Wisdom, Suffering, and Humility

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  1. 1.

    See Ursula M. Staudinger and Judith Glück, “Psychological Wisdom Research: Commonalities and Differences in a Growing Field,” Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 62, (2010), pp. 215–241, and Stephen Grimm, “Wisdom,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 93, No. 1, (2015), pp. 139–154.

  2. 2.

    See Judith Glück and Susan Bluck, “The MORE Life Experience Model: A Theory of the Development of Wisdom,” in Michael Ferrari and Nic Westrate, eds., Personal Wisdom (New York: Springer, 2013), pp. 75–98.

  3. 3.

    See Suffering and Virtue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming), Ch. 5. Throughout the paper I’ll focus primarily (though not exclusively) on suffering rather than adversity (which is a wider notion) or trauma (which is narrower).

  4. 4.

    See Richard G. Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, “Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence,” Psychological Inquiry, Vo. 15, No. 1, (2004), pp. 1–18.

  5. 5.

    For a recent account of the nature of suffering, see Brady, ibid., Ch. 1.

  6. 6.

    See my “Intellectual Virtues and Truth, Understanding, and Wisdom,” Oxford Handbook of Virtue, ed. Nancy Snow (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 800–819; “Sophia,” Virtues and their Vices, eds. Kevin Timpe and Craig Boyd (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 303–326; “Two Types of Wisdom,” Acta Analytica, Vol. 27, (2012), pp. 81–97; and “Intellectual Humility: Owning our Limitations,” co-authored with Dennis Whitcomb, Heather Battaly, and Dan Howard-Snyder, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. XCIV, No. 3, (2017), pp. 509–539.

  7. 7.

    See Staudinger and Glück, op. cit.

  8. 8.

    Doesn’t Socrates, a wisdom exemplar, often come across as muddled or confused? Perhaps. But the point is that wise persons are neither muddled nor confused about that on account of which they are wise. Socrates is wise partly because he is aware of and honest about his confusion or ignorance. For more on the relationship between wisdom and understanding, see Roger Walsh, “What Is Wisdom? Cross-Cultural and Cross-Disciplinary Syntheses,” Review of General Psychology, Vol. 19, No. 3, (2015), pp. 278–293, Paul B. Baltes and Ursula M. Staudinger, “Wisdom: A Metaheuristic (Pragmatic) to Orchestrate Mind and Virtue Toward Excellence,” American Psychologist, Vol. 22, No. 1, (2000), pp. 122–136, Valerie Tiberius and Jason Swartwood, “Wisdom Revisited: A Case Study in Normative Theorizing,” Philosophical Explorations, Vol. 14, No. 3, (2011), pp. 277–295, and Shane Ryan, “Wisdom: Understanding and the Good Life,” Act Analytica, Vol. 31, No. 3, (2016), pp. 1–17.

  9. 9.

    See Nic M. Weststrate and Judith Glück, “Hard-Earned Wisdom: Exploratory Processing of Difficult Life Experience is Positively Associated with Wisdom,” Developmental Psychology Vol. 53, No. 4, (2017), pp. 800–814, Maria A. Taranto, “Facets of Wisdom: A Theoretical Synthesis,” International Journal of Aging and Human Development, Vol. 29, No. 1, (1989), pp. 1–21, Staudinger and Glück, op. cit., and Glück and Bluck, op. cit.

  10. 10.

    See Robert, Nozick. The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989), Valerie Tiberius, “Wisdom and Humility,” Annals of the New York Academy of Science, Vol. 1384 (2016), pp. 113–116, and Westrate and Glück, op. cit.

  11. 11.

    See Lisa Bortolotti, “Does Reflection Lead to Wise Choices?” Philosophical Explorations, Vol. 14, No. 3, (2011), pp. 297–313, Walsh, op. cit., and Tiberius and Swartwood, op. cit.

  12. 12.

    See Grimm, op. cit., Walsh, op. cit., and Bortolotti, op. cit.

  13. 13.

    See Lawrence G. Calhoun and Richard G. Tedeschi, “Positive Aspects of Critical Life Problems: Recollections of Grief,” OMEGA, Vol. 20, No. 4, (1989–1990), pp. 265–272, Walsh, op. cit., Grimm, op. cit., and Baltes and Staudinger, op. cit.

  14. 14.

    See Staudinger and Glück, op. cit., and Baltes and Staudinger, op cit.

  15. 15.

    For defenses or discussions of this claim, see Sharon Ryan, “What Is Wisdom?” Philosophical Studies, Vol. 93, No. 2, (1999), pp. 119–139, Dennis Whitcomb, “Wisdom,” in Sven Bernecker and Duncan Pritchard, eds., Routledge Companion to Epistemology (London: Routledge, 2011), pp. 95–105, Nozick, op. cit., and Grimm, op. cit.

  16. 16.

    Op. cit., p. 222.

  17. 17.

    See Tiberius, op. cit.

  18. 18.

    Op. cit., p. 11.

  19. 19.

    Throughout the paper I’ll use “knows” and its cognates (e.g. “understanding”) somewhat loosely. In particular, while I’ll defend a close connection between wisdom and understanding, I wish to remain neutral on two issues: first, whether understanding is a species of knowledge; and, second, the extent to which the kind of understanding involved in wisdom is factive. On the former issue, see Stephen Grimm, “Is Understanding a Species of Knowledge?” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 57, (2006), pp. 515–535. On the latter issue, see Catherine Elgin, “Is Understanding Factive?” in Adrian Haddock, Alan Millar, and Duncan Pritchard, eds., Epistemic Value (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 322–330. For more on the relationship between knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, see Shane Ryan, “Wisdom: Understanding and the Good Life,” Acta Analytica, Vol. 31, No. 3, (2015), pp. 235–251.

  20. 20.

    See Christopher G. Davis and Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, “Loss and Meaning: How Do People Make Sense of Loss,” The American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 44, No. 5, (2001), pp. 726–741, Tiberius, op. cit., Grimm, op. cit., and Tedeschi and Calhoun, op. cit.

  21. 21.

    Op. cit., p. 282.

  22. 22.

    See Grimm, op. cit., p. 142 for a similar point.

  23. 23.

    Op. cit., p. 286.

  24. 24.

    For an argument to the effect that the scope of wisdom extends to these and related subjects, see Sharon Ryan, “Wisdom, Knowledge, and Rationality,” Acta Analytica, Vol. 27, (2012), pp. 99–112. My rejection of this claim is consistent with the possibility that there might be another kind of wisdom—viz. theoretical wisdom—that precisely involves knowledge of these other, more academic subjects. For more on this issue, see Whitcomb, op. cit., and my “Sophia,” op. cit. The focus of the present paper is wisdom simpliciter or moral wisdom.

  25. 25.

    See Westrate and Glück, op. cit., Walsh, op. cit., and Taranto, op. cit. Strictly speaking, it may be that not all such knowledge contributes to wisdom. For instance, technical medical knowledge can contribute to the good of health, but it’s unclear whether such knowledge makes its possessor wiser. Thanks to an anonymous refer for this point.

  26. 26.

    This explains the connection, noted by Taratano others, between wisdom and “proverbs, adages, fables, and maxims,” (op. cit., p. 5). For, the latter often have the sort of structure just noted and are thought to encapsulate wisdom. For more on this point, see Taratano, ibid., and Staudinger and Glück, op. cit.

  27. 27.

    See Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. Robert M. Adams (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1992).

  28. 28.

    See Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Book VI, Ch. 12 and Bk. VII, Ch. 10.

  29. 29.

    This is also Aristotle’s view. See Aristotle, op. cit., 1141b9-10, 1140a25-31, 1141b8-9, and 1140b5-6.

  30. 30.

    Op. cit., p. 286.

  31. 31.

    Op. cit. p. 282.

  32. 32.

    Interested readers can see sources referenced in note 6 above.

  33. 33.

    This connection with understanding is significant, not merely because it fits with our pretheoretical ways of thinking about wisdom, but also on conceptual grounds. As Shane Ryan argues (op. cit.), to the extent that a person could have knowledge of the relevant objects (viz. that which is of ultimate value or significance, the way the world works, and living well) without understanding them (e.g. by knowing these things merely on the basis of reliable testimony), such knowledge might fail to make one much wiser.

  34. 34.

    This is at odds with Whitcomb, op. cit. For a further defense of the point, see my “Two Types of Wisdom,” op. tic.

  35. 35.

    Presumably she will also do so with appropriate pleasure. While I suspect, as this suggests, that there is also an affective dimension of wisdom, I will not pause here to develop it. For more on the affective or emotional aspects of wisdom, see Glück and Bluck, op. cit, and Staudinger and Glück, op. cit.

  36. 36.

    This account bears some resemblance to Grimm’s in “Wisdom” (op. cit.). According to Grimm, wisdom necessarily involves knowledge of: (1) “what is good or important for well-being,” (2) “one’s standing, relative to what is good or important for well-being,” and (3) “a strategy for obtaining what is good or important for well-being” (140). While I find a great deal to like in Grimm’s account, it is different from the account developed here in a few ways. First, the moral knowledge component of my account is broader than Grimm’s. Grimm restricts this component to knowledge of well-being, while my account leaves room for the possibility that knowledge of what is just or fair—considerations that might be distinct from or even at odds with well-being—might figure importantly into the epistemic constitution of wisdom. Second, my account requires that wise persons be disposed to act in accordance with their wise perspectives, while Grimm’s does not. Finally, Grimm’s account doesn’t explicitly require that wise persons be knowledgeable about “how the world works.” However, on this last point, it may be that such knowledge is implied by Grimm’s third condition (i.e. that to possess a reliable strategy for obtaining “what is good or important for well-being” one must have a understanding of the ways of the world). Similarly, while Grimm’s account makes self-knowledge a prominent feature of wisdom, on my account it is merely implied (again, to competently apply one’s moral knowledge to one’s own actions and life, one must have a relatively high degree of self-knowledge).

  37. 37.

    As we will see, experiences of suffering most likely to contribute to the acquisition of wisdom are experiences that invite an honest and vulnerable confrontation with one’s limitations. Some experiences of suffering, owing either to their intrinsic character or to certain facts about our psychology, may lack this tendency. For instance, some experiences of suffering may be so overwhelming as to discourage an honest and vulnerable confrontation with one’s limitations. More on these points below.

  38. 38.

    Of course, there may be individuals for whom suffering is a necessary means to wisdom. My concern here is with a more general connection.

  39. 39.

    See Stephen Joseph, “Growth Following Adversity: Positive Psychological Perspectives on Posttraumatic Stress,” Psychological Topics, Vol. 18, No. 2, (2009), pp. 335–343, and Stephen Joseph and P. Alex Linley, “Positive Adjustment to Threatening Events: An Organismic Valuing Theory of Growth Through Adversity,” Review of General Psychology, Vol. 9, No. 3, pp. 262–280.

  40. 40.

    Op. cit., p. 6.

  41. 41.

    Ibid., p. 1

  42. 42.

    Op. cit., p. 735.

  43. 43.

    See Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, “Assumptive Worlds and the Stress of Traumatic Events: Applications of the Schema Construct,” Social Cognition, Vol. 7, (1989), pp. 113–136.

  44. 44.

    Op. cit., p. 727.

  45. 45.

    Op. cit., p. 272.

  46. 46.

    Op. cit., p. 269.

  47. 47.

    Op. cit., p. 263.

  48. 48.

    See Joseph and Linley, op. cit., Calhoun and Tedeschi, op. cit., and Tedeschi and Calhoun, op. cit.

  49. 49.

    It can do so, for instance, to the extent that it prevents a person from adopting the kind of reflective stance that I am claiming is central to wisdom—e.g. if the suffering is so excruciating that the person is able to focus only on the most immediate and basic of tasks or concerns. Thanks to an anonymous referee for this point.

  50. 50.

    I say “posture or attitude” of humility (vs. “humility” simpliciter) because I’m conceiving of humility as a character virtue and thus as a reasonably stable disposition. A person might be able to adopt a posture or attitude of humility without possessing the actual virtue of humility. I see no reason to think that this difference would, in any particular case, limit the person’s ability to gain wisdom from suffering.

  51. 51.

    Wisdom can, of course, express itself in humble behavior. This is consistent with the view defended here, which aims to pinpoint a way of being humble that can, in the context of suffering, also precede and facilitate growth in certain aspects of wisdom. These aspects of wisdom, once acquired, are likely to deepen and reinforce a person’s humility. For a similar point, see Westrate and Glück, op. cit., pp. 801–811, and Walsh, op. cit., p. 290.

  52. 52.

    For a corresponding account of intellectual humility, see Whitcomb et al, op. cit.

  53. 53.

    I am hardly the first philosopher to recognize a connection between wisdom and humility. For instance, taking her inspiration from the sagely Socrates, Sharon Ryan (op. cit., 2012) considers (and rejects) the possibility that wisdom might be identical to epistemic humility. The position defended here is different in two respects: first, I do not equate wisdom and humility; second, my concern is not primarily with epistemic humility.

  54. 54.

    See Joseph and Linley, op. cit., Calhoun and Tedeschi, op. cit., and Tedeschi and Calhoun, op. cit.

  55. 55.

    Op. cit., p. 16.

  56. 56.

    I am grateful to Stephen Grimm, Eranda Jayawickreme, and other participants in the 2016 Wisdom Workshop at Fordham University for helpful feedback on an earlier draft of this paper. I’m also grateful to an anonymous referee for some very helpful comments on the penultimate draft. The paper benefited from generous support from the John Templeton Foundation, Grant No. 60622, “Developing Humility in Leaders.”


Funding was provided by John Templeton Foundation (Grant No. 60622).

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Correspondence to Jason Baehr.

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Baehr, J. Wisdom, Suffering, and Humility. J Value Inquiry 53, 397–413 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10790-018-9677-2

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