What is Wisdom?

Can you explain complex ideas without using jargon or technical terms? Can you give someone a clear idea of what you mean in less than two sentences? I just had a masterclass in breaking down ideas to their core elements while playing a game with my six year old daughter.

The game “Oh Really” is a fascinating social experiment in which five cards are selected each round and players have to rank them in terms of most to least important. The content of the cards varies wildly from seemingly simple things like “teeth” or “heat”, to more abstract ideas like “patriotism”, “faith” or “wisdom”.

It is great fun to choose someone as the focus person for each round, and then all of the players try to guess how that person will rank whatever elements are drawn. While the most humorous elements occur when someone is trying to passionately explain why they think that “haircuts” are more important than “freedom of speech” (I mean, if you didn’t have haircuts then we would all just be incredibly shaggy!), what I found most fascinating and challenging was actually what happened before each round really got started.

As he placed each of the five cards for the round on the table, we had to run them by my six year old to make sure she knew what we were working with.

Here is the challenge that I came up against: how to describe some of these things simply, clearly, and in as few words as possible. Too much qualification, too many terms, and suddenly the description becomes top-heavy, awkward and anything but clear.

Sure, I can begin a long tirade about “wisdom” (which I did) and talk about philosophy and mysticism and experience and practice and having an innate sense of moral good, etc…but I have already lost myself. The need to qualify, to add another facet or flavor to round out the picture, these are things that point out just how little we actually grasp what we are talking about.

Enlightenment thinking and the purity of rational thought is about breaking down and defining everything until it fits neatly in a box. So much of the philosophical canon is simply people trying to tease out slight difference between theories. Certainly, there are implication about the mechanics of things, and whether qualities inhere in something as opposed to simply being projected onto them, for instance. In most cases, however, these nitpicking points don’t actually offer us a branch to hold on to. When we are living our lives, these nuances don’t often have an influence on the way we actually encounter the world.

Take, for instance, Zeno’s paradox. An archer stands at one side of the colosseum and fires and arrow at a target which stands across the space. Zeno states a simple logical fact which seems to lead to a paradox. He states that in order for the arrow to arrive at the target, it must first cross half of the remaining distance. Then, it must cross half of the remaining distance again. This halving continues. As there is always an amount of distance to be covered, and it is possible to always measure half of that distance, the loop seems to go on into infinity. The arrow can never reach the target because it must continue to cross half the remaining distance and infinite number of times. Even if the time required to do this is infinitesimally small, it is still an infinite amount of time, and therefore can never be achieved.

Of course this is absurd, hence the paradox, of what we can puzzle out about how we expect the world works and the bald reality of how it actually operates. So often our philosophy seems to be wrapped up in the way the paradox is written rather than accounting for what the arrow actually seems to do as it clearly crosses the space in a smooth and unhindered arc.

I believe that for many thinkers, perhaps due to the postmodern penchant for dismantling any and every postulate, there is an overabundance of caution for how one states a belief or a theory.

After my game had ended I continued to think about how I could have defined “wisdom” in a more concise way.

The best I have come up with is this: “Wisdom is the kind of stuff you know about life from having lived it, instead of reading about it in a book.”

Immediately the alarm bells start going off, and I want to clarify and add nuance, but then I feel like maybe I should stop myself.

It feels vulnerable to leave such a simple statement hanging out in the open, but I think I can stand by it. The longer it sits, the more I press and prod, the more comfortable I become.

My need to define and qualify everything is probably just insecurity coming through. It takes a kind of guts to state something with clarity, knowing that there will be questions, and “what ifs” and other kinds of challenges. Perhaps the insecurity is about my ability to answer those questions appropriately.

I think that this is an excellent exercise to try out on things we think we know.

Having to explain “generosity” and “politics” and “responsability” means clarifying it for ourselves.

There is a second reason that this is so important. The ability to present these ideas clearly, concisely, is a point of entry for others. My being able to explain “wisdom” to my kid gives her a frame of reference and an entry point. It puts the concept on her mental map, which gives her a destination to explore if she so chooses.

One of the things I find most frustrating about philosophy, and other academic fields, is that they are often presented in such a way that one feels unqualified to even begin to understand. The barrier to entry seems too high for many people who encounter these ideas without a knowledge of the context or the terminology. Even to build a knowledge of that terminology often requires a canon of historical and contextual knowledge. What might it look like if more people felt that they had footing to approach these concepts? What sort of insights would we be able to gain from those who chose paths other than the academic, but have still gained knowledge that bears sharing in the same conversation?

Try it out for yourself. Can you break down the concepts which you find more intriguing, which matter the most to you, into a simple phrase without jargon? How does it feel?

I may not be able to back much of this up with citation, but it is definitely something I have come to learn from my time living as opposed to what I have been reading in books.