The Intelligence of Wisdom (Part 1 of 2) (with Jose Ruenes)

‘He’s wise.’

This means, perhaps, having knowledge one is not expected to have. As in: wise beyond one’s years. Sometimes you’ll observe the following about a person: ‘He’s highly intelligent. But he’s not very wise.’ Or, ‘He lacks common sense, despite his intelligence.’

Maybe wisdom is a higher form or an advanced stage of intelligence. It’s a practical application of knowledge on the sensory-perceptual level.

Let’s back up for a moment and identify what intelligence actually is. Intelligence refers to the capacity to manage one’s abstract thought. Human beings—as opposed to lower animals—can reason, think and acquire knowledge through abstract thought. As philosopher and cognitive theorist Ayn Rand put it, a nonconceptual animal (dog, cat, elephant) can perceive two tables, but cannot form the abstraction ‘table,’ nor the abstraction ‘two.’

Man—the rational animal—is capable of doing so. This is what enables human beings to reach higher intelligence than a non-rational animal can.

Knowledge Is Not Intelligence

Knowledge is not equivalent to intelligence. By definition, a highly intelligent person is someone with a considerable amount of knowledge.

However, knowledge is not the defining attribute of intelligence.

A young person can be highly intelligent—even a genius, or a prodigy—but not yet have all the knowledge he will eventually possess. Think of a young Einstein. He undoubtedly displayed great intelligence at a very young age; but his comparatively limited knowledge at a young age could not have led him to the later discoveries for which he’s well known. Intelligence refers to the extent and degree to which one can manage one’s abstract knowledge. In a sense, knowledge (of facts, perceptions, data) is a means to an end: The means to the end of developing intelligence.

If that’s what intelligence is, then where does wisdom fit in? Wisdom cannot simply refer to high intelligence. It’s something more.

Defining Wisdom

Let’s review several dictionary definitions of wisdom: ‘The quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment; the quality of being wise.’ And, ‘The soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of such experience, knowledge, and good judgment.’

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Wisdom involves judgment. Judgment refers to what you do, in practical experience, with your knowledge.

Wisdom is a combination of judgment and perspective, and presupposes intellectual honesty.

A highly intelligent person can be intellectually dishonest. In other words, he can evade knowledge for purely emotional reasons in order to hold to a certain conviction or conclusion. Such a characteristic immediately rules out wisdom, no matter how knowledgeable or intelligent such a person might otherwise be.

A person can have knowledge and possess high intelligence. But he can waste those benefits. He is therefore not wise. Or he could attempt to apply that knowledge and intelligence in ineffective or irrational ways, in which case we would likewise consider him unwise. Our attitude would be, ‘He’s so bright. It’s such a shame he wastes it.’ Or: ‘It’s such a shame he can’t find a practical, feasible way to apply all that intelligence.’

What we’re bemoaning in such cases is a lack of wisdom.

Wisdom as Good Judgment

What makes a person wise is not as much his intelligence as what he does with the intelligence he has.

One could have a high IQ and be low in wisdom. Or, one could have a moderate IQ but be a wiser person. If one uses sound judgment in exercising his knowledge and intelligence, he’s wise; if not, he’s unwise. In essence, therefore, wisdom refers to judgment.

Wisdom is nevertheless distinct from judgment. Judgment can refer to any one instance of exercising one’s intelligence and knowledge.

‘He used good judgment in buying that house.’ Or, ‘She exercised good judgment in selecting her husband.’

Yet wisdom refers to good judgment exercised over a span of time, over a wide variety of contexts. Judgment refers to a certain instance or area of specialty; wisdom refers to how one approaches life in general.

‘Judgment,’ or ‘a judgment’ is a small, thinner variation of the concept of wisdom. Exercising sound judgment in buying a house, for example, comes with a person’s overall wisdom in applying the pool of information from which the decision was made.

This is the backbone of the decision-making process, where many instances of judgments borrow from this pool of information and can be furthered by creative tendencies or intelligence.

In my doctoral dissertation, I studied something called ‘adult dialectical reasoning,’ also known as integrated reasoning. This refers to the capacity to look at the interconnected nature of people, ideas and events. A wise person is someone both able and willing to do that.

For example, according to an integrated thinker: ‘How will my actions in one context affect my situation in other contexts?’ To a dialectical thinker (as my study defined it), the objective truth is, in essence, the whole. One ‘holds the factual context’ of all of one’s available knowledge when considering anything relevant or significant. Everything you do in one area of life, or at one point in time, has an effect, even indirectly, on another area. The dialectical thinker is the one who habitually recognizes this, and keeps it in mind at all times.

It strikes me that this form of dialectical reasoning is essential to what makes a person wise. And it may explain why sometimes a young person can be considered wise, and an older person can be viewed as lacking wisdom.

Concluded in tomorrow’s column.


Jose Ruenes, who co-wrote this article with Dr. Hurd, is an undergraduate studying psychology at Florida International University in Miami.

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