How Can We Cultivate a Practical Wisdom?

Detail from an illustration of the famous Aesop fable, used on a package of Gallaher's cigarettes.Detail from an illustration of the famous Aesop fable, used on a package of Gallaher's cigarettes.Courtesy of the George Arents Collection, New York Public Library

The United States is broken.  Americans are growing increasingly disenchanted with the institutions on which they depend. People can’t trust them. They fail to give people what they need. This is true of schools that are not serving America’s kids as well as they should. It is true of doctors who seem too busy to give patients the attention and unhurried care they crave.  It’s true of banks that mismanage assets and give shady mortgages, of financial advisors who seek commissions rather than investment returns, and of bond-rating agencies that fail to provide an accurate assessment of the risk of possible investments. It’s true of a legal system that seems more interested in expedience than in justice. It’s true of a workplace in which people fulfill quotas and hit targets and manage systems but wind up feeling disconnected from the animating forces that drew them to their careers in the first place.

If it were only patients, clients, and students who were dissatisfied, it would be easy to affix the blame on the doctors, lawyers, and teachers for not caring or for lacking the expertise to do better. But the disenchantment people experience as recipients of services is often matched by the dissatisfaction of those who provide them. Most doctors want to practice medicine as it should be practiced. But they feel helpless faced with the challenge of balancing the needs and desires of patients with the practical demands of hassling with insurance companies, earning enough to pay malpractice premiums, and squeezing patients into seven-minute visits—all while keeping up with the latest developments in their fields. Most teachers want to teach kids the basics and at the same time excite them with the prospects of educating themselves. But teachers feel helpless faced with the challenge of reconciling these goals with mandates to meet targets on standardized tests, to adopt specific teaching techniques, and to keep up with the ever-increasing paperwork. No one is satisfied—not the professionals and not their clients.

So how do we make things better?  Characteristically, when we try to improve how institutions function, we reach for one of two tools. The first tool is a set of rules and administrative oversight mechanisms that tell people what to do and monitor their performance to make sure they are doing it. The second is a set of incentives that encourage good performance by rewarding people for it. The assumption behind carefully constructed rules and procedures, with close oversight, is that even if people do want to do the right thing, they need to be told what that is. And the assumption underlying incentives is that people will not be motivated to do the right thing unless they have an incentive to do so.  Rules and incentives.  What else is there?

Rules and incentives are not enough

There is no doubt that better rules and smarter incentives have an important role to play in improving the way our institutions perform. But rules and incentives are not enough. They leave out something essential. That “something” is what classical philosopher Aristotle called practical wisdom (his word was phronesis). Without this missing ingredient, neither rules (no matter how detailed and well monitored) nor incentives (no matter how clever) will be enough to solve the problems we face.  My colleague Ken Sharpe and I wrote a book about practical wisdom a few years ago that explained what it is, why we need it, and how it can be nurtured.

Aristotle thought that our most routine social practices demanded choices, and that making the right choices demanded virtue (we might nowadays say “character”).  Aristotle thought that ethics was not mainly about establishing moral rules and following them. Instead, it was about wanting to do the right thing and figuring what the right thing to do was. It was a combination of moral will (the desire to do the right thing) and moral skill (the judgment to determine what doing the right thing requires).  In  Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle focused on what people needed to learn in order to succeed at their social practices and to flourish as human beings.  People needed to develop certain virtues or excellences—like loyalty, self-control, courage, fairness, generosity, gentleness, friendliness, and truthfulness. But the master excellence—the virtue at the heart of his Ethics—was practical wisdom. None of the other virtues could be exercised well without it.  Excellence, Aristotle famously thought, lay in finding the “mean” between extremes.  Courage, for example, was the mean between cowardice and recklessness.  And finding the mean—the right amount—required practical wisdom.

Why “wisdom” rather than a good set of rules?  Consider a doctor. How should a doctor balance respect for the autonomy of her patients when it comes to making decisions with the knowledge that sometimes the patient is not the best judge of what is needed? How should the doctor balance empathetic involvement with each patient with the detachment needed to make sound judgments? How should the doctor balance the desire to spend enough time with each patient to be thorough, compassionate, and understanding with the need to see enough patients in a day to keep the office solvent?  How should the doctor balance the desire to tell patients the truth, no matter how difficult, with the desire to be kind?

Doctors—and teachers attempting to teach and inspire, or lawyers attempting to provide proper counsel and vigorous advocacy—are not puzzling over a choice between the “right” thing and the “wrong” thing.  A good doctor needs to be honest with her patients, and kind to her patients, and to give them the hope they need to endure difficult treatments.  But in diagnosing or treating a patient, these aims can be at odds, and the doctor must decide whether to be honest or kind, or more likely how to balance honesty and kindness in a way that is appropriate for the patient in front of her. Aristotle recognized that balancing acts like these beg for wisdom, and that abstract or ethereal wisdom would not do.

Choosing wisely also demands that we are guided by the proper aims or goals of a particular activity. Aristotle’s word for the purpose or aim of an activity was telos. The telos of teaching is to educate students; the telos of doctoring is to promote health and relieve suffering. Every profession—from banking to social work—has a telos, and those who excel are those who are able to locate and pursue it.  So a good practitioner is motivated to aim at the telos of her profession.

Wisdom is learned through experience

How, then, are we to learn to be practically wise?  For Aristotle, wisdom is learned through experience. The components of wisdom, which include good judgment, empathy, flexibility, the ability to improvise, and the ability to take the perspective of another, must all be nurtured.  And the way to nurture them is to give people the chance to develop their own guidelines for acting, usually under the watchful eye of an experienced mentor.  A didactic class in practical wisdom won’t do the job. Instead, trial and error, mistakes and their correction, all under the watchful gaze of a wise and experienced teacher, are what nurture wisdom.

Thus experience is necessary for practical wisdom, but not any experience will do. Aristotle would immediately have pointed to a central problem that informs this article. The rules and incentives that modern institutions rely on in pursuit of efficiency, accountability, profit, and good performance can’t substitute for practical wisdom. Nor will they nurture it. In fact, they often undermine it.

Working for incentives is not the same as working to achieve the telos of an activity. If we simply fix the problem of incentivizing doctors for doing too much (rewarding them with a fee for any service) by paying doctors bonuses for doing less, they may end up doing too little. Worse, they may learn to make their decisions because of the incentives. We want doctors with the will and skill to do the right amount, and do it because it’s the right amount. This goal can be achieved only if doctors embrace the proper aims of medicine and know how to pursue them. Incentives, even smart ones, will do little to help us reach this goal. Often, indeed, they may move the goal farther away. And though rules are certainly necessary to guide and govern the behavior of people who are not wise, tighter rules and regulations are pale substitutes for wisdom.  And if practitioners are compelled to follow rules, they will lack the opportunity to develop their own judgment about what a situation calls for. Aristotle might say that we need rules to protect us from disaster.  But at the same time, rules alone guarantee mediocrity.

In our book, Ken Sharpe and I argued that although the development of practical wisdom makes significant cognitive and emotional demands on people, much modern research in psychology and cognitive science suggests that human beings are “born to be wise.” What will it take to encourage and nurture wise practices in our young people?  First, education must be education in character, fully as much as it is education in mathematics, science, and literature. Second, the mentors of young people must celebrate the telos of their work and not be embarrassed by it. In other words, what it means to be a good doctor, a good teacher, a good lawyer, or even a good banker must always be front and center.  Third, mentors must give young practitioners permission to experiment, to fail, and to learn from their mistakes, watching closely to provide needed guidance and to prevent catastrophe. Mentors must nurture empathetic engagement rather than treating empathy as the enemy of good judgment (recent studies of medical students have shown that their peak levels of empathy are before their first day of medical school; it goes straight downhill from there).  Young people who know why what they are doing matters, and who know how to use their judgment to do it well, will correct existing problems in our key social institutions and improve the quality of services for everyone.

And there is a side benefit—to the practitioners.  Recent research has made it clear that the key determinants of happiness are close relations with others, and work that is meaningful and engaging.  If we create a generation of practitioners who have practical wisdom, we will assure that both their work and their close relations go better.  And by doing that, we will be promoting their own happiness.

Discussion Questions

  1. The article suggests that rules are poor substitutes for people with good judgment.  On the other hand, rules probably protect us from people with bad judgment.  How can we balance the need for rules with the need for judgment?
  2. The article criticizes the reliance on incentives to motivate people to do the right thing.  Do you think the problem is not with incentives per se, but with incentives that are “dumb”?  If so, what “smart” incentives would you use to get teachers focused on student learning rather than test performance and to get doctors to focus on patient outcomes rather than patient fees?  What incentives would you use to prevent another financial collapse as a result of irresponsible behavior on the part of financial institutions?
  3. Think about people you have known and who have influenced your own path who you regard as unusually wise. What was it about their behavior that made you appreciate their wisdom?
  4. Do you think that virtually any job can be constructed and/or construed by the people who do it so that their work is not just about their pay?  In other words, can pretty much any job be focused on a “telos” that makes people eager to do it?  What would it take to make more of the work people do meaningful in this way?

Discussion Summary

My piece for “Big Questions Online” was about practical wisdom—what it is, why we need it, and how to cultivate it. The commentary was both complimentary and challenging. Everyone seemed to agree with me that the use of rules and incentives to induce people to do the right thing is a pale substitute for nurturing people who do the right thing because it’s the right thing. The question, then, is how do we nurture such wise people?

I think this is a major challenge. When Aristotle wrote about practical wisdom, millennia ago, he was writing for an audience that was extremely homogeneous when it came to determining what it meant to do the right thing. That is not our world. Modern, developed societies have embraced a kind of values pluralism that leaves it up to each of us to determine what the “right thing” is. And most of us, looking at other cultures that are in the throes of revolutions of religious fundamentalism, wouldn’t have it any other way.  So what are we moderns to do?

My hope for an answer is that we think locally, not globally. What I mean by this is that if we examine individual professions, each of them has a set of ethical standards, a code of conduct, a telos, that is supposed to govern the behavior of practitioners. Students learn about this telos as they are being trained. But with rare exceptions, they learn about it in a way that suggests that their teachers don’t take it very seriously.  There is the obligatory “professional ethics” course, but little that is taught in that course finds its way into other courses, or into the day-to-day practices of the people who are shaping the next generation of practitioners. This must be corrected. Students must see the telos of the profession they are about to enter embodied in all the practices of the people who are training them. That way, we will produce a generation of wise lawyers, wise teachers, wise doctors, and even wise bankers. Even a pluralist society can tolerate—maybe even celebrate—individual professions that define themselves in part by allegiance to a serious set of ethical standards. Even if we can’t agree about what a “wise person” is, we can probably agree about what a “wise doctor” or a “wise teacher” is. By focusing on the professions individually, I think we can end up cultivating people who are wise in their professional lives.  That can’t help but spill over into how these professionals live their personal lives.

In my own profession—higher education—I think we should be committed to helping students answer these four questions:

  1. What is worth knowing?
  2. What is worth doing?
  3. What makes for a good human life?
  4. What are my responsibilities to other people?

College is not the only place for developing answers to these questions, of course, but it’s a good place. But in our current emphasis on providing the disciplinary training that will make our students employable, we have neglected these big questions, leaving our students to answer them for themselves.  I think this represents an abdication of responsibility.  We can start to embrace our moral responsibility to help form the character of our students by focusing on training a set of what I have come to call “intellectual virtues” in our classrooms.  These virtues include love of truth, humility, honesty, intellectual courage, good listening, perspective taking and empathy, perseverance, and open-mindedness.  These are “virtues” because they have moral content. And they are “intellectual” because they are essential to the full intellectual development and achievement of our students. If we took the cultivation of intellectual virtues seriously, we would remoralize college education, and contribute to the cultivation of wisdom in our students. Moving in this direction requires that we shift the focus away from “college education as job training” and on to “college education as character formation.”  I think this would be a noble enterprise for our colleges and universities to undertake.

I leave this discussion with these questions for people who have been following the discussion to ponder:

  1. What is, and should be, the telos of law, education, medicine, and finance?
  2. What form of training is most likely to induce rising professionals to internalize this telos?
  3. What are the principle obstacles to remoralizing the professions in this way, and how can they be overcome?
  4. What can each of us do to embody and display the intellectual virtues I enumerated in our everyday activities?

21 Responses

  1. George Gantz says:

    I was struggling to get a clear sense from the article of what “practical wisdom” really is – but conclude that it basically means:  good values – good judgment – good choices.  Of course, this begs the question of what “good” is, as the definition of what is good would be a reflection of one’s values.  Indeed, the question of values is fundamental to the exercise of both judgement and choices – so perhaps that is a good place to focus.

    The problem with rules is that they replace the question of values with the question of rules.  For an individial in a rule-based setting, the only value that matters is obedience to the rules.  This undermines autonomy and accountability.  It also sets a high moral burden on those setting the rules – and increases the risk that a sub-optimal value set in the rule-makers will be institutionalized, as it is for example in autocracies or kleptocracies.  It is critically important to ask – what rules protect us from this kind of rule-based abuses – who is watching the rule-makers?  Effective mechanisms, such as transparency of decision-making and democratic institutional structures, are necessary but probably not entirely sufficient to discipline the rule-seting process.  And perhaps these features can help give the rule-followers some measure of autonomy and a sense of personal responsibility?  This would bring back the question of values into a system of rules.

    The problem with incentives, such as pay and benefits, is that they generally substitute “good values”with pecuniary ones.  While linking pay incentives to performance measures that reflect “good values” will help, it does not address the fundamental problem:  achieving true “practical wisdom” requires that the good values be internalized rather than used simply as the means to a different end – pay and benefits.  Perhaps, rather, we should be seeking to de-emphasize the identification of individual value with “making a living” and money – these are things that we need to do but they have little role in the cultivation of good values and practical wisdom.  Ironically, if an individual has good values they will bring practical wisdom to their work and jobs because it is the right thing to do – not because of the pay per se.

    • Barry Schwartz says:

      Let me say that George Gantz has hity the nail on the head.  Practical wisdom consists of the skill to figure out the right thing to do and the will to do it.  The will to do the right thing depends precisely on what George calls values.  Values are not just a matter of individual conscience.  Each profession has value–what Aristotle would have called a telos, and to join a profession is to embrace and internalize its values.  Material incentives are an attempt to substitute financial gain for those values, and as disasters in finance, healthcare, and education teach us, they don’t work. People with the wrong values will always be able to find ways to game the system and extract the financial benefits without delivering the “goods.” And rules are substitutes for judgment.  If you don’t think people have good judgment, you’ll give them rules to follow.  This is understandable, but it has the unfortunate effect of preventing people from ever developing the good judgment they need.

      So I find myself agreeing pretty much completely with George’s post.  I’m sorry that he found my discussion of practical wisdom a little vague, but it is inherently difficult to define–especially in a short article.  I think the book makes it clearer what Ken Sharpe and I mean by practical wisdom, and why good practitioners need it.

      • George Gantz says:

        Thanks for the reply and the compliment – the credit goes to others I have read, incuding Emmanuel Swedenborg.  Swedenborg teaches that our decisions are driven by our will, and our will is motivated by our inner loves (the substance of our spiritual charater).  If we are motivated by money or dominion (love of self- love of the world) then we are distancing ourselves from what is truly important and satisfing – and choosing what is evil.  If we are motivated by care for others and a desire to be useful (love of the neighbor – love of God) then our path will be towards what is most important and spiritually satisfying – it will be towards good.

        Your article discusses the importance of positive mentoring for children.  It would seem that mentoring is also a useful model for adults.  Yet mentoring in our culture seems to be primarily directed at the achievement of worldy success in academics or careers, and not towards the development of virtue.  For example, I just participated in a formal mentoring program and found the goals to be predominately towards career success – and the discussion of virtues (as in qualities of leadership and integrity) was in a context where they are merely means to the end.  As in the case of giving financial incentives for doing good, this turns the matter of virtue and values upside down – the virtue of doing good is subservient to the value of doing well in academics or career.

        I am interested in your thoughts about how this can be changed, and look forward to reading your book.  How can we encourage a cultural shift in which virtue is recognized and respected more than success?

        • Barry Schwartz says:

          George has again hit the nail on the head.  In our book, we talk at great length about the importance of mentoring–of adults (teachers, residents, young lawyers).  And the mentoring must include mentoring in virtue.  There is the odd program here and there that actuaslly does this, but for the most part it is absent from anyone’s radar screen

  2. Vladimir says:

    1.”Rules” and “common sense” is born from the Logos”. In Ancient original the Gospel of John in Greek is the axiom: “In the Beginning was the Logos…” (“ν ρχ ν Λόγος” ). “Logos” “the law of laws” or “meta-law.” In the majority of Chinese Bible translations for “Logos” uses the concept of «Tao». For science, which is experiencing a “crisis of understanding“, for education and for society today needs a deeper understanding of the “Logos“,  a modern interpretation of the Holy Scriptures for deeper understanding of “the beginning”, the path selection and practical wisdom Philosophy for Children” must be entered with the 3th grade, and “Ethics” kindergarten. For historians the “Philosophy of history” for physicists – Philosophy of physics”,  for mathematicians “Philosophy of mathematics.” Politicians, engineers, lawyers and economists must learn to think more clearly and distinctly” (René Descartes), otherwise the “crisis of understanding”.
    2. Let us recall the famous words of Immanuel Kant: “Two things awe me most, the starry sky above me and the moral law within me.” Conclusion: need a revolution in the education system, the new global era of enlightenment. Philosophy  should be on the first place. To increase accountability at all levels (education, medicine, politics) is required conscious shift from “Democracy 2.0” to “3.0 Democracy” – democracy with clear and distinct feedback to the source of power – the people. The Information revolution gives such a chance to humanity.

    3. I have been several times as an apprentice:  joiner, carpenter, electrician, took my first steps as an engineer. Everywhere I helped ordinary workers labor veterans. In philosophy for me the most important teacher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and his book “The Phenomenon of Man“. Then I fell in love with “Philosophy”. Wisdom is needed especially in professions where there is danger to life. Especially politicians need wisdom. Humanity  a lot of existential threats and risks today. It must be deeply and calmly think to look for a more reliable way of the future.

    4. And again  my answer: the Information revolution requires the revolution in the education system. Philosophy should be the first helper in the education of creative and wise personality and at all stages of life.

    • Barry Schwartz says:

      Vladimir, I largely agree with you, but it partly depends on what “logos” includes.  One of the arguments we make in the book is that reason is not enough for wisdom.  One also needs educated emotion.  I think the Greeks underestimated the importance of emotion.

      • Vladimir says:

        Barry, I agree with you. But in my interpretation of the concept of Logos” identical to the cosmic “Logos” of Heraclitus and unites triad RatioEmotioIntuitio. The Dictionary of Ancient Greek A.Dvoretsky term “Logos” has 34 values. “Logos” – the essence and heart of the dialectic of being, moreover – trialectic. In the writings of the early Christian thinkers  identified Logos with the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

        Sir John Marks Templeton put the fundamental question before researchers XXI-st century: Do Scriptures need interpreting to accommodate an expanded notion the universe? He gave us the direction of research: The unknown is not unknowable and is vastly greater than the know and There are more possibilities in the universe than one can imagine“.

        Today we should see the Universe as a whole in order to understand all the diversity and beauty of the “LifeWorld” (E.Husserl). I see this as the most important task of the “practical wisdom”, the practical philosophy, which is to embrace our “LifeWorld” in order to preserve its beauty and grandeur. In this “Great Cause” the triad RatioEmotioIntuitio” should go always together.

        When I worked as an engineer in the energy sector with a voltage of 220,000 volts at me in the first place was the Ratio” – the safety rules, the second – “Emotio” – a sense of constant danger to my life and the lives of my colleagues, and in third place – “Intuitio” . This was a practical wisdom that prompted the threats and risks of high-voltage electrical installations. Just as well I grasped” the triad of practical wisdom – “RatioEmotio Intuitio”, when I worked as  joiner and carpenter.

  3. Roger A. Sawtelle says:

    I have come to the conclusion that Wisdom is the result of puting “First Things First.”  The problem with this is determining What is the First Thing?

    In the US we have a great division between those who put immediate short range private benefits first, and those who try to put long range community benefits first.

    Our economic system is based on profits.  Thus many people say that profits must come first even at the expense of the eco system.  They desire to make the government give make rules tha give incentives to destroy the environment, reduce the number of good paying jobs, and lessen health insurance coverage all in the name of profits.

     Taxes are another source of friction.  Higher taxes are seen as a threat to profits, even if they are used to make improvements to the infrastructure which in the long run helps productivity, proftss, and the society in general.

    We do need a balance between freedom, personal satisfaction, and structure.  We need to get away from making riches or money as our primary goal.  If we make money first in our lives, we will either be tempted to play the rules to our own selfish benefit, as MR did, or disregard them entirely as others have done.  We must make the mutual interest of the community as our primary goal.

    If we are willing to do our best to make an honest and positive living within the rules without the expectation that we deserve to be rich, then we will be better off and so will be the community.      

    • Barry Schwartz says:

      I continue to be impressed with the quality of commentary on my article.  Roger Sawtelle is right, I think, that we have come to rely on competitive markets as substitutes for morals.  My point in my article is that this kind of substitution will never do the job.

      • Roger A. Sawtelle says:


        Thank you for your kind words.

        If we are talking about morality, we are not talking about education.  Science in so far as it is dominated by survival of the fittest Darwinism promotes competition.  Economics promotes competition.  Even the religious right in the US has been taken over by liberatarian ideology.

        Philosophy could play a role, but it is dead in the water.  Many atheists favor liberatarianism.  

         As far as I can the Catholic Church does encourage cooperative economics, but many support the conservative agenda in exchange for support for its anti-abortion and other conservative positions.  The mainstream Protestant Churches are caught between the Gospel and the conservatism of many of ther most promenent members.    

        The Black Church with a theology like Dr. King’s is the best source for a solid world view that has a true balance between personal freedom and community responsibility.  It is sad that far too many European Americans consider African America thought second rate and more African Americans don’t take their tradition more seriously.

  4. George Gantz says:

    Barry – Agreed, this is a high level of commentary! 

    Roger – I would like to comment on your statements: “Science in so far as it is dominated by survival of the fittest Darwinism promotes competition.  Economics promotes competition.”  I believe an updated perspective of evolutionary science and economics would suggest the opposite.  Markets do not work without trust – and the generalized trust that underlies monetary systems and global trade reflects an extraordinary human capacity for empathy.  Given the strong incentives that exist for people to manipulate and game the system in ways that undermine that trust, it’s remarkable that we have modern economies at all.  See for example:   Additionally, recent studies by Martin Nowak, Robert Wright and others point to evolutionary mechanisms that support the evolution of empathy (and even religion) – as a result, the evolution of the human species and human history demonstrates “survival of the most cooperative.”  My sense is that such an updated view supports Barry’s contention that morals and virtue are more important characteristics of humanity than material success.  I think the antidote for these mistakes is – more philosophy, of the kind that hearkens back to the Greeks – some of this is being probed in the BQO program in articles like this one.

    Vladimir – I am certainly glad that you grasped the triad of practical wisdom of logos and not a 220,000 volt circuit!  I do have one caveat to a faith in logos and the statement “The unknown is not unknowable.”  There are ineluctable limits in mathematics and science, that provide evidence that there are things we cannot ever “know”.  This is a key revelation of the 20th century and it bring us full circle back to the mystery of being and consciousness and the need for metaphysical and theological inquiries to complement our empirical ones.  See for example:  and some of the articles it links to.

  5. George Gantz says:

    Barry – Agreed, this is a high level of commentary! 

    Roger – I would like to comment on your statements: “Science in so far as it is dominated by survival of the fittest Darwinism promotes competition.  Economics promotes competition.”  I believe an updated perspective of evolutionary science and economics would suggest the opposite.  Markets do not work without trust – and the generalized trust that underlies monetary systems and global trade reflects an extraordinary human capacity for empathy.  Given the strong incentives that exist for people to manipulate and game the system in ways that undermine that trust, it’s remarkable that we have modern economies at all.  See for example:   Additionally, recent studies by Martin Nowak, Robert Wright and others point to evolutionary mechanisms that support the evolution of empathy (and even religion) – as a result, the evolution of the human species and human history demonstrates “survival of the most cooperative.”  My sense is that such an updated view supports Barry’s contention that morals and virtue are more important characteristics of humanity than material success.  I think the antidote for these mistakes is – more philosophy, of the kind that hearkens back to the Greeks – some of this is being probed in the BQO program in articles like this one.

    Vladimir – I am certainly glad that you grasped the triad of practical wisdom of logos and not a 220,000 volt circuit!  I do have one caveat to a faith in logos and the statement “The unknown is not unknowable.”  There are ineluctable limits in mathematics and science, that provide evidence that there are things we cannot ever “know”.  This is a key revelation of the 20th century and it bring us full circle back to the mystery of being and consciousness and the need for metaphysical and theological inquiries to complement our empirical ones.  See for example:  and some of the articles it links to.

    • Barry Schwartz says:

      I’m kind of humbled by the thoughtfulness of the commentary thus far.  I’m delighted to learn that “logos” includes emotion and intuition.  Aside from almost certainly leading to better decisions most of the time, this triad also captures how people actually make decisions most of the time.  On the question of whether evolutionary theory and neoclassical market economics promote cooperation/moral consideration or selfishness, I think George is right that modern though in evolution acknowledges the power of group selection, which in turn acknowledges the power of cooperation, empathy and the like.  That said, the dominant lens remains the pursuit of self-interest, as a law of nature.  Same is true in economics.  Yes, markets and contracts depend to a large degree on trust to run efficiently.  But the engine that drives economic progress is self interest combined with competition.  So I don’t think that either evolutionary scientists or economists have given the virtues equal status with the self-interest competition model.  At least not yet.

      • Vladimir says:

        Barry, Humanity is experiencing an extraordinary stage in evolution. Therefore, the actual “practical wisdom” – is not only think about themselves and their loved ones, about the work,  about the “interestsof the country, but also about the fate of all Humanity. We earthlings are now very much existential threats and risks that cause produce a new “practical wisdom”.

        So how do we make things better? This question should be constantly at all levels. This question should ask the authorities at all levels. This question should be put before the power of the people and for themselves. I, power engineer and economist,  calls the modern economy – the economy of existential chaos. Today, change is needed globally. Earthlings have problems today that were not there in the time of Aristotle and Kant. Therefore, the “practical wisdom” for the “Great Common Cause” today we must develop together, especially at the UN level. Spaceship named the Earth – a very fragile creature. Without reliable team captain’s cabin” is already very dangerous.

        This year I participated in the Contest FQXi Essay 2014 How Should Humanity Steer the Future?. Contestants were given a lot of ideas and suggestions on specific practical wisdom. But what to do next? I think it is necessary to organize the annual World Intellectual Forum, similar to the World Economic Forum, but more democratic. Requires extensive global intellectual exchange of practical wisdom. But most importantly -the revolution in education. Philosophy and Ethics should be the main items that raise a wise person.

        • Barry Schwartz says:


          Though I certainly agree with you that we face problems that Aristotle could not have contemplated, I think his understanding of what wisdom is, why it is needed, and what it requires would serve us well today.  My one reservation about this is that appealing to judgment, rather than rules, might make good sense in a homogeneous society like Aristotle’s.  In the heterogeneous modern world, I’m not sure it does.  It is impossible even to get people to agree on what goals are worth pursuing, so getting agreement on how to pursue them is close to hopeless. The problem with a “World Intellectual Forum” is that no one would listen.  Money is power, and rich people go to the World Economic Forum, but no one lstens to them either.  It is hard to be optimistic.

          • Vladimir says:

            Your essay and the book says you are optimistic who acts for the good of people. I think your book will be a good tool for the optimism of many earthlings. You plan to its publication in Russian?
            A perfect example of great optimism for all people of the Earth – the entire life and work of Sir John Marks Templeton. I was impressed by his wonderful book “Discovering the Laws of Life”. This is a perfect example of practical wisdom for all people of the
            Earth, vivid example of the “Logos” in action for life.

            As for the idea of a “World Intellectual Forum“, then I think that the example of the creative and educational activities of the John Templeton Foundation gives hope for the possibility of organizing such a forum. Let us all remember the optimism of Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell in their Manifesto (1955). At that time it was even more reason for pessimism.

            The memory of the “Caribbean crisis” in 1962 makes me optimistic and gives me the impulse to practical wisdom for the edifying a more secure future for children and grandchildren, for all earthlings. Today, the time for the earthlings when to make the right choice the way. This I realized when I read in the magazine “America” (1990, №1) the  article “Last Date – 2030 year” by L.Brown, K. Flavin, S. Postel. Nature and the entire amount of existential threats and risks make us look the right way. It just needs a great practical wisdom. Your activities and your books build up the such wisdom – the Practical Wisdom for optimism.

  6. abed.peerally says:

    An excellent article which obviously, as the author Barry Schwartz  and other very knowledgeable people realize, is meant to raise more questions than answers. As long as there are humans and humanity there will continue to have philosophy engrained in practical issues. So clearly the whole world, not just the US, appears to be broken. We have had in all the comments a very good display of arguments and Gantz as usual shows his mastery of complicated issues. Philosophy is not dead and is very alive, but frustratingly so and this quote form Gantz is relevant:

    There are ineluctable limits in mathematics and science, that provide evidence that there are things we cannot ever “know”.  This is a key revelation of the 20th century and it bring us full circle back to the mystery of being and consciousness and the need for metaphysical and theological inquiries to complement our empirical ones. 

    This is a deep observation but different minds might interpret it in different and sometimes contradictory ways. Schwartz and Gantz bring me to my main point: We have a knowledge problem and practical wisdom is the ultimate expression derived from the theoretical objective of the universe. Every human being has, obligatorily to engage in some amount of however minute bit of practical wisdom. This is being a conscious being and to a large extent even microbes, plants and animals do so at their non-human levels. That is actually the basis of what is consciousness as I meant in a recent comment I made in Physicsworld, last week,  on the recent well publicized lecture by Arkani-Hamed. There you will see I have referred to the chronic lack of necessary knowledge on the part of our topmost intellectuals. They are the people, in all sectors of knowledge, who are expected to give us correct and useful knowledge, but that is not happening, in spite of huge sums of funds are being invested in universities and research institutions. Of course business people will try to make the most of whatever exploitable knowledge comes out from all that colossally funded  mostly world public sector..

    What we have at the beginning of the 21stcentury is a confused intellectual and heterogeneous society. That is why we need the Templeton Foundation for instance and the great job they are doing. The issue as Gantz suggests is perhaps about a non productive science and the inadequate resulting philosophical interpretations. But I do not believe that there are limits to good science. The inadequacy we have seen in this key revelation mentioned by Gantz is due to: first the scientific world, in some areas like mainly our physical realities and the philosophical lessons that can potentially accrue from such efforts and the resultant manner these are reported in the mass media, has been very disappointing. That is not indicative of ineluctable limits in knowledge creation but of  inadequately precise ways of conducting enquiries. As I have several times argued there will come the time within the coming years, of a change of pathways that will as Gantz remarks, energize metaphysical and theological inquiries to complement our empirical ones, in a manner which Schwartz articles aims to achieve: to energise the emergence of a new world order of philosophical and consequently of practical wisdom. Science, religion and philosophy can lead the way in this endeavour in an atmosphere of a more realistic mass education.

  7. George Gantz says:

    Barry and Vladimir:  I also posted an essay in FQXi this year (4th place) that offered a more indirect and, I think, optimistic approach to humanity’s future.  I argued that “cooperation” is fundamental to our universe.  All complex systems demonstrate emergence towards “attractor states” that are characterized by cooperative behaviors among the components.  Yes, there can be temporary states during the process of emergence that do not reflect increased cooperation, such as genetic mutations that decrease an organism’s metabolic efficiency and thereby reduce the probability of survivial, or, perhaps, institutions that undermine human cooperation and the trust of the humans that comprise it, ultimately leading to its failure in competition with better institutions.  This may be a reasonable fear for the United States if, as Barry states in the opening sentence of his article “The United States is broken.”

    My recommendation in the essay is to focus on empirical knowledge as the power of the spear of human progress – but to arm “the tip of the spear” with the highest of human empathic qualities, in a word with love.  In this way we would achieve increasing cooperation among people and institutions – leading to increased human thriving.  To use a Swedenborgian concept, this would mean marrying knowledge and reason – faculties of the mind – with love and compassion – faculties of the heart.  This can be quite a challenge.  In the long run, those people and institutions (or civiilizations if we think about it at a galactic scale) that succeed will survive.  Those that do not will fail.  Perhaps this is a cosmic lens for thinking about the fall of mankind and our possible redemption through love.  I would add that practical wisdom – good values – good judgement – good choices – is essential to our progress.

    • Barry Schwartz says:

      This comment is addressed to all the latest posts.  I do think that “love,” here meaning concern for the well being of others, may be essential.  And I agree that a story can be told about how virtues like love and honesty are adaptive and will operate at the level of groups.  That said, I am very much influenced by anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who said the hallmark of human beings is that they are “unfinished animals.” What he meant is that so much of human nature is shaped by culture.  And this fact is what takes my optimism at the level of individuals and turns it into pessimism at the level of whole societies.  The institution that dominates all developed societies, to the exclusion of almost all others, is the competitive market.  And it erodes both love and honesty.  A famous economist at the turn of the last century once wrote, “What does the economist economize on?  The economist economizes on love.”  What he meant is that if you had competitive markets, you didn’t need people who cared about the welfare of other people.  Well, he was wrong about that.  But in the modern context, people who shpw concern for others and honesty in their dealings with others are simply inviting themselves to be exploited by those who play the market game more single-mindedly.  I think it will take a fairly substantial social transformation to undo the malign influence of economic structures on the character of human beings.  I hope I’m wrong.


      • George Gantz says:

        I too hope you are wrong – otherwise the human species will end up as “finished animals” – like the dinosaurs and the dodos….  But if empathy can evolve through evolutionary fitness testing – a competitive survival process, then so too can human economic institutions evolve equivlanent forms of caring behaviors.  The most successful companies and governments today are those that do the best job in providing freedom and opportunity for employees and citizens to collaborate and to employ their talents collectively to solve problems for the good of others.   Insuring they survive and replicate those qualities is a not trivial question in the face of the countervailing incentives for gaming, rent-seeking and personal aggrandizement – but those are short term gains (with losses to society overall)  that will eventually (and perhaps I should say – in the long run) undermine any insitutional hegemony that dominates for a period of time.

        On the specifics we may disagree but on the goals – we do not.  All the best!

  8. Glenn Hodges says:


    Tocqueville warned that the corruption of communal purpose was an inherent danger in a democratic, free-enterprise society like ours. In the early 19th century, Americans were still bound by a shared religious ethos, and that helped mitigate the tendency of the marketplace to dominate the nation’s priorities. But that’s no longer the case. How do you encourage a value like “love” when we no longer share a belief in Platonic/Aristotelian (i.e. intrinsic) values?

    I’m sorry to throw this impossible question into the mix when this thread is about to close. But I think that’s the hard nut to crack. It might be possible to identify the telos of specific occupations and institutions, and cultivate an orientation to them, as you suggest doing in your essay. But the telos of our society writ large? That’s arguably beyond our ken as a secular society. Philosophers like John Rawls and Richard Rorty argue that we can cobble together values without any sort of real telos, but that doesn’t seem to be what’s actually happening. What’s actually happening is that the marketplace is becoming our only shared center of value—the only thing we can agree on. That’s bracing and frightening, but until we start to grapple with the bare fact that that’s what’s happening, I don’t think we’ll be able to start constructing a solution.