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Book: The House We Live In

Chapter: On Wisdom

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.44124


In addition to the moral virtues, Aristotle, the Buddha, and Confucius stressed the role of wisdom in human flourishing. Wisdom has three aspects. First, wisdom is a cultures’ fund of advice about how to live. Every culture has its unique treasure house of ethical resources passed down through the generations in its religious and philosophical texts, poetry, literature, myths, legends, folk tales, fables, and adages. Second, wisdom is a faculty of mind—a set of intellectual abilities that enable one to make good ethical judgments. Aristotle thought phronesis, or practical wisdom, was the intellectual virtue that made all the moral virtues possible—the ability to “hit the mark” and discern the appropriate thing to do in any situation. Practical wisdom is a “knowing how to” rather than a “knowing that.” The chapter explores nine dimensions of practical wisdom: 1) self-and social-awareness, 2) practical relationship know-how, 3) rules of inquiry and inference, and the abilities to 4) weigh multiple factors simultaneously, 5) think abstractly, 6) see things from other perspectives, 6) attend to the wisdom of the body, 7) observe one’s own mental processes, and 8) maintain an attitude of open inquiry. All of these contribute to the ability to make proper ethical judgments. Beyond phronesis or practical wisdom, there is also what Aristotle called sophia, or philosophical wisdom. Even when the great philosophers disagree, studying their contributions widens our perspectives, deepens our sense of awe and mystery about life, and makes us humble about what we think we know. They help us to cultivate a “philosophical attitude” which allows us to step back from our immediate experience, investigate it with curiosity, and bear untoward events with equanimity.

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