Wisdom

Can wisdom be taught? A growing field of “wisdom studies” in psychology suggests that it can. I was reminded of Anthony Kronman’s The Lost Lawyer when reading some of these findings:

Certain qualities associated with wisdom recur in the academic literature: a clear-eyed view of human nature and the human predicament; emotional resiliency and the ability to cope in the face of adversity; an openness to other possibilities; forgiveness; humility; and a knack for learning from lifetime experiences. And yet as psychologists have noted, there is a yin-yang to the idea that makes it difficult to pin down. Wisdom is founded upon knowledge, but part of the physics of wisdom is shaped by uncertainty. Action is important, but so is judicious inaction. Emotion is central to wisdom, yet detachment is essential.

Kronman similarly emphasizes a balance between “sympathy and detachment” in the ideal lawyer.

A recent essay by Michael Ignatieff on his mistakes as an academic reminded me of the importance (and elusiveness) of wisdom.


Ignatieff suggests that the “unfolding catastrophe in Iraq has condemned the political judgment of . . . many [commentators] . . ., myself included, who . . . supported the invasion.” As Philip Tetlock argued in his scathing indictment of “expert political judgment,” self-styled authorities can be astonishingly myopic. Ignatieff claims that this is because they lack a “sense of reality:”

As a former denizen of Harvard, I’ve had to learn that a sense of reality doesn’t always flourish in elite institutions. It is the street virtue par excellence. Bus drivers can display a shrewder grasp of what’s what than Nobel Prize winners. The only way any of us can improve our grasp of reality is to confront the world every day and learn, mostly from our mistakes, what works and what doesn’t. Yet even lengthy experience can fail us in life and in politics. Experience can imprison decision-makers in worn-out solutions while blinding them to the untried remedy that does the trick.

More controversially, Ignatieff suggests that personal adversity may be the key to good judgment:

Good judgment in politics, it turns out, depends on being a critical judge of yourself. It was not merely that the president did not take the care to understand Iraq. He also did not take the care to understand himself. The sense of reality that might have saved him from catastrophe would have taken the form of some warning bell sounding inside, alerting him that he did not know what he was doing. But then, it is doubtful that warning bells had ever sounded in him before. He had led a charmed life, and in charmed lives warning bells do not sound.

I would not engage in armchair psychologizing of a president or any other political figure. It’s just too easy to project one’s own thoughts onto one’s subject–as Simon Apter notes in this critique of Maureen Dowd:

Dowd has made psycho-history her defining device. When it works, she’s humorous and entertaining. When it doesn’t, she’s amateurish and patronizing. . . . [Dowd] has neither the access to her subject’s innermost thoughts nor the credentials to analyze them.

Nevertheless, Ignatieff’s points do make me think that, sheerly as a matter of democratic representation, it would be good to see more people with direct experience of disadvantage at the highest levels of our government.

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