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How To Gain Practical Wisdom

Rule worship or pattern recognition — which way to go.

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Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, held the view that wisdom was theoretical and abstract, and the gift of only a few. But Aristotle disagreed. He thought that our fundamental social practices constantly demanded choices — like when to be loyal to a friend. How to be fair, how to confront risk, or when and how to be angry — and that making the right choices demanded wisdom.

To take the example of anger, the central question for Aristotle was not whether anger was good or bad, or the abstract question about what the nature of the “good” in fact was. It was the particular and concrete issue of what to do in a particular circumstance. Who to be angry at, for how long, in what way, and for what purpose. The wisdom to answer such questions and to act rightly was distinctly practical, not theoretical.

Aristotle distilled the idea of practical wisdom in his classic book, Nicomachean Ethics.

Ethics, said Aristotle, was not mainly about establishing moral rules and following them. It’s about performing a particular social practice well. Being a good friend or parent or doctor or soldier or citizen or statesman — and that meant figuring out the right way to do the right thing in a particular circumstance, with a particular person, at a particular time.

Aristotle’s Ethics was not an abstract discourse on human good or on “right” behaviour. Its subject was what we needed to learn in order to succeed in our practices and to flourish as human beings.

Practical wisdom combines will with skill, according to Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe in the book Practical Wisdom.

For skill without will — is without the desire to achieve the proper aims of an activity which can lead to ruthless manipulation of others, to serve one’s own interests, not theirs. And will without skill leads to ineffectual fumbling around — the sort of thing we see in people who “mean well” but leave situations in worse shape than they found them. In fact, working with will without skill only lead to creating the cobra effect.

How to Be Practically Wise

Most of our lives, right from when we were born, are guided by rules. But as we grow older, we begin to see how rules constrain and limit our thinking. And in essence, we begin to develop patterns of how things can work much better when rules are no longer there to serve or guide us.

Rules are linguistic entities: “Tell the truth,” “Help people in need,” “Be loyal to your friends and family.” But the thing is if we rely only on rules to tell us what to do, then we shut ourselves off from information and understanding we may have that cannot be put into words.

When words are your tools for evaluation, then you try to cram everything you are experiencing into a verbal format.

When words, in the form of rules, are your tools for moral evaluation and decision making, you limit your consideration to aspects of the situation that the rule speaks to. If all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail. Words are good-even essential — for many of the challenges we face in our lives. But they are not always friends of pattern recognition. And most of all, they are not always friends of wisdom.

Patterns of Behaviour

Patterns, on the other hand, emerge when we are able to make order out of chaos. When we recognize patterns, our ability to see similarities and differences often exceeds our ability to describe them in words. “She looks just like her sister,” we say. But of course, we don’t really mean “just like.” We can tell the two sisters apart. Nonetheless, we may be hard-pressed to say exactly how they look alike and what makes them look different. The fact that many of the patterns we recognize are not easily captured in language has important implications when it comes to thinking about moral rules as guides to conduct.

We all engage in pattern recognition every day, usually without realizing we’re doing it. When you’re driving, and you see a sign up ahead, you don’t ask yourself, “What shape is it?” and answer “Um, octagon!” You don’t ask, “What colour is it?” and answer “Red!” You simply recognize that it’s a stop sign. When you’re in an elevator, with Muzak playing in the background, you don’t ask yourself what song is on, and answer “Beatles song ‘Yellow Submarine.’ ” You simply recognize the pattern. This is how most of our perceptual processes work: mechanisms for pattern recognition are operating all the time while our conscious mind is doing other things. These mechanisms deliver answers (“stop sign,” “Beatles song”) to questions we don’t even know we’re asking. We have conscious access to answers they provide, but not to the processes by which we arrive at those answers.

Pattern recognition also plays an important role in the world of our imagination. When we were children, if we were given a game with explicit instructions and rules, we quickly lost interest. But if the game was something we invented or was loosely structured, allowing us to inject our own ideas and fantasies, we could sustain our interest for much longer. When we view an abstract painting that evokes dreams or fantasies or see a film that is not easily interpreted or hear a joke or advertisement that is ambiguous, we are the ones who do the interpreting, and we find it exciting to be able to exercise our imagination in this way. The more active our imagination becomes, the greater the pleasure we derive from it.

Neuropsychologist Elkhonon Goldberg has written about the power and importance of pattern recognition in his book The Wisdom Paradox. Goldberg’s focus is on how the brain and mental function change as we age. Goldberg argues that even though our raw materials have the ever-diminishing capacity, our experience in the world is making us ever better at recognizing patterns.

The mature mind and brain can make good decisions with much less effort than the inexperienced mind and brain. This is because the mature mind over time has learned to make good decisions through experience.

Recognizing Patterns

A rich ability to recognize patterns, shaped by experience, makes us wiser because experience is best learned through trial and error. Through trial and error, we develop cognitive networks that allow us to detect similarities and differences across a range of situations and each time we get feedback from our successes and failures, we increase the capacity of the cognitive network to guide us in new situations. We may have more trouble recalling the names of our neighbours’ kids, but we’ll have less trouble figuring out how to talk to our neighbours about them.

What counts as a pattern worth recognizing depends on our experience. We use templates that come from experience, and we use those templates to tell us how the present is like, and unlike, the past. The task we face is to be sensitive to both similarity and difference, and to appreciate when what matters most is similarity and when what matters most is the difference. No knowledge would be possible without an appreciation of how the case before us is like past cases. But wise decisions would not be possible without an appreciation that the present case is not exactly like past cases.

That’s what Aristotle meant when he said that practical wisdom, as opposed to a universal rule, was necessary because of the priority of the particular. A wise person knows how to do the right thing, in the right way, with this person, in this situation. To be wise, we need cognitive and perceptual machinery that picks up on similarities without being blind to differences and that can only happen through improving our pattern recognition.

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