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What Is Wisdom? -- With a Second Thought on Sotomayor

The magazine In Character, published by the John Templeton Foundation, kindly asked me to participate in its fall symposium on wisdom. You can read the entire symposium on the magazine's Web site. But many thanks to In Character editor Charlotte Hays for permission to share my contribution here.

Beware invocations of wisdom. They are dangerous, because wisdom is a trump card. Wisdom certainly trumps cleverness, but it is also used to fight off empirical analysis, logical reasoning, and historical excavation. To be wise is to know more than the scientists have learned through their elaborate methods, more than the philosophers have discovered through critical thinking.

This is not wisdom’s fault. Its power comes from an intuition: that all the knowledge in the world does not necessarily add up to anything like a complete understanding of how to live (or how to die), how to make critical decisions, or how to behave toward others. All of us know highly intelligent and learned people whom we do not consider wise. We also know people whom we rightly regard as wise who are neither well educated nor widely read.

We believe instinctively that wisdom involves something above intelligence, knowledge, and rhetorical skill, but we do not agree on what it is. To my mind, the two best guides to wisdom come from Saint Paul and from one of the twentieth century’s greatest fictional detectives, Nero Wolfe.

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal,” Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians. For Paul, wisdom comes from an orientation toward life rooted in love. I am prepared to argue for that view — but not in this limited space.

Wolfe, the imposing detective invented by the writer Rex Stout, offers more down-to-earth guidance in the form of advice to his assistant and man-about-town Archie Goodwin. After receiving orders from his boss, Goodwin asks for more detailed instructions on how to proceed. “Use your intelligence,” Wolfe tells him, “as guided by experience.”

Here we get at a critical element of wisdom: Intelligence is not enough. To move from intelligence to wisdom requires us to temper our smarts and book-learning with what life itself teaches. It is precisely this element of experience that leads us to consider older people wise; we rarely see that word applied to the young.

But once again, there is a need for caution. If we frequently say that older people are wise, we also often hear the assertion that they are “stuck in their ways.” Much that passes for “wisdom” is actually “conventional wisdom,” which John Kenneth Galbraith defined as the “ruling ideas of the time.” Prejudice can sometimes be disguised as wisdom, as in, “they have always been like that.” Or, “Don’t try that new thing, it will never work, I tried something like that years ago.” Or, less grandly, “there hasn’t been any good music since.... ” — and you can fill in the date.

The challenges to thinking straight about wisdom are thus quite similar to the difficulties in thinking clearly about tradition. Traditions do indeed reflect accumulated wisdom, but they can also embody long-standing prejudices. Tradition has been invoked in defense of compassion, and also in defense of slavery. It has been used to support liberty, and also to support the subjugation of women.

Thus a paradox: it is not wise to invoke either wisdom or tradition as the sole defense of a proposition or a way of acting. The truly wise understand the limits of wisdom.

Wisdom is far more controversial than we usually allow. Consider the flap over Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s invocation of the phrase “wise Latina woman.” Her comment was often ripped out of its context, so it is worth quoting her at length:

Justice O’Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases. I am not so sure Justice O’Connor is the author of that line since Professor Resnik attributes that line to Supreme Court Justice Coyle. I am also not so sure that I agree with the statement. First, as Professor Martha Minnow has noted, there can never be a universal definition of wise. Second, I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.

There was far more in what Sotomayor said than her critics allowed. There is, first, the classic association (by O’Connor, or Coyle, or both) of wisdom with “old” men and women. There was, as well, Sotomayor’s citation of Martha Minnow, now the dean of Harvard Law School, on the contested nature of our definition of what is wise. Some used this to claim that Sotomayor was a kind of relativist, yet Minnow is certainly right — as this entire issue of In Character attests — that wisdom is the subject of a wide range of understandings.

And on the central point that received so much attention, she built her case on the classic Nero Wolfe definition: that wisdom is intelligence guided by experience. She was arguing that viewing society from the bottom up (as a “wise Latina”) might offer her a useful perspective, a way of understanding that those who gaze upon society from the top down might lack. This is, I believe, an entirely defensible view, but it also shows how vexed our relationship is with wisdom. To the extent that it is based, in significant part, on the interaction between intelligence and experience, we will inevitably argue over whose experience is most conducive to being, or becoming, wise.

To avoid confirmation problems, Sotomayor backed away from this argument entirely and apologized for what she said. Her decision reflected, if I may use the word, wisdom on her part. She was wise to understand our uneasiness with the core question of what wisdom really is, and where it comes from.

By E.J. Dionne  | October 10, 2009; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Dionne  | Tags:  E.J. Dionne  
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Nice rendering of a complex subject.

Also note that Sotomayor's view has already been justified in the Court arguments in the VFW cross case. Scalia (who I usually repect for his clear headedness, even if not always his politics) made the outrageous claim that the cross was a 'universal' symbol of death, not just Christain death. Me-thinks Antonin needs to get out a little more.

Posted by: pearba | October 10, 2009 12:04 PM | Report abuse

"Bottom up"?

Is that how Yale and Princeton grads see the world? You know, that is a weird conclusion: she is a latina therefore she is from the bottom. What do they call that kind of logic?

Posted by: scott3 | October 11, 2009 12:28 AM | Report abuse

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