Wisdom: 2 Understandings

by Dennis Bradford

in intellectual well-being

Wisdom is not accidental.  If we are to become wise, we must begin by seeking it.

Etymologically, to seek it is to be a philosopher.  The word ‘philosopher’ means ‘lover of wisdom.’

Since seeking something is not the same as finding it, there are two kinds of philosophers:  those who are (still) seekers and those who are wise.  Let’s call those philosophers whose search has been successful “sages.”  To be a sage, then, is to be a successful philosopher.

My thesis is that there are two different conceptions of wisdom, two different conceptions of what it means to be a sage.  Perhaps a less abstract way to state this is to claim that there are two different conceptions of the purpose of philosophy.  Everyone agrees that the purpose of being a philosopher is to become wise.  What, though, does that mean?

One important understanding of the purpose of philosophy is that philosophers use the dialectical method of arguing back and forth about fundamental issues in order to develop a value-free, objective understanding of the nature of reality and how we apprehend it with the ultimate goal of using that understanding to better guide our decisions.  The wisdom of sages comes from their better view.

On this first understanding, the fundamental ideas are being (reality, existence), knowledge (understanding, evidence), and value.  Ontology (metaphysics) is the study of reality.  Epistemology is the study of knowledge.  Ontology and epistemology are the core of philosophy.  Why?

A claim that something is real is unjustified unless it can be explained how we are able to know that it is real.   A claim that something is knowable is unjustified unless it can be explained how it is real.  So ontology and epistemology are like two sides of a coin.

Axiology is the study of value.  Value judgments (valuations) are always made in a certain context, which is an apprehension of a real situation.  Axiological progress is achieving greater agreement about valuations, in other words, settling more of our disagreements. So axiological progress depends upon greater agreement about ontology and epistemology.

In short, in theory we are able to think (conceptualize) our way to wisdom.  It comes from obtaining the true view.  Sages are great thinkers.

There seem, however, to be insurmountable problems with this program.  First, there has been no clear indication in the last 2500 years that there is growing agreement about fundamental issues in ontology and epistemology.  It’s well-known that there is a multiplicity of views.  From this perspective, it’s not surprising that there’s also been a lack of axiological progress.  Second, even if there were a value-free, objective solution to fundamental issues in ontology and epistemology, how would any value judgments follow from them?  If there are no propositions about values in the premise set, how could any conclusion about values be validly derived from that premise set?

The other important understanding of the purpose of philosophy is that the dialectical method is fundamentally flawed because there is no value-free, objective understanding possible.  When we learned language and became literate, we necessarily learned a way of understanding the world that was both subjective and value-laden.  However rational they seem to us, the views or theories that we develop from our particular historical, social, and linguistic perspectives are never able to provide us with a value-free, objective understanding of the nature of reality.

If so, this immediately undercuts any attempt by philosophers of thinking their way to wisdom.  Wisdom is not itself a view or a theory.  If not, what is it?

On this second understanding it’s the absence of suffering.  (Distinguish physical pain, which is inevitable, from suffering, which may be optional.)  Some philosophers have suggested that it’s our attachment to views that is the problem.  The specific views are not the problem; instead, it’s our attachment to them that is the problem.  If so, detachment from views is the solution, the path to becoming a sage.

In short, wisdom comes from dropping attachment to all views.  There is no one true view.  Truth is pragmatic: if something works to diminish suffering, keep doing it; if it doesn’t, drop it and try something else.  Sages are free from suffering.

If so, being a sage requires a kind of incessant conceptual flexibility.  This, though, is just what is required.  Why?  Everything is impermanent; the world is in incessant flux.

Might human suffering be dramatically reduced if we all practiced greater detachment?   I personally am excited about the possibility that philosophers such as Nagarjuna and Candrakirti, who were followers of Gotama (The Buddha), may have uncovered the way to wisdom.

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