Don Cochrane --- Biographical notes

The Wisdom Page 


Wisdom: A First Approximation

                Professor Don Cochrane
                College of Education
                University of Saskatchewan
                Saskatoon, SK S7N 0X1

                Association for Moral Education
                New York, November 15-18, 1995

The moral philosopher, Kurt Baier, once amused a group of colleagues in 1970 by recalling that his first published article was entitled "What Is the Meaning of Life?" Though philosophy had escaped the firm grip of positivism by that time, an analytical temper still held sway. Questions about the meaning of life were seen as part of an old, discredited approach to philosophy. The reigning orthodoxy still dismissed such questions as meaningless. Baier was confessing to a juvenile misdemeanour; the laughter of his peers confirmed the professional embarrassment.

The etymology of "philosophy" is ignored by many contemporary philosophers. They would disclaim any pretensions to being lovers of wisdom for, they would argue, "wisdom" is too problematic a concept. It might have been part of the "grand tradition" in philosophy, but is not currently useful. It was left for Gabriel Marcel to lament its passing in The Decline of Wisdom (1951) and for Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue (1981) to ponder whether the very conditions for moral life (and so, a fortiori, a life guided by wisdom) have collapsed leaving us in a state of complete disorder. To offer a paper on the subject would now seem to be a gaffe of the first order.

The situation for someone as intrepid as to ask "Why is wisdom not a goal of education in contemporary, Western society?" has only worsened in our post-modern era. In his very polished manner, Richard Rorty (1989) skewers concepts such as wisdom:

The people I shall be discussing do not think that there is anything called "wisdom" in any sense of the term which Plato would have recognized. So the term "lover of wisdom" seems inappropriate . . . the works of the great metaphysicians attempt to see everything steadily and see it whole . . . to rise above the plurality of appearances in the hope that, seen from the heights, an expected unity will become evident--a unity which is a sign that something real has been glimpsed, something which stands behind the appearances and produces them. [The ironist theorist] substitutes (for the metaphysician's metaphor of a vertical view downward) the historicist metaphor of looking back on the past along a horizontal axis. But what he looks back on is not things in general but a very special sort of person, writing a very special kind of book . . . . For the ironist theorist, the story of belief in, and love of, an ahistorical wisdom is the story of successive attempts to find a final vocabulary which is not just the final vocabulary of the individual philosopher but a vocabulary final in every sense--a vocabulary which is no mere idiosyncratic historical product but the last word, the one to which inquiry and history have converged, the one which renders further inquiry and history superfluous. (96)

The goal of his ironist theorist is to understand the metaphysical urge to theorize about such a vocabulary in order to become entirely free of it:

Ironist theory is, thus, a ladder which is to be thrown away as soon as one has figured out what it was that drove one's predecessors to theorize. (97)

Psychology has had very little to say about this human achievement. Kohlberg worked with the idea that there might be a state of understanding beyond Stage 6, but empirical work was restricted by the limited sample--only Marcus Aurelius and the archangels qualified! Intuitively we feel that a wisdom so confined offers us only a small corner of the picture. But Kohlberg was right to see the ethical connection between wisdom and the conduct of life based on a Weltanschauung.

More recently, Sternberg and associates have addressed the topic in Wisdom: Its Nature, Origins, and Development (1990). Despite an unevenness in the contributions, the collection is, on the whole, a welcome development. Unfortunately, the conceptual questions are not explored deeply (see Daniel N. Robinson's article), nor is there consistency between the authors on these matters. More disturbing, none explore the epistemological and psychological matrix of concepts of awe, reverence, wonder, amazement, and fascination--necessary for any understanding of wisdom.

More encouraging is Theodore Roszak's The Voice of the Earth (1992). Psychology is seen the search for sanity and sanity is the health of the soul. The book is, in part, a mournful and, at times, angry meditation on the extent to which psychology has lost its way: "We look to the psychiatrists to teach us the meaning of madness, but our dominant schools of psychotherapy are themselves creations of the same scientific and industrial culture that now weighs so brutally on the planet" (19). For Roszak, "psychology, whatever techniques it may use, is necessarily a philosophical pursuit, a critical examination of ethical conduct, moral purpose, and the meaning of life" (50). Set in this context, psychology cannot sever itself from questions of our place in the cosmos. Thus, ecopsychology is born.

Roszak observes that Freud was the first to raise the ominous possibility that society itself might be psychopathological, and so, could not serve as a standard of health. In traditional psychotherapy, the individual is deemed neurotic against the background of a social environment that is assumed to be normal. If the neurosis is collective, the backdrop, as a source of judgment, disappears. The (dominant) culture and its paradigms become the problem and only selectively can it be a source of solutions. The implications for education are immense.

If wisdom and mental health are essentially relational and if the recognition of our intimate relation with the rest of nature is constitutive of that wisdom, mainstream psychology has nothing to offer us. Kidner (1994) argues forcefully that, about the environmental crisis, psychology is mute. While it has much to tell us about our aggression directed towards ourselves, it is silent about our aggression towards the rest of nature. His argument is three-fold:

. . . first, psychology, by focusing on the decontextualized individual, perpetuates and legitimates a world view in which the individual is seen as separate from the environment; second, by locating itself within the Cartesian paradigm of human relationality as the only basis of understanding, psychology reproduces an anthropocentric ideology that denudes the nonhuman aspect of the natural world of essence and inherent value; and third, by assuming a largely cognitive model of the person, psychology colludes in the denial of those aspects of Being that are capable of perceiving and protesting against the violence of environmental destruction. (362)

Even in social psychology where one might expect to find a challenge to individualistic assumptions of the mainstream,

. . . there is no suggestion that we are also located within a natural context. As a result, the relation between social life and humankind's place in the natural world remains untheorized and unacknowledged, the implication being that beyond providing a certain genetic endowment and offering the possibility of various transactions, the natural world plays no part in determining the course and nature of our decontextualized lives. In place of the decontextualized individual individual, we have the decontextualized society. (304)

Psychology, in other words, normalizes an incomplete and distorted view of personhood, accepts the/a desacralized view of the universe, denies that the relational is intrinsically spiritual, and so, cannot heal, find the spiritual, or end the alienation between nature and the natural parts of the self. Of course, the discipline does have a sub-department called "environmental psychology" but it is typically concerned with the "effects of particular environmental conditions such as stress, pollution, noise, urbanization, crowding, and so forth, on individuals" (368).

The prospects for wisdom have not always been so dire. It played a central role in the controversies of the Old and New Testaments. If fear (variously translated) was the beginning of wisdom for the Hebrews, the Greek wisdom tradition represented by Plato and Aristotle offered a contrasting view with a rationalistic orientation. Later, Augustine and Aquinas developed notions of wisdom consistent with their Christian faith. The Old and New Testaments were reconciled and, in Aquinas's case, Christian theology and Greek philosophy, brought into harmony.

Since the Enlightenment, the concept has been in eclipse. Its version of rationalism championed religious skepticism and promoted a kind of rationality that appears to have precluded the Greek conception. Alasdair MacIntyre's criticism of the Enlightenment "project" has not itself led to a restoration of interest in wisdom.

Currently among Native peoples, many feminist theologians, and deep ecologists, the concept has been experiencing a surprising revival. My interest has been to see if these efforts avoid the criticism of the likes of Rorty by engaging in a metaphysics "in a new key."

John White's inaugural address (1994) offers some encouragement for those who would ask with trepidation why wisdom is not currently a goal of education in contemporary Western society. White argues for "an alternative picture of personal flourishing suitable for a non-religious society" (3). His basic thought "is that non-religious citizens need frameworks within which to make sense of their existence, both at the social and at the cosmic level" (3). His main question is whether "personal well-being needs to be understood against some kind of cosmic framework" (7). He identifies six values associated with personal well-being which invoke some cosmic consideration:

* If the cosmos is not the source of values, it does provide the ultimate framework within which values exist.

* Nature, either in particular manifestations or globally, can be the object of many of our values.

* Nature pleasures have their roots, if only as a matter of explanation and not justification, in our animal nature.

* Many feel attachment to nature as our dwelling place.

* Many feel delight in the beauty of the natural world.

* A sense of wonder by the very existence of anything at all is warranted.

* We can (and should?) develop a respect for the natural world, and so, desire to preserve it from human depredations.

White is careful to insure that we understand that in his mind these values are secular and not to be conflated with anything religious. He questions whether any of these values are an ineliminable feature of human flourishing. His answer is sketchy both on the conceptual and educational levels. But then an inaugural lecture is only intended to suggest the broad outlines for future work.

First approximations: Some characteristics claimed for wisdom

The first task is to understand what might be entailed by wisdom. Essentialist and stipulative approaches to definition must be disregarded--the first because it is impossible; the second because it is arbitrary. Wisdom has never been confined to a single meaning, though this does mean that any definition will do. Wisdom has multiple meanings, some of which contrast sharply with others, while some will overlap. The concept is not tidy. Several characteristics are associated with wisdom. Biblical examples are used to illustrate these points.

1. Wisdom is always esteemed

Wisdom always refers to a state of mind that is judged to be good. This point is reminiscent of the one R.S. Peters once made about education: it would be odd to say of someone that she was wise but the worse for it. It would be equally odd to say of her that she was wise but unethical. It is this conceptual point that anchored Kohlberg's speculations about a possible Stage Seven.

* "The value of wisdom is more than coral or crystal or rubies." Job, 28:18

* "Prize [wisdom] highly and she will exalt you; she will honour you it you embrace her,/She will place on your head a fair garland; she will bestow on you a beautiful crown." Proverbs 4:8-9

* "Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold/For wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare to her." Proverbs, 8:10-11

* "To get wisdom is better than gold; to get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver." Proverbs 16:16

2. Wisdom is elusive

The grounds for this elusiveness could be epistemological (wisdom could be very difficult for most people to understand in the way that, say, metaphysics or sub-atomic physics might be difficult), psychological (wisdom could be quite simple to understand, but most people do not want to hear the message because they sense that it would require a major shift in the way they conduct their lives), or cultural (there is so much "static" in our nervous systems that, though the message might be easy to understand, it cannot be "heard").

* "But where can wisdom be found? Where does understanding dwell? Job, 28:12

* "That which is, is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?" Ecclesiastes, 7:14

3. Wisdom is related to knowledge

Wisdom claims assume the possibility of objective knowledge about such broad matters as human nature, civil society, and the place of human kind in the cosmos. These areas provide the context for judgments about how one ought to conduct ones life. The conclusions of these judgments may be optimistic or pessimistic, but the matters to which they refer are knowable. For this reason, wisdom is discounted in a postmodern era. Wisdom is thought to involve interpretation and is not merely a matter of description.

* "The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight." Proverbs, 4:7

* For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding." Proverbs, 2:6

* The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight." Proverbs, 9:10

* With God are wisdom and might; he has counsel and understanding."Job, 12:13

4. Wisdom endures across time and across cultures

* "The whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom that God had put in his heart." 1 Kings, 10:24

5. Wisdom guides our conduct towards how to live a/the good life and may often be at variance with convention and social norms

* "I have taught you the way of wisdom; I have led you in the paths of uprightness/When you walk, your step will not be hampered; and if you run, you will not stumble." Proverbs, 4:11-12

* "Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom." James, 3:13

6. Wisdom is often thought to be the possession of "elders"

* "Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding?" Job, 12:12

* "And Eli'hu the son of Bar'achel the Buzite answered: `I am young in years, and you are aged; therefore I was timid and afraid to declare my opinion to you./I thought Age should speak; advanced years should teach wisdom./But it is the spirit in a man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand./It is not the old that are wise, nor the aged that understand what is right./Therefore I say, `Listen to me; let me also declare my opinion'." Job, 32:6-10

7. Wisdom is often thought to involve fear of the Lord

* "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction." Proverbs, 1:7

* "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding." Psalms, 111:10

* "And he said to the man, 'Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding'." Job, 28:28

8. Wisdom affects both the heart and mind

The possession of wisdom is both a cognitive (part of ones understanding) and an affective matter (part of ones feelings and, thus, a source of motivation). While some wisdom may be encapsulated in precepts, it cannot be fully appreciated if it is simply learned by rote.

* ". . . making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding." Proverbs, 2:2

* ". . . for wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul. Proverbs, 2:10

* "Because this people approach me with their mouths and honour me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their religion is but a precept to men, learnt by rote, therefore I will yet again shock this people, adding shock to shock; the wisdom of their wise men shall vanish and the discernment of the discerning shall be lost. Isaiah, 29: 13-14

9. Wisdom can appear in cosmological and justice versions

* "The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding, he established the heavens;/by his knowledge, the deep broke forth, and the clouds drop down their dew." Proverbs, 3:19

* "How many are your works, O Lord! In wisdom, you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures." Psalms 104:24

* "But God made the earth by his power; he founded the world by his wisdom and stretched out the heavens by his understanding. Jeremiah, 10:12 (see also Jeremiah, 51:5)

* "But he who listens to me will dwell secure and will be at ease without dread of evil." Proverbs, 1:33

* "For wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul;/ discretion will watch over you; understanding will guard you;/ delivering you from the way of evil, from men of perverted speech,/ who forsake the paths of uprightness to walk in the ways of darkness,/ who rejoice in doing evil and delight in the perverseness of evil; men whose paths are crooked, and who are devious in their ways." Proverbs, 2:10-16

Three Conceptions of Wisdom

(1) Individualistic Conception

This conception of the good life is confined to the individual: what is good for me and how do I get it? Elements of this ethic can be found in parts of Proverbs. It is the basis of Machiavelli's The Prince. It permeates Hobbes' Leviathan. It is redolent currently in self-help books devoted to getting ahead in the corporate jungle. The ethical school to which such thinkers gravitate could be termed egoistic utilitarianism: wisdom consists of following those precepts that will maximize one's own happiness, power, or whatever is taken to be the sumum bonum.

(2) Civic Notion

In the civic conception, wisdom consists in living by those precepts that contribute to social harmony. Plato and Aristotle are among the best known thinkers in Ancient Greece who espoused such a philosophy (though Plato has been castigated by Karl Popper in The Open Society and Its Enemies for having created a "handbook for storm-troopers"). Utopians of all stripes fit into this category. Outside Western culture, Confucius espoused a particularly strong version of civic wisdom.

Promoters of civic wisdom, like Plato, often combine the social dimension with a personal one. This is not to be confused with the individualistic notion just discussed. For Plato, there is a parallelism between the soul and the state. Each has its own distinctive, though complementary, harmony. Wisdom consists of finding the regulating principles of each. A proper harmony is found in both when all elements are ordered by justice. Without governance by the rational mind or the Guardians, life would be just as Hobbes would later describe it--nasty, brutish, and short--for elements in our nature would be at war with each other, just as different segments in society would struggle for domination.

(3) Cosmological Version

Cosmological wisdom broadens the horizons of concern. It rests on a Weltanschauung), or world-view, and lays out how a person can live in harmony with the world. Toulmin puts it this way in The Return to Cosmology: Postmodern Science and the Theology of Nature (1982):

. . .this ambition [to talk about the Universe as a Whole] has reflected the need to recognize where we stand in the world into which we have been born, to grasp our place in the scheme of things, and to feel at home within it. (1)

Here the work begins in earnest. An analysis of mind (soul)/body, humans/animals, humans/nature dichotomies needs to be undertaken. The limitations of traditional ethics (based on parts or all of these dichotomies) are exposed and explored in Paul Taylor's Respect for Nature (1986). He establishes a framework for the principle for respect for nature, a parallel to the conventional principle for respect for persons. He leaves undeveloped the notion of an ethical ideal, though it is the logical and psychological lynch-pin to his theory. This, I argue, is supplied by Schweitzer's idea of "reverence for life" which is found throughout many of his writings but principally in Civilization and Ethics (1929) and must be defended against the trenchant criticisms in Kleinig's Valuing Life (1991).

Schweitzer's notion of reverence for life has elements that are both psychological (having to do with feelings and motivation), epistemological (having to do with what can been known), and ethical (having to do with what, if anything, deserves our reverence). But reverence is just one of a family of concepts--such as awe, wonder, amazement, and fascination--that require careful analysis. These states are necessary conditions (of a psychological kind) of the possibility of the experience of wisdom. The door is then opened to consider the work of Thomas Berry, Wendell Berry, Rene Dubos, Christopher Stone, and other contemporary thinkers and to combine these with new and exciting developments in Christian theology, feminist theory, deep ecology, and First Nations spirituality.

Let me offer some speculations to end this paper about how to proceed from this point. What are the best moves to make and how would one know? I would suggest using three "desiderata" in priority order when considering what approach to take (they would hardly constitute strict logical criteria or prerequisites). The first I call the "principle of the shortest leap": one theory or world-view would be preferred over another if it required less of a leap of faith. This would surely appeal to our general commitment to rationality broadly defined. The optimum case would be one in which no leap of faith was required. The second I call the "principle of maximum illumination": should two theories about our relations with the natural world have equally short "leaps," the one that accounts for the widest spectrum of human experience would be preferred. This principle is parallel to the comprehensiveness principle in scientific explanation. The third and least important desiderata I call the "principle of thick tradition": all things being equal, one would choose the theory that invoked the longest and/or broadest support in Western and/or non-Western traditions. Of course, one must be careful applying this principle for, if Popper's interpretation of Plato Republic is accepted (recall his reference to it being a "handbook for storm-troopers"), many evil ideas have long histories. Still, the principle has its uses if employed carefully. A long, if hidden, tradition can be drawn on as an intellectual resource. It can provide prima facie evidence that the perceptions embodied in the theory transcend time, place, and culture. At the very least, it provides a comfort that, though one might be relatively isolated from the mainstream of thought in ones own epoch, one is not alone--and so, perhaps, not mad.


Fox, Michael. Struggling with the Prophets: Essays on Creation Spirituality and Everyday Life. San Francisco: Harper, 1995.

Kidner, David W. "Why Psychology Is Mute about the Environmental Crisis." Environmental Ethics, 16, (Winter)1994. 359-376.

Kleinig, John. Valuing Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Kohlberg, Lawrence. "Notes Towards Stage Seven." Unpublished. No date.

Marcel, Gabriel. The Decline of Wisdom. New York: Philosophical Library, 1955.

MacIntyre, Alasdair C. After Virtue: A Study of Moral Theory (2nd ed.). Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.

Rorty, Richard. "Private irony and public hope" and "Self-realization and affiliation: Proust, Nietsche, and Heidegger." In Contingency, irony, and solidarity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Schweitzer, Albert. Civilization and Ethics. London: A.&C. Black, 1929/1946.

Sternberg, Robert J. (Ed.) Wisdom: Its Nature, Origins, and Development. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Taylor, Paul. Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.

Toulmin, Stephan. The Return to Cosmology: Postmodern Science and the Theology of Nature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

White, John. Education and Personal Well-being in a Secular Universe. London: Institute of Education University of London, 1994.


I believe a leaf of grass is not less than the journeyworld of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d'oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depress'd head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.

                                Walt Whitman
                                from Songs of Myself