Friday, April 03, 2020

Wisdom and Chaos

I. The Puzzle: Why Aren't Academic Philosophers Wise?

Etymologically, philosophy is the study of wisdom. In the popular imagination, philosophers sit cross-legged, uttering cryptic profundities through long white beards. Real philosophy professors spend considerable time reading texts from the "wisdom traditions", and on ethics, the meaning of life, and the fundamental nature of reality. So you might think that the average philosopher would be at least a little bit wiser than the average non-philosopher.

Since the wisdom-o-meter is still in early development, we don't yet have solid scientific evidence on this question. But my impression is that academic philosophers in the United States, as a group, are no wiser than others of their social class -- no wiser on average than chemistry professors, high school teachers, lawyers, or city administrators.

In other words, we don't seem to profit much, in terms of personal wisdom, from our philosophical reading and extended reflection on big-picture questions. Why is this?

One easy answer that will suggest itself to many professional philosophers is this. Most of our reading and reflection doesn't concern the kinds of issues central to wisdom. A philosopher of language might spend much of their professional time reading about the reference of proper names and donkey anaphora. An ethicist might focus on textual puzzles in Kant interpretation. Wisdom might no more tend to follow from those activities than from grading high school history homework or studying sulfates.

However, I think that answer is at best partial. Although one's philosophical research might mostly concern donkey anaphora, most philosophers spend most of their professional time teaching. We teach classes like "introduction to philosophy" and "contemporary moral issues" and "meaning, truth, and value" -- and in prepping and teaching these classes, as well as sometimes apart from class, most of us do engage questions about the meaning of life and what matters most in the big picture. Substantially more than the average chemistry professor, we read and teach classic texts that ordinary people turn to as sources of wisdom. It seems that we ought to learn some wisdom from doing so. The fact that we don't, or don't seem to, thus remains a puzzle.

II. The Nature of Wisdom.

To address the puzzle, we need to think about wisdom and its sources. What is wisdom?

Here's my proposal: Wisdom is the disposition to make decent choices in a wide range of circumstances. If you tend to make poor choices, you're not wise. If you tend to make good choices but only in a narrow range of familiar circumstances and any perturbance would throw you into bewildered disarray, you're also not wise. Wisdom involves stability of good practical judgment even when circumstances turn strange.

A decent choice isn't necessarily the best choice. Only someone with inhumanly heroic insight could be disposed generally to make the best choices in a wide range of circumstances. Decency is more about avoiding blunders -- bad decisions due to panic, short-term thinking, seriously misweighing one's values, overlooking obvious considerations, or grossly misjudging people's character and intentions.

A wide range of circumstances needn't mean all circumstances. How wide a range and what belongs in the range remains an open parameter in this account. If you're a man in a culture where it's not unusual for men to be called to battle, then wisdom probably requires that you be disposed to make decent choices if called to battle. If you're not in such a culture, maybe how you'd react in battle doesn't matter so much. We can also define subclasses of wisdom by considering narrower ranges of circumstances or narrower classes of decisions: wise in matters of child-rearing or in choosing friends or in financial matters.

Being calm and giving good advice, classically associated with wisdom, aren't part of my definition, but they flow naturally from it. Panic leads to bad decisions, so if you're prone to panic, you're probably not wise. Good hypothetical thinking is crucial to good decision making, so the wise will tend to have good judgment about circumstances they aren't in; and since giving bad advice is itself a type of bad decision, it's a failure of wisdom not to know one's limits well enough to stay silent rather than misdirect others.

III. Chaos and Wisdom.

It's an unfortunate feature of the human condition that we rarely learn from other people's mistakes. We insist on making the mistakes ourselves. (This seems to be especially true of teenagers and nations.) So unless you've personally lived through a wide range of circumstances and made a wide range of corresponding mistakes, you're unlikely to have acquired the knowledge necessary to navigate a diversity of situations without blundering. Narrow, stable lives will thus tend to generate less wisdom than chaotic lives with radical changes of circumstance.

This explains your grandmother's wisdom -- grandma who grew up in Hungary, fled the Nazis, built a new life in an unfamiliar country speaking an unfamiliar language, raised five children each with their own chaos, lost her husband, almost died of cancer, knew poverty and comfort, security and uncertainty, love and betrayal.

What is pretty much the least chaotic path through our culture? The academic path. Do what your teachers tell you. Get good grades. Go to graduate school and do it some more. Get a job. Get tenure. It's extremely competitive, but the path is orderly and laid out clearly in advance. Each thing flows neatly from the next. (I set aside the increasingly common chaos of the academic job market.) The set of skills and the range of challenges doesn't change radically over the course of one's life, and there normally are few disruptive conflicts with authority. You wrote decent essays in high school. You wrote better essays in college, then in grad school, and then as a faculty member. Philosophy, literature, and math are perhaps especially narrow, even among academic disciplines. In the laboratory sciences, one at least needs also to learn to manage people and equipment. [ETA: See Marcus Arvan's interesting comment below about whether this description of the academic career path is dated.]

The solution to the puzzle, then, is this. Although one can of course learn some wisdom from reading great philosophy and thinking about profound questions, that's not a particularly good or efficient way to acquire wisdom, compared to actually living through ups and downs and weirdness and chaos. Academic philosophers with narrow, orderly life paths won't fully catch up with grandma, despite some possible modest benefits from thinking hard about Kant, Buddhism, and Montaigne.

You'll be unsurprised to learn that this post was inspired by noting my own and others' reactions to the chaos of the pandemic.


PS: Maybe reading personal essays like Montaigne's or engaging historical or fictional narratives is more effective in simulating alternative experiences than reading abstract arguments? My student Chris McVey has been working on this issue. See some of his data here. Martha Nussbaum's Poetic Justice is also relevant.



Cheeseburger ethics (Aeon Magazine, 2015).

The moral behavior of ethicists (in J. Sytsma and W. Buckwalters, eds., A Companion to Experimental Philosophy, 2016)

[image source]


If you enjoy my blog, check out my recent book: A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures.


Arnold said...

Isn't, words were derived by us, to experience meaning...

...Meaning for my self and meaning for myself with others...

Aren't they a tension we need for being here...

Chris McVey said...

What a fun post! Also, thanks for the shout-out at the end!

It is an interesting question, whether reading narratives might make one more wise in the sense you are describing here. If we are to define wisdom as you do, as having something to do with the quality of the decisions you make (and variety of situations in which you can make those good decisions), then I think it is entirely plausible.

I would think that part of what makes us able to make good decisions, and particularly what makes us able to give good advice to others, is a wide variety of information we have at our disposable to draw from. Having a wide variety of life experiences and hardships gives us information that people who have never lived through those experiences don't have access to, and as such, we may be able to make better decisions and give better advice by drawing from that pool of knowledge.

But someone who experiences a wide variety of narratives also gains important information. By being transported into a narrative world we gain what I will just call "perspective" on lives we have never lived or situations we have never been in. I do not want to say that it is the SAME information gained by actually living those lives or experiencing those situations. I would never say, for example, that by reading Night or watching Schindler's List you KNOW what it was like to go through the Holocaust, but it does give you a perspective that those who have never experienced such narratives lack, and that perspective comes with information, or knowledge, that could be beneficial in making better decisions and giving better advice.

I do believe you gain a different (dare I say better for the purposes of wisdom as you describe it) knowledge from being transported into a narrative world than by reading prose that describes similar information.

Just my two cents. I'll have to think more about this!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Marcus Avran comment from Facebook, shared with permission:

For what it is worth, I don’t think your description of the path through academia is at all true anymore. It is not all “laid out for you” by any means—not anymore it isn’t.

My personal struggles while in grad school and then during seven years on the job market tried my soul in many ways—I made a ton of mistakes, both personal and professional—and learned from them. I don’t mean to say that I’m a wise fellow by any means. All I mean to do is question that element of your story.

My own hunch is that academia today is chaotic for early career people in a way that can lead to wisdom but also toward folly and vice (as all chaotic life paths can do - see the metablogs for good examples of early career people responding viciously to the chaos of their careers).

I think your description of academia much more accurately describes things a few decades ago—which quite frankly does seem to me to explain why many philosophers in older generations seem so unworldly and lacking in wisdom. *They* really were cloistered in a very simple, non-chaotic academic world. But again, I don’t think this is at all true anymore.

To clarify, I don't mean to generalize about more senior philosophers. But I do take it that many of us have known some that don't seem to have much worldly wisdom in ways that do seem to correspond to Eric's story.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, Chris, I like that idea a lot. Here's one concern:

If we tend to choose narratives about *unusual* experiences, we might be misled into implicitly thinking such experiences are more common than they are -- and some types of unusual experiences might be attractive as fictions or histories. One example would be heroes who overcome long odds. If we consume mostly narratives of that sort, we might learn something about those types of heroes, but we might also start to lose our sense of how long the odds really are.

Chris McVey said...

That's a valid concern.

Building on that, I've noticed that my step children and their friends often have odd, twisted views about love and courtship that seem to be derived from watching too many romantic comedies. For example, they seem to think that rejection isn't necessarily something to be respected but something to be overcome by doubling their efforts, often with some grand gesture that will win over the target of their affection. Maybe they have learned some valuable things from these stories, but they have also seemed to lose a sense of how things (should) work in the real world.

Seems my plan to become wise through the obsessive watching of films might have a crucial flaw... :D

Howie said...

I admire your definition: you seem to adopt an Aristotelian emphasis on practical intelligence, but with more a dose of survival and an emphasis on "life' as something to be valued rather than mere pure gain- then there is an equal tradition with emphasis on the spirit, where endured suffering gains wisdom.
Both camps are compatible; so we must compound or complicate your definition- you did so already by the example of the grandmother-
it's not just D & D experience points

Philip-Neri Reese said...

Hi Eric,

Thanks for a really interesting post. This might be obvious enough that it's not really worth stating, but I wonder if another part of the explanation is the simple fact that wisdom is hard - even on the more modest definition you've adopted. Becoming wise might we'll be the hardest thing that any of us could ever do. And if that's the case, then we might well expect that even those who devote their lives to it's study and practice only succeed occasionally. I think it's possible that your grandma might have been remarkable not just in comparison to academic philosophers, but even in comparison to others who went through the same events that she did. Many (I think even most) people's whose lives are full of chaos like that don't come out wise, they come out wounded.

All of which is to say that, perhaps, gaining wisdom is like curing cancer: the study and research does make a difference, but that doesn't mean a statistically significant number will succeed. And with the added caveat that it can't be done once for the world but rather has to be done once for each soul.

Unknown said...

Apologies for the strange autocorrects throughout that reply. I was typing on my phone . . .

Philosopher Eric said...

One interesting bit that you’ve left us to ponder professor, is what specifically you think about the situation that we find ourselves in today. I’ll read between the lines here, and I won’t blame you at all for explicitly denying the following bit of unfounded speculation.

It seems to me that you might have mentioned to certain people that instead of shutting down the economy and all that this entails, it may be prudent to spend the money needed to help isolate the most vulnerable of us from this danger, as well as try to come up with effective vaccines and such, but otherwise mostly let this virus run its genetic course under a fully functional economy. So not only open the restaurants, but even permit the kids to party it up for spring break! Perhaps you’ve noted to some of your friends that a given cure can sometimes be worse than a disease under various less drastic measures, and that a broad shut down of the economy does seem quite drastic.

Ah, but here’s the rub. The social tool of morality exists to penalize those who violate social edicts. Once society has spoken on a given matter, such as COVID - 19, all that remains is to sort the good among us who thus deserve praise for their sacrifices, from the bad among us who us who thus deserve reprisals for their selfishness. I’m sure that each of us lead our normal lives as best we can given social edicts, and so at least attempt to be thought of in positive ways. (In addition I’ve found it liberating to harbor an anonymous persona from which to say my piece without standard social repercussions affecting my normal life.)

Regarding the substance of your post, I believe that physicists do physics better than non physicists, because various generally accepted understandings exist in the field which they’ve come to understand far better than non physicists. Credentialed philosophers may not be any more “wise” than they should be, because unlike physicists, they cannot yet claim to have developed any generally accepted principles regarding their domain.

This is where some may tag me with the scourge of “Scientism”. Furthermore it might be asserted that I’ve just made a classic category error — trying to agree upon the merits of a given idea in philosophy, would be like trying to narrow down the color of triangles. Fine. I don’t mind if this group continues to explore philosophy as an art. Indeed, I wouldn’t rob humanity of any of its traditional forms of expression and culture. But I also consider humanity to be in desperate need of a new group of professional whose ultimate and explicit goal, is to develop various apparently useful and agreed upon principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology. I believe that such principles will be required in order for our soft mental and behavioral sciences to finally harden up, and propose four of my own in this capacity.

Amod said...

I think it's right that thinking about questions of wisdom - even in teaching - isn't enough to make you wise. I'm not sure that wisdom necessarily comes down to diversity of experience, though. One of the reasons we - we humans, not we philosophers specifically - are typically so unwise is that our minds react instinctively rather than in ways guided by thought and reason. (Partially for that reason I would want to say wisdom is about decent actions rather than decent choices - a lot of what we do, we don't think about enough to really call it a "choice".) So a lot of wisdom can come from intentional practices to improve ourselves (meditation, confession, therapy if it's done right).

Anonymous said...

On the one hand it seems that having good philosophical skills can help one see a situation more objectively and act on that basis, but we can also use our big philosophy brains to deceive ourselves into thinking we are doing the right thing and acting on the basis of an objective consideration of the facts when really we are just doing the unwise thing of preferring the near gain overt long term. We may be able to use our reason to see how our actions affect other people for good. or ill, but we can also use it in service of crudely selfish desires. The better you are at arguing for a position the easier it is to argue yourself into believing something really just because you want it to be true.

Derek Bowman said...

I like this post, but I wonder if you have any thoughts about the profound challenge this provides to what we do. If reading and discussing the kinds of material we assign doesn't help you gain wisdom, why do we insist that our undergraduates take the time to learn it?

Aristotle says that the point of studying ethics is to help us become better people and live better lives. If life experience can do that as well or better, what's the point of what we offer?

One possible answer, of course, is that the kind of learning we provide is necessary, or at least helpful, but only when combined with the relevant experiences. In that way, we may be educating many of our students to become wiser, better people that we are. (I sure hope so!)

Something like this seems to be the view of Confucius. See, e.g. Analects 2.15, “If you learn without thinking about what you have learned, you will be lost. If you think without learning, however, you will fall into danger.”

P.S. To echo the spirit of Marcus's comment:

"I set aside the increasingly common chaos of the academic job market."

In other words, setting aside the defining experience of most current and aspiring academics.

Khadimir said...

Marcus' comment by proxy is good, and I think the invocation of Aristotelian practical wisdom is needed even more. Let me explain.

The problem with academic philosophers is that they are not by and large virtue ethical; they are not trying to embody the virtues of wisdom, both intellectual and practical, so much as learn a particular intellectual discipline. In my experience, academic philosophers are at best average at practical matters, including the practice of academic philosophy itself.

On this last point, to rephrase, I am frequently astounded at how philosophers have such intellectual acumen in their specialties, but so little metacognition about the practice of philosophy in general, in their profession, or even in their daily lives. This leaves me at the beginning.

Too many philosophers practice only the intellectual virtues and not the practical ones, and too frequently don't see the latter as related to the former. Anyone who knows Aristotelian ethics understands why this is a problem. Thus, academic philosophers as such as such are disadvantaged at attaining general phronesis, and the academic job market and resultant culture developed from it are worsening this.

Helen DC said...

Thank you Eric. Many people have drawn parallels with Aristotelian practical wisdom, and it's also easy to see parallels with practical wisdom in Confucian philosophy (zhi, see Mengzi). But here's another parallel: Joseph Marshall discusses wisdom as a Lakota virtue in his book The Lakota Way. The book is in my inaccessible office so I don't recall exactly, but to my recollection he says wisdom is at the same time a hard and a very easy virtue to acquire. It comes for free with life so to speak, if you have lived, you have acquired wisdom.

I do not wish to speak ill of the dead, but I'm confronted with the following puzzle. My grandma was one of the wisest people I knew (in lots of areas, but see below). She sure had a lot of life experiences: surviving world war II, she went to the Congo as a lay missionary in the 1940s as she wanted another path than being a housewife, but got very ill (and several friends who came with her died, from malaria and other diseases). She married, had 5 children, one of whom died as an infant. She was very wise, but at the same time she was also anti-semitic, regularly going on bizarre rants against Jews. I remember being a bit older (eight or so) asking her if we knew any Jewish people to actually try to assess for myself if the things she said matched our experience, and she said no, I asked her "Then how can you be sure that Jewish people are like that?" but she just seemed immovable in her bigotry. She also harbored clear racist stereotypes against my father (an immigrant from Malaysia) that she continued to spout even as she regularly interacted with him. So being wise does not protect you against bigotry, and maybe the only cure against bigotry is (as Susan Fiske and others have shown) having the appropriate education. Maybe in this respect, academics can have a broader education that gives them that perspective, even as they lack wisdom.

Marcus is right that the typical path now is not what it used to be (e.g., it took me several years, and several moves to get a TT job, those moves were hard, having to start over with a new job and new schools for the kids etc is hard). But I doubt if we are wiser than older philosophers who got straight onto a tenure track position? Is there even any anecdotal evidence to suggest that? If Marcus is right that there is anecdotal evidence then at least there is one upside to the uncertain job market in academia. I think one thing you learn from this experience is be more compassionate, I'm not so sure if you become wiser.

Arnold said...

Meaning of philosophy today, could be, procession to 'the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence...’(Google definitions).

This would be, to be, in front of the popularity of 'contemporary philosophy'...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks! I should have noticed all these interesting comments sooner. I hope my replies below don't fall into the void.

Chris: Yes, interesting example of that potential concern.

Philip-Neri: Interesting point. I was hoping to have a modest enough definition of "wisdom" that there would be a detectable number of people who are at least in the direction of "wise" -- but as Neil Levy has argued on Facebook, that might not be so, even on my modest definition. If the definition is successfully modest, then as long as reading philosophy *helps* to a non-trivial degree, philosophers should be on average wiser unless there is some countervailing consideration (as I argue there is).

Philosopher E: I don't know what the best course with COVID-19 is, so let me stay neutral on that. As far as developing a good consensus set of metaphysical etc. principles -- I'm not an utter pessimist, so I think it's worth aspiring to, but it will be a long, long, difficult project!

Amod: Maybe so. I'm not sure that meditators etc. are in fact wiser, or whether if they are it is an effect of the meditation -- hard to measure! But maybe.

Anon: Yes, philosophers might be especially skilled at rationalizing principles that they are selfishly motivated to believe. (Jon Ellis and I, in fact, argued for this in a paper published in 2017.)

Derek: Ah, but the hypothesis of the post *is* that studying is helpful -- just not as helpful as lived experience. On the job market: I do think that's important and perhaps a "defining experience" for some people. In writing the post, I was speaking generally about philosophy professors, including older professors -- maybe about median age 50.

Khadimir: I agree especially about the "metacognition". It was, for example, stunning to me when I started studying the moral behavior of ethicists in a serious way how few professional philosophers had given the issue any serious thought, and how easily many of them appeared to be satisfied with what seemed to me to be glib, sophomoric answers.

Helen: Interesting point about your grandmother's bigotry. Surely even if someone is wise about many things, there can be serious deficits. That seems like the human condition. I don't know if the rougher job market of the younger generation has made them wiser, but it wouldn't surprise me. A wisdom-o-meter would be very helpful!

stuartresnick said...

"you're unlikely to have acquired the knowledge necessary to navigate a diversity of situations without blundering"

Nassim Nicholas Taleb says that we should value someone's views only if they've made sacrifices or taken risks for it. While we need to avoid *big* risks that might take us out of the game entirely, wisdom requires taking many small risks & personally experiencing their consequences.

Someone who runs a lemonade stand will learn from the gains & losses they experience by trying out various business plans. Someone studying for an MBA... not so much.

A tenured professor has little risk attached to his performance. Not only does he not experience personal consequences, but the consequences to his students may take many years to manifest & will be difficult to track. Unlike the businessman, the professor has no easy way to gain wisdom through experiencing the results of trial & error.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Rob Henderson just linked to you in his year-end post, so you may see a small bounce in traffic.

"Philosophers spend their time giving advice to people who are happier than they are." Garrison Keillor, probably around 1990.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Ha! Happiness is overrated.