To be wise

Topics: Knowledge, Wisdom, Plato Pages: 6 (3006 words) Published: July 25, 2015
A few days ago I finally figured out something I've wondered about for 25 years: the relationship between wisdom and intelligence. Anyone can see they're not the same by the number of people who are smart, but not very wise. And yet intelligence and wisdom do seem related. How?

What is wisdom? I'd say it's knowing what to do in a lot of situations. I'm not trying to make a deep point here about the true nature of wisdom, just to figure out how we use the word. A wise person is someone who usually knows the right thing to do.

And yet isn't being smart also knowing what to do in certain situations? For example, knowing what to do when the teacher tells your elementary school class to add all the numbers from 1 to 100? [1]

Some say wisdom and intelligence apply to different types of problems—wisdom to human problems and intelligence to abstract ones. But that isn't true. Some wisdom has nothing to do with people: for example, the wisdom of the engineer who knows certain structures are less prone to failure than others. And certainly smart people can find clever solutions to human problems as well as abstract ones. [2]

Another popular explanation is that wisdom comes from experience while intelligence is innate. But people are not simply wise in proportion to how much experience they have. Other things must contribute to wisdom besides experience, and some may be innate: a reflective disposition, for example.

Neither of the conventional explanations of the difference between wisdom and intelligence stands up to scrutiny. So what is the difference? If we look at how people use the words "wise" and "smart," what they seem to mean is different shapes of performance.


"Wise" and "smart" are both ways of saying someone knows what to do. The difference is that "wise" means one has a high average outcome across all situations, and "smart" means one does spectacularly well in a few. That is, if you had a graph in which the x axis represented situations and the y axis the outcome, the graph of the wise person would be high overall, and the graph of the smart person would have high peaks.

The distinction is similar to the rule that one should judge talent at its best and character at its worst. Except you judge intelligence at its best, and wisdom by its average. That's how the two are related: they're the two different senses in which the same curve can be high.

So a wise person knows what to do in most situations, while a smart person knows what to do in situations where few others could. We need to add one more qualification: we should ignore cases where someone knows what to do because they have inside information. [3] But aside from that, I don't think we can get much more specific without starting to be mistaken.

Nor do we need to. Simple as it is, this explanation predicts, or at least accords with, both of the conventional stories about the distinction between wisdom and intelligence. Human problems are the most common type, so being good at solving those is key in achieving a high average outcome. And it seems natural that a high average outcome depends mostly on experience, but that dramatic peaks can only be achieved by people with certain rare, innate qualities; nearly anyone can learn to be a good swimmer, but to be an Olympic swimmer you need a certain body type.

This explanation also suggests why wisdom is such an elusive concept: there's no such thing. "Wise" means something—that one is on average good at making the right choice. But giving the name "wisdom" to the supposed quality that enables one to do that doesn't mean such a thing exists. To the extent "wisdom" means anything, it refers to a grab-bag of qualities as various as self-discipline, experience, and empathy. [4]

Likewise, though "intelligent" means something, we're asking for trouble if we insist on looking for a single thing called "intelligence." And whatever its components, they're not all innate. We use the word...
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