Wisdom in the Modern World
Episode #10 of the course What is wisdom: An introduction to philosophy by Will Buckingham
Over the past few days, we have been exploring a wide range of philosophical traditions. Along the way, we have moved between India, China, and ancient Greece and Rome, and we have seen how many different answers there are to the question, “What is wisdom?” We have seen that wisdom involves questions of what we think and also questions of what we do. It has both theoretical and practical dimensions.
Is Philosophy Still the Love of Wisdom?
These days, philosophy has become a very technical, academic discipline, one that often seems removed from more down-to-earth questions about wisdom, what it might be, and why it might matter. Sometimes, academic philosophers turn their mind to everyday issues (this is sometimes called “applied philosophy”), but if you are interested in wisdom, then a philosophy department in a university is not necessarily the place to look.
Philosophy in the World
Nevertheless, there are many philosophers outside of universities and the academic world who are exploring how ancient wisdom traditions can be put to work to help us think better and act better in the wider world. And the traditions we have explored—from Confucianism to Stoicism and from Socratic questioning to Aristotle’s practical wisdom—all have something to teach us today.
Experiments in Living: Rediscovering “What We Do” Questions
One of the effects of philosophy becoming an academic discipline is that scholars are often very concerned with what they know and less concerned with what they do. But more recently, there has been a resurgence in questions about how ancient philosophy might have a great deal to tell us about how to live. You could see many of the philosophies that we have explored as “experiments in living”—things you can try out to see if they have actual effects in your own life. Buddhist meditation techniques are recommended for stress. Socratic questioning is used in schools to encourage exploration and debate amongst schoolchildren. Stoic ideas are used to explore how we can become more “resilient” in our daily lives. And in East Asia, there is an increasing interest in the practical implications of Confucianism.
Loving Wisdom: A Business for Amateurs
Perhaps it is time to reclaim philosophy from the scholars and the professionals. For most of its history, philosophy was not a professional pursuit. Socrates was a stonemason. Confucius was a failed official. Epictetus was a former slave. None of them were “professional” in today’s sense. They were all amateurs. But literally, of course, “amateur” means “lover,” so you could argue that a lover of wisdom should be an amateur and not a professional (nobody says to their lover, “darling, you are so … professional!”).
Searching for Wisdom
This brings this short course on philosophy and the love of wisdom to an end. Whether you feel any wiser at the end of it may depend on what you mean by wisdom. Throughout this course, we have seen that there are many ways of answering the question, “What is wisdom?” There is no 1 definitive answer. But perhaps because there is no 1 answer, the thing to do is what Socrates recommends: to go on looking. I hope that this course has given you a starting point in this quest. Good luck, wherever you end up!
The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton
Philosophy Now—for contemporary discussions of philosophy in readily understandable form
Aeon—there’s a wide array of information about philosophy and its contemporary relevance
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