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This paper aims to foster readers’ understanding of what accounts for the discursive subtleties of the notion of wisdom, as assessed from the psychological perspective. In the introduction, the author introduces readers to the topic and formulates the paper’s main thesis: the notion of wisdom should be discussed in conjunction with the philosophical concepts of phronesis and Sophia. In the paper’s second sub-chapter, the author explains how the psychological theories/models are being categorized and briefly describes the ones that appear to be the most influential.
In the analytical part of the paper, the author outlines the main conceptual inconsistencies of the psychology-based explicit theories of wisdom while arguing that to be considered fully legitimate, in the scientific sense of this word, they should take into account the neurophysiological aspects of cognition. In this specific sub-chapter, the author also explains why it is inappropriate to refer to wisdom as a metaphysical category that exists in the realm of its own.
The sub-chapters main argument is: the virtue’s observable extrapolations are reflective of the particularities of the brain’s morphogenetic structuring. In the concluding part of the paper, the author summarizes the acquired analytical insights, restates the thesis, and suggests that there will eventually be a neurophysiological shift in the psychology of wisdom, as a whole.
One of the most notable phenomenological issues within the domain of psychology has to do with the fact that, despite the psychologists’ preoccupation with studying human nature, it was only through the last few decades that they began to study wisdom as probably the most virtuous attribute of one’s existential mode. However, even today there is no universally adopted definition as to what the notion of wisdom stands for.
Such a state of affairs has a strongly defined paradoxical quality to it. After all, categorizing people as “wise” and “unwise” became a customary practice since the time of antiquity: this alone should have helped psychologists a great deal within the context of how they go about trying to define wisdom and conceptualizing the proper methodological framework for measuring the former. Nevertheless, there is still much ambiguity in this regard.
In the author’s opinion, the described situation is reflective of the fact that psychology suffers from the apparent lack of axiomatic integrity (psychological research is rarely consistent with the principle of reproducibility). It also indicates that while proposing different approaches for defining wisdom, most psychologists prefer to turn a blind eye to the recent discoveries in the field of neuroscience.
The validity of the above-stated will be explored throughout the paper’s analytical part. The main thesis of this paper, however, is as follows. It is specifically the ancient Greek conceptualization of wisdom as such that consists of the integral elements of phronesis (one’s ability to effectively address life-challenges) and Sophia (one’s transcendent knowledge of how the world turns around), which provides a discursively sound basis for deepening one’s understanding of what the concerned notion is all about (Trowbridge, 2011).
The reason for this is that, as it will be shown later in the paper, such an outlook on wisdom is consistent with what contemporary neuroscientists know about the actual mechanics of human cognition, which in turn define people’s perception of the surrounding social reality and their place in it.
Psychological Theories/Models of Wisdom
As it was mentioned earlier, psychologists’ interest in studying wisdom is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Nevertheless, it is still possible to outline the main conceptual approaches to applying a psychological inquiry into the subject matter, as well as to expound on the significance of the acquired insights, in this regard.
One of the ways to categorize psychological theories of wisdom is to set them apart as implicit, on the one hand, and explicit, on the other. According to Ardelt (2004), “Implicit theories of wisdom are based on the beliefs and mental representations that laypersons have about wisdom” (p. 258). Probably the most illustrative of the implicit theory at work are researches conducted by Clayton and Birren (1980), Holliday and Chandler (1986), and Sternberg (1985).
As it was revealed by these psychologists, when reflecting on the foremost indications of wisdom, most ordinary people single out his or her general knowledgeableness/erudition, the ability to indulge in the synthetic type of reasoning, and the ability to find workable solutions to different problems (Glück, Strasser & Bluck, 2009). In their turn, the explicit theories of wisdom are based on the assumption that it is possible to tell how wise a particular person is concerning the characteristics of his or her psychological makeup and how this person aspires to attain social prominence (Staudinger, 2008).
The common feature of the explicit theories of wisdom is that they make a point in differentiating between cognitive mechanics, predetermined by the neurological aspects of the brain’s functioning, and cognitive pragmatics, best seen as the brain’s socially and culturally defined “software”. This, in turn, presupposes both that wisdom is a primarily pragmatic category and that it is possible to work out a methodological framework for measuring the intricacies of a person’s endowment with the virtue. The so-called “Berlin paradigm of wisdom”, associated with the works of Baltes (1993), Staudinger (1995), and Kunzmann (2003), is the most explanatory, in this regard.
The paradigm’s foremost postulate is that, far from being an inborn trait, wisdom refers to the aggregation of abstract knowledge inside one’s head: something that is presumed to be helping the concerned individual to adequately react to the externally induced stimuli. Hence, the theory’s strongly defined gnoseological sounding, “The Berlin group (conceptualizes) wisdom… as an expert knowledge system, which belongs to the cognitive pragmatics of the mind” (Ardelt, 2004, p. 259).
This, in turn, presupposes that it is indeed appropriate to adopt a quantitative approach towards rating people on a wisdom scale. It needs to be noted that the implicit and explicit models of wisdom do overlap to a substantial extent, especially concerning how their adherents expound on the observable extrapolations of one’s endowment with the virtue. Another apparent commonality between them is that the adherents of both models place a heavy emphasis on what can be deemed the virtue’s affective dimensions, primarily concerned with the wise person’s predisposition towards acting in such a manner that advances the society’s overall well-being.
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Even though the implicit and explicit approaches to defining wisdom are commonly deemed equality legitimate, in the ontological sense of this word, it is namely the latter that received a powerful developmental boost through the recent decades.
In this respect, one can mention Sternberg’s Balance Theory of wisdom. This theory promotes the idea that, for an individual to be considered wise, he or she must be capable of reaching a balance between its self-egoistic anxieties of a “hairless primate”, on the one hand, and its rationale-based intention to act as the society productive member, on the other. This implies that wisdom cannot be discussed outside of what happened to be the affiliated social context. Therefore, wisdom should be seen deriving from the very process of an individual interacting with others (Sternberg, 1998). According to the author, a person’s rating on a wisdom scale also positively relates to his or her varying ability to operate with abstract categories and make practical use of it.
Another notable theory that draws on the explicit approach to defining wisdom has been proposed by Glück and Bluck in 2013. It is now being referred to as the MORE Model. According to it, one’s likelihood to attain wisdom should be discussed in conjunction with what accounts for the measure of intellectual flexibility, on the concerned individual’s part. The main contributing factor, in this regard, is the person’s “awareness of limits of ones’ view and acknowledgment of the presence of several other views, which brings openness to an individual and reduces personal bias or prejudice” (Sharma & Dewangan, 2017, p. 4). The theory’s practitioners believe that it is possible to assess such a person’s propensity employing subjecting him or her to the interview-based interpretative inquiry.
Because the implicit and explicit theories of wisdom are mutually complementary, telling them apart often represents a rather impossible task, especially when the most recent theoretical outlooks on the subject matter are in question. The validity of this suggestion can be best shown regarding the recently emerged Constructivist Theory of wisdom, which accentuates the socio-cultural aspects of a person’s intellectual maturation.
While confronting the essentialist view on wisdom, this theory promotes the idea that there is a strong relativist quality to the concerning virtue, “Instead of searching for ‘truths’ about wise and foolish people in dispositions, it emphasizes the practices, the narratives, and the cultural meaning systems producing and reproducing the notions of sages and fools” (Grossmann, 2017, p. 242). According to this theory, ordinary people are just as capable of identifying wisdom as it is being the case with experts. Essentially the same applies to the so-called “HERO(E)” (Humor, emotional regulation, reflectiveness, openness, experience) theory. Its main provision that a wise person is necessarily a socially integrated one (Grossmann, Gerlach & Denissen, 2016).
The conducted review of the most influential wisdom theories is far from being considered exhaustive. Nevertheless, it does provide a certain clue as to what represents the overall developmental trend of the ongoing conceptualization of the existential virtue in question, which has traditionally been seen as the actual key to human flourishing. As time goes on, more and more psychologists tend to regard wisdom as a socially constructed notion that never ceases to remain in a state of constant discursive transition. This notion is being increasingly seen synonymous with the notion of knowledgeableness.
As one can infer from what has been said earlier, the most popular psychological approaches to defining wisdom do vary to a considerable extent, in the sense of what their adherents consider to be the virtue’s integral components. Nevertheless, there is a common quality to all of the reviewed theories/models: they are strongly speculative (especially the explicit ones). The recognition of this fact resurfaces throughout most of the reviewed articles (Sharma & Dewangan, 2017).
Consequently, this implies that these theories/models cannot be regarded as representing much practical value, apart from the value of allowing their affiliates to acquire additional academic credits. If anything, these theories contribute towards making it even more unlikely for the universally applicable definition of wisdom to be worked out in the future.
Another apparent shortcoming of all the reviewed explicit theories of wisdom is that their authors appear to misunderstand the connotative significance of the term: hence, their tendency to treat knowledge as the actual predictor of wisdom that has the value of a thing-in-itself. The earlier mentioned Berlin model of wisdom is particularly exemplary in this respect. However, such a tendency, on these people’s part, makes very little logical sense.
As Ardelt (2004) aptly argued, “Wisdom itself cannot be preserved outside of individuals. Its distribution in society depends on the personal development of the people who make up society and not on the development of a cultural ‘software’” (p. 260). To be a wise person is to have an understanding of the most fundamental principles behind the universe’s functioning, which in turn allows the person to acquire a holistic (all-encompassing) comprehension of how the world turns around.
The reason for this is that having such comprehension will allow him or her to understand the dialectical nature of the relationship between causes and effects and this world, and consequently to be able to indulge in the synthetic reasoning: something that has traditionally been deemed as the main attribute of wisdom. This type of reasoning is itself the source of new knowledge. As the French philosopher, Helvetius observed, “The knowledge of certain principles easily compensates the lack of knowledge of certain facts” (Hoesch, 2018, p. 302). To be considered a wise person, one’s understanding of things must extend beyond the boundaries of his or her factual knowledge.
Nevertheless, what appears to be hampering the earlier outlined theories the most is that while being concerned with addressing primarily the cognition-related matters, they pay very little attention to the neurophysiological aspects of how people tend to perceive the surrounding social reality and address challenges posed by the former. Such an approach is hardly justifiable. After all, wisdom is a by-product of cognition, whereas cognition itself is a by-product of chemo-electrical reactions that take place between neurons inside the brain’s neocortex continually (Meeks & Jeste, 2009).
Hence, the gravest fallacy of the reviewed theories/models of wisdom: they are reflective of the assumption that one’s ability to effectively tackle the challenges of an every-day living (phronesis) and his or her propensity for indulging in the analytical type of reasoning (Sophia) naturally derive from each other. This, in turn, presupposes that there is only one perspective for assessing wisdom – a socio-cultural one. For those who are aware of the basic principle of the brain’s functioning (optimization of energetic expenditures), however, such a point of view will appear rather erroneous. The rationale behind this suggestion is as follows.
While accounting for only about one-fiftieth of a person’s bodily mass (the brain’s average weight is 1100 grams), it consumes up to 25% of all metabolic energy within the body when addressing various psycho-cognitive tasks in the “fully activated” mode (Falkowska et al., 2015). This is exactly the reason why most people find intellectual pursuits to be very exhausting and generally unpleasant. The brain does not tolerate thinking for as long as this activity does not serve the purpose of making it more likely for the concerned person to succeed in addressing his/her primary biological functions: propagating its genome, gaining access to nutrients/resources, and imposing its authority on others.
In this regard, the representatives of the Homo Sapiens species are no different from their closest biological relatives: apes (Dawkins, 2014). What it means is that there is a dualistic quality to one’s sense of self-identity: something suggestive that there is the same quality to the notion of wisdom as well. On the one hand, the brain’s limbic system endorses (by releasing hormones) biological/anti-social behavior in an individual. As it is being seen by this part of the brain, it is much “wiser” to simply steal a much-desired resource or to take it away from others by force, as opposed to taking possession of the former in a socially appropriate but energetically costly manner.
That is such, utilizing attaining good education, securing a well-paid job, and earning enough money to be able to purchase it in a store like everybody else (Getz, 2014). After all, the preserved energy could be much more “wisely” spent on helping one to pursue its biological agenda. On the other hand, however, the neocortex’s associative lobes that came into being and evolved to serve the purpose of reducing the acuteness of biological instincts in people and consequently enabling them to form societies, actively resist the temptation while deeming such a would-be course of action “unwise” (due to involved risks). In its turn, this creates the objective precondition for human cognition to be dualist as well (Devor, Rappaport, & Rappaport, 2015).
The main discursive implication of the above-stated is apparent: contrary to how most of the explicit theories of wisdom view it, there is very little complementarity between a person’s ability to have a comprehensive understanding of things and his or her talent in managing the pragmatic aspects of life. Quite to the contrary: the greater is the extent of one’s predisposition to indulge in abstract theorizing, the less likely will it be for him or her to succeed in attaining social prominence, in the conventional sense of this word. This explains both the fact that it is namely geniuses who are being commonly regarded as the wisest of all people and the fact that these individuals often prove themselves incapable of solving even the most basic of life’s problems.
There is even more to it: the adoption of the neurophysiology-based approach to defining wisdom will enlighten people on the actual significance of such vaguely sounding notions as “transcendence” and “intuition” within the reviewed theories’ discursive framework. Yes, it is indeed the truth that wise people often enjoy the reputation of “being out of this world”. However, such a psychological trait, on these individuals’ part, is not the property of their conscious commitment to leading an empathetic/selfless lifestyle. Rather, it is the property of their brains’ morphogenetic structuring: specifically, the size-related characteristics of the associative lobes in the neocortex (Asma, 2014).
This, of course, once again shows that the psychology-based models for conceptualizing wisdom in theory and identifying wise individuals in practice, are highly speculative and unreliable, to say the least. Instead of undergoing a series of psychological tests, as the instrument of telling how high one may score on a wisdom scale, the person will be much better off deciding in favor of the neuro-scanning procedure (Varvatsoulias, 2015). It is understood, of course, that for such an option to become practically viable, the maximal resolution of computer tomographs must be account for no higher than 1 micron. Neuroscientists will be able to accomplish this very soon: the development that will bring the psychological discussion of wisdom to a whole new level.
In light of the earlier acquired analytical insights into the discussed topic, it will be appropriate to conclude this paper by outlining the most evidence of the conducted research’s implications. These are as follows:
Even though the newly emerged theories of wisdom do provide many clues into what should be deemed the virtue’s observable extrapolations, these theories are hardly valuable, in the practical sense of this word. This simply could not be otherwise: neither of the discussed wisdom models adheres to the principle of reproducibility in empirical science, which means that they do not have what it takes to be considered thoroughly scientific.
The phronesis and Sophia aspects of wisdom are ontologically incompatible, which means they cannot be regarded as such that derive from each other. The reason for this is that they refer to the two qualitatively different dimensions of cognition: unconscious and conscious. One’s heightened propensity for phronesis is commonly indicative of the person’s lessened capacity for abstract thought and vice versa. This confirms the validity of the ancient Greek conceptualization of wisdom.
Contrary to what many explicit theories insist to be the case, the specifics of the surrounding socio-cultural environment has a rather minor effect on people’s understanding of what the concerned notion stands for. After all, the particulars of one’s social class/cultural affiliation do not change the fact that the concerned person belongs to the species of primates, which in turn means that he or she is predetermined to think and act in a manner consistent with the cause-effect principle in dialectics. This also means that wisdom does not exist independently of people.
The legitimacy of the reviewed theories is also undermined by the fact that they do not provide a scientifically sound explanation as to the actual ontogenesis of many of the presumed indications of wisdom, such as the person’s ability to benefit from being able to act intuitively. Had it been the case, intuition would not be considered as yet another existential trait of a wise person.
The proper definition of wisdom is as follows: it is one’s ability to use its a holistic understanding of what causes the surrounding physical/social reality to be what it is, and to use this understanding within the context of how he or she strives to make this world a better place.
The author believes that this conclusion is consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. Psychologists should indeed consider incorporating the recent discoveries in the field of neuroscience into the very methodological core of their approaches to defining wisdom. Such an eventual development is predetermined by the logic of historical progress.
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