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Wisdom's past, present, and possible future 


A topic ignored in mainstream scientific inquiry for decades, wisdom is beginning to return to the place of reverence that it held in ancient schools of intellectual study. Some books on the topics of Wisdom explores wisdom's promise for helping scholars and lay people to understand the apex of human thought and behavior.

At a time when poor choices are being made by notably intelligent and powerful individuals, these scientists presents analysis and review on a form of reasoning and decision-making that is not only productive and prudent, but also serves a beneficial purpose for society as a whole. There is is a collection of some of the most prominent scholars in the field of wisdom research. Written from multiple perspectives, including psychology, philosophy, and religion, these scientists give the reader an in-depth understanding of wisdom's past, present, and possible future direction within literature, science, and society.

Historically, wisdom has been most widely mentioned and discussed in religious and philosophical writings (Kekes 1983; Birren and Svensson 2005; Osbeck and Robinson 2005). Writers have usually focused on what makes a person wise (e.g., abilities, traits) or how wisdom unfolds over a lifetime or in a specific decision context. The Bible, for instance, includes several stories of people acting wisely during difficult circumstances, with Job and Solomon being among the most scrutinized (see, e.g., Achenbaum and Orwoll 1991). Aristotle writes about two kinds of wisdom, the philosophical and the practical (Clayton and Birren 1980; Schwartz and Sharpe 2006). Practical wisdom signifies the variety of behavioral wisdom found in everyday life (Brown 2005), including executive decision making. Generally speaking, practical wisdom is:

''the capacity to recognize the essentials of what we encounter and to respond well and fittingly to those circumstances'' (Fowers 2003, p. 415).

The rise of science during the Renaissance signaled (rather ironically) a decline of interest in the concept of human wisdom per se (Assmann 1994). By the early twentieth century, the success of science, relative to wisdom, was lamented by several cultural commentators (e.g., T. S. Eliot [1934, The Rock]: ''All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance .... Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?''). Wisdom was dis-regarded for several decades in modern social science particularly, due to highly mechanistic or strictly cognitive paradigms on human nature, and a devaluation of the moral dimensions of good decisions and follow-through behavior. However, with the rise of postmodernism breaking down boundaries between the humanities and the social sciences (Assmann 1994), and with the rise of positive psychology (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi 2000) encouraging a focus on human flourishing, new momentum and credibility for the study of wisdom were established. Recent research has been multifaceted, but leading nonetheless to insights that converge in numerous ways as generalized theory and understanding about wisdom (Birren and Svensson 2005) .

Two notable research teams

Two notable research teams have examined wisdom through a series of studies, and both conceptualize wisdom in terms of specific kinds of knowledge and/or the application of knowledge. The late Paul Baltes and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development (Berlin, Germany) have studied wisdom primarily in terms of life span psychology and gerontology. They define wisdom as:

''a highly valued and outstanding expertise in dealing with fundamental, that is, existential problems related to the meaning and conduct of life'' (Kunzmann and Baltes 2005, p. 117).

In reviewing their stream of work, Baltes and Staudinger (2000) identify six properties of wisdom:

1. a superior level of knowledge and judgment, including expertise in listening, evaluating, and advising;
2. addressing of significant and difficult questions and strategies about the conduct and meaning of life;
3. knowledge about the limits of knowledge and uncertainties of the world;
4. knowledge with uncommon scope, depth, measure, and balance;
5. a synergy of mind and character; and
6. knowledge used for the well-being of oneself and of others.

Looking to future studies, Baltes and Smith (2008) stress the need to move outside the laboratory to contexts in which wisdom-in-action occurs during the course of daily life. Our project takes this directive also into the business and service arena .

The 2nd research team, led by Robert Sternberg, builds upon his earlier pioneering work on intelligence and expertise. He conceptualizes wisdom as:

"knowledge applied for the attainment of the common good through the balancing of multiple interests-including oneself, others, and surroundings-over short-term and long-term horizons" (Sternberg 1998).

His chief metaphor of ''balancing'' leads Sternberg to underscore that wisdom is often characterized by thinking in terms of dialectics or paradoxes, that is, it involves considering, accepting, and dealing with simultaneous opposite conditions. These interrelated notions of balancing, dialectics, and paradoxes show up variously in other writings on wisdom (e.g., Nozick 1989; Meacham 1990; Csikszentmihalyi 1995; Kunzmann and Baltes 2005). Sternberg also sees wisdom as preceding and superseding ethics. Acting ethically across an assortment of situations requires, in advance, the wisdom to recognize where and when ethical deliberation is called for (see also Fowers 2003). In addition, contrary to the conventional notion of wisdom as a late-adulthood phenomenon, Sternberg maintains that wisdom can be nurtured and demonstrated much earlier in life. Finally, he also holds a more relativistic position on wisdom insofar as its elements and processes are partly domain specific (which also includes business and marketing). In particular, the paradoxes and their balancing which are most central to acting wisely in different important decision contexts are yet to be defined and catalogued. This research gap is a main focus of our empirical work in relation to management- and service leadership and decision making.

Looking across many writings on wisdom, Csikszentmihalyi (1995) has suggested that there are three primary dimensions to wisdom that  generalize across time, cultures, and scholarly arenas. 

(A) it is principally a cognitive process, a way of knowing, that is:

1. relatively detached and concerned with ultimate causes and consequences,
2. integrative or metasystemic, and
3. often dialectical in considering simultaneous opposite forces that cannot be traded-off. 

(B) wisdom is unique among the virtues in considering long-term effects that go beyond the individual as guidance toward the supreme or best good. 

(C) wisdom has been depicted as a personal asset because it can be intrinsically rewarding and joyful.

Although the social science of wisdom is still nascent, the early empirical insights are intriguing. Researchers have found that wisdom is:

1. distinct from intelligence;

2. positively associated with open-mindedness, mastery, maturity, psychological, and physical
well-being, effective stress management, self-actualization, and successful aging; and

3. negatively related to depressive symptoms, feelings of economic pressure, and fear of death
(Stern-berg 1990; Ardelt 2004; Peterson and Seligman 2004, chap. 8; Sternberg and Jordan 2005; Baltes and Smith 2008).

Scholarly attention to wisdom in business has begun to appear (Srivastava and Cooperrider 1998; Sternberg 2003; McLyman 2005; Kessler and Bailey 2007), but these works are either strictly conceptual, oriented solely toward the management field (not toward advanced wisdom-service), or focus on organizational level analysis (not individuals and their decision making or behaviors).


References:

Achenbaum, W. A., and L. Orwoll. 1991. Becoming wise: A psycho-gerontological interpretation of the Book of Job. International Journal of Aging and Human Development 32:21-39.
Ardelt, M. 2004. Empirical assessment of a three-dimensional wisdom scale. Research on Aging 25:275-324.
Assmann, A. 1994. Wholesome knowledge: Concepts of wisdom in a historical and cross-cultural perspective. In Life-span development and behavior, ed. D. L. Featherman, R. M. Lerner, and M. Perlmutter, 187-224. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Baltes, P. B., and J. Smith. 2008. The fascination of wisdom: Its nature, ontogeny, and function. Perspectives on psychological science 3:56-64.
Baltes, P. B., and U. M. Staudinger. 2000. Wisdom: A metaheuristic (pragmatic) to orchestrate mind and virtue toward excellence. American Psychologist 55:122-36.
Birren, J. E., and C. M. Svensson. 2005. Wisdom in history. In Hand-book of wisdom: Psychological perspectives, ed. R. J. Sternberg and J.  Jordan, 3-31. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Brown, K. W. 2005. Discussion: The seven pillars of the house of wisdom. In Handbook of wisdom: Psychological perspectives, ed. R. J. Sternberg and J. Jordan, 353-68. Cambridge: Cambridge University Pres .
Clayton, V. P., and J. E. Birren. 1980. The development of wisdom across the life span: A reexamination of an ancient topic. In Life-span development and behavior, ed. P. B. Baltes and O. G . Brim Jr., 103-35. New York: Academic Press.
Csikszentmihalyi, M 1995. Toward an evolutionary hermeneutics: The case of wisdom. In Rethinking knowledge: Reflections across the disciplines, ed. R. F. Goodman and W. R. Fisher, 123-43. New York: University of New York Press.
Fowers, B. J. 2003. Reason and human finitude. The American Behavioral Scientist 47:415-26.
Kekes, J. 1983. Wisdom. American Philosophical Quarterly 20:277-86.
Kessler, E. H., and J. B. Bailey, eds. 2007. Handbook of organizational and managerial wisdom. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Kunzmann, U., and P. B. Baltes. 2005. The psychology of wisdom: Theoretical and empirical challenges. In A handbook of wisdom: Psychological perspectives, ed. R. J. Sternberg and J. Jordan, 110-35. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
McLyman, L. A. 2005. Wise leadership. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press.
Meacham, J. A. 1990. The loss of wisdom. In Wisdom: Its nature, origins, and development, ed. R. J. Sternberg, 181-211. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nozick, R. 1989. The examined life: Philosophical meditations, New York: Simon and Schuster .
Osbeck, L. M., and D. N. Robinson. 2005. Philosophical theories of wisdom. In Handbook of wisdom: Psychological perspectives, ed. R. J.  Sternberg and J. Jordan, 61-83. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press .
Peterson, C., and M. E. P. Seligman, eds. 2004. Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Schwartz, B., and K. E. Sharpe. 2006. Practical wisdom: Aristotle meets positive psychology. Journal of Happiness Studies 7:377-95.
Seligman, M. E. P., and M. Csikszentmihalyi. 2000. Positive psychol-ogy: An introduction. American Psychologist 44:5-14.
Srivastava, S., and D. L. Cooperrider, eds. 1998. Organizational wisdom and executive courage. San Francisco: New Lexington Press.
Sternberg, R. J., ed. 1990. Wisdom: Its nature, origins, and development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
--- . 1998. A balance theory of wisdom. Review of General Psychology 2:347-65.
---. 2003. WICS: A model of leadership in organizations. Acadamy of Management Learning and Education 2:386-401.
Sternberg, R. J., and J. Jordan, eds. 2005. Handbook of wisdom: Psychological perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press .

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