Here’s a piece I wrote for Nicholas Maxwell’s Friends Of Wisdom Newsletter, No.1 November 2007:
One wonders: what is wisdom? Wisdom may surely be described as states of someone’s being, thinking, and knowing. Wisdom includes the ability or desire to expand one’s thinking beyond the usual or ordinary. The notion of wisdom includes extending one’s knowledge to reframe that knowledge in increasingly wider and deeper contexts.
But wisdom is also a concept depicted in the thoughts and texts of various thinkers who have somehow risen above or beyond the more usual thoughts of those who know, merely. It is surely historical, may be prophetic, and often difficult to portray in any present moment.
For those of us who might wish to move beyond or transcend the contents of our knowledge, wisdom is also an ongoing personal dialogue. Sometimes clear, often an existential struggle, it is also an attempt to move on, to grow, to place our knowing in new, more complicated, or transcendent contexts. It is an attempt to locate new positions from which to see and to say what grows in meaning, and perhaps how and why.
Here, I will not attempt to frame the widest -deepest meanings of wisdom. Instead, I will attempt to describe some of my personal perorations both to locate and pursue some paths toward wisdom.
Some ponderings in one’s (my) internal dialogue: I have grown beyond some earlier thoughts and thinking. Where do I go next; whom to read or re- read, what next to study? These are hopefully framed within judgments of integrity and self-critical trust.
Other personal dialogues ask to be updated from time to time: Whose ideas in which traditions – ancient, current, “timeless” – inspire me; upset me? Whose works, ideas, thinking are aspects of my thinking – aware or not so aware? I trust myself, usually and mostly, but…
And I am not alone. I have a life- partner and some few others whom I engage-with mutually as critics and mentors: inspiring, tempering, sometimes fomenting. Who else do I trust, use as a critic or respondent? Are they also “growing” in their own quests?
In other contexts, I ask different sorts of questions, or desire some senses of personal growth. These seem to involve forms of “expansion” of my knowing. I want to get beyond, to think more universally; to include all people (pasts, present, and “visions” into the future), grow in aspirations, often searching for “more.”
I am quite certain that some of the foundations which have led to these yearnings, involve various experiences of “amazement” – my first intellectually captivating time was (I still tell myself) when I was dissecting the hand in my course in Gross Anatomy in a brief excursion into Medicine. At that moment, I was also re -taking up the violin after an extended lay-off. Still today, I look at my left hand both as some sort of complicated object, and as a source of knowing and doing which are truly astonishing.
My hand “knows” so much, can do so much with this instrument. It urges me to go in many other directions: to the instrument. To the sounds it/I make; the music rings out in so many directions. Amazed I was; amazed I remain, and wonder every day if I really-actually can play and perform. Yes.
Time and change: my favourite courses in college were embryology and geology. The idea of a single – fertilized cell becoming a person (me, perhaps especially) – the time of a life, the time of the earth. The idea of looking at the Mississippi River most days, wondering whence it comes and flows; what preceded it over eons?
My first job: involvement with the earliest commercial computers was much about microseconds -now nanoseconds – extends fairly easily to the universe, to history, and the present. I fell in love with Heraclitus’ thinking when I first met his ideas, and pense most days about the ways in which Pythagoras et al affect/afflict our lives, trying to “stop” the world, to undo change.
I was not educated to the idea of ideas. It was the harsh facts of the Chomskyan revolution in linguistics – invoking a long-dead Descartes – which led or forced me to ask how “cogito ergo sum” has anything to do with the human. (My “work” was toward studying the human body in interaction with others’ bodies: gone, any reception or market for my works. Perhaps soon?)
I began reading backward and forward in the history of philosophy to fathom how an old idea could have “overtaken” my career. I discovered ideas and their “powers” – and the idea-makers and shakers who were said to be the foundation thinkers of Western (and other) thought. Still in our “heads” after 2500 years: how, why? This is today, I sobbed, and we must help create or invent and envision the ideas for a just future. Wisdom? Mere vacillation?
Several thinkers exhorted me to ask about ideas: their history, politics, the marketplaces for ideas – and what is the human? Why do we think we know what we claim? Why does so much of this seem so “obvious” that we proclaim knowledge without studying the human interacting with other humans? Darwin’s last book has disappeared under the power of his earlier proclamations of our being aspects of nature. But this argument over our nature turns almost immediately into politics and religion…as the underlying ideas seem to fade from our thoughts.
I became a teacher-practitioner of dialogue with “my” students. Dialogue mainly because I want both students and myself to be “present” in the contexts of teaching. I read in other traditions where teachers and mentors find honour and ask: why not honour teachers here? I do apparently “inspire” the future for some. What are the relations between teaching and wisdom: a question hovering above all my classes?
More abstractly: what is Western thought, that we have apparently “lost” the idea of wisdom? How do I do what I claim to do, try, think I am doing? As a teacher, I am, “responsible” for knowledge, but particularly responsible for the students.
On the ways toward the present, I studied many of those who have been said to be “wise” – have tried both to understand their works, and to bring them into my sense of the present. I learned much about how to “philosophize with a hammer” and attempt to undo/ redo the power of ancients to shape the present. Or – in moments of wonder and lamentation – do I ask them to aid me, save me, tell me?
I try not to neglect (tempting as it is…and easier to tell myself I am…wise), the sage coming into the real world of “retail” ideas, or of youth developing in their quests for meaning in life, without which the sage-ideas of old sell so well to those who would have control more than wisdom.
Life: how to expand oneself, to make a contract with one’s longest life, to be able to tell oneself-myself I have lived “a pretty good life?” And to continue to explore, expand, and attempt to understand ever more and deeply where we are, and where there is to go in this so-changing world.
How do I see the progress of the FOW, as a society or organization, in relation to my perspective on wisdom?
The grand idea is that of Nick’s whose critique is that the already large idea and actuality of knowledge can and must expand toward a wider and deeper notion: wisdom. By opening up an arena in which there is an actual and developing conceptual realm(s) beyond knowledge, he has declared – exhorted, inspired me and others – to explore ourselves, our thinking, with renewed openness.
FOW has appealed to thinkers over much of the world, whose thoughts and education have developed within differing traditions. It has confirmed, for me, I/we can travel within and without the thoughts of all the world’s wisdom seekers. It has provided, for me, at the least, the sense that we can join the world’s wisdoms in a time of everyone coming to the party together: life, hope, peace!