CLEVERNESS v WISDOM

Most of us would intuitively agree that being wise and being clever is not the same thing. Yet it proves hard to pin down what the difference is.

Maybe even trying to attempt this is to fall into the enlightenment trap of believing that you can reason your way out of any problem. At risk of being judged unwise i will throw down a few thoughts (and feelings) around the subject.

I do follow Schopenhauer (and most traditional peoples) in understanding that the world (“life and the Universe”) has a describable outside and a willing, suffering inside – just like you and me.

Maybe this gives us a clue.

Cleverness (of which Enlightenment Science is a supreme example): –

  • Deals in externalities: objects/facts.
  • Has faith in logic as a tool: e.g. “A cannot be both B and not B”.
  • Is brilliant at recognising patterns and setting up hypotheses to test.
  • Attempts to analyse both entities and problems into their lesser parts.
  • Tries to keep the observer/measurer out of the picture: it is called being objective. (This last approach chimes with the extrovert position in Jungian psychology.)

By contrast Wisdom (exampled by those considered to be wise): –

  • Appreciates and is in empathy with whole situations, with all creatures.
  • Is not embarrassed by fuzzy logic.
  • Is synthetic rather than analytic in approach.
  • Knows its own feelings/responses as part of the all. (This last aspect can be recognised as an introvert stance in Jungian psychology.)

This contrast can be noted in Nineteenth Century tensions. The wisdoms of the Romantic Movement (for example Goethe and Blake) sounded the alarm that Enlightenment Science was a disaster in the making – even as proponents of the latter had the bit between their teeth in their onward rush to understanding, control and progress, completely oblivious of the Faustian bargain that they were striking. Lower the death rate? No problem. Split the atom? No problem. Technology led arms races? No problem. Post-organic replicators? No problem. Virtual/symbolic realities? No problem.

Now it might be argued that this distinction is less clear cut today, post the age of optimism – especially in some branches of scientific endeavour. Except that Enlightenment Science has become the paid servant of the modernism that it helped set in motion. Its hunger for funding ensures that it dances to the tune of the global Neoliberal project: an integrated world order fixated on endless growth.

As the consequences of cleverness without wisdom now loom into view there is a tragic irony in the “scientists warning” regarding the outcomes which their own ‘progress through knowledge’ mantras have made almost inevitable.

This brings us back again to our attempt to distinguish wisdom from cleverness.

Some contrasting features have already been noted. Is there an even more fundamental distinction? I dare to suggest, and have suggested elsewhere**, that wisdom grasps that some questions are best not asked, some roads left unexplored, some answers not sought.

This stance will have the consequence of less control of ‘our’ situation, less power over nature. In other words more humility in our partnership with the whole of nature; more enchantment yet also trepidation (especially in the face of “Gaia’s revenge”).

In contrast cleverness comprehends no limits in its quest for knowledge, for more complete understanding, for total control. It dare not even ask the question “Who or what seeks this control?” For the subject, remember, must be kept out of the objective picture.

It may just be too late now – but here’s to wisdom.

Woody Wood

February 2020

** Which Values? Second Edition  Devolve!  ISBN 978 0993112645   £10.00

          – available from Blackwell and other good bookshops.