New York City and The Love of Wisdom with Stephen Grimm

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NYC & THE LOVE OF WISDOM (2)


Stephen Grimm is a Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University in New York. As well as publishing extensively on topics dealing with the nature of understanding, he is also running the NYC Wisdom Seminar in June 2017. Currently on a year-long sabbatical as a visiting professor at Clare Hall in Cambridge, he recently spoke with evidencebasedwisdom about the recent resurgence in wisdom research after many years of neglect. He also outlined his own thoughts on wisdom and discussed his hopes for the NYC Wisdom Seminar.


Stephen Grimm Profile Picture


How did you first become interested in the study of wisdom specifically?

I’m an epistemologist. In Philosophy, that’s someone who studies intellectual goods like knowledge and understanding and wisdom, but really most epistemologists for the last few hundred years have focused on just one of these goods, the good of knowledge.

I was fascinated by the question of why wisdom fell off the radar, why people weren’t thinking about it. I was wondering what else could be said about the nature of wisdom today, as opposed to just thinking about what Plato thought about wisdom or what Aristotle thought about wisdom.

So I’ve tried to do work on thinking about the epistemic profile of wisdom – what is it intellectually that wise people know, or what kind of intellectual achievement have they attained?

Do you have a definition of wisdom that you find most helpful?

I think that the wise person is someone that knows how to live well. If we distinguish people that we think are wise from those that we think are not wise, that’s roughly how we break it down.

The way that I would try to flesh out that idea of knowing how to live well can be measured along three dimensions – the wise person knows what’s important for well-being, especially what’s more or less important for well-being, the relative weights of certain goods. Not just your personal well-being but the well-being of the community or group, and maybe not just the well-being the community or group now, but going forward.

Second, someone who knows where he or she stands relative to what’s good or important for well-being.


The wise person knows what’s important for well-being, especially what’s more or less important for well-being, the relative weights of certain goods.


You mention in the paper Wisdom (Grimm, 2015) how the ancient Greek maxim of ‘Know Thyself‘ relates to this aspect of your definition…

Yes. And sometimes when you think about people who are wise, they might not know a lot but they are aware of their own boundaries and limitations and they don’t try to stray beyond their boundaries and limitations. There’s a kind of wisdom in that, and that’s a wisdom of self-awareness or self-knowledge, or knowing where you stand relative to these things you care about.

Then the third element that I think is important is knowledge of some effective strategies for getting from point A to point B. If you think ‘B’, here are the elements of well-being, this is where the goal is, and ‘A’, this is where you are now, you’re lacking certain goods, then I think the wise person has some higher order thoughts about how to go from point A to point B.

The Torah defines the wise person as ‘he who learns from all people’. That would be a strategy for acquiring strategies – a meta-strategy. So I would go and engage in conversations with other people. I would not assume that I had the answer to all these deep questions. I would accept that there were important things to be learned from people.

There’s a phrase I heard growing up, ‘A wise man learns from the mistakes of others.’ Perhaps that’s a British phrase! It sounds like it’s getting at the same point as the Torah definition. Do you think that wisdom can be learnt or can it only be acquired through direct experience? Or do you have a different sense of how wisdom might be developed?

Well, ‘learns’ implies success, so there has to uptake on the part of the listener. A classroom teacher could be talking a lot without the students taking up the information in the right way. To learn from a wise person who’s had these experiences, you need to take up the information in the right way.

Wisdom is a complex property because it suggests there’s some kind of wisdom just in this uptake ability, this processing ability. Two people can go through the same experience, the same trauma or adversity and one could learn from it and one might not. So you might think that wisdom is complex because it’s the processing ability, but you also have to have the right inputs to be processed.

So now I’m going beyond what I was saying in the paper! Sometimes we might speak of a person who’s wise beyond his or her years because they have this processing ability, they learn from experience, even some very meagre experience, they could learn the right lesson, learn what’s more or less important, to order things in the right way. Some people who’ve had lots and lots of experience might not have this processing ability so the inputs might be there but there aren’t the outputs.


Two people can go through the same experience, the same trauma or adversity and one could learn from it and one might not. So you might think that wisdom is complex because it’s the processing ability, but you also have to have the right inputs to be processed.


So the opportunity to learn that lesson is there, but you have taken the wrong lesson from it?

Yes, but I do think a deeply wise person in all their glory and complexity has that processing ability and ample experience, so that they can cite different things about their life, different experiences that give them insight, not only into that ‘these good are more important than these others’, but also ‘these are the best strategies for achieving them’ and that might only be learned through hard trial and error.

It seems that a life lesson is going to be more penetrating and more powerful if it happens to you directly, making it more personal.

That sounds right. When we talk about someone who’s been through a trauma, we talk as if know something important that we don’t know. The way I’d be tempted to cash that out is that they might have gone through something like the loss of a child, or sibling or spouse, and they have a measure of how devastating that is that someone who hasn’t gone through it lacks.

There might be elders in our community and we could talk to them and ask ‘What is that like?’ Then in our own mind, we weight it more appropriately – ‘That time losing my job was devastating or it wasn’t as devastating as I thought it would be.’ And we could then gauge which of these things are more weighty than others.

You have said in your work that scholarly interest in wisdom may have ebbed and flowed throughout history since it requires a belief that objective knowledge about how to live well actually exists. Also, you say wisdom only really applies in contexts of uncertainty. Do you think that the growing complexity of modern times, and hence growing uncertainty, is also a factor behind the growth of interest in wisdom from the research community in recent years? What do think might be behind this growing interest in wisdom?

There are a few different reasons. I’m not a psychologist but it seems to be the case that with the advent of positive psychology, they’re not just looking for states of decline, failure and deficiency but positive states. Especially if you’re trying to look for positive states into old age, wisdom would be one of the signature things that we think older people can have. That’s my sense of why it’s enjoying a resurgence in Psychology. I do think it’s related too, to exploding interest in well-bring studies and happiness studies.

In Philosophy, it’s puzzling that wisdom was neglected for so long since Philosophy is ‘the love of wisdom’. It started to get renewed attention in Epistemology in particular because it was this fascinating epistemic accomplishment that seemed to be highly valuable and epistemologists were thinking about the nature of epistemic value and what we care about from an epistemic point of view and here was this thing that was neglected and deserved to be talked about. So those are some different reasons from different fields.


In Philosophy, it’s puzzling that wisdom was neglected for so long since Philosophy is ‘the love of wisdom’. It started to get renewed attention in Epistemology in particular because it was this fascinating epistemic accomplishment that seemed to be highly valuable and epistemologists were thinking about the nature of epistemic value and what we care about from an epistemic point of view and here was this thing that was neglected and deserved to be talked about.


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Fordham University is hosting a conference in June 2017 called the NYC Wisdom Seminar, bringing together psychologists, philosophers and theologians to explore the connections between wisdom and adversity. Can you tell us a little about what you are hoping will come out of this seminar? What are the distinctions in what these two different disciplines contribute to our understanding of wisdom and what in particular is gained by bringing them together?

I’ve had several engagements with psychologists. Some are very fruitful and some are less fruitful. I do think that, as philosophers, we have a lot to learn about the elements that contribute to well-being, and psychologists have done fascinating work about which elements are particularly significant to well-being or to happiness. I think we’d be foolish not to learn from those studies and think carefully about them.

Psychologists I think benefit from engaging with philosophers because they have a concept that they’re usually trying to measure, or as they might put it, a construct that they’re trying to measure, whether it’s happiness or well-being or wisdom. Of course to measure it you first need to figure out what it is your measuring. That’s what philosophers are good at. We’re good at clarifying definitions, about making distinctions between nearby concepts and the target concept.

Sometimes that frustrates psychologists because philosophers will spend decades trying to fine tune a definition whereas psychologists just need to measure it and to operationalise it – ‘You can work on your fussy definition, and we’ll get on with it. We need to measure this thing!’


Psychologists I think benefit from engaging with philosophers because they have a concept that they’re usually trying to measure, or as they might put it, a construct that they’re trying to measure, whether it’s happiness or well-being or wisdom. Of course to measure it you first need to figure out what it is your measuring. That’s what philosophers are good at. We’re good at clarifying definitions, about making distinctions between nearby concepts and the target concept.


So the philosopher’s role is key in that first stage, being really clear about what it is that you’re talking about?

Yes. At the seminar there’s going to be a series of talks, and then on the last day, we’re going to pair off psychologists, philosophers and theologians and they’re going to try and come up with prospective studies for how wisdom might be measured or how you might measure the effect of adverse experiences on gains in wisdom.

So the goal is to have a theoretically-minded person and an empirically-minded person coming up with a study that will be of interest to both philosophers and psychologists – not just one study but a dozen studies, and maybe three of four of these will be really fruitful.

What would you encourage people in the wisdom research community to focus their efforts on over the next few years?

One thing I’ve done in my classes in Fordham, and other people are taking up, is we’ve set assignments where we’ve asked students to practice certain disciplines or exercises or habits of mind. For example, Stoic ideas such as not being concerned about things outside of your control, or Buddhist ideas of mindfulness. Fordham’s a Jesuit school so we talk about Jesuit reflections and forms of prayer and spirituality and how those might contribute to well-being.

Michel Ferrari at The University of Toronto, who you’ve interviewed, did a week long exercise like this with some of his students. He wrote to me saying it was fascinating and extraordinarily fruitful – the insights that you might learn from these practices or habits of mind, and whether they could actually contribute to tranquillity or satisfaction or flourishing.

In a way that’s all very empirically minded stuff – ‘Try this out and tell us what happened. See what works, what didn’t work’ So that’s evidence with a lower-case ‘e’. It’s anecdotal, it’s very personal, but I still think it’s intriguing.

And do the students have good reactions to these experiences?

They almost invariably say, it wasn’t just the highlight of the course, but maybe of their college experience. They learn a lot. These are some of the strategies for achieving tranquillity or diminishing anger or increasing gratitude.

Am I right in thinking that this relates to part 3 of your wisdom framework, having knowledge of some strategies for moving towards well-being ?

Yes. As part of this course too, I do assignments with them, asking questions such as ‘What do you think are the most important things for living well? How do you think those priorities would change over 10 years?’

Other people do assignments like ‘If you had to write an obituary about yourself, what do you hope people would say?’ So it’s about encouraging students to take a step back from the pace of their life and reflect on what seem to be most important, and again try to get some handle on how to achieve those things.

There’s a Montaigne quote ‘All the wisdom and reasoning in the world boils down finally to this point: to teach us not to be afraid to die.’ My interpretation of that would be, if when you die you feel you have lived well, you’ll be less afraid of death. This would seem to be what the obituary idea you mention is getting at too. 

Yes. That goes back to Socrates too. One of his basic ideas was that the life of a philosopher is preparing you for death – to have a soul that’s in harmony, not disrupted by unruly passions, so you’ll be prepared, in some readings of Plato, for immortality where your soul is in good condition.


That goes back to Socrates too. One of his basic ideas was that the life of a philosopher is preparing you for death.


Which single practical change do you think would lead to the greatest increase in the levels of wisdom or wise reasoning in society? My sense is that more personal reflection might be helpful.

I think that’s probably right. Reflection – taking a step back, gaining some perspective on the situation. Just as a matter of fact, I think that’s one of the ways to interpret the mindfulness idea – that it’s taking a step back – and in fact, when you do that, you get kind of a cooler, less anxious perspective on your circumstances, whereas if you’re just enmeshed in your circumstances, that often leads to stress and anxiety and the feeling that the weight of the world is on your shoulders – that if you take a misstep, there are some irrecoverable losses. Often reflection allows you to put those things in perspective and realise that even the losses are manageable.


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Why not have a look at the following resources to learn more about Stephen Grimm’s work:

Wisdom (Grimm, 2015) – In this paper, Grimm outlines the kind of knowledge that is required for wisdom.

Philosophy as a Way of Life Experiments (Fordham Students, 2016) – Watch a series of short videos made by Stephen Grimm’s students in which they share their experiences of living out different ways of life, including Stoic, Buddhist, Confucian, Daoist, or Jesuit.

NYC Wisdom Seminar – June 2017 – Read more about the programme and participants of the Fordham University Wisdom Seminar 2017


If you have any thoughts about the article, please get in touch.

You can contact me at charles@evidencebasedwisdom.com, via the about page or find me on twitter @EBasedwisdom.

Charles

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