, about what generally leads to human happiness.)
Two concerns, though. First, it seems possible for someone to be wise without being anywhere near happiness. Think of Schopenhauer. It doesn’t seem at all wrong to call him a wise philosopher, but his wisdom consisted in the insight that all existence is suffering and it would have been better not to have been born. Second, I can imagine someone taking the stance that “just because you think you’ve found wisdom, and feel all happy about it, doesn’t mean you are genuinely wise.”
I think the Schopenhauer concern – and we could throw in the Stoics as well – shows that happiness isn’t the only measure of wisdom. There is a truth component to wisdom in addition to the emotional component. If I feel happiness as a result of false beliefs, I’m not wise. I’m just a lucky fool. On the other hand, if I self-consciously dupe myself with the aim of feeling happy, then maybe I am wise; maybe my wisdom is that happiness is the only valuable state, and one should seek whatever brings it about. But that would be an intentional self-deception based on a truthful insight. There is plenty of room for substantive discussion here – is it ever wise to dupe oneself? Are there truths we should avoid learning? But these are questions well worth asking. I hope the “Defining Wisdom” project gets on with discussing them.
This requirement – that wisdom has to be grounded in truth – goes a long way to answering the second concern as well. At any moment, I might think I am wise, and have found true bliss, etc. – but there’s always, always the possibility I’ve deceived myself and oversimplified the world. No, not just the possibility: the probability. As Dr. House teaches, “Everybody lies.”
Because one cannot do otherwise, of course. But more seriously, I have been thinking about this question in the case of Spinoza. It’s clear that he took himself to be a necessitarian — “I have shown clearly enough that from God’s supreme power all things have necessarily flowed by the same necessity and in the same way as from the nature of a triangle it follows that its angles are equal to two right angles.” He never flinches from the label, though many of his correspondents pester him with all of the ugly consequences this view entails (no contra-causal freedom, seemingly no moral responsibility, sin backsplashing on God, etc). The problem is that, throughout his works, he never completely explains exactly how God’s nature is supposed to necessitate all things, and even goes so far as to demonstrate that from God’s nature alone you cannot derive the existence of any particular finite thing. So it’s puzzling why he should insist on being a necessitarian while at the same time not buying the whole hog and making each and every single thing flow out of God somehow.
I don’t really believe that someone becomes a necessitarian solely from philosophical arguments. There has to be something else attractive in it. So what is it? Is it that you can forgive yourself of all the stupid and mean things you’ve done? Is it so that you can comfort yourself for all the things and people you’ve lost, since you know that nothing could have been otherwise? Or is it an aesthetic attraction: that whatever makes people love math or geometry also makes them want to see it in the cosmos as a whole? I tend to think that is what pushed Spinoza in this direction. Good lord, no one (except maybe Euclid himself) can imagine loving geometrical proofs more than he did.
Is it true that anyone who is drawn to necessitarian is also drawn in the direction of Stoicism? What might this imply? Is it a kind of fear of the emotions, and the compromising positions they can put us in?
I think what Sp really loved about the geometrical method was its mechanical necessity and unshakeable firmness. And why love that? Maybe because he saw around him so many insistent intellectuals who disagreed violently with one another — the Jews, the Calvinists, the Catholics, the Remonstrants, and so on. Maybe he thought that by taking on the geometrical form he could secure, if only for himself, a set of beliefs which would stay strong against all attacks. Temperamentally, he couldn’t handle the rough-and-tumble marketplace of ideas — which, in the 17th C., was far rougher and tumblier than any intellectual sphere is today. Maybe his adherence to the form, and his attraction to Stoicism, both stemmed from a fear of other people, and the ways they can truly mess you up.
Here’s Nz’s psychoanalysis of Sp’s attraction to the geometrical form in which he cast the Ethics (BGE 5):
… that hocus-pocus of mathematical form in which, as if in iron, Spinoza encased and masked his philosophy — ‘the love of his wisdom’, to render that word fairly and squarely — so as to strike terror into the heart of any assailant who should dare to glance at that invincible maiden and Pallas Athene — how much personal timidity and vulnerability this masquerade of a sick recluse betrays!
See the link on the right. What a handsome cover!
I have recently become acquainted with degenerationism, or the view bandied about in the late 19th century that human beings were degenerating. It was clearly a case of psychologists’ enthusiasm getting way beyond their means. A number of thinkers assessed the current state of European culture, found it lacking, and surmised that something must be causing the minds of Europeans to decay. One prominent degenerationist, Max Nordau, hypothesized that the decay was due to the increased consumption of tobacco and alcohol, and the increased pace of life brought on by steam engines. This led to decadent artists, musicians, and philosophers, who all seemed to be trashing the cherished ideals of glorious days gone by, and celebrating the seedier aspects of life.
In his 600-page tome (Degeneration, 1895), Nordau reads the riot act to many of the prominent thinkers and artists of his day (Wagner, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Zola). And he can really dish it out against these would-be men of acute consciousness crawling out from beneath the floorboards. He has a chapter devoted to our dear friend, the severely degenerated Nietzsche (as an example of the subcategory “egomania”) — “this man whose scribbling is one single long divagation, in whose writings madness shrieks out from every line!” And here what he has to say about people like us who sort of go for what Nz wrote:
Without doubt, the real Nietzsche gang consists of born imbecile criminals, and of simpletons drunk with sonorous words. But besides these gallows birds without the courage and strength for criminal actions, and the imbeciles who allow themselves to be stupefied and, as it were, hypnotized by the roar and rush of fustian, the banner of the insane babbler is followed by others, who [blah blah blah]
That’s a taste of the thing. Pretty fun reading, really. But I really liked this parting shot, in his conclusion:
Let us imagine the drivelling Zoroaster of Nietzsche, with his cardboard lions, eagles, and serpents, from a toyshop [...], in competition with men who rise early, and are not weary before sunset, who have clear heads, solid stomachs and hard muscles: the comparison will provoke our laughter.
Old Fritz would have loved this book.
There is a path behind our house which runs alongside a canal. I often take the path to campus and it’s always a nice interlude between home and office — trees, birds, animals, water. Each spring the gates to the canal are open and water begins to flow, and I have always wanted to be on hand when the water comes. Today was my lucky day. I started on the path and noticed some water in the canal. A little ways along, I found myself abreast the small front tide of water making its way down the canal. One more item crossed off my bucket list.
The Nietzsche book can now be purchased here. In a few weeks it should be available through Amazon.
I am at times sincerely drawn to the attitude Kant takes toward the phenomenal world in his Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics. His view there is that the world is constructed out of an individual’s experience. I have an experience, ordered in space and time. I am able to construct out of that experience what has happened in the past, what is happening elsewhere, and what will happen in the future. Indeed, the whole world becomes populated out of the here and now, via our concepts of understanding, forms of intuition, schema, analogies of experience, etc.
Forget all the messy details. The basic idea is that everything we think is real is extrapolated from the thin strip of our human experience. Things gain their being from the reality of our experience. What cannot be constructed out of ourselves isn’t real.
Where, then, is there any place for death? As Wittgenstein pointed out, death is not an event, since any event must be lived through. I can construct everything in the world, from dinosaurs to the internet to events happening far beyond the boundaries of my own life, but I cannot construct my own death. I can only construct all the events leading up to it, and all the events following after it. In my world, there can be no such thing as my own death. Or birth, I suppose.
I don’t get any big juicy insight from this thought other than this: live as if death will not be an event in your life, since it will not be. Live up to the very end. You will never “be” dead. There will be events after your life, of course – but those are events constructed out of that thin strip of human experience you now enjoy, just as the past has been constructed.
Maybe this is just solipsism, but it helps me to get along with others.
So sometimes people ask me: what do you do for fun in your little western mountain town? Well, last night was a great example. I met my friends Will (first violin) and Chris (Holst expert) at a local bar to exchange highly-coveted artwork, and then determine if that was where the hookers hung out. (No. But then where?) Then on to LaBeau’s burgers, where Chris’s wife Chilaly joined us, and we sampled the Mammoth, the Double Double, and the BaconBurger. Wahoo! What will next Friday night bring?