What Is Wisdom?

March 26, 2013, Big Questions Online

By Margaret Plews-Ogan, Associate Professor of Medicine and Chief of the Division of General Medicine, Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine at the University of Virginia 

We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, and effort which no one can spare us.- Marcel Proust (In Search of Lost Time Vol. II: Within a Budding Grove, 1919)

Proust was on to something. I think there is profound truth to the notion that it is only through our own experience that we gain wisdom. I also believe that there are certain kinds of experiences that are particularly suited to the development of wisdom.

Take a moment and think of someone whom you consider wise. Perhaps it is a revered spiritual or political leader, a grandparent or one of your high school teachers, maybe a pastor or a college professor, or perhaps, as one medical student expressed, it is the person who cleans the hallways of the hospital at night. What qualities or behaviors make you think they are wise? Finally, how do you think that they got so wise?

Then, let's back up for a minute. What exactly is wisdom? Truth be told, wisdom is not so easy to define in the abstract. Why is that? It may be, in part, because we understand wisdom in the context of a life, of decisions and actions, so it is difficult to define in the abstract. This is, in part, why psychologists and sociologists have done research on wisdom by studying people who are exemplars of wisdom. This is not as easy as it might seem, because one of the characteristics of wise persons is humility, so a wise person is unlikely to say that they are wise. Often, then, we identify these people by having other people nominate them, and it is interesting who gets on those lists. It can range from the Dalai Lama to Abraham Lincoln to Oprah Winfrey.

The other reason wisdom might be difficult to define is that wisdom actually has many dimensions. I imagine that if I polled all of you about what qualities you selected as wise, we could create a long list of answers. Researchers have actually confirmed this, and the list includes things like compassion, ability to see the big picture, to put things in perspective, to see things from many points of view, to be able to reflect on and rise above one’s own perspective. Wisdom is different from intelligence. Intelligence seeks knowledge and seeks to eliminate ambiguity. Wisdom on the other hand, resists automatic thinking, seeks to understand ambiguity better, to grasp the deeper meaning of what is known and to understand the limits of knowledge. (Sternberg). Monika Ardelt is a modern wisdom researcher who has put all of these into a 3 dimensional model of wisdom: cognitive, reflective and affective. The cognitive dimension includes the desire to deeply know and understand things, including the limits of our knowing. The reflective dimension represents the capacity for self-reflection, and the capacity to see things from many perspectives. The affective dimension of wisdom is empathy and compassion. So, a wise person is one who desires to deeply understand things, who is humble and aware of the limitations of knowing, who can see things from many perspectives and avoids black and white thinking, and who radiates compassion...

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  • AnthonyLiew said:

    For your reference, here's my definition of wisdom

    "Understanding the universal truth, sound judgment and appropriate execution" (in accordance to it of course)

    April 10, 2013 8:13 PM
  • brendah said:

    test bh 4/29/13 1:55pm

    April 29, 2013 1:55 PM
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