Wisdom is the ability to think and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense, and insight. Wisdom has been regarded as one of four cardinal virtues; and as a virtue, it is a habit or disposition to perform the action with the highest degree of adequacy under any given circumstance. This implies a possession of knowledge or the seeking thereof in order to apply it to the given circumstance. This involves an understanding of people, things, events, situations, and the willingness as well as the ability to apply perception, judgement, and action in keeping with the understanding of what is the optimal course of action. It often requires control of one's emotional reactions (the "passions") so that the universal principle of reason prevails to determine one's action. In short, wisdom is a disposition to find the truth coupled with an optimum judgement as to what actions should be taken in order to deliver the correct outcome.
Philosophical perspectives In Wisdom
The ancient Greeks considered wisdom to be an important virtue, personified as the goddesses Metis and Athena. Athena is said to have sprung from the head of Zeus. She was portrayed as strong, fair, merciful, and chaste. To Socrates and Plato, philosophy was literally the love of Wisdom (philo-sophia). This permeates Plato's dialogues, especially The Republic, in which the leaders of his proposed utopia are to be philosopher kings, rulers who understand the Form of the Good and possess the courage to act accordingly. Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, defined wisdom as the understanding of causes, i.e. knowing why things are a certain way, which is deeper than merely knowing that things are a certain way.
The ancient Romans also valued wisdom. It was personified in Minerva, or Pallas. She also represents skillful knowledge and the virtues, especially chastity. Her symbol was the owl which is still a popular representation of wisdom, because it can see in darkness. She was said to be born from Jupiter's forehead.
Wisdom is also important within Christianity. Jesus emphasized it. Paul the Apostle, in his first epistle to the Corinthians, argued that there is both secular and divine wisdom, urging Christians to pursue the latter. Prudence, which is intimately related to wisdom, became one of the four cardinal virtues of Catholicism. The Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas considered wisdom to be the "father" (i.e. the cause, measure, and form) of all virtues.
In the Inuit tradition, developing wisdom was one of the aims of teaching. An Inuit Elder said that a person became wise when they could see what needed to be done and do it successfully without being told what to do.
Wisdom and Philosophy: Degrees of Knowledge
Experience is the first and basic level of knowledge. The Greeks called experience empeiria, which is at the basis of such English philosophical terms as:
- empirical: which means based on the data of the senses, especially if that data can be presented in a quantifiable manner.
- empiricism: the philosophical doctrine that knowledge consists primarily (or only) in sensations, and that ideas are sophisticated combinations of sensations stored in memory. The most radical and thorough empiricist was probably David Hume (1711-1776)
- empeiria or empiria: sometimes used to mean sense experience in general.
Experience is both the direct flow of the senses, or the store of sensations in memory. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) (at the beginning of his Metaphysics teaches that all knowledge begins with experience. Elsewhere, he teaches that all knowledge begins with the senses. Many philosophers today insist that experience includes more than raw sensation, that it includes the direct knowledge of such inner states as the experience of emotions, of being the author of one's own acts in a decision and the various experiences associated with different states of knowledge (Karol Wojtyla in The Acting Person, and Alfred North Whitehead).
The person who has accumulated experience often has an impressive level of practical skill. He has accumulated facts, and often knows from memory that certain things go together. For example, a shaman draws on his own experience and that of previous generations and can use various plants to heal diseases. Aristotle notes, that the man with accumulated experience may know facts, that something is such as it is, but he does not know why it is so.
Science is the next level of knowledge. This is a knowledge that does not consist in a store of facts, but in general principles of cause and effect. For example, a biochemist lacks the impressive knowledge of plants and their effects that the shaman possesses, but because he knows cause and effect, he can formulate a drug to cure a particular disease. His knowledge is more general, and in a way, he knows about many things that he has never experienced, because the general principles relating causes and effects are universal.
Positivism, a philosophical movement founded by Auguste Comte (1798-1857), is based on empiricism. Where for Aristotle, the question that creates science is "dia ti?" -- on what account -- for Auguste Comte, science is concerned with descriptions. Science is a matter of accumulating numerical data, and then describing the patterns within the data. The patterns that emerge can be used to predict future trends or events. Auguste Comte is the founder of modern sociology, which is based heavily on statistics, preferring statistical patterns to causal relations. Aristotle might say that Comte's approach is not science at all, but mere collecting without understanding. It is experience rearranged according to a certain method.
Wisdom, which the Greeks call sophia is a knowledge of causes and principles as is science, but it differs from science. Science looks for general principles in a certain defined domain. Every new law that a science is able to understand in turn is treated like a principle (a starting point in explanation). However, the scientist is a specialist. His expert knowledge of principles applies within a certain domain. One reason for this is that different sciences apply different methods, and the same methods cannot be used to answer every sort of question. Wisdom is as knowledge of first principles of all being. In one way, it is related to the desires of knowledge that children have, perhaps from about age four to age seven, where they ask general and disquieting questions about causes and reasons. Wisdom is in a sense a knowledge of everything, because if one knows principles that apply to the whole of reality, then one knows all of reality, even if in a vague way. Wisdom with its very broad principles, does not replace the more detailed knowledge of the specific sciences. However, the particular sciences themselves cannot justify all their own presuppositions. Science presupposes that we live in a thoroughly intelligible universe, that every event and thing must have a sufficient reason, that something cannot be both true and false at the same time. It presupposes the universal validity of logic and mathematics. All these things cannot be proven by any of the particular sciences. Indeed, if a scientist contradicts one of these "first principles", he is outside of his area of competence. For example, if a scientist claims that knowledge can be completely explained mechanistically, then he finds himself in a vicious circle, because his own claim is then merely the result of a mechanism, and cannot be understood without understanding that mechanism.
Philosophy is the search for wisdom, the discipline that cultivates wisdom, as the knowledge of first principles known by the natural light of the intellect. While the early Greeks held certain early thinkers, including Solon the Lawmaker and Thales the Physicist, in such respect that they were called "wise men", they recognized that wisdom was very difficult to obtain, and that in a sense it was something proper to the gods rather than to man. Pythagoras (around 500 B.C.), the founder of an ascetic mystery religion that held the reins of political power in Sicily for a time, called his followers philosophoi or "lovers of wisdom" (from philia - love - and sophia - wisdom). Later Socrates encountered and struggled against the sophists, self styled wise men who would teach the Athenians how to win arguments in any situation. Socrates would question them, and uncover their ignorance, all the while claiming to know nothing, and claiming to be a mere seeker of knowledge from the lips of the wise. After that time, philosophy described the reflective search for the highest knowledge. Aristotle distinguished between various sciences and their methods, and in this way the particular sciences became distinct from philosophy.