What is wisdom?

Let’s talk about wisdom, what it is and how it relates to intelligence. It’s in the title of the website, people use the word all the time, and yet, there seems to be no good definition. Let’s fix that.

It’s one of these concepts that everyone intuitively understands, yet struggles to define. In fact, nobody in 5000+ years of written word has, to my knowledge, managed to define it satisfactorily.

Even dictionaries were no good. The best they have are vague musings about “experience” and “knowledge” and “judgment” – but experience and knowledge are not yet wisdom, in the same way that dough is not yet cake – they’re the raw material and substrate of wisdom. And good judgment is a particular effect and use of being wise, but is not essentially identical with wisdom itself.

That’s like saying a car is defined by going sideways around a corner. Almost true, in an infantile, incidental, observational sort of way – but not a comprehension of the nature of the thing.

So as customary, I sat down for five minutes and solved an ancient conundrum of human existence.

Let’s start with a metaphor and then illuminate. Wisdom is the luminescent fungus growing on the putrefying log of data and experience – not the log itself.


Pictured: wisdom

You distill wisdom from knowledge and experience, cultivate it as if on compost, smelt the ore into metal. It’s this kind of “more than a sum of its parts” thing.

Experience, learning, data and all that shite are grapes – wisdom is the wine.

This status of wisdom as an “emergent property” (which is fashionable scientific jargon for “what the fuck”), not quite identifiable with any feature of the substrate, is why it is so rare with word-thinkers and formalist intellectuals – they can’t crack open the eggs to make the omelette, because for them, there is nothing inside the shells.

Their diagnosis is an inability to move from form to substance, from particulars to patterns, from symbols to essential concepts, or to even acknowledge that understanding beyond and prior to verbal language exists. But it does, and it’s the best sort.

I am supported on this point by Nobel-prize winning rockstar physicist Richard Feynman:

“You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you are finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the world. You’ll know about the humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing — that’s what counts. I learned very early from my father the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”

Another effect and use of wisdom is the ability to hold onto complexity in elegant forms – economical enough to be compatible with the human brain. One of the ways to recognize a wise person is by the ability to cram a lot into very little – pregnant prose. Think of zen koans, proverbs, those kinds of millenia of experience and profound lightbulbs in a mere few words.

This shows to what degree the ore was smelted into metal, to what degree the log is growing the fungus, how much the garble of cut up vegetables has become soup, whether the grapes have fermented into a particularly nice Champagne or just some putrefied ooze nobody but Greeks would try to pass off as wine.

Ok, so we have established that wisdom is an organically growing thing on the raw material of knowing and learning and experiencing stuff, to which we may add that the ability to synthesise it is highly individual – though at least within some natural confines, trainable.

What is its relation to intelligence?

In a word: perpendicular.

Where intelligence is a matter of quantity, wisdom is the quality of your mental faculties.

Computer people can think of it as the difference between processing power and code quality.

It is possible to have a badly programmed, malware-infested supercomputer, just as it is possible to have a brilliant thing running on a Raspberry Pi.

Wisdom is the quality of your software and model of the world – high wisdom is a “low number of mental dioptries”. An integrated understanding with practical applications, and quality of relating to the world.

Intelligence is your processing power.

The best case scenario is running brilliant things on a supercomputer, of course, but the point is those are independent variables.

Likewise, because intelligence and wisdom are independent, it’s extremely common for people to score high on one axis and low on the other.

For instance, high intelligence and low wisdom would be the depressingly typical educated idiots – visit the humanities departments of any western university and you will wade through them. The “dumbsmart” verbose dipshits, managing to be absurdly wrong in elaborate, complicated, baroque ways. I posit that the central point of much academic jargon is to render by fetishistic decoration acceptable ideas that are on their merit unacceptable and plainly wrong. The emperor’s new humanities.

Those people may be intelligent, but they’re also wrong, and divorced from reality. Their minds are an unintegrated mess, giving off the general impression of a confused and terrified five year old holding onto an out-of-control truck, dragged along by it more than driving it.

On the other hand, high wisdom and low intelligence, or learning, would be your stereotypical wise simpleton – in the real world, this can be a wise grandma or grandpa who wouldn’t know the first thing about social anthropology or keynesian economics, but can sum up a lifetime of experience and understanding in a handful of words. Which are frequently poignant enough to immolate keynesian economics and social anthropology.

Those are of course simplified stereotypes for the sake of illustration – but much to the chagrin of stereotypical dumbsmart intellectuals, most stereotypes, including this one, are true.

As observed from the inside by heroic academic Jordan Peterson:
“Trades people are NOT stupid. In fact, they tend to have a lot more sense than most of the intellectuals that I know, even though they’re not as good at articulating their arguments.”

In other words, you have two statistically significant groups of people (among a number of others), one of whom clumsily and simplistically presents good, sensible arguments, based largely on extensive personal experience, while the other is very good at persuasively articulating and selling nonsense, based on hallucinating in an armchair somewhere. There’s your key to the “populist revolt against elites elitists” of 2016.

This is, by the way, a powerfully pro-intellectual argument, rather than an anti-intellectual one, precisely because mercilessly anti-pseudointellectual.

It is also possible to score low on both axes, which is just sad, and more interestingly, high on both axes, which we may scientifically call “being epic”.

While simultaneous high scores on both axes are rare for purely statistical reasons (multiply the odds of any person being a genius by the odds of being extremely wise), it is important to note that there is no natural mutual exclusivity between the two. It’s just rare, because low odds multiplied by low odds are very, very low odds. But it does happen.

Like other situations in which people with skin in the game allege mutual exclusivity (physical and “inner” beauty come to mind), such claims are compensatory attempts at self-consolation – dumbsmart academics presenting their inability to tie their shoes or function outside government charity as proof of their intelligence, and vice versa, garden variety idiots imagining that their failure to graduate elementary school bestows upon them a special sort of intimate, folksy understanding of the universe.

Doesn’t work that way. Just because somebody is dumb doesn’t mean they’re wise, and just because they’re insane and incapable of independent functioning, doesn’t make them intelligent. In fact, people who claim such things are usually both idiots and unwise.

Put somewhat more formally, absence of one is not proof of presence of the other. Independent variables.

Of course it is best to be both. Smoothly working integrated complexity – or elegance, what mathematicians refer to as beauty – which is supremely rare.

If there is a way to become more intelligent, it has not yet been found. But everyone can cultivate wisdom. Let’s.

Wisdom is its own reward, but money is always nice too.

  • Joao Claudio Otero

    In Portuguese (I’m Brazilian), wisdom is called “sabedoria”. And “sabedoria” comes from “saber” (“to know”). So, to be wise is “to know”. But to know what, in which context? It’s not just simply the common “know-how”. It’s more associated with the concept of knowing how to get good outcomes from whatever. Or simply put, “to know how to make good decisions” – where “good” is obviously a subjective concept. But I think that defining wisdom in terms of “knowing how to make good decisions” would be precise. Wise is someone who can make good decisions. And one doesn’t have to be intelligent or experienced to do that, even if being intelligent and/or experienced would improve the odds on making good decisions.

  • Pavel

    Interesting view on the difference between wisdom, knowledge or information: http://www.milanzeleny.com/Files/Content/Madeira%20Zeleny.pdf

  • Pavel

    Thanks for sharing your five minutes with us again. Sounds interesting, but for me it’s hard to see _the_ definition of wisdom, the thing no one before you had managed and you have. Is it the illuminating fungus?

    • Zbyněk Dráb


      • Pavel