The Varieties of Wisdom

by Copthorne Macdonald



 Personal wisdom involves wise  perspectives, wise values, and personally-relevant intellectual knowledge

At every moment in our lives we face some real-life situation, some fact-based reality. But what do those facts MEAN? And what's the best thing to DO about them? Wisdom answers the first question by looking at the situation from a variety of helpful perspectives. It answers the second by bringing wise values into the decision-making process. There are many of these "wise ways of seeing," and many "wise values." In wise people these basic building blocks of wisdom combine in various ways to create an array of "wise attitudes" and "wise ways of being." And because the mix of characteristics differs from person to person, each wise person's wisdom has a distinctive character or "flavor."

A key point is that personal wisdom is internal, embodied by persons. Words of wisdom arise from it. Wise behavior arises from it. Socio-Cultural wisdom arises from it. But wisdom itself is not its products. Rather, it's a mode of cognition — one that couples relevant intellectual knowledge with some important perspectives, interpretations, explanatory frameworks, and values. Wisdom is a kind of meta-knowledge that helps us make better sense of the rest of our knowledge.

Varieties of personal wisdom include practical, existential/metaphysical, and activist

Aristotle differentiated between two kinds of wisdom: practical wisdom, and existential/metaphysical wisdom. I would add a third variation on the theme: activist, change-the-world wisdom.

Life-centered wisdom is an information-processing modality — one in which everyday situations are evaluated comprehensively, from many points of view. Howard Gardner wrote, "The defining characteristic of wisdom is the breadth of considerations taken into account when rendering a judgment or recommending a course of action." Wisdom asks: Will this work? What are the consequences? Does this fit with my goals? Is this part of the problem or part of the solution? Does this represent excellence? Is this fair? Is it right? Is action needed or not needed? — plus many others.

Big picture, existential wisdom is a variety that Eastern spiritual practices help to develop. Rational evaluation still plays a role in this form of wisdom, but rationality is not enough. That's because the goal is insight into both the informational of reality (that is, form and appearance) and the noninformational aspect (Being, Spirit, Energy, and Awareness). Eastern practices develop and harness the psychological modalities of intuition and identification. These modes of cognition potentially allow us to see beyond the transient to the eternal. Beyond Maya to Brahman. Beyond form to the carrier of form.

The added element in activist wisdom is intellectual knowledge relevant to the world situation.

Activist wisdom combines a high level of psychological/spiritual development with the development of broadly based intellectual understanding (the humanities plus the sciences plus economics). Here, too, mind-quieting practices are used to develop self-knowledge and a broadening of sense-of-self identification.


Societal institutions — corporations, political systems, economies, NGOs — are purposeful entities. They exist to perform certain functions and to behave in certain ways. And that behavior is directed by values. Those values are typically a combination of

  • the personal values of the people who created the institutions in the first place,

  • the values of the people who currently run them, and

  • values imposed from outside, such as laws and the interpretation of those laws by courts.

Some institutions were imbued with wise values at their founding, but were co-opted later. Among the drafters of the US Constitution and Bill of Rights were some very wise people, and that wisdom was reflected in the governmental structures they created. But they couldn't anticipate every future happening, nor build into the constitution every possible protection. As early as the 1860s Lincoln warned about the control that big money could exert over government. And that has clearly happened in the years since then.

Economies are another example. Economies were created as societal subsystems to provision people. Group A had more of some good than it needed, and it traded the excess to Group B for a different good. The provisioning function hasn't disappeared, but today's economies and their institutions have superimposed other purposes on top of the original one. Making a lot of money for a small group of people has become the primary purpose; benefits to society are secondary. The economic TAIL now wags the societal DOG.

It doesn't have to be this way. Governments can be configured to serve the many instead of the few. And the original purpose of economies can be restored.

In my view, a wisdom-based society would be one in which many of the high values that guide the lives of wise people would also guide society's institutions. Among those values would be truth, honesty, justice, cooperation, peace, compassion, universal well-being, creativity, and comprehensive knowledge. These values would be implanted into institutional systems in ways that insured, as far as possible, wise institutional behavior. And the institutions would be run in such a way that those values would be maintained on into the future.

Personal wisdom can bring about socio-cultural wisdom. Socio-cultural wisdom supports and fosters personal wisdom.

There is a mutual feedback relationship between personal wisdom and societal wisdom. It starts with personal wisdom. If a societal institution ends up being guided by wise values, it is almost certainly because wise people designed them in. So there is a creative movement from wise people to wise institutions. But it also works in the other direction. Wise societal institutions support and encourage the development of wisdom in individuals.

Copthorne Macdonald's book Matters of Consequence presents a more complete picture of the nature and development of Activist Wisdom. For more information about the book go to Chapter 15 of that book, Doing What Needs To Be Done, is available online in PDF format.

Copthorne Macdonald is a writer and independent scholar. He has written 8 books (3 of them on aspects of wisdom) and many articles, reviews, and column installments. Since 1995 he has tended THE WISDOM PAGE — a website devoted to wisdom resources at