This is the pre-refereed draft of a chapter that appears in Science and the Pursuit of Wisdom: Studies in the Philosophy of Nicholas Maxwell — edited by Leemon McHenry, and published in 2009 by Ontos Verlag.


Nicholas Maxwell in Context
The Relationship of His Wisdom Theses to the Contemporary Global Interest in Wisdom

Copthorne Macdonald

1. Introduction

In the opening pages of his 1984 book From Knowledge to Wisdom, Nicholas Maxwell said:

What I advocate is a radical change – a radical evolution – in the overall, fundamental aims and methods of inquiry. At present we have a kind of academic inquiry that has, as its basic intellectual aim, to improve knowledge. This needs to be transformed, I shall argue, into a kind of rational inquiry that has, as its basic intellectual aim, to improve wisdom. [1]

Maxwell was not the first to express concern about this issue. Four hundred years earlier Michel de Montaigne had written:

I gladly come back to the theme of the absurdity of our education: its end has not been to make us good and wise, but learned. And it has succeeded. It has not taught us to seek virtue and embrace wisdom: it has impressed upon us their derivation and etymology. [2]

While these two philosophers expressed similar concerns, the urgency of the situation has escalated drastically during the intervening 400 years.  When Montaigne was writing, world population was less than half a billion and Galileo had not yet invented the telescope.  Today, world population is approaching 7 billion and our advanced technologies – coupled with our lack of wisdom – have created multiple crises. As Maxwell has put it:

Before the advent of modern science and technology, lack of global wisdom did not matter too much; we lacked the power to wreak too much havoc on ourselves and our surroundings. Now, with modern science and technology, our power is terrifying, and global wisdom and civilization have become, not a luxury, but a necessity. [3]

For decades now, Maxwell has called upon us to deal with this “major intellectual disaster at the heart of western science, technology, scholarship and education” [4]   

In a recent article in the London Review of Education, [5] Mathew Iredale pointed out that although Maxwell’s ideas have been endorsed by respected academics, and his ideas have influenced the work of others, his hoped-for restructuring of whole institutions and the entire academic enterprise has not yet happened.  That said, Ireland also pointed out a variety of situations, most in the UK, and most connected with science and scientists, that are supportive of Maxwell’s more general aim of acquiring knowledge that 1) sheds light on what is of value for humanity and 2) helps us to bring that into existence. 

This chapter is devoted to further exploring what has been happening in recent years that is germane to Maxwell’s wisdom-associated proposals.  It will relate his work to

  • new academic courses, programs and departments formed in response to human problems,

  • academic research associated with “what is of value in life,” and

  • the growing interest in wisdom education.

2. New academic courses, programs and departments
formed in response to human problems

Maxwell has called for a shift in academic focus from knowledge acquisition for its own sake to “what is of value in life” for human beings. Knowledge acquisition is to continue, of course, but now in the service of realizing that which is widely beneficial.  As he has put it: “The basic task of rational inquiry is to help us develop wiser ways of living, wiser institutions, customs and social relations, a wiser world.” [6]

In 1984 Maxwell hoped for a sweeping revolution in academia from (using his current terminology) knowledge-inquiry to wisdom-inquiry.  He defines the latter as “rational inquiry devoted to promoting wisdom.” [7] Twenty years later he expressed disappointment that this revolution had not yet occurred:

Discussion of problems of living and how to solve them goes on at present at the fringes of academic inquiry, within such disciplines as peace studies, development studies, social policy studies, medicine, agricultural science, and other applied sciences. The crucial point is that such discussion is at the periphery; it is not intellectually central and fundamental. [8]

Is this a fair characterization of the situation? Are the programs he mentions indeed peripheral? Or do they, perhaps, represent important early steps in implementing the revolution which Maxwell seeks? Let’s look more closely at some of these activities.

A. The Environment

Among the most serious global problems to which Maxwell has called attention are several associated with the environment. They include global warming, destruction of tropical rain forests and other natural habitats, rapid extinction of species, depletion of vital natural resources such as oil, and pollution of the sea, earth, and air. [9] [10] Academic institutions have responded to these concerns in a quite remarkable way by establishing courses, programs, departments, and institutes devoted to the study and amelioration of these problems.  The statistics are impressive. One tabulation compiled by Brown University’s Center for Environmental Studies lists 251 US colleges and universities that have Environmental Studies programs, departments or institutes, 13 Canadian universities, 11 in the UK, 6 in Australia, and  at least one in each of several other countries. [11]   Another website, which bills itself as “The Environmental School Directory,” lists programs worldwide and has a  breakdown by type.  Their tally of offerings is Environmental Studies 261, Environmental Policy 222, Environmental Engineering 122, and Environmental Education 100. In addition, an increasing number of university law schools now have Environmental Law programs.

B. International Development Studies

Another “most serious” problem that Maxwell has identified is third world poverty, and he has called for “a massive effort by the wealthy of the first world to help the poor of the third world to help themselves” as well as “a more just distribution of the world’s wealth, and fairer trade arrangements.” [12]  

This area of  concern has not been ignored by the world’s institutions of higher learning, and many now have graduate and undergraduate programs in international development studies.  The Canadian-based International Development Studies Network lists 18 Canadian Universities with International Development Studies programs, 8 universities in the UK that have them, and universities in Denmark, Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, and Sweden. [13] Another website lists 95 international development graduate programs in the United States. [14]

Even in practical fields like engineering, within universities there is a deep concern about these issues. The recently-formed (2000) Engineers Without Borders organization now has student chapters at 18 Canadian, 8 Australian, 15 UK, and 128 US universities. [15]

C. Peace And Conflict Resolution

“War and the threat of war, including terrorism” is one more of Maxwell’s “most serious” global problems. [16] Again, universities around the world have responded to this issue by creating Peace Studies, Conflict Studies, Conflict Resolution, and Dispute Resolution courses, programs, departments and institutes.  The Conflict Resolution Information Source describes 319 of these in some detail. [17]

D. Women's Studies

Maxwell recognizes the inequalities that women have faced, and recently wrote: “If women had been permitted to play an equal role in creating modern science and academia, things might have developed in a very different way, and we might today possess something more like full fledged wisdom-inquiry.” [18] A great many people have been concerned about the status of women in both the Western industrialized countries and around the world, and roughly 25 years ago universities began to offer Women’s Studies Programs. Today, sometimes expanded into Gender Studies, hundreds of universities are offering these programs. Gerri Gribi lists 675 US colleges and universities that offer such programs, [19] and Joan Korenman identifies 258 institutions in 58 countries outside the US that offer them. [20]

So what do we make of all this?  In the chapter Maxwell wrote for this book he says “The revolution we need would change every branch and aspect of academic inquiry.” That, very clearly, has not happened.  Also in that chapter he proposes that rational problem solving in the service of wisdom-inquiry will require those attempting it to:

(1*) Articulate and seek to improve the articulation of those personal, social and global problems of living we need to solve to achieve what is of value in life (a better world).
(2*) Propose and critically assess alternative possible solutions – possible and actual cooperative actions (policies, political programmes, philosophies of life), to be assessed from the standpoint of their capacity, if implemented, to help realize what is of value in life. [21]

Isn’t that what has been happening in the programs just discussed?  Although focused on some relatively narrow aspect of the human problematique, haven’t these programs been using rational problem solving to 1) better understand the problems and how they arose, and to 2) “assess alternative possible solutions”? 

No doubt the quality and effectiveness of individual programs varies.  My point is that they are there, and the sheer numbers tell me that something important is going on.  It is not the total revolution of academia that Maxwell has called for.  But back in 1984 he also used the word evolution, and that is what the data tell me is going on.  I see these programs as the edge of the transformative wedge.  Behind these programs are concerned faculty members who want to offer them, and filling the classroom chairs are concerned students who want to take the courses. Furthermore, each program represents university resources taken away from knowledge acquisition for its own sake and directed toward the discussion and solution of human problems, toward the development of wisdom, toward the realization of “what is of value in life.”  University governing bodies have decided that these programs, departments, and institutes are an important addition to their universities, worthy of the provision of scarce university resources to establish them and keep them going.  If I am correct about this being a leading-edge phenomenon, we will be seeing much more of it in the future.

3. Academic research associated with “what is of value in life”

What of academic research?  Is it all directed at acquiring knowledge for its own sake, or is a significant portion of it now in the service of wisdom-inquiry and exploring/solving significant human problems?  At one point in his 2004 book Is Science Neurotic? Maxwell wrote:

We lack what at present we most need: sustained, intelligent, imaginative, unconstrained exploration of our local and global problems of living and what we might do to help solve them, carried on in a public, influential manner. [22]

It seems to this observer that academic institutions worldwide are very much involved with sustained, intelligent, imaginative research intended to reveal and solve many of “our local and global problems of living.”  More recently, Maxwell has acknowledged some important research of this kind, while at the same time strongly criticizing the UK’s system for distributing research funds. [23]    Here, let’s look at a few examples of research focused on betterment of the human situation.

A. Environmental Research

We begin with climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) “to assess scientific, technical and socio-economical information relevant for the understanding of climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation.” [24]   The 2007 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to the IPCC for its work, and to former US Vice President Al Gore for his activities in raising public awareness. In November 2007 the IPCC released “Climate Change 2007,” its fourth comprehensive assessment report. This report was the distillation of research done by 2500 scientists [25] – some employed by government agencies and NGOs, but many affiliated with universities and doing their research at those universities. 

University-based researchers have been active in many other areas of environmental research.  Among these are species extinction, habitat issues, issues concerning global water availability and consumption, and issues concerning food production.

B. Economic Research

Considerable economic research is taking place within universities, government departments, and independent “think tank” institutes.  Much of it concerns the functioning of present economic systems and optimizing their functioning.  The negative aspects of these systems – which include unequal wealth distribution, negative environmental impacts, and resource depletion – lead many to doubt that this kind of research increases human wisdom.  Yet there is some economic research which clearly does.  One example is research on wealth distribution.  Research into income and wealth levels is revealing, [26] as is research into the underlying mathematics which predicts that unequal wealth distribution is simply what happens unless corrective measures are implemented. [27]   Another example has to do with better ways of measuring the level of human well-being.  Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the standard index, but it measures only one aspect of well-being. Other indices, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), take into account many additional factors. [28]

C. Wisdom Research

Despite the fact that the word philosophy means “love of wisdom,” academic philosophy largely avoided the subject of wisdom for much of the twentieth century. So did academic psychology.  Even those doing research in developmental psychology rarely used the word.  That began to change in the late 1970s, and wisdom has once again become an acceptable topic for scholarly discussion and study.  Central questions in wisdom research have been, and continue to be:  What is wisdom? What are its characteristics? How do we define it?  How do we measure it?  How do people develop it?  Also, is wisdom strictly personal, or can societies and their institutions also be wise?

About some things there is much agreement and overlap of views. Monika Ardelt has pointed out that many researchers agree that “wisdom is the quintessence of successful human development” and that “wise people are considered to be exceptionally mature, integrated, satisfied with life, able to make decisions in difficult and uncertain life matters, and capable of dealing with any crisis and obstacle they encounter.” [29] There is also general agreement that wise people care about the well-being of others. 

Getting more specific, Paul Baltes, Ursula Staudinger and their colleagues at the Max Plank Institute for Human Development have put forth “the Berlin wisdom paradigm” and say that “wisdom in this paradigm is defined as an expert knowledge system concerning the fundamental pragmatics of life. These include knowledge and judgment about the meaning and conduct of life and the orchestration of human development toward excellence while attending conjointly to personal and collective well-being.” [30]   Robert Sternberg sees wisdom as “the application of tacit knowledge as mediated by values toward the achievement of a common good through a balance among multiple (a) intrapersonal, (b) interpersonal, and (c) extrapersonal interests in order to achieve a balance among (a) adaptation to existing environments, (b) shaping of existing environments, and (c) selection of new environments.” [31]   Ardelt notes that “overall, most definitions of wisdom describe the concept as a multidimensional and multifaceted construct with cognitive, reflective, and affective (emotional) elements that are inherently related to each other,” and she notes that her own definition is in line with this. [32]

One important research activity has been the development of techniques for evaluating the level of wisdom that specific individuals have developed. The Berlin group and Ardelt have each developed methodologies for doing this – two different methodologies that reflect the different views that each has about the nature of wisdom. 

For Maxwell, wisdom has a seeking, investigative quality as well as an active doing quality.  He has called wisdom “the desire, the active endeavor, and the capacity to discover and achieve what is desirable and of value in life, both for oneself and others.” [33]   Furthermore, he has indicated that what is of value in life is not just some arbitrary personal choice. “What is of value is to be discovered, it is not simply what we decide.” [34] There are many lists of “wise values” and human virtues and, as one might expect if the things that wise people value are not arbitrary, there is much list-to-list similarity. [35]

Most wisdom researchers consider wisdom to be a personal characteristic – a level of psychological development or a personality trait. But what of cultural and societal wisdom?  What do we mean when we speak of a wise society or a wisdom-based culture?  Nobelist Roger Sperry considered human values to be decision-making determinants. He wrote: 

Human values, in addition to their commonly recognized signifi­cance from a personal, religious, or philosophic standpoint, can also be viewed objectively as universal determinants in all human decision making. All decisions boil down to a choice among alter­natives of what is most valued, for whatever reasons, and are de­termined by the particular value system that prevails. Human value priorities, viewed thus in objective control–system theory, stand out as the most strategically powerful causal control now shaping world events. More than any other causal system with which science now concerns itself, it is variables in human value systems that will determine the future. [36]

Societal institutions also have deeply-embedded values, and those values are determinants of the decisions the institution makes.  Personal wisdom can become societal wisdom if and when wise people succeed in embedding “the values of the wise” in the decision-making processes of institutions. Maxwell, too, recognizes that wisdom has both a personal dimension and a societal dimension, and has referred to academia as “an intellectual and educational force for the promotion of personal and global wisdom.” [37]

Key to personal wisdom is psychological development beyond “normality.” As Martin Seligman, one of the leading “positive psychology” researchers and a former President of the American Psychological Association, put it: “I realized that my profession was half-baked. It wasn’t enough for us to nullify disabling conditions and get [from minus five] to zero. We needed to ask, What are the enabling conditions that make human beings flourish? How do we get from zero to plus five.” [38] His extensive research led to the development of a Character Strengths and Virtues document, and he says about it, “we intend it to do for psychological well-being what the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders...does for the psychological disorders that disable human beings. [39]  

Meditation is a proven aid to psychological development. Ken Wilber cites research which indicates that meditation is the only proven way to move our psychological development beyond what he calls the “sensitive self” stage to the “integrative” and “holistic” stages. He noted, “Less than 2 per­cent of the adult population scores at Jane Loevinger’s highest two stages of self development (autonomous and integrated),” and went on to say, “No practice (including psychotherapy, holotropic breathwork, or NLP) has been shown to substantially increase that percentage. With one exception: studies have shown that consistent meditation practice over a several-year period increases that percent­age from 2 percent to an astonishing 38 percent….” [40]   (Emphasis his.)

Neurological research is starting to tell us why meditation is such a powerful tool. Tenzin Gyatso (the current Dalai Lama) wrote in the New York Times about research by Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin that explored the effect of mindfulness meditation on brain function. In the Dalai Lama’s words: “mindfulness meditation strengthens the neurological circuits that calm a part of the brain that acts as a trigger for fear and anger.” Some of Davidson’s research involved people who worked in highly stressful jobs. Regarding this, the Dalai Lama said: “These people — non-Buddhists — were taught mindfulness, a state of alertness in which the mind does not get caught up in thoughts or sensations, but lets them come and go much like watching a river flow by. After eight weeks, Davidson found that in these people, the parts of their brains that help to form positive emotions became increasingly active.” The Dalai Lama went on to say, “It’s worth noting that these methods are not just useful, but inexpensive. You don’t need a drug or an injection. You don’t have to become a Buddhist or adopt any particular religious faith. Everybody has the potential to lead a peaceful, meaningful life.” [41] An important point here is that meditation can be approached as a secular, psychological practice, devoid of any association with religion or spirituality.

4.    Wisdom education

Is education for wisdom really a possibility? Many people admire wise individuals but assume that wisdom’s arrival in their own life is just a matter of chance. That, however, is not the view of people who have spent time exploring what wisdom is and the various factors involved in its development. They understand that people can help themselves and each other to become wiser.  Let’s look at what wisdom education might look like 1) in K-12 elementary and secondary schools, 2) in colleges and universities, and 3) for self-directed adults.

A. In Elementary and Secondary Schools

Maxwell has recognized the need to begin wisdom education at an early age. Furthermore, he has suggested a promising approach:

At the centre of wisdom-education, from the age of five (let us suppose) onwards, there would be a discussion seminar, concerned to encourage children to engage in the activity of articulating and scrutinizing problems and their possible solutions. This seminar would be conducted in such a way as to encourage open-ended, uninhibited discussion, there being no prohibition on what problems can be discussed, what solutions considered. War, sex, death, power, the nature of the universe, money, politics, fame, pop stars, parents, school, work, marriage, the meaning of life, evolution, God, failure, drugs, love, suffering, happiness: whatever it is that the children find fascinating or disturbing, and want to discuss, deserves to be discussed. Where there are no known or agreed answers, the teacher must acknowledge this. The teacher must readily acknowledge his or her own personal ignorance or uncertainties, in addition to confessing his or her convictions. The main task of the teacher will be to try to ensure that the children speak one at a time, that everyone gets a chance to speak, and that those who are not speaking listen. The teacher will also, of course, try to establish a spirit of generosity towards the ideas of others, while at the same time encouraging criticism and argument. The main object of the seminar is to enable children to discover for themselves the value of cooperative, imaginative, rational problem-solving by taking part in it themselves. [42]

What of other approaches that have already been put into practice?  Wisdom researcher Anne Adams has explored eight “integral” education programs. “Integral education,” she says, “addresses the whole person by creating an environment in which students engage in learning processes and experiences that focus on developing and integrating the mental, physical emotional, and spiritual intelligences.” [43]   She explored programs associated with 1) Sri Atmananda, 2) Krishnamurti, 3) Montessori, 4) Fox (Quaker schools), 5) Sri Aurobindo, 6) Gandhi, 7) Yogananda (The Living Wisdom Schools), and 8) Steiner (creator of the Waldorf Schools).  In her doctoral dissertation she presents the results of her research and offers a “systemic integral model of education...designed to initiate a paradigmatic shift in our relationship with education.” [44] She would start this integral education at conception, with the parents-to-be, in a campus-like environment where people of all ages have access to resources:

The campus is a learning community and epitomizes a living system that is dynamic and co-created by its members.  People of all ages, i.e., young people, couples, children, students, parents, elders, teachers, community members, etc., come to the campus for education: classes, workshops, access to experts, resources, e.g., books, tapes, experiential practices.  They are assisted in learning more about what education, learning experiences, practices and knowledge are essential in developing and integrating their mental, spiritual, emotional and physical intelligences.  Whatever they are addressing in their current stage of growth is supported by an integral education approach. [45]

Since values are central to wisdom, an excellent beginning to wisdom education would seem to be the introduction of values education in public school systems. North American parents with strong religious views have resisted the idea, but beginning in the 1990s values education began to find acceptance as “character education.”  The most popular of these programs is called CHARACTER COUNTS!. According to the program’s staff,  CHARACTER COUNTS! “affects over 6 million kids worldwide, has over 800 coalition members, and is in thousands of schools.” [46]   The program is built around “Six Pillars of Character”: Trustworthiness (honesty, integrity, reliability, loyalty), Respect (civility, courtesy and decency; dignity and autonomy; tolerance and acceptance), Responsibility (accountability, pursuit of excellence, self-restraint), Fairness (process, impartiality, equity), Caring, and Citizenship. [47]   The Josephson Institute of Ethics originated the program, and supplies schools with materials to help teachers implement the program in their classrooms.

Mindfulness meditation was mentioned earlier, and a New York Times article titled “In the Classroom, a New Focus on Quieting the Mind” presents examples of how in its secular form mindfulness meditation is being employed in classrooms.  One study of the practice revealed “increased control over attention and less negative internal chatter.”  Another “found that meditation techniques helped improve mood disorders, depression, and self-harming behaviors like anorexia and bulimia.” The Principal of one elementary school that uses the technique commented: “If we can help children slow down and think, they have answers within themselves.” [48]

Dirk Windhorst has reported on a program in which history was used as a vehicle for teaching wisdom. The “Teaching for Wisdom through History” course materials were developed at the PACE center headed by wisdom researcher Robert Sternberg. The developers say, “This curriculum goes beyond the teaching of content knowledge to integrate wise and critical thinking skills into a historical context.”  Windhorst reports on the application of the materials in one eighth-grade class. Students were led to examine a number of “historical dilemmas” faced by the American colonists in 1776.  They read different accounts of the same events, and considered discordant elements such as Thomas Jefferson writing “the lofty sentiments expressed in the Declaration of Independence while at the same time owning black slaves whom he believed were inferior to whites.” [49]

B. In Colleges and Universities

Aside from the various programs already mentioned, what wisdom-fostering activities are going on in universities today?  Positive psychology courses are one, and they are currently being offered at more than 100 US colleges and universities. The most popular of these appears to be the one taught by Tal Ben-Shahar at Harvard. In the spring of 2006 enrollment was 855 students, making it Harvard’s most popular course. Ben-Shahar has said, “My goal is to create a bridge between the Ivory Tower and Main Street, to bring together the rigor of academia and the accessibility of self-help.  If the class has a rigorous academic foundation, which it does, then why not try to help people lead better lives?” [50] For those interested, videos of the 23 lectures that Ben-Shahar gave that semester can be downloaded from the Harvard website. [51]

The Association of American Colleges and Universities has more than 1100 member institutions, and has recently initiated a program to bring into the functioning of these schools a greater emphasis on a number of qualities of wisdom, including:

  • doing one’s best;

  • integrity;

  • contributing to local, national and global society;

  • recognizing and acting on the obligation to inform one’s own judgment;

  • relinquishing a sense of entitlement;

  • engaging diverse and competing perspectives; and

  • refining ethical and moral reasoning.

Called the Core Commitments initiative, 196 college and university presidents have, at this writing, “pledged their leadership and best efforts in support of a far-reaching engagement with issues of ethical, personal, and civic responsibility.” [52]

There are individuals in colleges and universities who are doing what they can to convince colleagues and administrators to move their institutions in the direction that Nicholas Maxwell has outlined for us. One of them is Alan Nordstrom - Professor of English at Rollins College, a liberal arts college in Winter Park, Florida. In 2006, I had the pleasure of spending two weeks with him in support of that effort. [53] The experience led me to conclude that instututional transformation is likely to take place only if, in the early stages of the process, highly motivated individuals are actively selling the vision.

C. For Adults

In the late 1990s there were meetings in Burkina Faso of a "Council of the Wise." This was a group of people from different countries and backgrounds who wanted to foster the development of wisdom in African culture. A useful outcome of these meetings was the identification of four levels of wisdom development.

·     Potential Sages includes almost everyone.  These are busy people who have the potential to become wise, but have never felt the call to intentionally develop wisdom.

·     Sages in Intention have come to understand what wisdom is, realize that they have the potential to become wise, and have decided, as the Council put it, to “follow the path of their potential.”

·     Developing Sages are actively involved in wisdom-developing activities.

·     Established Sages are those who are recognized by others as wise people.

What can those Sages in Intention do to become Developing Sages?  If you live in or near Rochester, New York, you could sign up for Richard Trowbridge’s three-month “Developing Wisdom” course. [54] Trowbridge has been deeply involved with the subject – his PhD dissertation being a treatise on the history of wisdom and the wisdom research conducted between 1980 to 2005. [55]   For most of us, however, moving from stage to stage will be an exercise in self-directed learning.

To develop wisdom we need to develop the characteristics of wisdom – the relevant perspectives, and values, and intellectual knowledge – and incorporate them into our lives.  Elsewhere I have suggested nine wisdom-fostering activities and discussed them in some detail: [56]

  1. A clear understanding of what wisdom is

  2. Counseling and various kinds of psychotherapy

  3. Intellectual knowledge that is relevant to the kind of wisdom we are trying to develop

  4. Full and varied life experience

  5. Feedback and counsel from wise people

  6. The observation of behavior – our own and others

  7. Practices that help us internalize values

  8. Body–awareness practices

  9. Meditation

But just how does one develop that “clear understanding of what wisdom is” and learn more about the other items on the list?  When writing two general-readership books on wisdom in the early 1990s [57] I became acutely aware of the lack of information on the subject. Consequently, in 1995 I decided to move my wisdom education focus to the Internet, and created a website to help fill the void. Called The Wisdom Page, it is a compilation of wisdom-related resources. The site has grown in usefulness and visitor numbers over the years, and is currently located at It has content in the following categories:

·      Getting Acquainted with Wisdom    Why care about wisdom?    What is wisdom?    Words of wisdom    Wisdom-literature bibliographies    The traditional wisdom literature    Contemporary books about wisdom and wise living (including free downloads)    Wisdom-related poetry
·     The Structure of Wisdom     The varieties of wisdom     Wise perspectives     Wise values     The integration of truth and the integral vision
·     Wisdom and Humanity's Future
·     Wisdom Research     Links to materials of individual researchers
·     Education for Wisdom   
·     Resources for Wisdom Development     Defining the task—constructing a wisdom-based life     The meditation tool     Other practices and tools     Wisdom-related sight and sound media     Other wisdom-related resources
·     Wisdom-Related Issues     Transforming academia from knowledge-inquiry to wisdom-inquiry     Spirituality and wisdom in business
·     Wisdom in Action     Comments on activist wisdom and socio-cultural wisdom     World Wisdom Alliance     Activist organizations     Dialogue instead of debate
·     Personal Quests for Wisdom

The site also incorporates several “Web 2” features including RSS feed and monthly email newsletters to notify interested people of new content, streaming audio and video, podcasts, a custom search engine focused on wisdom-related issues, and free downloads of doctoral dissertations and eBooks.  Clearly, The Wisdom Page is not the total answer to the self-directed learner’s problems, but it is perhaps a helpful place to start.

5. Conclusion

Nicholas Maxwell is right; his proposed program has not revolutionized the functioning of entire academic institutions or academe as a whole.  But to my eyes, there is much evidence that his core approach – focusing on human problems and then acquiring relevant knowledge to do something about them – is happening in a widespread and gradually increasing way.  Individuals who have seen the light, whether via Maxwell’s writings or otherwise, have been developing courses, programs, departments, and in a few cases whole schools, that address some aspect or other of the human problematique.  The more successful of these are responding in rational and creative ways to raise awareness of the chosen problem area and, as Maxwell put it, to “propose and critically assess possible solutions, possible actions or policies, from the standpoint of their capacity, if implemented, to promote wiser ways of living.” [58]    Others, like Professor Alan Nordstrom, are attempting to transform their entire institutions – again, via reason and logic in the service of wisdom.

It seems to me that From Knowledge to Wisdom was, in 1984, a book ahead of its time. Based on the current evidence, some of which I have presented in this chapter, I conclude that the time for wisdom-inquiry has finally come. One aim of the book you are now reading is the dissemination of Maxwell’s ideas to a wider audience. I hope it succeeds in doing that.  I feel confident that there are many people in academic institutions around the world whose personal inclinations toward betterment will find encouragement from, and a helpful framework within, the work of Nicholas Maxwell.


[1] . Nicholas Maxwell, From Knowledge to Wisdom: A Revolution in the Aims and Methods of Science (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984), p. 4.

[2] . Michel de Montaigne, "On Presumption," The Complete Essays, ed. M.A. Screech, (London: Penguin Books, Penguin Classics edition, 1993), Book II, Essay 17, pp. 749-50.

[3] . Nicholas Maxwell, Is Science Neurotic?, (London: Imperial College Press, 2004), p. 71.

[4] . Maxwell, 1984, p. 3.

[5] . Matthew Iredale, “From knowledge-inquiry to wisdom-inquiry: is the revolution underway?” London Review of Education, 5:2 (July 2007), pp. 117-129.

[6] . Maxwell, 1984, p. 66.

[7] . Nicholas Maxwell, The Human World in the Physical Universe: Consciousness, Free Will, and Evolution (Oxford: Rowan & Littlefield, 2001), p. 14.

[8] . Maxwell, 2004, pp. 92-93, note 20.

[9] . Nicholas Maxwell, “From knowledge to wisdom: the need for an academic revolution” London Review of Education, 5:2 (July 2007), p. 97.

[10] . Maxwell, 2004, pp. 131-132.

[11] . “Environmental Studies Programs at Other Institutions,” Brown University, Center for Environmental Studies. Retrieved October 26, 2007 from

[12] . Maxwell, 2004, p. 132.

[13] . “IDS Programs,” International Development Studies Network, Retrieved October 28, 2007 from

[14] . “International Development Graduate Programs in the United States U.S.A,”, Retrieved October 28, 2007 from

[15] .  Information on Engineers Without Borders chapter numbers retrieved October 23, 2007 from the following web sites:

[16] . Maxwell, 2004, p. 131.

[17] . “Higher Education Programs,” The Conflict Resolution Information Source, Retrieved October 28, 2007 from

[18] Nicholas Maxwell, From Knowledge to Wisdom: A Revolution for Science and the Humanities, 2nd  Edition (London: Pentire Press 2007), Chapter 12.

[19] . “Women’s Studies Programs - Gerri Gribi,”, Retrieved October 28, 2007 from

[20] . “Women’s Studies Programs Worldwide,” University of Maryland Baltimore County, Retrieved October 28, 2007 from

[21] Nicholas Maxwell, “How Can Life of Value Best Flourish in the Real World,” From Knowledge to Wisdom: Studies in the Thought of Nicholas Maxwell, Ed. Leemon McHenry (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008), Chapter 1.

[22] . Maxwell, 2004, p. 93.

[23] Maxwell, 2007, Chapter 12.

[24] . Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Retrieved October 29, 2007 from

[25] . Reuters, “FACTBOX—Draft U.N. study shows climate risks and solutions,” Environmental News Network, Retrieved October 29, 2007 from

[26] Copthorne Macdonald, Matters of Consequence: Creating a Meaningful Life and a World That Works (Charlottetown Canada: Big Ideas Press, 2004), pp. 114-115, 207.

[27] Mark Buchanan, “The Mathematics of Inequality,” The Australian Financial Review, September 2002, Retrieved October 29, 2007 from

[28] “Genuine Progress Indicator,” Redefining Progress, Retrieved October 29, 2007 from [October 2010 note: This link is no longer active.]

[29] Monika Ardelt, “How wise people cope with crises and obstacles in life,” ReVision, June 22, 2005.

[30] Paul B. Baltes and Ursula M. Staudinger, “Wisdom: A Metaheuristic (Pragmatic) to Orchestrate Mind and Virtue Toward Excellence,” American Psychologist, 55:1 (January 2000), p. 122.

[31] Robert J. Sternberg, “A Balance Theory of Wisdom,” Review of General Psychology, 2:4, 1998, p. 347.

[32] Ardelt, 2005.

[33] . Maxwell, 1984, p. 66.

[34] Maxwell, 1984, p. 120.

[35] “Values that Various People Have Associated With Wisdom,” The Wisdom Page, Retrieved October 30, 2007 from

[36] Roger W. Sperry, “Bridging science and values: A unifying view of mind and brain,” American Psychologist, April 1977, p. 237.

[37] . Maxwell, 2004, p. 117.

[38] Claudia Wallis, “The New Science of Happiness,” Time Magazine (January 17, 2005).  Retrieved November 2, 2007 from

[39] Martin E.P. Seligman et al, “Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions,” American Psychologist, 60:5 (July-August 2005), p. 411

[40] . The quote is from Wilber’s online announcement of the formation of the Integral Institute. Retrieved  October 24, 2000 at,8287/yid,9296268

[41] . Tenzin Gyatso. "The Monk in the Lab," New York Times, April 6, 2003.

[42] . Maxwell, 2004, p. 139.

[43] Anne Adams, “Education: From Conception to Graduation. A Systemic, Integral Approach,” A Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of the California Institute of Integral Studies, 2006, p. v. Retrieved November 2, 2007 from

[44] Adams, 2006, p. 198.

[45] Adams, 2006, p. 192.

[46] Personal email from Megan Robertson, Program Assistant, CHARACTER COUNTS!,, on July 9, 2007.

[47] . “The Six Pillars of Character,” Josephson Institute of Ethics.  Retrieved July 8, 2007 from

[48] . Patricia Leigh Brown, “In the Classroom, a New Focus on Quieting the Mind,” New York Times (June 16, 2007).

[49] . Dirk Windhorst, “Educating for Wisdom: Can an ancient virtue be cultivated in postmodern times?,” Professing Education, 3:2, Retrieved September 13, 2007 from

[50] . Carey Goldberg, “Harvard’s crowded course to happiness: ‘Positive Psychology’ draws students in droves,” The Boston Globe (March 10, 2006). Retrieved November 4, 2007 from

[51] . “Lecture Videos for Psychology 1504,” Harvard University. Retrieved November 4, 2007 from

[52] . “Core Commitments: Educating Students for Personal and Social Responsibility,” Association of American Colleges and Universities. Retrieved November 5, 2007 from  List of  “Call to Action signatories” Retrieved November 5, 2007 from

[53] . “Copthorne Macdonald, "WISDOM: The Highest Aim of Life and Higher Education," the "Thomas P. Johnson Distiguished Visiting Scholar" address given at Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida on April 5, 2006 in text-plus-slides format. Retrieved November 19, 2007 from    This talk, with introduction by Alan Nordstrom, is also available in RealAudio-with-slides format at

[54] . “Developing Wisdom,” Wisdom Centered Life. Retrieved November 5, 2007 from

[55] . Richard Hawley Trowbridge, The Scientific Approach to Wisdom, Doctoral dissertation, Union Institute and University, 2005. Retrieved November 5, 2007 from

[56] . Copthorne Macdonald, “Personal and Societal Wisdom: Some Thoughts on Their Nature and Development,” April 2, 2006 address to the University Unitarian Universalist Society in Orlando, Florida.     Retrieved November 5, 2007 from

[57] . “Info About Cop Macdonald’s E-books,” The Wisdom Page. Retrieved November 5, 2007 from

[58] . Maxwell, 2004, p. 119.