Notes on practical ethics # 5 – Relational wisdom

The relation between knowledge, experience and wisdom is one of the most fascinating intertwining of concepts one can engage with. On the other hand is wisdom a widely discredited and misused wording, and its definition is often subjective and based in emotional perception instead of clear conceptualisation. While knowledge is comparably clear to define, and experience links what we know to either direct observation or inference on the one hand, or direct practical application of knowledge, wisdom is much harder to tame. Long scholarly debates resolved since antiquity around wisdom, and basically all religions had a say in it. Even the different streams of the world religions got into fights on what consists wisdom in a person, and these days it is not always clear if calling a person wise is meant to honour or to mock them. Psychological research tried to dismantle wisdom into traits, namely social advising, emotional regulation, pro-social behaviours, insights, tolerance and decisiveness (Thomas et al. J Psychiatr Res. 2019 Jan;108:40-47). While it is admirable that there is an attempt to measure wisdom, we have to acknowledge that this is highly constructed, yet also may have some benefits. For instance can it empower to thrive and educate yourself towards these traits, yet it is clear that this would be a diverse and rather additive curriculum. Helpful tools would be keeping a diary to effect on your emotions, or active courses on tolerance. While these are examples of rather helpful approaches, it is clear that such measures of wisdom are constructed, it will be far fetched to assume that we could educationally or otherwise educate people to become wise. Is wisdom then something unpredictable, emergent and altogether just a serendipity that will befall some lucky few? This may be partly true, but also false.
People may become wise under certain circumstances. These are for instance reflected in the character traits listed above, yet we could also reduce wisdom to be based on the capability to develop knowledge and experience. If your life does not allow you to gain both knowledge as well as experience, how should wisdom emerge? Wisdom may thus be rooted in our brain, our initial upbringing by our parents, as well as the privilege of our education. The ability of our brain is actually a feeble criteria, because it cannot be tamed, obviously. We understand too little yet about the capacities of our brains, and any debate about key criteria or characteristics runs into a danger to discriminate against people who are wise after all, despite not meeting certain criteria. Equally did some people grew up under challenging circumstances, and still became wise. Something equal can be said about the diversity of educations different people had the privilege to have, yet others less fortunate still became wise.
How shall we solve this unpredictability? Psychology may give us the measures to identity wisdom in people, yet a list of six criteria is by far not a conceptual definition, but an empirical one. In other words, a psychological taming of wisdom may be admirable yet poses a substantial problem, because an epistemological approach may not be sufficient, as it is more of a bottom up approach. A conceptual definition is clearly something else. Therefore, wisdom may demand an ontological definition. Knowledge can be about perception or inference, and these are clearly epistemological dimensions. Experience may provide an ontological link, because it is experience that tells us how to apply knowledge. Based on experience, we also know when it would not make sense to use an approach based on a certain knowledge. In other words, it is experience that provides a relevant connection between epistemological knowledge and ontological concepts. How to make sense of our knowledge is however ultimately what ontology is all about. A wise person has to this end a clear bearing and relation concerning their own existence and reality as such, and are at peace with this knowledge. This ontological wisdom is sufficiently stable and sound that no additional knowledge can seriously threaten the state of wisdom. An important component hence comes to the link provided by experience, because it is the experience that enables as wise person to confess and articulate the limitations of their knowledge. The recognition of ones limitations is one of the defining elements of the ontological knowledge of a wise person, yet does not endanger their beliefs or identity.
The other defining element of a wise person is focussed on the ability to propel their wisdom to others. A wise person may hardly ever call themselves wise, but instead it is others who perceive their wisdom and benefit from it. At least this is how I perceive wise people, they always have a certain irony about themselves. Equally will a wise person be always open to perceive new knowledge from other people. In other words, the essence of a wise person is being equally a continuous learner, but also sharing advise and insight with other without any apparent benefit for themselves, including their ego. Wisdom is at its core a phenomena that can be best explained relationally, because wisdom can only arise out of learning form others, or at least not independently from others. This is even more important for declaring a person as wise, because this can only be done by others, and as already mentioned hardly by anyone themselves.
Wisdom could thus be seen as an subjective ontological state, which is however not true, if we consider that it only arises relationally. The last person on earth could not be wise, because of the lack of interaction with others. On the other hand can the state of a person being wise equally not be objective, because it is subjects who are in this state of being. Wisdom can therefore be seen as an example for non-duality. A wise person is rooted in an epistemological perception of or inference about the world. Experience allows a wise person to link to an objective reality which can be associated to ethics, metaphysics or reason, among other conceptual viewpoints. These are not necessarily objective, but they can be, and if these conceptual views were merely subjective, these would hardly be perceived to be wise. Just as a wise person would perceive themselves not as being wise, such a person might unite knowledge and experience, and would be aware of their limitations, and to extend both knowledge and experience continously. The key to such a state is thus life-long learning, and the clear perception that while one may be declared to be wise, one can and should never claim to be wise.