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The general consensus with regards to wisdom is that we can’t quite define it but we know it when we see it. Most people have a sense that they know what wisdom is, but for the construct to be studied scientifically, a much tighter definition is required. This was the first challenge facing researchers when wisdom was dragged into Psychology departments towards the end of the 20th century: ‘Just what exactly is wisdom?’

kitchener quote

This question unfortunately won’t be resolved in the next 500 words. A dilemma that has kept philosophers and theologians scratching their heads for over two thousand years is a thorny dilemma indeed. Nonetheless, since the 1980s, a number of helpful frameworks have been outlined by leaders in the field. The three principle wisdom frameworks are:

  1. The Berlin Wisdom Paradigm: developed by Paul Baltes and Ursula Staudinger in the 1980s at the Max Plank Institute for Human Development. The model roughly defines wisdom as ‘expertise in the fundamental pragmatics of life’.
  2. The Sternberg Balance Theory of Wisdom: developed by Robert Sternberg in the 1990s at Yale. The model stresses the importance of balancing interests and working towards the common good.
  3. The Three-dimensional Wisdom Scale: developed by Monika Ardelt in the late 90s at the University of Florida. The model suggests wisdom is the integration of reflective, cognitive and affective personality characteristics.

In 2009, two American doctors in San Diego set about trying to identify neural activity associated with wisdom. In order to do so, Dilip Jeste, a neurologist and Thomas Meeks, a psychiatrist, conducted a review of the wisdom research literature to date, hoping to find common characteristics shared amongst the various wisdom models. Having identified 10 major descriptions of wisdom (including those listed above), they pulled out any elements that were present in at least 3 of these definitions. This resulted in a shortlist of 6 persistent sub-components of wisdom. The components were as follows.


(1) Prosocial attitudes/behaviors: Working towards a common good

(2) Social decision making/pragmatic knowledge of life: Practical knowledge, judgement, life skills etc.

(3) Emotional homeostasis: Managing one’s emotions amidst challenging circumstances

(4) Reflection/self-understanding: Self-knowledge

(5) Value relativism/tolerance: Able to adopt multiple perspectives

(6) Acknowledgment of and dealing effectively with uncertainty/ambiguity:  Effectively navigating uncertainty and the limits of knowledge.

This list of course is not the final word on ‘defining wisdom’. It does however combine the key elements of the most successful definitions to have emerged from wisdom research over the last 30 years. It is a helpful place to start. Once researchers have a working definition of a construct, studies can be designed to determine what exactly contributes to the achievement of the agreed standard.

The wisdom research community has not yet reached a consensus on a hard definition of wisdom. Whilst doing so would of course be incredibly helpful for the development of the field, a lack of a precise description is not a deal-breaker for wisdom. Agreement on the definition of incredibly familiar constructs such as ‘intelligence’ or ‘creativity’ has still not been reached, yet research in these fields marches boldly forth. It would be helpful to be able to work from an agreed definition of wisdom, yet fruitful research continues in its absence.

Not forgetting about our Californian doctors, Jeste and Meeks then went on to examine the literature on the neurobiology of each of the 6 subcomponents of wisdom. These are very promising first steps in identifying the neural correlates of wisdom. To read their full paper, click here.

To learn more about the wisdom models discussed here, have a look at the papers below.

If you have any thoughts about the 6 sub-components of wisdom, please get in touch. You can contact me via email or follow me on Twitter or Facebook. Charles


    A K Awasthi said:
    July 23, 2015 at 3:42 am

    Prof A K Awasthi on Collective Wisdom at Paro (Bhutan)
    I When one considers wisdom as a factor in education, he should be ready to find answers to some questions which are important to understand or else the search is likely to go in the wrong direction
    Making a formal beginning Dr Awasthi delivered a concise view of collective wisdom. He concentrated on fourteen points or questions as follows:
    1. What is wisdom ?
    2. Who is wise?
    3. Is wisdom possible to be taught in factory-school?
    4. How to transform new educational goals into learning wisdom?
    5. Should there be a provision for wisdom in our education system?
    Education is a multi disciplinary, dynamic, complex, and challenging process . Education itself is collective wisdom and it is included in it.
    6. Is wisdom acquired or is it heavenly endowment?
    Wisdom is attained or inherited through various modes and means in a process of actual accumulation of energies resulting in a state of mind as dawned upon by nature itself.
    7. How can we adopt Gandhian Philosophy in this era of globalization and how can education contribute to this adjustment.
    Thought without action and action without thought are meaningless. Gandhian thought should be translated into programme of action related to globalization and education.
    8. How can wisdom become an instrument for change of given conditions?
    9. How can wisdom contribute to happiness level of the people?
    10. What is the rationale of wisdom in formal , informal and non formal connotations?
    Collective wisdom is general in nature hence it cannot be compartmentalized as formal, non formal and informal modes of education. However it would need operational adjustments and holistic attitude.
    11. Is wisdom Individual or Collective ?
    Individual and collective wisdom are complementary to each other.
    12. Is Wisdom general or subject specific?.
    It is general but it is applicable to specific situations.
    13. Is Collective wisdom a blessing in the context of globalization and education?
    Yes. It will help the teacher to create appropriate conditions conducive for globalization and education.
    14. What are the Factors leading to happiness conditions of the people?


    1. Collective wisdom is consciousness of natural reality and human experience. It provides solutions of misdirected approaches, cleanses maladies at the root, it fails none, harms none. Collective wisdom churns out of continuous dialogue. It’s informal. it is explicit in random ideas; it is proverbial as well as conceptual, inductive as well as deductive, but not regimental.
    2. It signifies consciousness- two dimensions: transitional (related to growth in an individual) and transconscious (based on experience of all in a social group)

    3. Ego dominates the mind; it is a free play for prejudices to rise, then knowledge fails but when ego is disciplined, it’s indication for wisdom to usher in. Where knowledge fails, wisdom illumines the path. Then it leads to building a condition, that strengthens positivity which everyone enjoys and it results in creating happiness for all. Such would be a blessed society.

    4. When ego is under control, prejudice disappears, it is time for knowledge. So long as prejudice rules wisdom is stifled. If the situation is reverse it is not the individual but social sense prevails, hence, wisdom prevails.

    5. The collective means pertaining to all, for all, by all and of all at once and without a grain of individual concern.

    6. Collective wisdom is not knowledge alone, or logic alone, or reason alone, or perception alone, nor is it art; it is an approach that deploys all these as tools at a time.

    7. Collective wisdom is not the property of any one individual; it is rather the experience of all but used as a single feat.

    8. Myths, stories, general view or public opinion, majority view do not contain CW but CW lies in the approach how to negate, frustrate, and completely dissolve successfully an absolutely wrong majority view being forced upon, because the majority in normal conditions becomes a crowd, which seldom sees reason and as Aristotle is of the opinion, majority consists of fools.

    9. Life is neither formal nor systematically organized, rather it’s informal, wayward and unpredictable so the educational process has to be capable of meeting all/ most challenges, which are unpredictable.

    10. Anything that has compatibility with the natural law, process and human experience which is always dominant in human being can lead to a desired result. Therefore No One Method is capable of developing whole personality because any one formal method does not include all aspects. All/ whole is needed for eco balance, existence and approach that includes both formal and informal ways, known as holistic – wholistic.

    11. Man has to remain conscious of his being part and parcel of nature. He pollutes air, water, earth, atmosphere (space) but not fire because he can’t, however, he has certainly discovered numerous varieties of fire to burn his world. But he can’t afford to ignore what this he has been doing from the start of modern age that moulded his culture and civilization all as inimical to nature. It may not be possible to stop total interference with natural state but there must be a boundary line, which he will not violate.


    12. For the ancient Indian teacher it was value that counted more than any material means. Indians were experts in scarcity management; today this art has been almost belied; (wisdom lies here) let’s not allow the indigenous to go extinct. However, today it means only material conditions (AC, computer, concrete building, etc); we can neither undo them nor work without them. Collective wisdom therefore lies in an approach that is collectively managed for the collective growth. We cannot apply one stereotyped test for all; different situations will call for a modification. Our approach has been based on stereotypes and formal structures which has produced physical as well as psychological resistance among learners.
    13. The learner be allowed to express aptitude: given a small platform for the instinctive appeal leads to curiosity
    14. Willingness rises after curiosity has dawned if given a large platform
    15. Given an open environment to experience and for interaction with others—it will lead to sociability so that they can be open to receive and believe in others.
    16. Openness is an attitude and habit; it may be part of motivation training but perhaps it is difficult to be taught.
    17. As such CW is difficult to be taught or internalized but certain activities can inspire learners to learn from them some ways they can. CW is not a discipline but only scattered content or occasional relevances. No one may pursue CW as a course and ‘gain’ collective wisdom. On the contrary one can only add to it . Thus, as it is not a body of content, then, how can anyone teach it?

    18. Further, we also need to understand the difference between knowledge and wisdom. While both are temporal experiences, knowledge is gross experience of all materiality, wisdom is the essence of all experience; it is most subtle and closest to truth. knowledge comes from within as well as from our contact with nature but knowledge is partial, hence limited to one domain. It is information and the state of knowing, whereas wisdom is becoming of such knowing.

    19. The crowd does not represent collective reason; it may be a collective brute force but it is minus reason. Collective wisdom rides on the horse of reason along some emotional affection but it harbours no sentiments, which at their height turn into frenzy and the driving force for the crowd.

    20. The collective means pertaining to all, for all, by all and of all at once and without a grain of individualistic concern. But collective wisdom is no grappling for the unkown. In fact, collective wisdom is having one’s own idealogy and giving space to other’s view point.

    21. For some ‘Collective wisdom” is a misnomer for statistical aggregation of observed actions of a group within limited time and space’ but it illustrates that such wisdom is neither a category, nor a discipline to be pursued; it’s a flying consciousness which rains on those who do not aim at ‘achievement’. It is an automotive process like that of Shiva- self-willed, self-creative, self-generative with no boundaries. In dialogue truly lies the grain of such wisdom that always promotes as well as strengthens creativity, a basic ingredient of wisdom.

    22. Collective wisdom is disseminated through stray ideas; the child has to be given an atmosphere where he learns how to think, distinguish between reason and logic, thought and imagination and ability to choose ideas, pursue ideas, which will lead to fulfillment of desires, success (but without allowing any passion for happiness) and happiness as the outcome. He may consider the example of India of old with little needs and the world of today with great needs. Collective wisdom will groom a child; prune the unessential in him as per the law of nature and social requirement.
    a. Conventional knowledge, folk traditions, proverbial sayings and literary insight/ reflections contain a lot of CW. It may be taught (if we must )‘a little’ through literature combined with rational approach and scientific temper by a teacher who himself understands wisdom.
    b. If we aim to create knowledge society or enlightened society, we have to emphasise and train students in becoming RESPONSIBLE and ETHICAL
    c. An autonomous Knowledge Commission is required to monitor social growth
    d. Teaching has to become an enjoyment for the teacher, a blissful experience for the student as well as teacher (not a profession infested with/ by greedy, callous, irresponsible, immoral sycophants).
    e. Most teaching should be agenda less for the student but the teacher must know what he has to impart to students throughout the year.

    –A. K. Awasthi, Former Professor of English & Chair, Director, Centre For Canadian Studies,
    Dr Hari Singh Gour Central University, Saugor (MP)-470003
    +07582 (-264334, (O) -264116); +919412834899, 09407286637
    Home: 25, Syndicate Bank Colony, Opp. Nirbhay Nagar, Near Asopa Hospital, Gailana Road, AGRA- 282007 U.P. INDIA


    […] understanding, common sense, compassion, and insight make up the foundation of what we define ‘wisdom’ as. This foundation will assist in understanding the 14 quotes by the Dalai […]


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