I’ve been thinking about wisdom off and on for a while, particularly Stephen R. Grimm’s paper “Wisdom” (Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 2015, Vol. 93, No. 1, 139-154). My aim in this post is to offer an informal précis of the paper and to scribble a few thoughts about it.

Grimm begins by noting two distinctives of his account. First, to count as wise a person must possess knowledge of how to live well, not merely rational or justified beliefs about living well. Second, Grimm denies that there are two kinds of wisdom, practical and theoretical. While theoretical knowledge exists, whatever theoretical knowledge the wise possess it only counts as wisdom if it helps them to live well (139).

Knowledge of how to live well is broken down into three necessary conditions (Grimm doesn’t claim that they’re jointly sufficient):

  1. Knowledge of what is good or important for well-being
  2. Knowledge of one’s standing, relative to what is good or important for well-being
  3. Knowledge of a strategy for obtaining what is good or important for well-being

Much of the rest of the paper is spent fleshing out these requirements.

Two Preliminary Distinctions

First distinction. When we think of paradigm cases of wisdom, we often think of people who seem fully or completely wise (pick your favorite contemporary example or one from history). The fully wise person is the one who not only knows what is important for well-being, and has a plan for how to get there from wherever he currently is but also has prosecuted that plan to completion. Realistically, however, those of us who aspire to wisdom are most likely to be somewhere along the path rather than at the destination. The account of wisdom here concerns this beginning-stage group, those whom Grimm calls the “incipiently wise”For these sojourners, wisdom is an “in-process state” which will likely persist for a long time (141-142; the religiously inclined might say that this quest persists in some way for all eternity).

Second distinction. The theory of wisdom on offer here is only “partially articulated”; it only purports to tell us what the necessary conditions are for wisdom, not those which are jointly necessary and sufficient (142). That is, this theory doesn’t settle for us what actually is good or important for well-being, only that to count as wise one must know what is good or important for well-being. More on this later.

Supporting the Conditions

Support for condition (1). We all have a stock of life experiences; some have had more than others. But merely possessing more life experience than others isn’t sufficient to make one wiser. What sets the wise apart is how they learn from their experiences: they learn how to weigh what is more or less important for well-being. They do this by being able to appropriately value certain possible life paths or plans over others, recognizing some as being better or worse than others. For example, if someone values his income and social status over being an attentive father, we would rightly conclude that this is not a judgment a wise person would make. Obtaining a certain level of income and social status might have some value, but it certainly isn’t as valuable as being an attentive father, or a myriad of other goods. The wise person knows the difference in priority here (143).

Knowing what is more or less good or important for one’s own well-being is one thing, but Grimm points out that we seem to call people wise when we think they know what’s good or important for human well-being in general (144; he does mention in fn. 9 that this is a more speculative feature of his account, but I’ll take it for granted going forward).

Support for condition (2). Having knowledge of what is good or important for well-being isn’t sufficient for wisdom, because one may have this knowledge while lacking the associated good. Cases of self-deception are easily citable examples here. To continue the example from earlier, suppose we assume that being an attentive father is something important for well-being (for both the father and his children). Further, suppose that someone knows this but falsely believes he’s already an attentive father. Plausibly, we’d want to say that this person isn’t wise because he is self-deceived. Here, then, is a case in which knowledge of what is good or important for well-being isn’t sufficient for wisdom. The wise person must know how close or far he is from the ideal (145).

Support for condition (3). Following on the heels of (2), it seems the wise person is one who has a plan that will actually get him from wherever he is now to full or complete wisdom in the future. Grimm gives a few examples of how different philosophical and religious traditions prescribe methods for this very purpose (meditation, prayer, other spiritual disciplines, etc., 146). The point here is straightforward: suppose a person had knowledge of what is good or important for well-being, and knew their standing relative to those goods but had no idea how to get there. Would you ask this person for advice on how to live the good life? Probably not, seeing as they have no advice to give! It seems obvious that the wise person should be able to give such advice, so they should have a plan or strategy in place.

Knowledge or Rationality?

As mentioned at the start, one of the distinctives of this theory is that it requires the wise person to have knowledge of the good life, not merely rational or justified beliefs. But one might object by providing a list of people who had largely false beliefs about what was good or important for well-being yet are still considered wise. Grimm evaluates Sharon Ryan’s example of Ptolemy, a guy who had plenty of epistemically justified beliefs about astronomy, to be sure (among many other subjects). Just because his beliefs about the solar system turned out to be false, we wouldn’t want to say that he wasn’t wise, would we? The same goes for other historical luminaries such as Socrates, Aristotle, Homer, and Laozi (147). Alternatively, we are asked to imagine someone trapped in the Matrix or subject to some other global skeptical scenario. Would we disqualify someone from being wise because their beliefs were false in that possible world? If not, then we shouldn’t in the actual world; we should count Ptolemy as making the grade.

Now, Grimm agrees that, say, Confucius would meet certain conditions for wisdom even if he were trapped in the Matrix. But he hesitates to call Matrix-Confucius wise without qualification. Why? Because while Matrix-Confucius believes that he has friends and other valuable goods, his friends aren’t real, and neither are any of the other things he perceives in the Matrix. While he has knowledge of what is good or important for well-being, he is deceived about his location relative to those goods, and therefore fails to meet condition (2) above.

Grimm takes it that someone like Ptolemy would still count as wise when compared to his Matrix-bound counterpart. For, even though Ptolemy had false beliefs about the solar system we can assume that his beliefs about the good life were much more accurate (148). In this way, he is “closer” to wisdom than Matrix-Confucius. For those of us who judge this to be the right result, it is a point in favor of Grimm’s theory over accounts of wisdom which only require some epistemic status less than knowledge.

Theoretical and Practical Wisdom

The other noteworthy feature of this account, as previously mentioned, is the collapse of the distinction between theoretical and practical wisdom. According to philosophical orthodoxy, knowledge of how to live well is only one kind of wisdom; a distinct kind can be found in the possession of theoretical knowledge (e.g. knowledge of physics, biology, metaphysics, or whatever). Recent defenders of this idea, Jason Baehr and Dennis Whitcomb, advance the claim that wisdom is essentially domain-relative (148). Thus we have wisdom with respect to well-being, physics, biology, gardening, etc. but no one is wise without qualificationGrimm calls this the “genus-species” view of wisdom and puts a few objections to it.

First, when thinking of paradigm cases of wisdom, we usually come up with a list of individuals who we think know how to live well–Grimm mentions Gandhi, Confucius, Jesus, MLK, Socrates, etc., people often taken to be wise simpliciter–rather than genius physicists and mathematicians (149). Since we don’t think to list people who are wise with respect to x, this is evidence for the claim that we think of wisdom in a domain-neutral way. Second, if the genius-species view were correct, we should be able to say that extraordinarily talented logicians and mathematicians are wise with respect to their fields. But we don’t talk like that. Grimm’s explanation for our linguistic behavior: to excel at mathematics and logic, one needs superior intelligence or “insight” but not wisdom (150). Third, we can talk like this, even though it might be uncommon: “So-and-so may be wise with respect to x but he’s not a wise man in general.” This way of talking doesn’t square with the genus-species view, though, so we should look for another view of wisdom. Thus, Grimm suggests that the “focal meaning” of the concept of wisdom is the one he favors: knowing how to live well (150).

Questions and Reservations

First, does the knowledge envisioned here have to be propositional? Perhaps it could be know-how with respect to certain rituals or practices conjoined with propositional knowledge of the benefits of participating in them (Maybe this is implied already by the knowledge of strategies of how to get from where one is to where one needs to be). Relatedly, could someone count as wise because they have knowledge by acquaintance of a wise exemplar? It’s easy to see why Grimm uses religious figures as archetypes of wisdom and religious practices as examples of how to get there from here, but it seems to me that many of these examples involve this kind of knowledge. For example, Christians claim that part of growing in maturity (i.e. wisdom) is by abiding in Christ daily, growing in knowledge of him. The knowledge involved here isn’t, at least straightforwardly, explicable in propositional terms even if certain propositions are related to it in an intimate way.

Second, to count as wise must one have an exhaustive list of what is good or important for well-being along with an exhaustive list of strategies to obtain those goods? Or is it sufficient to have knowledge of goods in some more narrowly circumscribed set above a certain threshold of importance (and the same for the strategies to obtain them)? It seems obvious to me that it’s the latter. Even a less-than-fully-articulated theory of wisdom like Grimm’s should have something to say about this. A more fully articulated theory would then say something about which set of goods are the most important, which ones in that set are more important than the others, how complete or comprehensive the knowledge of these things must be, etc.

Third, Grimm concedes that Matrix-Confucius meets almost all of the conditions for wisdom but ultimately falls short because he lacks knowledge about where he is relative to those things (e.g. having friends, disciples, and knowledge of the external world, etc.). However, the scenario is underspecified. In The Matrix real people are connected to the system; it is their interactions that are mediated by digital representations of themselves. Thus, strictly speaking, it’s false to say that Matrix-Confucius lacks genuine friendships. He might not have knowledge of the external world, but he does indeed have friends, disciples, and many of the other goods mentioned. Global skeptical scenarios might prove to be their own, unique problem for any account of wisdom, but nothing Grimm says here should lead us to think so. It may just be that we have to live with these scenarios when thinking about wisdom just as we do when thinking about knowledge.

Fourth, a nitpick: while I agree that the genus-species view doesn’t capture the focal meaning of the concept of wisdom, that doesn’t rule out its use completely. It’s not entirely bizarre to say of someone that they are wise-with-respect-to-x while also denying that they are wise simpliciter. So, while it may be the case that we don’t normally talk like this, and that provides good evidence for rejecting it as the essential conceptual mark of ‘wisdom’, it doesn’t mean that the genus-species view can’t be the secondary or tertiary understanding of wisdom. I’m not sure how important this insight is even if true, but there it is.

I am very interested to see where Grimm goes in the future, as this strikes me as the right place to start in developing a philosophically satisfying account of wisdom.