Under The Sun

Thursday, September 25, 2003

NDPR: Holt, Apprehension

The question, basically, is "What is wisdom?" And Holt's answer, which is broadly Aristotelian, is that wisdom (1) is a kind of reason, which (2) is fundamentally irreducible, and which (3) essentially inheres in persons.

(1): wisdom is a kind of reason, in fact the maximal kind of reason. Wisdom is not qualitatively different from intelligence, or even from knowledge; in fact it is the culmination of knowledge.

(2): wisdom is irreducible: it cannot be disassembled, cannot be excerpted, cannot be modularized, cannot be methodized. It is impossible to state the wise answer to any single question; the wise answer to all questions is wisdom.

(3): therefore, wisdom can only exist as a "virtue" (in Aristotle's sense), as an attribute of a person. One does not "possess wisdom"; one "is wise".

What are the consequences of this view, if it is correct? For one thing, it means that the attempt to systematize knowledge, especially "expert knowledge", is deeply misguided. Such knowledge cannot be systematized; it can only be passed from one person to another. Thus the problem of academic teaching is basic, inescapable: all classroom experience must yield to workplace experience, all theoretical knowledge must yield to practical knowledge. Thus also, rules are impossible: no set of procedures can ever be "wise", i.e. fully correct in practice. This is why every good principle is sometimes wrong. It's also why any body of law (that of the United States, for example) is inseparable from the judgments of its practitioners: the question "what does the system of precedent imply for this case?" is exactly the kind of question to which the answer is "wisdom", and therefore which cannot be answered except by a person. And it's also why centralization is (in general) the wrong way to go: wisdom must be on the scene ("in practice") in order to be wise.

The primary objection to this view is: how to identify which persons are wise? The typical error case is the Catholic church, which tries to define wisdom as the judgment of the hierarchs--obviously that doesn't work, but just as obviously, trying it is inherent in the nature of systems. The answer is, of course, that this is another point against systematization: the solution is to allow expertise to prove itself by its works. This is the essence of what is known as "hacker culture", the informal society of computer experts: one can discern the competence of the programmer from the competence of the program, so the self-evident practical hierarchy makes any theoretical (formal) hierarchy irrelevant. And this happens, more or less, in any work-place: the summer I worked in retail, I quickly learned which of my five superiors to go to when I had a question--and needless to say, it was not the ones who were highest on the official totem pole. One problem with systems is that they try to prohibit such gravitation by specifying chains of command. It rarely works, but it's a major cause of inefficiency--and when it does "work", it is often the cause of outright failure. All of this is old news to most of us, but it leads to this point: identifying who is wise is easy in practice; it's only hard in theory, or, same difference, in system. This proposed defintion of wisdom, then--which I would classify as pragmatist (in the philsophical sense)--is self-justifying: it works because it works. Competitor theories may also be (or claim to be) self-justifying, but they must answer a test that pragmatism always passes: does the theory work?

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