I’m Jason Merchey, the founder, philosophical thinker, and independent scholar behind Values of the Wise, which is now in its 13th year. I have been called an expert on wisdom, and in this blog, I will share what I think that means – the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Being an expert on wisdom is a unique skill set! It means to me that I have some understanding of the complexities of the subject, first of all. One can easily find lots of information on wisdom, and yet, in the end, have only a glancing comprehension of it. It is, by nature, elusive. I have been interested in the topic for two decades, now. It never ceases to intrigue, fulfill, challenge, and edify me – and I suspect many others as well.
However, I want to hasten to point out how difficult it is to be an expert on wisdom per se. What skills do I have that could get me near that rarefied status? One would be that I can see the nuanced, “grey area” fairly easy. When one searches as long and as hard as I have to find quotes on wisdom, quotations about wisdom, proverbs, poetry, even song lyrics, one sees that often there is a dialectical, subtle, and multifaceted nature to this beast.
Another skill I have in sufficient measure is that I study diverse subjects, such as philosophy, politics, psychology, sociology, hermeneutics, literature, economics, and personal growth. I’m open to new ideas and reframing or reforming my pet theories and comfortable habits of thought. In fact, I am studying libertarianism as part of a class I am taking at Harvard University toward the Graduate Certificate in Philosophy and Ethics, and that is not my usual forte. I am required to adopt the tenets of the beliefs and theories of Milton Friedman, F. A. Hayek, Robert Nozick, and others enough to convince the professor I know the point of view well. That is good discipline for grasping wisdom because sometimes the beliefs one has are merely reinforced by things like confirmation bias and other mechanisms that prevent seeing the truth for what it is. I am proud to note that I was inducted into the honor society Phi Beta Kappa for liberal scholarship – meaning, studying widely instead of in one very focused area. I really value liberal education, and it tends to open up the mind and make wisdom more likely to be visible.
Perhaps the best marker of a person who is an expert on wisdom is that I demur when I think of the description. I ask myself if I really am an expert on wisdom. I think a good writer, as someone once said, is marked by a fear that they are going to be found out and exposed as a fraud. It’s a type of insecurity that is common to many artists – at least those who have retained some humility and avoided the trap of narcissism. I, too, wonder if I am really an expert on wisdom, or just a pretender. I know I have been at it a while, and that I have sufficient intelligence, but I think the nature of the subject makes me hesitate. You don’t want your defense attorney questioning their legitimacy as an expert, but when it comes to the challenging concept of wisdom, I think that is probably the one thing you should find.
I have come across a few people who also fit the bill, but one is dead and gone – the inimitable Copthorne Macdonald, of www.wisdompage.com. I also appreciate that he has a big long page dedicated to wise values, as that is my particular orientation as well. Certainly, psychologist Paul Baltes was a heavy-hitter, and his site is here. Credit is also due to Ursula Staudinger, of Columbia University. I don’t think Daniel Robinson would consider himself an expert on wisdom, but that is part of his charm if you ask me (he is also quite retired and doesn’t do interviews any longer). Nicholas Ribush is certainly sage, and I would point out his expertise is of a thin specialty: Tibetan wisdom. Wes Nisker is in the same vein: competent and specialized. Another individual who wrote a doctoral thesis on the subject seems to be AWOL, and his name is Richard Trowbridge. His dissertation is entitled Wisdom As Skill: Forming and Living by a Wisdom Perspective. I suppose he wouldn’t then mind if I gave a copy out, so here you are: TheScientificApproachtoWisdom
You may be interested in a summary of his findings. He goes over theoretical basis, the development of skill, the skill model of wisdom, learning theory and development of wisdom, and fundamentals: 1. openness 2. centeredness 3. self-knowledge 4. reflection 5. holism 6. humility 7. empathy 8. reason. He also has exercises for practicing the fundamentals and an assessment for a wisdom response. Here are two quotations by Dr. Trowbridge: “Wisdom is used to refer to a profound understanding of existence, and to excellence in human affairs. Often it is used in a general sense to refer to good counsel.” He also notes that “Being centered includes self-knowledge, authenticity, self-investigation, serenity, humor, and perspective. It includes maintaining focus, and having accurate and profound insight into significance and meaning.”
In sum, I am somewhat comfortable being considered an expert on wisdom. I think there are many philosophers out there who qualify as excellent exponents of this most interesting subject, and psychologists study the subject as well. I am more than willing to admit what I do not know, and that is a key skill for someone who is a philos sophos: a lover of wisdom.
Here are three podcasts I recorded with other experts on wisdom: Get a Life!, An Exploration of Wisdom, and Wisdom: We Need a Revolution. As always, I welcome the reader to visit the awesome Wisdom Archive and see how many of the 26,000 quotations about values and ethics in the collection are about wisdom. Quite a few quotations can be found by yours truly therein. It is a searchable quotations database par excellence. I also have three books that are in part or in whole, about wisdom.