What is practical wisdom (PW)?

In their book Practical Wisdom (2010) Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe give a good example of how practical wisdom really works. They describe how Aristotle used to watch how the craftsmen of Athens solved all their ‘problems’ by learning to improvise and become mentally flexible. Aristotle watched carpenters, shoemakers, blacksmiths and masons as they found practical solutions for every situation. The masons of the Isle of Lesbos fascinated him the most, because they invented a flexible ruler out of lead, a forerunner of today’s tape measure. They needed this ‘flexible rule’ because they had to carve round columns with a specific circumference.

Aristotle saw that every particular circumstance, required a particular, often tailor-made solution. He therefore concluded that for the application of every rule, the particular circumstance needs to be carefully considered. In the case of the masons, the rulers had to be bent to fit the circumstance.  In other words, a rigid rule applied rigidly will not solve anything. Practical wisdom is required, so that the proper use (flexible, not rigid) of the rules can come about.

Aristotle took the thought process a step further. How would such examples be in the social sphere, where one is not concerned with a slab of stone, but the interraction of one human being with another?

We need practical wisdom (phronesis, not sophia – which is the name he gave to theoretical wisdom) when we want to find the right kind of action, or the right kind of solution for a particular situation.  What happens if we just use rigid rules in a rigid way  without considering particular circumstances? We get a bad result, and our action may even cause some kind of distress or damage to somebody else or to the community or organisation we are operating in.

But in a social context, another uniquely human factor of vital importance comes into play: motive. What is our motive for acting? Was something done deliberately, or was it done by mistake? How is it that we are capable of having a conscious motive to do something good, or to do something bad? According to Arsistotle, man marks himself off from the other animals through certain capacities, such as ‘conscious thinking’, and ‘human speech’. Motive (related to the word motivation) is clearly also one of the qualities we associate with being human. It is indeed vital, since it is an essential ingredient of practical wisdom.

If we strive to understand particular situations (not only general scenarios)  according to circumstance and motive, we find that it is inevitable that our mind builds up an inner picture of the interrelationships between the cirumstances, motives and ‘actors’. This happens through our imagination. But where motive is concerned, we need to use the term: moral imagination. Moral imagination reveals to us the deeper context of human actions and reactions. It requires of our mind  to  enter into the various relative possibilities of action and reaction with empathy. Our deeper feeling and our judgement are nourished. The nuances of context can be grasped and experienced through moral imagination, just like the eye has the ability to experience the nuances of colours in a rainbow, or in a richly- coloured painting.

We cannot do without moral imagination if we want to make the right judgement and decision in a difficult human situation or in a difficult ‘case’. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why Albert Einstein maintained that imagination is more important than knowledge.

Moral imagination is one of the keys to understanding the English Common Law system, which appears to be beautifully designed to prevent lawyers from becoming slaves to rigidly codified rules. If one has no motivation to use and excercise the faculty of comparing the similarities and also the differences of circumstances and motives of one case to other cases (normal and healthy practice in common law) –  then moral imagination and practical wisdom atrophy. Here the motto: ‘use it or lose it’ is appropriate.

It was for this reason that the common law system rejected the old Saxon code that said that circumstances, intentions and motives were not important. According to the old system, a crime was a crime, because the general rule stated that it was a crime. Clearly practical wisdom should be part of social life. If it is not cultivated in the right way, then, like a muscle that is not used – it atrophies, and its function is lost. This has tragic consequences.

Now, our world has become so sophisticated, that without the practice of practical wisdom, the marriage of feeling and thinking which Plato spoke of when he referred to man’s ordinate affections (regulated feelings)  and which C.S. Lewis has reminded us of in his classic book The Abolition of Man, is doomed to end in divorce. This divorce, like all divorces, is bitter – because fixed and omnipotent rules arise (particularly where children are concerned) where there was once freedom of choice.

In addition, practical wisdom is part of a tightly- knit process in which  qualities like empathy and self-regulation are interconnected and coupled with other capacities such as  moral imagination and memory. This process is not linear at all. Even human speech and the upright carriage play important parts in this tightly-knit system. Our language already tells us about these relationships, since we speak of an ‘upright person’, or a ‘spineless’ person when we want to draw attention to the quality of a persons character.

Where practical wisdom is concerned we are always dealing with the right use of our human capacities. It is only when we learn this right use  that, ‘indirectly’ conditions become favourable for pratical wisdom to grow and bear fruit. Misuse and abuse of our highest human faculties leads to the social and psychological disintegration and disillusionment prevalent today.