Ep. 43 - Awakening from the Meaning Crisis - Wisdom and Virtue
(Sectioning and transcripts made by MeaningCrisis.co)
Welcome back to Awakening from the Meaning Crisis.
Last time, we took a look at the work of Stanovich and sort of culminating ideas coming out of the rationality debate. Tried to expand the notion for you the need for cognition, talked a little bit more about problem finding and the generation of a problem nexus, and then also the affective component of that wonder and curiosity, and sort of balancing them off together. And then more specifically, looked at Stanovich's theory of foolishness, which he calls dysrationalia.
And we looked at the idea of dual processing S1 and S2. And the idea that what makes you foolish is S1's functioning that makes you leap to conclusions, interferes with the inferential processing of S2. You leap to conclusions inappropriately, and that's what causes you to be biased in your processing, self-deceptive, foolish, et cetera. And then what active open-mindedness does is it foregrounds S2 and protects it from undue interference from S1 and that's all very good in a theoretical context, but we took a look at the work of Jacobs and Teasdale and said, but in a medic—sorry, in a therapeutic context, the opposite is the case. What you need is you need that machinery of leaping to work well. And we took a look at the work of Baker-Sennett, and Ceci showing that that ability to leap, cognitive leaping is actually very powerfully predictive of insight. And that's what you need in therapy. You need insight. Powerful kinds of insight to break you out of the ways in which you're confronting, you know, existential entrapment and inertia ignorance, and you cannot infer your way through a transformative qualitative change.
So I proposed and Teasdale also has independently proposed this, that we need a cognitive style that foregrounds S1, puts us into a state for triggering insight, tends to background and constrain S2 processing, that inferential, argumentative processing. And that's mindfulness. We know—we have evidence that mindfulness facilitates insight and mindfulness is also increasingly being incorporated into therapeutic settings, precisely for its capacity to generate cognitive flexibility and afford insight. So we're noticing that what we're needing is—because the relationship between S1 and S2 is opponent and not adversarial, we're going to need some higher order way of coordinating these two cognitive styles, active open-mindedness and mindfulness, so that we can optimize the enhancement in rationality of the relevance realization that is at the core of our intelligence.
And then took time before we passed to explicit theories, psychological theories of wisdoms to note this idea. That how you are relating to your intelligence and applying your intelligence to itself (Fig. 1) (writes Intelligence and draws an arrow from it pointing back to itself). The degree to which you problematize your own intelligence and try and improve it, we can see that as rationality (writes Rationality). And then I suggested to you, I proposed to you the possibility that when I do this (draws an arrow from Rationality pointing to Rationality), when I recursively and reflectively use my rationality to enhance and optimize my rationalities by enhancing perhaps the relationship between the component styles of mindfulness and active open-mindedness, then I am moving towards wisdom (writes Wisdom). We took a look at that.
And in connection with this (emphasizes the circular arrow for Intelligence), we took a look at the work of Dweck (writes Dweck beside Intelligence) and again, making the argument that the relay—the way you relate to your higher cognitive processes, your meaning making problem solving capacity is not just intellectual or information processing, it's deeply existential. And we saw the work on mindsetting (writes Mindset below Dweck) and that the way you identify with your intelligence, the way you're framing, how you're identifying with your intelligence has a tremendous impact on your need for cognition, your problem solving, your behavior, your proclivity towards deception, self-deception, et cetera.
Okay (erases the board). So we've learned a lot along the way that I think has given us a good framework with which we can critically and constructively engage with some of the, I think, representative theories of wisdom. Let's remember earlier on that we have already took a look at a central review of some of those theories—the work of McKee and Barber. Showing us that they were not trying to give a comprehensive theory of wisdom, they were just trying to find a central feature. And the central feature was seeing through illusion and into reality. And then we took that up as how does one get comprehensively reliably, systematically better at dealing with self deception. And that's how we got into the rationality debate. That's how we're here. So we've done a lot to unpack that intuition. Well, it's more than an intuition. It's a conclusion of the argument. The very careful argument made by McKee & Barber that at the core of wisdom is, what I would argue, is rationality the systematic and reliable ability to overcome self-deception.
The Connection Between Wisdom And Virtue
Now let's take all of this. And like, as I said, let's put it into dialogue with some existing theories. The first theory I want to take a look at isn't a comprehensive theory of wisdom. But nevertheless, it's instructive, because it brings up some core components of the theory of wisdom and that's something that's exemplary. Something we need to consider. It discusses the relationship between wisdom and virtue, which is an idea that's taken up explicitly by one of the core theories of wisdom, which is the work of Baltes & Staudinger known as the Berlin paradigm. But before we do that, in order to examine the connection between wisdom and virtue, I want to take a look at the work of Schwartz and Sharpe (writes Schwartz and Sharp 2006).
Schwartz and Sharpe and it's 2006 is the main article. Later on, there was a book written—I think 2010?—called Practical Wisdom, which is much more extensive, but I'm relying on this article because I think that was a sort of clear and concise presentation of the argument. The article is called Practical Wisdom: Aristotle Meets Positive Psychology. Of Aristotle, you know, about, and he's been invoked and discussed repeatedly. The positive psychology. You remember, we talked about this when we were talking about 4E cognitive science. Remember what positive psychology is about? Positive psychology is the idea that we should study the mind, not only how it breaks down into its parts, we should also study it in terms of how it excels as an integrated system as a whole, because that excellence, that excelling beyond can often reveal powers and principles that work within our mind that normal cognition and pathological cognition do not reveal. So positive psychology studies states that are considered excellent.
Now, what Schwartz and Sharpe are interested in is they're interested in some work done by Peterson, not Jordan Peterson, another Peterson. Peterson and Seligman, where they're discussing virtue and they're discussing virtue of course, as a form of human excellence. And so they study, they list a bunch of virtues and Schwartz and Sharpe, sort of, stand aside from that. And they note some difficulties with this idea. This list of virtues, you know, that you should be honest, you should be courageous, right? Things like that.
Notice what we have here, the presentation of the virtues carries with it the strong implication that they're logically independent from each other, or to use language you're familiar with, what we're given is a feature list of virtues. We're given a feature list of virtues (Fig. 2) (draws several horizontal lines parallel to each other) without any indication of how they relate to each other. And see, in fact, there seems to be the assumption that they're logically independent from each other. A very questionable assumption, right? Instead, what we should be looking for as a feature schema (draws a bracket beside the horizontal lines), we should be looking for a structural functional organization that helps to explicate and explain how virtues relate to each other.
So it's important to note that the feature list carries with it the implication that what you should simply do is maximize each virtue in a—and right away that tells you an inadequacy of the feature list. I mean, if I maximize honesty, if I'm always as honest as I can possibly be, I will at times be cruel. I will have given up on kindness, right? If I meet people and just say, "Oh, I need to tell you, you're looking uglier than you did yesterday." I need to tell you that because it's being honest, maximally honest, right? We don't think of that person as being excellent. We think of that person as being an asshole, right? And so that's important.
That's important right away to notice that we're not trying to maximize the virtues. We're trying to get some optimal relationship between them and the ancients had a, at least these ancient Greeks had a very stronger version of this. They had the idea that the virtues were actually significantly interdependent with each other. And there's two ways in which they could be interdependent. They could form an interdependent system or they could all be different, different versions of some core ability. I might come back to that if I have time, but I want to get into the core argument.
So the core argument is we should talk about the relationship between the virtues. And as soon as we do that, we can see some important issues coming to bear. So what they do is they talk about a couple of situations in which we can see virtues in conflict with each other.
So one example they give is, well, an example that relates to something I just said, they give the example of you're a bridesmaid and like time is running out and you're with the bride or at least the intended bride. What's the metaphysical status before the wedding? Are you a bride? Like a potential bride? I don't know. Anyways, they're with that person and they're trying on wedding dresses and time is running out and they're asking you, "Well, how do I look?"
And if you like, so you're caught between, you know, being honest, being kind and being helpful, right? You could, you could just be totally kind, "you look wonderful. Oh, you're beautiful." That might—that's maybe not the right thing to do, right? You could be honest, "you look ugly. It's hideous," right? "Such a mistake." Or you could try to be helpful, like, "we should—we're running out of time. Um..." But then what do you say? And how do you balance them off? Do you just give up honesty? Do you just lie? No. Do you give up honesty? Kindness? Are you just brutal? No. Do you forget that you're trying to be helpful and you're under time constraints. No. What do you do?
Another example they give is—this is one that's pertinent to me. You're grading an assignment for a student. Now the student has, you know, they've made terrific progress (Fig. 3) (draws a northeast pointing arrow). They've really overcome some barriers. They've gone from like, you know, a low C and they've been improving and they're getting into a high B. Now, if I grade this, if I try to grade this paper as completely objectively as I possibly can. There's a good chance that that feedback will stop (draws an arrow pointing at the tip of the first arrow) that arc, will stop that growth and the person will remain a B student. But if I just give them a little bit of encouragement, if I extend it (writes A) and is this lying, because what am I doing with marking? Am I marking what they've done? Or am I also simultaneously indicating what they can do? So if I give them a little bit more, if I push them into the A range (writes - beside A) that might actually, like in a self-fulfilling prophecy, lift them into an A student. And what's my moral obligation here? Is my moral obligation to give them brutally objective truth, or is my brutal—is my moral obligation to make them and afford them to be the best student they can possibly be? What do I do? What do I do?
Okay. What these dilemmas make clear is that the virtues are not independent from each other. And we're not trying to maximize between them. We're trying to optimize between them in an important way.
Wisdom As The Higher Order Ability Dealing With Relevance
Now this brings up some very important issues, right? So what it brings up is it brings up some, when we take a look at the dilemmas, we start to see some important issues of conflict. We start to see some important things about our relationship to the virtues. Let me read a quote from you. Real life situations do not come labeled with the needed virtues or strengths attached. Notice how this is the categorization, the demonstrative reference and all the stuff we talked about. And notice how they zero right in on it, because notice what they say next. There is thus the problem of, here it is, and this word is emphasized in the original, there's the problem of relevance. Which is the relevant virtue to bring to bear? And then, of course, not only is that—so, you see that? Do I bring honesty—is honesty the relevant virtue in these examples? Is mentorship the relevant virtue? Guidance, good guidance? Is kindness? Is being helpful? What's the—what are the relevant virtues? And, of course, what's also shown is the virtues can conflict with each other. They often pull you into different kinds of behavior. Different kinds of behavior.
Now let's bring another thing back we often, and this is something that Schwartz and Sharpe are gonna make a lot out of. We often represent virtues with rules, and we've talked about this when we talked about rules. Remember, and—remember this rule and this is a virtue rule. Be kind (writes Be kind). Do you remember the problem with that? That rule doesn't specify its conditions. It doesn't specify— this is the problem with specifications—it doesn't specify it's conditions of application. Being kind to my son is not the same thing as being kind to my partner. It's not the same thing as being kind to my students. It's not the same thing as being kind to my friends. Not the same thing as being kind to a stranger. Not the same thing as being kind to a stranger on the street and being kind to a stranger, somebody you've just met at a funeral. These are all different.
Remember that? That's why you can't capture relevance, your cognitive commitment in a rule because you just have, you'd have to just get an ever-expanding penumbra of rules for how to apply and specify that rule. Rule application specification depends on relevance realization. In fact, unlike Schwartz and Sharpe, I think all the problems they list, the problem of relevance, it's clearly a problem of relevance realization, the problem of conflict is a problem of determining which is more important, right? And the problem, as I've just argued, of specification is also a problem of determining relevance.
I would add—so they specified these three interconnected problems as I've argued, relevance, conflict and specificity. I would add a fourth that they don't talk about. And this has to do with the fact that sometimes the best response to a situation is to realize that I need to develop a virtue that I do not have. It's an aspirational response. Rather than a select—which of my virtues should I apply? Or there—how do I specify—this might be, "Oh, geez, I'm lacking a virtue that I need. I need to cultivate a virtue that I do not have." So I would add in there, in addition to the problem of relevance, conflict and specificity, there's the problem of development. The need to aspire to acquire virtues you do not have, and I've already shown you how much that developmental process is dependent on capacity for insight and qualitative transformative experience, et cetera.
Alright, so what are they proposing? They're proposing that we need a higher order. So here's the virtues (erases the bracket beside the horizontal lines), right? We need a higher order ability that deals with relevance (Fig. 4a) (places a bracket above the horizontal lines and right Relevance). They had put it as a list, but I've tried to show you how they're related. Conflict. Specificity—specification, sorry. Development (writes Conflict, Specification, Development under Relevance). Well, what would that be? Well, they argued that's wisdom. They argued that that's wisdom (writes Wisdom).
Wisdom is what you need. Notice what the argument they're making here. Given the fact that they are not logically independent (indicates the horizontal lines), given that in very many situations, all of these issues (indicates Relevance, Conflict, Specification, Development) are brought to bear and I'm arguing. And I think it's fair that it centers on the ability to determine relevance. You need wisdom in order to be wise (Text overlay appears saying 'John means "You need wisdom to be virtuous" instead of "You need wisdom to be wise"). In fact, one of the interpretations of the Greek, the ancient Greek idea of the interdependence of the virtues is not that the virtues are all constraining on each other, but that each virtue is just a particular way in which you're wise in a situation (Fig. 4b) (draws many arrows from wisdom pointing to each of the horizontal lines). So to be kind is how to be most wise in this situation, to be honest is how to be most wise in that situation. So that version of the interdependence of the virtues really, really tightly ties the virtues to wisdom. Either way, there is a deep connection between the cultivation and the pursuit of a virtuous way of life and the cultivation of wisdom.
Sophia Vs. Phronesis
Now, this is where Schwartz and Sharpe, and this is why their book is entitled Practical Wisdom. And that's why the title of the article is Practical Wisdom because they call back to Aristotle's distinction (Fig. 5a) (writes Aristotle's distinction). This is the distinction between sophia, which is in philosophia, and phronesis (writes Sophia and Phronesis beside Aristotle's distinction). Both of these words can be translated as wisdom. This (Sophia) is often translated as theoretical wisdom and then that becomes problematic because that's often assimilated to our idea of theoretical knowledge. And then we lose a lot of what sophia is. And then Phronesis is often translated as practical wisdom.
So what Schwartz and Sharpe want to argue is that Phronesis is what you need for virtue (Fig. 5b) (writes Virtue below Phronesis). Phronesis is the ability to be very contextually sensitive to exercise good judgment, to know what to do in this situation. So it overlaps very considerably with, you know, the relationship between procedural knowledge, knowing how to do various things, knowing how to be honest, knowing how to be kind and perspectival knowing, a situational awareness of what is best fitted here, what is most appropriate for here.
And so, you can see clearly why phronesis is relevant. And one of the things they argue, which is very interesting, is they really resist (indicates Phronesis), and I think appropriately, trying to understand Phronesis as having rules (Fig. 5c) (writes Having rules below Phronesis). So here they're very sort of critical of a Kantian idea of being virtuous as sort of specifying as your beha—whether or not this is Kant's view, it's not something I'm going to get into. This is certainly a view that many people have that the point, the way in which you are virtuous is to have a set of rules, moral commandments, and that you follow those rules as best—you can't. And then what that can lead to and Schwartz has been critical of this elsewhere in some talks you can find on YouTube, for example, this has been sort of—this can lead to the attempt to try (writes Legislation) and legislate everything, to try and specify everything, in term—of how we should behave in terms of rules.
And they're critical of that because, first of all, it's impossible. Notice the example of, be kind. If I try to make a law that we should be kind then I have to make laws about all these different ways in which I specify being kind, I'd have to make laws that tell me when I should give a preference to kindness over honesty across all possible—like, it's just, it's impossible. But you can get into an illusion. This (indicates Legislation and Having rules) is part of Schwartz's—that you can somehow replace people becoming wise with people having laws.
Now, obviously I am not proposing anarchy that we shouldn't have laws or et cetera like that. That's not Schwartz's point. He's not proposing that. That's absurd. What he's proposing is to step back and realize that that we should have this balance between proposing legislation and requiring from people that they cultivate wisdom.
Okay. So he's making that argument and I think that's something that we should take into account. We should ask ourselves not just, will this legislation reduce harm? That's a really important question. Okay. For sure. But we should also, and I think this is also an important question. Will this legislation tend to make people less likely to pursue the cultivation of wisdom and virtue? Okay. So you have to, you have to think about that is Schwartz's argument. I think that's an argument that should be taken seriously. And that's why, of course, he keeps making it and he's getting a considerable audience around it.
The Need For Both Sophia and Phronesis
Okay. Let's go back to the main point. They tend to leave this (draws an arrow from Sophia) out because they tend to associate sophia, I think, unfairly, with having rules. They assimilated, I think too much to theoretical knowledge and the possession of propositions (writes Proposition below Having rules), of course, rules are propositions you're proposing what people should do. Proposing very strongly. And they see sophia as theoretical knowledge, largely propositional.
I think that's an unfair representation of sophia and other people have pointed this out. So, whereas I think, look, this (indicates Phronesis) is about being very contextually sensitive and that's very important because that allows me to generate the process needed in this situation. I need to start behaving, you know, in this sort of balance between being kind and honest, right. But I also need this (indicates Sophia). And I think instead of thinking of this as rules and the possession of propositions, or are sort of analogous to the Kantian model, let's think of this instead as the awareness of principles (Fig. 5d) (writes Principles beside Sophia). So phronesis is about getting you into a process (writes Process beside Phronesis), the contextual sensitivity the perspectival situational awareness, activating the right procedures in the appropriate way so that I fit the situation.
That's great. But I also need a cross contextual sensitivity. I need to pick up on things that are generalizable across different contexts. And, of course, that is partially what we're trying to do with our laws (indicates Legislation). Hence the connection, but to reduce this (indicates Principles) to just—the ability to generate propositional knowledge, I think is a mistake. That's not what sophia is. Sophia is something like a deep kind of ontological depth perception. It's to be able to see deep underlying principles, because what I need to know really, and this was Aristotle's point, right? I need both of them. I need to know how to put principles into processes (Fig. 5e) (draws arrow from Principles to Process). And I need to know how to regulate processes with principles (draws an arrow from Process to Principles). That's what it is to put a principle into practice and to practice in a principled manner.
So, I would argue against Schwartz and Sharpe that you need both sophia and phronesis. You need something that is trying to pick up on cross contextual invariants, and you need something that is designing, helping you to, and of course, this is in line with the relevance realization model, I've argued something that is the aspect of wisdom that is about contextual sensitivity. What's different here? What's special here? How do I fit myself to this specific situation, as opposed to, how do I generalize across these many situations? And what I want is an opponent relationship between them so that I can discover powerful principles and put them into effective practice. And so that I can regulate my practices with well-justified principles. So I think that that's a very crucial issue.
Phronesis In Terms Of Expertise
There's one other issue about Schwartz and Sharpe that I want to come back to. I think they're right in saying that phronesis is a kind of know-how, procedural knowledge, I think it's more. It's also perspectival and potentially participatory, but at least perspectival.
And one of the things they do is they talk about this in terms of the language of expertise (Fig. 5f) (writes Expertise below Phronesis) of being an expert, which is different. And what they're trying to do with that contrast is an expert doesn't necessarily possess the best theory they, but they don't have the knowledge that—the expert has the best know-how. Expertise is a kind of excellence in know-how. I think because they've—focusing on phronesis is separate from sophia, and they've thought of know-how without thinking also of the perspectival knowing. I think this is a mistake.
Here's why I think that.
Expertise. Well, I'm trying to be careful here. There's a way which this—we can equivocate with this word. We can just mean that we can—what we sometimes use this to mean, just good (Fig. 5g) (writes Good beside Expertise). Like, you know, excellent. You know, that's what expertise is, and that's a very loose way of talking. But if you're trying to use it within psychology in a more precise manner, expertise is a domain specific thing (writes Domain specific). And we've talked about this before, right?
So I can become a tennis expert. My know-how can rise to a level of authority and notice that my being an expert in tennis, you've done this before, but let's do it again. My being an expert in tennis, doesn't give me any special authority over squash. In fact, my expertise in tennis can dramatically interfere with my playing squash. So typically what happens in expertise is it tends to be very domain specific, which is precisely why you can get very focused training on it and become very good at, like, tennis.
Here's my problem with understanding Phronesis and therefore also the relationship with virtue on the model of expertise. The domain specificity of expertise, if we're using the current term carefully, is not what I need here. It's not what I need. And you're saying, "Oh, but phronesis is context sensitive." Yes, it is. And perhaps that's the source of the confusion. Being context sensitive isn't the same thing as having expertise. And you say, but that sounds similar.
Well, let's pull it apart, right? What phronesis is. And so let's do this very carefully. Phronesis is not like expertise in tennis, which I can only apply here. And in fact, if I try to transfer it to something even similar, it will interfere. I would argue that what phronesis is, is my ability to be sensitive in this context, and sensitive in this context ,and sensitive in this context. And that is very, very different, that is very, very different from expertise.
So what we need is a domain general ability. This is not a contradiction. Your ability to be contextually sensitive is itself a domain general ability. I have to be able to be contextually sensitive in many different domains. And so I'm arguing that there's a bit of confusion here. And if you pull it apart, what we need is an ability to be contextually sensitive, but in a domain general way, across many domains. So, you know, I think things like, well, intelligence and rationality, or I would argue your ability to realize relevance, which always has a contextually sensitive component to it, are much better ways of understanding phronesis than expertise because this, those ways of talking are domain general. They have—each one of them has an aspect that is the domain general ability to be contextually sensitive here and here and here. And that's important because you know what, you're not foolish generally in a domain specific way. Specific domains may make you more foolish, but we all wonderfully have the ability to be foolish in almost every domain of our life. Often many domains simultaneously in a disastrous chaos.
So I would argue that we shouldn't confuse that phronesis is about context sensitivity with expertise, which is locked to a particular domain. We should think of something much more like. Intelligence, rationality, relevance realization, which can apply across multiple domains, make you a general problem solver and deal with the domain generality of your capacity for foolishness (erases the board).
And so I think my two main response. So let's try this together. The argument for the connection between wisdom and virtue, I think is very powerful, solid argument. The argument that that should make us more hesitant to trying to capture wisdom just with virtue, just with rules. I think that's an argument I'm sympathetic with. I think that's going in the right direction. The argument that phronesis is all we need for virtue. I question, I think following Aristotle that phronesis and sophia should be in a very powerful opponent relationship, you know, trying to get principles into processes and processes regulated by principles, et cetera. And the idea of trying to capture the procedurality of phronesis with the notion of expertise, I think, is a confusion, as I've argued. And we should put that aside.
Okay. I now want to pick up on one of the—I mean, I think this is a fair way of saying it. One of the seminal theories, psychological theories of wisdom. In many ways, this theory turned the investigation of the psychological investigation of wisdom into an experimental, empirical process. And so this is the important work of Baltes & Staudinger (writes Baltes and Staudinger).
Okay. It's called the Berlin wisdom paradigm. They're both working in Berlin. Obviously, they're German. And so what I want to do is go to their—it's, you know, it's always hard to tell you what to refer to cause they show—their work shows up in multiple articles, multiple handbooks on wisdom. But the article, I think that many people regard as sort of the Seminole one is an article entitled, Wisdom as a meta-heuristic yielding—sorry. I'm getting the wrong quote here. Sorry, here I just want to get into it. Wisdom, a meta-heuristic pragmatic to orchestrate mind and virtue towards excellence. Okay. So sorry for that little delay.
Wisdom, a metaheuristic, and then in brackets, pragmatic to orchestrate mind and virtue towards excellence. So notice right here, the title tells you that they've accepted, deeply accepted the point by—made by Schwartz and Sharpe that there's a deep connection, between wisdom and virtue. Orchestrating mind and virtue towards excellence. There's already the deep connection to positive psychology. But also notice something the invocation of the term metaheuristic and that notion of pragmatic tells us that relevance realization is playing a very significant role in this theory, at least I will argue that. Okay.
Defining The Notion Of Pragmatic
So let's first of all, deal with this notion that they put in brackets of pragmatic (Fig. 6a) (writes Pragmatic), cause they're sort of picking up on a couple different related, but not identical meanings associated with that term. One is having to do with, I think like the pragmatic aspects of language pragmatics (writes Pragmatic). So there's syntax, semantics and pragmatics. And we talked about this when we talked about Grice and conversational implicature that you always are conveying much more than you're saying and how that depends on capacity for relevance realization and you can see—and so there's that sense of dealing with how much our communication and more broadly our cognition goes beyond what we can directly propositionally represent.
That's definitely there. There's another meaning of pragmatics and that has to do with pragmatism (Fig. 6b) (writes Pragmaticism), which I haven't talked about. I'm going to talk about it later when I talk briefly about James. And so the idea behind pragmatism is—sorry, like I said, there's so much there, but the idea about pragmatism, I would argue a way of understanding it, at least the way of understanding James. James was one of my heroes. James was both a great psychologist and a great philosopher and he was interested... so he's kind of a proto-cognitive scientist, but he isn't interested just in cognition. He's interested very much in, you know, what it is to live a good life. He starts some of the earliest work on, you know, the study of mystical experiences and religion, psychological investigation. So he's just a really pivotal figure for me. And for many people,
But one way, I would argue, is what James was on about is that you should evaluate your knowledge claims, ultimately in terms of their efficaciousness, how much they can be viably used in your life in order to adapt you to the world. And so, one way of thinking about this is your propositional claims ultimately have to be grounded in your procedural abilities. James doesn't use this language, but I could find passages in James that clearly point to it, I would argue, that your, you know, your propositional knowing has to be grounded in your procedural abilities, which have to be grounded in your perspectival, which has to be grounded ultimately in your participatory. James was very interested in the phenomena of conversion when people go through these massive identity changes and how that changes the world that they can live in.
Now, I think that's deeply right, but there are also some problems with pragmatism and I'll come back to this. So I'll just mention it now. I think there's a confusion or at least a potential confusion between truth and relevance. And that can be problematic. Now why does all of that matter? Well, because as I've just tried to show you, pragmatism tries to situate what James would call sort of your intellectual claims into this deeper lived, experienced, viable ability to fit your world, to develop your connectedness, to develop yourself.
Both of those (indicates Pragmatics and Pragmatism), I think, can plausibly be brought back together in the notion [of] what we're talking about. And then, this just goes so well with the invocation of the term metaheuristic, a heuristic for managing your heuristics. We can draw this (indicates Pragmatic) together and this term together metaheuristic (Fig. 6c) (writes Metaheuristic beside Pragmatic), right. We can draw this all together with while having to do with realizing relevance (draws an arrow from Metaheuristic and Pragmatic and writes Realizing relevance below). This is invoked, not in terms of the theoretical account I've given, but the idea that zeroing in on relevant information is crucial to wisdom. This is invoked throughout the article by Baltes and Staudinger. Let's be clear. I don't think they are explicitly making a case the way I am. What I'm saying is they're invoking ideas and making use of them that ultimately deeply presuppose (indicates Realizing relevance) the ability for relevance realization.
Berlin Wisdom Paradigm
Now, they have an account of the five criteria you need in order to be wise. And the point about this is to try and specify what these metaheuristics are that bring about an excellence in our life, an excellent orchestration of mind and virtue together so that we become excellent human beings. Excellent persons. They try to specify this in terms of five criteria. The point of the criteria are these are the features that are needed to judge someone wise. And also these are features that could be empirically investigated. Okay. So what are these criteria?
So rich factual knowledge about the fundamental pragmatics of life. So this is in some sense, like sophia. This person has a deep grasp of the facts, the principles of the fundamental pragmatics of life. They also need rich procedural knowledge about the fundamental pragmatics of life. And this goes back to the McKee and Barber point, right? That wisdom is not so much what you know, but how you know, it's very much about knowing how to put these principles into practice into process.
Now they, of course, have now done propositional and procedural knowledge. I think they should have gone deeper. They obviously are going to need a participatory knowledge because they have to explain how we go through dramatic developmental change, because presumably qualitative change is what's needed for wisdom, hence the term excellence, right? And, of course, they are missing the perspectival knowing that connects the procedural knowing to specific contexts, situational awareness.
Okay, so that I think is important. I think they're pointing towards this perspectival knowing and how it ultimately plugs into participatory when they invoke the next criteria, they call it lifespan contextualism. Lifespan contextualism. Like I say, this is a kind of perspectival knowing. This is the way in which you are, you know, you're taking the big picture, your ability to zoom out and then from that big picture, zoom in as needed, right? So it's this perspectival knowing, and that I think is very crucial. I think it has a lot to do with our capacities for self-regulation. We've talked about that.
Now, the next one I want to state it and then I want to challenge it. This is—they call it relativism of values and priorities, right? I find that a hard criterion to be sort of tethered to. If they're using this term carefully, I don't think that many of the people that I would regard as quintessentially wise were moral relativists. I do not think Socrates or Plato were moral relativists. I think they're clearly the opposite. I think it's unlikely that the Buddha is a moral—was a moral relativist or Jesus of Nazareth was a moral relativist. I think we are falling prey to thinking that our liberal democratic values are constitutive of wisdom. I'm not arguing against these values. That is not what I am doing here. I'm arguing against tying the notion of wisdom to those values.
I think what might be on offer here, what they're actually talking about is a capacity for tolerance. And perhaps the way we can understand that then is instead of a kind of relativism. We can understand it in terms that we can apply to Socrates of a fallibilism, which is a claim that you should never assert certainty. All right. We can easily attribute that to Socrates and it sings analogous—Jesus is a regular condemnation of self-righteousness, seems to be appropriate here. So. a kind of fallibilism. And then linked to something that you've heard me mentioned multiple times, humility, a recognition and appreciation of your status, your limits, et cetera. So if we bring in fallibilism and humility, rather than requiring wise people to demonstrate moral relativism, I think we can plausibly apply this criteria to many exemplars of wisdom from the past.
The fifth one. And I think this is very crucial—is recognition and management of uncertainty. Recognition and management of uncertainty. So this is to say, we're in the finitary predicament. Most of the time, we can't do algorithmic processing. We cannot pursue certainty. We have to act as best we can within unavoidable context of uncertainty. So you can see why I see why I think this theory is sort of dripping in the machinery of relevance realization.
I think the term metaheuristic is very good. I think a metaheuristic is something that coordinates between heuristics. It might be something like an optimization within a dynamical system, like, I've argued, you know, trade off between compression and particularization. Things like that.
They, at times though, tend to talk about this metaheuristic as a form of expertise and I've already made the criticism. I think that's a mistake. I think that understanding wisdom as expertise is to mislead us. Again, it causes us to over-focus on the important procedural knowledge to the exclusion of the perspectival and the participatory. It also confuses, you know, the context sensitivity with, you know, being domain specific and we shouldn't do that. And I've made that argument. I'm not going to make it again.
Instead, I want to point out that what they tend to be arguing for is a very comprehensive kind of cognitive flexibility and adaptability that your cognition is flexible enough that it can adapt itself to different situations in a very efficacious manner. What's important is that they started to generate a semi-empirical work. How do you do this?
Well, you basically train independent judges to be able to evaluate these criteria and people's behavior, their spoken behavior. Things like that. And then what you do is you put people into various situations, often situations that might involve moral dilemmas or other more practical challenges. And you get those people to relate on how they would deal with those difficult little situations. You try to find some situations that we would prototypically do this for. We would say for somebody who handled themselves well in that situation, we would be quite happy with attributing wisdom to them. They'd say, "yeah, somebody managed this situation really well, that would be good evidence for me for calling them wise."
Now what you do is reverse engineer that take those situations that if solved successfully would generally lead to the attribution of wisdom, give them to a bunch of people, evaluate how in the answers that people are giving, not just sort of vaguely how well they answer it, but do they answer it in a way that exemplifies these five criteria? And then you can judge how well people are doing in solving these problems.
And so what you got was some of the first attempts to start to empirically measure wisdom by putting people—I mean, see what they're doing. This is analogous on how we test intelligence and rationality. We give people a bunch of tests across situations and we try to see how they do and that's—and then we start to generate from that a measure of how wise they are. I think this is, as I said, this is just quintessentially important.
So, what are the things I want to bring out? They talked about the cognitive styles that are important for being wise. And that is important, sort of a judicial style. Somebody who's good at making judgements. The reason why I'm not going into that detail is that relying on sort of notions from Sternberg and others about particular kinds of styles—I don't really have time to go into that in depth. So that would be a large chunk on itself. What it shows is how important the capacity for good judgment is for wisdom. And we sort of knew that, but, as I'm trying to argue, we're getting a sense of how, like, in terms of relevance realization, and the ability to zero in on relevant information. We're getting a sense of what that good judgment means.
The Solomon Effect
Now, one of the things I want to draw from Baltes and Staudinger, one of the experimental results—because this points to more recent and important work by Igor Grossman—is they gave people this experimental task in which they have to try and solve these problems. And they put them into three conditions.
In one condition, they could discuss the problem with a significant other before responding. In another condition, they could imagine a virtual or internal dialogue. Notice that. Imagine a virtual and internal dialogue. Remember the Stoics and internalizing Socrates, right? Third condition, they were just given more time to think about it.
And what they found is that the first and second group clearly outperformed group three. You're wiser, if you talk to other people and that's sort of like, "duh!" Yeah, but if it's "duh," why do we carry around this bullshit mythology of complete individualism?
So that's one interesting finding. This goes back to the platonic dialogue that in discussion with others, we get to a level of wisdom that we cannot get to on our own. Now, what was interesting. That's in itself interesting. What was interesting is also there was no important difference between group one and group two. Talking to another person and imagining, simulating in your mind, talking to another person, which is—that was just as good. If you can internalize other people. They can give you the metacognitive ability to overcome your biases.
Now, why this, I think is important, is I think this points to more recent work done by a colleague of mine, Igor Grossman, and I've mentioned his work already, the Solomon effect. Solomon, of course, the biblical figure of wisdom, which is if you have—what's going on with that talking with other people? Well, part of it, I think is the Solomon effect, right?
If I describe a problem to you from the first person perspective, which I'm liable to do, especially in an individualistic culture like ours, right. I will tend to be very locked in because again, remember? Remember the whole thing about internalization when I'm in a perspective it's biasing me. And one of the things I can't see—my framing is often transparent to me. I can't see it. I'm seeing through it. And when I'm in the first person perspective, I'm sort of locked here in my perspective, because it is my problem. "Ah!"
If you get people to redescribe the same problem from the third person perspective and notice the word I'm going to have, they often have an insight. They often notice something they hadn't noticed before. They pick up and make something salient or relevant that wasn't salient or relevant from within their first person perspective. So moving to—moving outside and looking back through somebody's eyes from a third person perspective on your cognition can enhance your capacity for these wisdom task.
This is what I mean why Baltes and Staudinger, although they're not invoking it or theoretically discussing it, they are relying on perspectival knowing in their experimental work. So we're starting to make our way through these theories of wisdom. We've taken a look at Schwartz and Sharpe. We've seen how the connection between wisdom and virtue is being established; Baltes and Staudinger are picking up on that. And they're starting to get us into some of the fundamental machinery of what it is to be a wise person.
I want to continue that next time and also, bring up some important criticisms of the work of Baltes and Staudinger. You've seen me already make one. I don't think that this ability (indicates Fig. 6c) should be understood as expertise. I'll make some other ones. And those criticisms will take us into the important seminal work on wisdom by Monika Ardelt. And then we'll also take a look at the work of Sternberg.
And then I will return and propose, or at least explain to you an account, a proposal made by myself and Leo Ferraro in 2013, about how to try and draw this (indicates Fig. 6) together in terms of this machinery (indicates Realizing relevance) that I've been advocating. And then I want to subject that theory, my own theory to, I think, some pretty significant criticisms and then point—and I hope that will point us towards how we can then reintegrate the account of wisdom with the account of enlightenment. And ultimately we situate us back with awakening from the meaning crisis.
Thank you very much for your time and attention.
- END -
Episode 43 Notes
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Paul B. Baltes was a German psychologist whose broad scientific agenda was devoted to establishing and promoting the life-span orientation of human development.
Ursula M. Staudinger is a German psychologist and researcher of aging.
Article Mentioned: Wisdom: A Metaheuristic (Pragmatic) to Orchestrate Mind and Virtue Toward Excellence
Barry Schwartz is an American psychologist. Schwartz is the Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College and since 2016 has been visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Article Mentioned: Practical Wisdom: Aristotle meets Positive Psychology
Book Mentioned: Practical Wisdom: The Right Way To Do The Right Thing - Buy Here
Christopher Peterson was the Arthur F. Thurnau professor of psychology and organizational studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan and the former chair of the clinical psychology area.
Martin Elias Peter Seligman (/ˈsɛlɪɡmən/; born August 12, 1942) is an American psychologist, educator, and author of self-help books.
Phronesis is an ancient Greek word for a type of wisdom or intelligence relevant to practical action, implying both good judgement and excellence of character and habits.
Sophia is a central idea in Hellenistic philosophy and religion, Platonism, Gnosticism and Christian theology.
Broadly speaking, fallibilism is the philosophical claim that no belief can have justification which guarantees the truth of the belief, or that no beliefs are certain.
Solomon Effect (Solomon Paradox)
Grossmann and Kross have identified a phenomenon they called "the Solomon's paradox" - wiser reflections on other people's problems as compared to one's own