Practical Wisdom: A short precis


Wisdom is both perceiving and understanding reality in effective ways, and then acting both benevolently and beneficently, to both will and manifest the Good. Confident in itself, it can afford to be generous. The latest brain science says paradoxically that wisdom draws more from integrating what we know, especially our know-how, or our prescriptive knowledge, as we age, even though many of our mental abilities and descriptive knowledge seem to be declining as we age! Prescriptive knowledge is more about solving problems, how things ought to be, and our best course of action, and less about how things are, independent of us as observers of the world.

Wisdom is at the high end of a range that extends through conventionality at the middle, to folly at the bottom. It is not an abstract logical category formed by a bright line of distinction. Rather, wisdom refers to degrees of difference that separate wise thought and action from the merely conventional, just as there are degrees of difference that separate conventional thought and action from what is foolish. Just as we perceive red, yellow, green and blue as qualitative differences along the spectrum of visible light, differing by degrees measured in Angstroms, we also can perceive qualitative differences among those three categories along a spectrum of degrees of excellence in capabilities and performance, in consciousness, thought and action. The wise do it well, the middle mass of people muddle along, fools do it badly. I’m creating a values measure of this range of excellence, and we can see a bell-shaped curve similar to IQ for the whole population, or even a bell-shaped curve among group cultures. It looks like this:

Practical wisdom (phronesis) perceives and understands practical realities, especially social, business and political ones, and acts skillfully from that. Starting with the ancient Greeks, practical wisdom has been considered to be an excellent level of consciousness, thought and action. Practical wisdom is not about mere routinely skillful, well-trained behavior, but complex, intentional action. Wise action is goal-forming, goal-oriented, and purpose-guided. It’s all about context: what surrounds the problem in front of us. Wise action is based on an expansion of the surrounding context of individual and group viewpoints beyond the routine confines of everyday conventional behaviors. We see longer time horizons, more aspects of the situation, more different ways of knowing, and take more viewpoints into account. That means we notice the dangers and failure points, and we know how to avoid them. And we notice the opportunities and what’s valuable about them, and we know how to move toward them.

In order to consciously engage in skillful practical action, practical wisdom’s uniqueness is that it requires us first to consciously take a larger, wider, deeper, more socially informed perspective, with a longer time horizon, and multiple perspectives, in both perception and cognition. Interestingly, it is both context-dependent and so general as to be universal, such that we need to both perceive and understand local truths, fully and without bias, but also go beyond them, deeper, longer in time, etc. This theory says that practical wisdom works because it is the expansion of any particular local context in a very large variety of ways, the sum of which is conscious action that is not only wiser, but a more intelligent and creative departure from everyday routines, and conventional consciousness and actions.

By contrast, conventional everyday social life shows us a huge amount of evidence that perspectives more narrow, biased and ignorant than conventionality produce folly, just as relying only on short term perspectives does, and it is generally recognized that shallow perspectives are almost synonymous with folly. So to conventionality, folly is condemned and wisdom is valued

We’re not going to talk about Spiritual wisdom (Sophia). It perceives and understands spiritual realities, to act deeply from that, especially for personal and spiritual development. However, most claims to Sophia wisdom are special pleading for particular religions. So, I’m not going to try to sort out millennia of claims, counter-claims, theologies, ideologies, and idiocies. I’ll just concentrate here on practical wisdom.

Good Judgment: Practical wisdom theory adds the qualification that good judgment is required for us to take each wise step. Yet this judgment is not theoretical, but often uses both intuitive and pre-conscious processes, called tacit knowing. That means it is often nonverbal and directly perceived. It’s especially about recognizing what is there to be perceived in the complex pattern before us, and then it is often able to match complex actions to that pattern, and call up summary judgments about what may make matters either go well or badly. It’s called ‘tacit’ because if you ask somebody how they knew that, the answer is very often, “I just knew.” The matching of perception, patterns and actions happens outside the view of conscious thought.

Organizations and professions both cultivate highly specialized technical cultures of their kind of good judgment, often in groups, to make sense of professional work routines. Practical wisdom expands the range of patterns that they recognize, and has a large and ever growing set of socially, politically and technically skillful interventions to intelligently deal with what is recognized. As Aristotle pointed out, good judgment, which is about ‘knowing how’ more than ‘knowing that,’ is not at all reducible to logical rules or factual knowledge, and countless observers ever since have repeatedly verified that it is integrative, whole brain judgment drawing from well-digested experience, not abstract or specialist knowledge.

Modern academics who use the logics of the 18th century Enlightenment paradigm often can’t get past this, because they manipulate factual knowledge with logic, so they look the other way, ignoring practical wisdom as a problem too difficult (for them) to deal with, and this is a major reason they have neglected it in the twentieth century.

[* Leslie Paul Thiele, The Heart of Judgment: Practical Wisdom, Neuroscience and Narrative, Cambridge University Press, 2006]

Smart Rules of Thumb, Strategies and Procedural Knowledge are central to practical wisdom. This is ‘knowing how’ more than ‘knowing that’ and it is often a kind of tacit knowing, which even when it is wise, is often below conscious control. Developing a sophisticated understanding of heuristic problem solving in cognitive science is one of the crucial new developments of scientific and technological versions of practical wisdom, especially as practiced in the case studies of most professions.

Pattern recognition: ‘Pattern recognition’ is a theory and a technology from cognitive science that we moderns can add to the Greek discussion of wisdom, for it points to the immense value of having systematic training in perception of the relevant features of situations. It includes poking, prodding and asking sequences of questions in order to make a mental model of what’s going on, some of which is seen, some is sensed by other means including instruments, and some of it is unseen, but inferred.

The paradigm case is physicians being trained to diagnose illnesses. Here as in many pattern recognition issues, the point is to recognize what type of problem you face, and represent that problem in such a way that it is soluble, by matching the pattern to a type of action. By having large diagnostic manuals with diagnostic categories, physicians rapidly move from a structured description to a structured treatment approach. Specialist physicians have emerged who make extra discriminations, or who know all the exceptions to the basic patterns that are detected, and what to do if the treament doesn’t work. Difficult illnesses are those which don’t fit the diagnostic categories, or for which medicine has yet to come up with treatments.

Aristotle claimed that practical wisdom cannot be taught, and if we look at classes in academic subjects designed to pass on generic knowledge, that seems reasonable. But the modern professional world does better than that. An immense amount of time is spent on applied case studies in business and professional schools to pass on each profession’s particular pattern recognition and diagnostic skills as used for particular cases. The point is that the cases belong to recognizable types that require typical actions, and cases are to develop grad students’ judgments to be able to match the profession’s preferred techniques to those patterns. This differs from medieval apprenticing in that many parts of the pattern-to-be-recognized and the action-to-be-taken are based on scientific research (even if many other parts are still just based in the practitioners 'art').

Then the student gets a chance to start practicing in the field under the watchful eye of a more expert practitioner. It’s a jumped-up apprenticing process that requires hours and hours of detailed work practice that catches all the myriad exceptions, and elaborates the pattern at a much finer grain. Then it is matched to the details of working technique with all the hassles built in. The medical student’s residency is the most formalized, but every profession has its own version of this.

Think of law, medicine, engineering, architecture, business schools, and laboratory sciences. Each has a body of actual practice that is in many ways more sophisticated than its own theories, but the skill is not primarily intellectual. Top practitioners in each field have their own ‘art’ which is a combination of perception and hands-on technique, still learned from master to apprentice, and the cultures of a few leading institutions are seriously more sophisticated and often more successful than all the rest. The lawyer trained at Harvard, and then the top law firms, learns how to change and manipulate unfavorable laws, while the one from a state college learns only to obey. Lab scientists know that most fundamental discoveries come from just half a dozen labs in each field, because the craft of what is passed on in those labs is not the same as the science itself. Their unfolding culture of best practice and best inventions outpaces other labs.

Architects, engineers and financiers must steep themselves in the doing of their craft operations for a number of years after college before they ‘see into’ the typical patterns of what the practicing professionals really recognize and act upon. We call it ‘getting experience.’ This is worth looking into in our study of practical wisdom here, for it is very clear that practical wisdom also recognizes patterns and matches them to successful action, albeit a much wider range of both. It focuses less on success, however, than on preventing harm and doing good. By contrast, folly distinguishes itself by failing at both. It’s careless of harm and ignores the good.

What’s the difference between very expert, but conventional, professional practice and practical wisdom? It’s found in the breadth and depth of what practical wisdom can address about life issues. Outside of their specialized professional practice, many geeky professionals are capable of incredible cluelessness and folly in everyday life, for which their professional expertise has not prepared them. In fact, their intensive training may have narrowed their abilities to deal with life. Our culture’s stereotype of geeky folly is usually young scientists, engineers, computer programmers, and technicians, and there’s some truth in it.

However, the critical issue for many generalist professionals is that they need to get some life experience and broaden their minds. Then they are often ones who see parallels between the pattern recognition skills of their profession and ways of dealing with other life problems. That pattern recognition, heuristic problem solving, and strategizing really can be generalized, if they are led to broaden their personalities beyond sensing and thinking, to feel, and intuit more deeply. They simply need to learn a bigger variety of experiential patterns in other areas of life to take their training to a much wider context. By systematically broadening their exposure to life and then inquiring into and integrating their experiences, then some can use that to acquire practical wisdom. And by midlife, many do. The geek who stays narrow rarely does.

In order to successfully engage in wise action, our pattern recognition must often see, and feel, more deeply into aspects of that perceived pattern to intuit causal factors, and processes that are not visible. Then we must look more widely, and with a longer time horizon. Our first gestalt impression of a whole situation is necessarily limited because of our limited information input capability. Every human being and every group has definite limits on the speed and amounts of information they can get and process. We usually need to select and focus in on some of the most relevant details, in what Etzioni* calls ‘mixed scanning’: If we’re skilled observers we first scan the wider situation to see what is available to be seen, then we drill deeper to explore the most relevant, interesting, or important aspects, then come back up and do it a few times more to elaborate what we found earlier. Alternating wide and narrow views, we avoid tunnel vision: a narrow focus on local or immediate concerns.

Mixed scanning was first seen in research on policy analysts dealing with complex, ambiguous problems. But today this process turns out to be how skilled users of the Internet do searches on a topic. You may have done it yourself. It is consistent with the idea that practical wisdom expands the context of action by taking more aspects into account, so over time it can raise the level of other people's everyday conventional behaviors. And this is one way that the wise help cultures evolve.

[*Amitai Etzioni, “Mixed-Scanning: A ‘Third’ Approach to Decision-Making” Public Administration Review, vol. 27, No. 5 (Dec. 1967) pp. 385-392, and “Mixed Scanning Revisited” Public Administration Review, (Jan.-Feb., 1986) pp. 8-14.]

Good judgment starts this way, preconsciously selecting which details are probably worth focusing on. It brings past learning and experience into the process: ‘If this pattern is X, then these Y details will be important.’ This comes both from lived experience and from the study of history or other subject matter that have together led to bringing some information diagnostics to the process. Emotive aspects will color that memory: We remember emotionally intense experiences better than dull ones, but if they're too intense we distort them. This largely preconscious processing can serve concerns ranging from intensely practical to intensely theoretical. It is usually preparing to do something next: from getting more information, to coordination with other actors in the situation, to taking action, all in support of our intentions and goals. I’ll elaborate this below.

Mental Simulation: Once a pattern has been recognized, it needs to be matched to some possible actions that are most likely to be appropriate to that type of situation. If there is one best action that is obviously appropriate, we simply go ahead with it. That’s likely to be a matter of routine skill, not a matter calling for practical wisdom. However, the situation may have some critical differences from a typical pattern, so we may need to create a more innovative response.

What mental simulation does is let us rehearse in our minds, step by step, a process that might be followed to close the gap between where we are and where we want to be. Talking it over with colleagues to collectively visualize what may be done, and catch likely problems, is often the best way to do this, as in business, military and political strategizing. But sometimes time pressures prevent that. We have to imagine the situation as it is, the actions we might take, the results that those actions would produce, and how things would look at the end of the process. When we have some expertise at such imagining, we notice things that might not work in this particular situation, and have to see what could correct that, or be willing to go on to think up another set of things to do, or new strategies and tactics. This all draws on expertise.

It is commonly noted that foolish actors often don’t do mental simulations at all, or else don’t notice where things can go wrong. That’s the kind of cluelessness that produces folly. But folly is also produced by greater complexity than untrained people can handle, either alone or in groups, and it may be complicated by self-interest. As muckraker Upton Sinclair put it about the corrupt dealings of big corporations and political machines in his day, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Table 1. Recognizing Practical Wisdom, Conventionality and Folly—an Overview

What Practical Wisdom Does

What Conventional Habit Does

What Folly Does

I. Cognition and Perception



1. We take the big picture stance: long term, larger view, whole system, whole process, strategic foresight and prudence about future dangers

1. We notice present dangers, but fail to see: the big picture, long view, systemic whole picture, whole process (weak strategic foresight)

1. We use the small picture, short-term, specialized or provincial view. Ignore many dangers: high risk approach to some area of life

2. Use many ways of knowing: objective, factual, analytical, plus body, heart, spiritual and sensory, and for the larger whole. Many kinds of input mean better view of reality

2. Restricted ways of knowing, use only the ways approved or in style at the time. Weak on learning and breadth, but not as narrow, ideological or incompetent as folly

2. Only 1 or 2 partial ways of knowing, very habitual ways, narrow, ignorant, ungrounded in reality or superstitious, ideological, incompetent at learning or breadth

3. Good at cutting through to the heart of the matter: Good at deep insight into persons, situations, processes and causes

3. Routine, mediocre and flabby at insight or understanding of deeper matters, but more realistic than the delusions of folly

3. Poor insight, deluded understanding, from defective thought, superficiality, or ideology; unrealistic and failure-prone

4. Perceptive, subtle observers: inclusive, open-minded and nuanced in paying attention to what others ignore: good judgment about it

4. Lack subtlety in perception, judgment or discrimination about what to pay attention to, bluntly imitate others’ behaviors on it

4. Closed-minded on what needs attention. Not perceptive or subtle. Ignore, exclude, suppress what doesn’t fit a preset picture.

5. Aware of limits and uncertainty of their own knowledge or particular perspectives, especially specialized ones. Open to others’ perspectives, not dogmatic. See possible errors

5. Lean strongly to tried & true. Don’t grasp limits to knowledge and perspectives. Too much respect for specialist views, and will stay with authorities’ errors too long.

5. Excessive certainty about what’s known, cling to dogmatic, narrow, ideologies, biases, blind spots, fundamentalisms—reject any evidence contrary to beliefs

II. Moral-Psychological-Spiritual



6. Committed to a love of Truth, integrity & transparency: authentic and trustworthy. Place limits on self-concern, power, gain.

6. Often lazy or sloppy about Truth, integrity or authenticity, distorts truth for friends but scorns the lies and zealotry of folly

6. Often inauthentic, fake, misleading, conceal key information rather than tell the truth, zealotry, lacking personal integrity

7. Judgments are appropriate, discriminating, fair, just, moral, equitable, inclusive and humane, to serve larger purposes

7. Mediocre judgment, mostly fair. Accept routine inequities and privileges in own group. Intentions are more humane than folly’s

7. Make unfair, exclusionary, immoral, inhumane judgments serving hierarchy and privilege. Distort reasoning for ideology

8. Use a large, varied repertoire of values, benefiting more people in more ways, across more life situations, more inclusively

8. Fewer, less varied values, not as altruistic and inclusive as wisdom’s but not as few, narrow or damaging as folly’s

8. Values are narrow, restrictive and self-concerned, their use lacks discrimination, is blunt, rigid, ignorant, barbarous, damaging

9. Use several higher levels of consciousness in a growing spiral of insight and inner development of wise capacities and insights

9. Usually don’t understand higher matters, hampered by egoic conformity, but more willing to learn what’s higher than folly is

9. Immature, dogmatic, unable to correct folly, don’t believe you can develop spiritual skills or capabilities, often persecute those who do

10. Practice letting be, letting go, trusting the universe. Allow many kinds of new possibility, learning in an easy natural flow, open to possibilities

10. Often less trusting of the universe than wisdom, yet less neurotic than folly. Short-sighted, lacking creativity in face of change

10. Control-mad, dominate or fight, mistrust the universe, fear what may come. Having power means not having to learn

III. Social Intelligence



11. Lead in service to larger purposes, loyal to the Whole Planet, to Life and Future, beyond narrow national or tribal loyalties. Credible with people of goodwill

11. Can be roused to higher, larger purposes but often do not persist at them. Followers in high purpose, not leaders. Ethnocentric small loyalties, focus on recent past

11. Narrow, selfish, power-hungry zealotry, or narrow tribal-religious-nationalistic ideologies. Identity is defined as being against the Other. Not credible to people of goodwill

12. Act in socially responsible ways, balancing self-interest with needs of the Whole, as a wise elder, careful not not to do harm

12. Uneven social responsibility, harder for them to see beyond self-interest, to grasp and respond to the needs of the Whole

12. Often act in immature, egotistical, irresponsible, careless, selfish, greedy ways: damage others carelessly or for gain

13. Base social actions on a variety of social realities, cultural viewpoints in situations, and in their own lives, and use them strategically for positive change

13. Often inept, ignorant, insensitive about other cultures, or peoples, but is more humane, skillful or appropriate than folly, and not interested in positive change

13. Often clueless, ignorant or malicious about other cultures or peoples. Lack key concepts, reasoning, emotions and perceptions and often seeks to dominate others

14. Socially skilled, mature insight, know and like diverse cultures: reduce inter-group hostilities, build future possibilities

14. Tend to limited social skills, knowledge and maturity when it comes to diverse cultures and social classes: ignorant good will

14. Often clumsy and ignorant outside a restricted set of social situations. Lean to xenophobia, hatreds, stereotyping, conflict

15. Are often sages, who elicit leadership from whole group with wise group process; leadership grows flexibly out of the group.

15. Long for wise, responsive leaders who will think for them about change. Only rarely will they think for themselves about it

15. A culture of belief that there’s only one wise hero leader, and He can do it all. Authoritarianism results, with disaster-proneness

IV. Mature Development



16. Self-aware, mature, prudent, skillful & well-informed about facts and large concepts of situations. Able to both win and be right

16. Mediocre maturity, prudence, awareness, Habitual and imitative thought: informed on facts, not large concepts. Can only win or be right

16. Ignorant, immature, habitual, rigid, not self-aware, risk prone, reject learning, can’t see opportunity or dangers. It’s about profits, winning

17. Planetary orientation and identity: Work for good of the whole planet: prudence in dealing with newer crises of ecology, global warming, nuclear weapons

17. Nationalistic, ethnocentric, compliant to corporations and power centers. Ignorant of planetary issues, but open to larger identity. Avoid thinking about crises and dangers

17. Prone to jingoistic super-patriotism and/or religious zealotry. Would trigger wars, actively create dangers to the planet. Greedy and ambitious for self and family.

18. Develop Wisdom Crossings = practical wisdom for groups, dealing with blind spots

This supports rows 1, 2, 3, 16, 17

18. May respond to Wisdom Crossings, but not initiate. Tend to accept blind spots, own and group’s, as normal. Follower stance

18. Actively resist Wisdom Crossings. Often seek regression, harm to self/others. Develop, magnify, and protect blind spots.

19. Benevolence: Acts to reduce conflicts, for equitable outcomes from higher, wider view; reduce blind spots; beyond conformity to authorities and power centers

19. Loyal, obedient to authorities’ views. Justify conflicts. Value conformity to own oppositional side in conflicts, and cannot rise above views of conflicts, or blind spots.

19. Malevolence: Worsen & polarize conflicts and hatreds, power-hungry factions, chauvinism, militarism, and wars. Worsen risks/damage from hatreds/blind spots.

20. Cultural Creativity: Develop wise culture instead of conflict-&- greed-oriented past of militarism & high finance. Harmony-oriented equanimity about future changes

20. Cultural followership and conformity: Defensive responses to dangers and changes that risk losses; susceptible to crazes and crusades; thrown off center by crises

20. Cultural degradation and destabilization: Irritable centers of crazes, they fall into every collective trap of climate crisis, ecology crisis and war, worsening it with hate