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Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.     2012

Wisdom is a characteristic or quality of wise people which, when exercised, produces guidance or counsel regarding the conduct of life that leads to good decisions and to maximizing achievement of one’s goals.  Wisdom is prized by human beings, since wisdom utilizes the kind of refined knowledge that leads, when heeded, to better life outcomes, both for the individual and for the group. The wise person also serves as a model for others of attitudes and of a chosen way of life that leads to wisdom.  The counsel of a wise person is usually notably different from what most people know or think.  We currently refer to this more common knowledge as “the prevailing wisdom,” which so often is not wise at all.  Of course, wise counsel is often ignored or discounted, in any given circumstance, by those who see short-term disadvantage for themselves in following it, and wisdom is often ignored or attacked if it challenges the societal status quo.

Wisdom is seen in basically the same way in all cultures, and we have many archetypical examples–the careful and thoughtful adviser to the king, the “wise old man” of the tribe, the shaman or medicine man, the Pope, the priestly and ministerial ideal, the judge, and the therapist.  Basically the same things are expected of all of these people: advanced knowledge of reality, special knowledge and understanding regarding people, undaunted desire to know the truth, seeing reality comprehensively (the “big picture”), insight sufficient to prevent emotions from distorting one’s view of reality or one’s judgment, trustworthiness, charity, consistency of viewpoint and behavior, and self-control sufficient to enable doing what is best for self and others.    

Philosophy (classically, the pursuit of wisdom) was the cognitive instrument for finding or achieving wisdom for millennia, but religions took precedence for a time, claiming to have the authority to establish truth and wisdom according to beliefs.  The Enlightenment brought philosophical thought back into prominence, but science has again pushed philosophy out of the limelight, because of the belief by people in general that science can by itself give them a better life.

Wisdom is not popular in current U.S. culture, since this nation consists mostly of people who believe in their possibilities and do not like to be told who they are or what they should do.  Americans want opportunity and flexibility and do not want to be restricted by reality.  This attitude helps individual achievement, but it also results in some foolishness, such as perpetual government budget deficits, abysmal failure to save for retirement, greater selfishness, and the belief that everyone can potentially get rich quick if they just had the right investments or business opportunity. 

Americans are interested in knowledge, but only if it can lead to greater income.  Most go to college to qualify to make money, not to learn about themselves or the world.  They view emotional needs as inconvenient and demean self-knowledge as “navel-gazing.”  They want science to meet every need and reduce every pain, rather than adjusting to reality themselves.  In that sense, it is a young and immature culture and does not value either maturity or wisdom.

Many Americans feel threatened by anyone who strives for wisdom and would make fun of them and criticize them as wanting to be “better” than others.  Nonetheless, there will be some who do believe in the fruits of wisdom and will seek them no matter what.  Those who become wise are not likely to get rich.  Wise persons can contribute wise counsel that is beneficial to their fellows, but this is not seen as worthy of recompense.


Defining a relatively abstract concept such as “wisdom” is difficult, but there is actually some uniformity regarding aspects of wisdom and traits that are frequently associated with wisdom.  Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary lists definitions of wisdom focusing on knowledge, insight, and judgment.

Stephen Hall, who has written on the topic, in one place calls wisdom knowing how to maximize the good.  In another book, he lists emotional regulation, the ability to judge value, moral reasoning, compassion, humility, altruism, patience, and coping with uncertainty as attributes of a wise person.  In yet another, he notes that the literature on wisdom centers on having a clear-eyed view of human nature and the human predicament, emotional resiliency, ability to cope in the face of adversity, openness to other possibilities, forgiveness, humility, and a knack for learning from life experiences.  Hall (2010) describes Ardeldt’s development of a three-dimensional wisdom scale that attempts to measure cognitive, emotional, and reflective aspects of wisdom (reflection being the ability to reflect  on how aspects of oneself affect one’s understanding).

Susan Ryan (2008) argues that a person is wise if and only if she (1) has extensive factual and theoretical knowledge, (2) knows how to live well, (3) is successful in living well, and (4) has very few unjustified beliefs.  This view sees wisdom consisting of having accurate and extensive knowledge and using that knowledge to live well.

Hall (2010) also describes naturalistic research in Canada in which lay people identified famous people whom they considered to be wise, the most commonly mentioned being Gandhi, Jesus, Socrates, Mother Teresa, Confucius, Martin Luther King, Jr., Solomon, the Pope, Oprah Winfrey, Winston Churchill, the Dalai Lama, Ann Landers, Nelson Mandela, and Queen Elizabeth II.   While there is probably some contamination in this list between “people who are wise” and “people whom I admire,” this list illustrates that in general people expect wise people to not only be wise and offer wise counsel but also to exhibit in their everyday lives certain outcomes that are supposedly the result of being wise—particularly using one’s wisdom in helpful and benevolent ways toward others.

A wise person has great knowledge, but wisdom is more than just knowledge.  While knowledge can accomplish goals in the world, wisdom tells us what is good for us or is going to be good for us in the future, based partly on that same knowledge but with the addition of deep insight regarding our inner being and our relations with others.  Einstein, for example, is considered to be extremely intelligent but not wise.   The image that most people have of the wise person usually includes positive attitudes toward others, since negative attitudes in general toward others seem inconsistent with our expectations of wisdom.  Persons who use their knowledge to outsmart others are called “shrewd” or “clever” but not “wise.”

Since wisdom is so strongly associated in the minds of most people with knowledge, a further word is warranted regarding appreciation of the feelings and experience of others.  If wisdom has the capacity to figure out what is the best course of action, the best thing to do, and the right thing to do, then wisdom must include a deep assessment and empathic appreciation for the experiential and emotional results of different courses of action, since benefiting the quality of life experience of self and others is the ultimate goal of all human activity.  How we “feel” is the key to all human motivation, since all motivation aims to improve our feeling state from negative to neutral (reducing pain or returning to equilibrium), from neutral to positive (to feel good), or from positive to more positive (to feel even better).  We must first “wisely” determine what would be best for us (which is not always what we “want to do”), and then we use our knowledge of ourselves, others, and the world to reach that goal.  So, wisdom must include a deep assessment and empathic appreciation for the results of various possible actions.  Only an empathic appreciation of our human experience (and not simply factual knowledge of human experience) is adequate to let the wise person truly know the real outcomes of possible actions (since the “feeling result” is the actual goal).

To take this argument a step further, into territory that is rarely explored when discussing wisdom, once a wise person acknowledges that benefiting human experience is the ultimate goal of all action, and once he is able to accurately perform this deep assessment and empathic appreciation of human experience, if he is to remain true to this value insight and to his knowledge of human functioning, he is almost compelled to have a generally positive attitude toward others and to guide his own behavior so as to benefit others when possible and at least not to harm them.  It is almost impossible to “know” empathically how others feel and not be partially guided by it (since we individually are guided by our sense of how we ourselves feel).  The point here is that wisdom is not wisdom because it can analyze outcomes and routes to achieve them.  It is wisdom because it knows the value of various goals and outcomes and can then choose routes to achieve them.  (Of course, appreciating the experience of others does not mean always seeking ways for them to immediately feel good.  Parents must also help their children learn how to manage disappointment, delay gratification, and inhibit behavior when it will be to their benefit.)

If we examine characteristics and skills of wise people, we can identify the key skills required for wisdom as (Christopher Ebbe, 2010, unpublished manuscript) (1)  knowledge about self, others, and life that goes significantly beyond the usual, including an accurate sense of the full (long-term and short-term) range of results and consequences of various behaviors and various structures in society; (2) a deep commitment to knowing the truth fully and accurately, even if the truth is unpleasant, and to seeing a complete picture of reality; (3) knowledge that includes a deep and empathic understanding of the needs and feelings of self and others, which usually engenders compassion and a positive attitude toward others; (4) the ability to manage emotions well; and (5) the self-awareness to remove personal biases, emotions, and needs from one’s conclusions about reality, so as to make them as accurate as possible.  As a result of being wise, a wise person will also usually exhibit the following behaviors:  a positive attitude toward others, honesty, responsibility, trustworthiness, good judgment, fairness, acceptance, compassion, knowing what is best to do and what is right to do, self-control, calmness and serenity, charity, moderation, constancy of mood, views, and behavior, and a desire to support oneself.  In short, true knowledge of self, others, and the world, suffused with compassion, becomes wisdom.

Our notion of wisdom is associated first in our minds with knowledge, but wisdom requires a true understanding of self, others, and the world, which is a level of knowledge that goes beyond the usual, since it includes awareness of who we truly are and of all of the ways in which we impact others, as well as all of the potential consequences of our actions before we take those actions.  A wise person must know how to predict, as well as we humanly can, all of the outcomes of each course of action that is considered in choosing how to proceed.

This true understanding of self and others cannot be achieved without knowing people deeply, including oneself, and this deeper knowledge requires having empathy and a non-judgmental attitude in coming to truly know other people.  Some coarse prediction of the likely behavior of others can be made based only on external observations of others’ past behavior in various circumstances, but this prediction is improved tremendously by having an empathic understanding, “from the inside,” of how people feel, since how people feel (and what they predict they will feel) is the determinant of their motivation

Since human beings have a strong tendency to make up what they view as the truth in ways that allow them to avoid emotional pain, by purposely misunderstanding or employing various emotional defenses against acknowledging reality, a true understanding of self, others and the world requires that we recognize these avoidances and exclude them from our construction of the truth.  Thus, the wise person must have a stronger commitment to knowing the truth than he does to personal comfort, and he must be open to understanding all of reality (at least to the limit of his capacity).  Facing reality in this way requires the ability to manage one’s emotions, particularly fear, disappointment, and loneliness.  With regard to many things that we would usually avoid knowing,, to face them often brings fear for our safety, often brings disappointment of our hopes for more than is realistically possible, and often leaves us knowing that we are forever different from others who continue to avoid these realities.

Wisdom clearly requires a certain amount of intelligence (at least above average), but just as important is the application of that intelligence to seek the truth and understand reality, with as few of our human distortions as possible.  This intelligence must include a considerable amount of accurate empathy and understanding of emotions, both one’s own and those of others.  These emotional skills have recently been highlighted in discussions of “emotional intelligence.”  We could say that persons with considerable cognitively-oriented intelligence but little emotional intelligence or persons with considerable emotional intelligence but little cognitively-oriented intelligence could have a limited sort of wisdom, confined to their own areas of knowledge, but this would in my opinion be limited and would not meet my expectations for wisdom.  To take this a bit further, anyone, regardless of intelligence, could have some wise knowledge, based on his or her specific life experience, but this would be specific to situations and not generalizable and would not be sufficient for figuring out wisely what is best to do and what is right to do in complex, real-life situations.

It is posited here that wisdom requires knowledge of the likely outcomes of various courses of action that may be contemplated, including potential outcomes far in the future (if one continues to have extramarital affairs, it is almost certain that this will eventually become public knowledge; if one continues to borrow to pay current expenses, it is almost certain that one will at some points be unable to pay those current expenses; etc.) and the likely outcomes of how our behavior affects others, plus how they treat us as a result (to assert that one is superior to others, or that one’s country is superior to other countries, will inevitably lead to hurt feelings and poor relations with those other persons or countries; if we ignore the feelings of others, they will come to see us as uncaring and therefore untrustworthy; etc.).  We must recognize, though, that no wise person makes perfectly accurate predictions.  Despite our deep wish to find older adult figures that have complete wisdom and can give perfect advice, such people do not exist.  Wise persons are not superhuman. 

Our daily decisions require us to make outcome predictions in order to decide what to do, and since even wise persons do not have perfect (perfectly complete and accurate) knowledge, most of our predictions have only a certain probability of being correct.  A wise person’s predictions simply have a significantly greater probability of being correct than those of unwise persons.  Some of this increased probability of being correct comes from the wise person’s willingness to see reality as it is, rather than ignoring or denying certain unpleasant aspects of it.

Since wisdom is by definition different from the common understanding of things, there will always by questions in the minds of most people about whether any particular person is actually wise.  Since every human being matures with a somewhat different view of human beings and of the world, and every human being varies in quality of thinking and in ability to detach conclusions from how he or she wishes things to be, every human being’s “wisdom” will be somewhat different.  Since science, in its modern experimental format, cannot readily define or measure these sorts of qualities, it has little to contribute as to which human beings have greater wisdom, but people “know” or believe that another individual is wise based on the realization that the wise person’s understanding is greater or deeper than his or her own.

Wisdom and maturity are perhaps the most beneficial and complex qualities that human beings can develop–beneficial both for those who are mature and/or wise and for those around them.  Maturity is focused on those behaviors in relation to others that make for effective action and for harmonious and productive communities, while wisdom is focused more on higher degrees of certain types of knowledge.  Maturity is seen in how the behavior of the mature person helps self and others to function better and to feel better, while wisdom is evident when the understanding and insight of the wise person are used to assist self and others to make better choices and/or to become wiser and/or more mature.  The wise person may be somewhat apart from others, for the solitude that serious thinking requires, while the mature person is usually fully involved in interactions with others aimed at solving life’s problems and doing what needs to be done in daily life.

Up to know there has been confusion between the defining characteristics of a wise person and the behaviors of that wise person that result from her being wise.  For example, a person can produce wise counsel if she has the five skills described above, but whether or not she will also be humble is not so clear.  We would expect part of wisdom to be knowing one’s own limitations and the limited application that is likely to be made by human beings of her wise counsel, and this could result in humility, but it could also result in provocative assertion of her wisdom if she concluded that her wisdom could have the greatest positive impact on human life if she were provocative (e.g., the stories of some Zen masters) rather than humble (the more typical image of the recluse philosopher or solitary guru).  Our stereotypes usually view a wise person as embodying in her behavior all of the conclusions of her wisdom (forgiveness, compassion, moderation, etc.), but perhaps a wise person can still be wise and produce wise counsel, even if she does not always live by or embody these results.

Another important question involves to what extent modern science can be “wise” or produce wise counsel.  We  love science for the concrete tools and wealth it has helped to produce for us, but its difficulties in experimentally investigating qualities such as wisdom, compassion, and maturity suggest that it may never be very helpful in regards to understanding or promoting virtues, excellence, or other valued complex qualities of human beings.  In terms of psychological treatments, psychological research has produced some findings regarding procedures that help in changing symptoms and behaviors, but due to the problems of definition and measurement of concepts like happiness, contentment, and wisdom, most researchers avoid these concepts—the very ones that are the end goal of most human beings.  Even work in the subfield of “positive psychology” suffers from lack of precise and universal definitions.  A small group of “philosophical psychologists” seeks to use careful thought as a method of advancing knowledge, but it is out of the psychology mainstream.  Partly due to the difficulties of large-scale societal research and partly due to fears of challenging society’s cherished but false assumptions, psychology as a whole tends to avoid challenging “the prevailing wisdom.”

(For more on wisdom, see “Wisdom” under “Living wisely.”)


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website\definitionofwisdom  7-10,4-14