University of Earth
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Human Values Project (Explanations)

Insights: Wisdom and requisite variety

Human Values Project


1. Challenge of communication and the search for wisdom

In a collective investigation for UNESCO entitled In Search of a Wisdom for the World: the role of ethical values in education (1987), the Club of Rome concludes: "Successful development is very closely bound up with society's capacity to learn.... The role of communication and the revolution it is bringing about in the transmission of ideas may radically transform the problem of ethical values -- but the whole question needs careful thought and the will to succeed.

Such thinking must be a collective enterprise, associating men and women from all countries and all fields of study, since it is an immense undertaking, a grand design that is at stake. Much patience and tolerance will be needed because not everyone gives the same importance to each fact.

Nor is the objective equally obvious to everyone. With the modern world as it is, the search for wisdom will not necessarily strike people as a priority issue and many will be sceptical and ironical. Nevertheless, all are invited to lay the foundations for a new humanism that will enable the peoples of tomorrow to live together harmoniously."

It is intriguing that a report by such authorities should endeavour so explicitly to marry the "search for wisdom" with the role ethical values in education (as signalled by the title of the report).

2. Images of wisdom

Times of crisis are signalled not only by the severity of the problems faced but also by the failure of standard solutions and by the loss of confidence in the paradigms through which new responses are recommended. At such times people search for "wisdom" to guide them through the crisis. It is therefore valuable to explore where people look for such wisdom and what forms it is perceived to take. A prime requirement would seem to be that it should transcend habitual forms of thought whilst reaffirming in a regenerative way the integrity of society. Achieving this would seem paradoxically to call for both a negation of received modes of thought and an integration of them into a larger or more firmly grounded context, perhaps affirming values recognized as fundamental or eternal. Wisdom is thus signalled by the perception of a more challenging opportunity opened up by the crisis itself.

The following are some of the sources of wisdom acknowledged by different constituencies, roughly grouped.

3. Sources of wisdom: genius

(a) Nobel laureates: The ultimate accolade in the advancement of understanding is the Nobel Prize. It is the peak achievement sought in many careers. Pronouncements of individual laureates are viewed as a form of wisdom. Meetings of laureates are one of the acknowledged means of benefitting from the best insights that modern society has to offer. And yet the prizes are given for very specific achievements, especially in the case of the sciences. It is not clear how such specialization is any guarantee of a wisdom that must transcend specific biases. Meetings of laureates are renowned for the expectations they arouse but not for the insights to which they give rise.

(b) Super-intelligence: In any society there are those who are gifted with a higher order of intelligence. They are recognized in concern for the super-gifted as a unique resource or through the associations of high-IQ people that are created. For some, such levels of intelligence offer the insights desired from wisdom. And yet the impact of the super-gifted on the current crisis has been limited. Often the intelligence demonstrated is narrow in focus and unable to handle the fuzzy complexity of a turbulent environment. Gatherings of such people are not renowned for the insights that they generate.

4. Sources of wisdom: expertise and experience

(a) Universities: Academics continue to cultivate the belief that university faculties provide the environment in which wisdom is to be found, if it exists. This follows from the traditional image of such centres of academic excellence. And yet it has become increasingly clear, from internal and external critics, that the competition between faculties (in the desperate search for resources and career advancement) has severely eroded the role of the university as a source of wisdom relevant to the challenge of the times.

(b) Think tanks: A key source of insight for policy-makers and others in this time of crisis are the policy institutes and think tanks, some of which have emerged as a reaction to the inappropriate information emerging from traditional universities. Such centres are designed as centres of excellence to focus conceptual resources on the global problematique and to envisage appropriate responses. And yet such centres seem constantly to be caught unprepared for the new form the crisis takes and seem to have little to offer that is meaningful within the political constraints under which their proposals have to be approved.

(c) General systems and cybernetics

The phenomena of society and nature can be described and interrelated through the discipline of general systems. This deliberately integrative discipline, and the cybernetic insights with which it is associated, in theory embodies all the principles necessary to control a society navigating through turbulent times. And yet the practitioners of the discipline, and the computer-based models they build, have not proved capable of embodying the factors which oppose the wider implementation of such insights. They have proved unable to deal with competing viewpoints and seem insensitive to shifting values and to the human scale, thus limiting the application of their wisdom to compartmentalized situations.

5. Sources of wisdom: advisors

(a) Counsellors and consultants: Under whatever name, organizations continue to call upon counsellors, consultants or experts, as a source of wisdom and expertise in designing more appropriate responses to the crisis of the times. This function continues to develop, supported by the increasing professionalization of management and policy skills. And yet, despite such investment, it is not clear whether the result is merely an adaptation to immediate challenges or is empowering society as a whole to respond to the larger dimensions of the crisis that exceed the mandates under which such consultants are required to operate.

(b) Community of peers: There is a recognition that although no one individual in a community may be able to provide the insights to respond to a complex crisis, the wisdom to guide an appropriate response is however available within a community of peers (such as an "invisible college" of academics). And yet although such groups of peers have accomplished much in sensitizing the world to different dimensions of the crisis and have explored many alternatives, they have remained unable to contain the crisis as it continues to evolve.

(c) Friendships: Wisdom may also be sought from a respected friend, not necessarily in the expectation of profundity, but because a caring friend (possibly a "soul friend") can provide a sensitive alternative perspective. Such a relationship can evoke wisdom, irrespective of the level of insight of either party individually. And yet, whatever the value to the individual, this form of wisdom is difficult to render useful to the condition of society as a whole.

6. Sources of wisdom: strategists

(a) Statesmen (and women): Wisdom is often associated with statesmanship, whether in the person of an emperor, a president or an "éminence grise". Such people are seen as rising above the concerns of petty politics and national preoccupations in the service of wider interests. In modern times such wisdom might be assumed to be institutionalized in the directorship of major intergovernmental organizations. And yet it would seem that the degree of ambition and political infighting required to achieve and maintain such positions inhibits the demonstration of a level of wisdom adequate to the present crisis. Too often nationalistic priorities are all too evident.

(b) Policy scientists: In an effort to provide a system for the subtle insights of those concerned with policy-making and the development of strategies, the policy sciences have emerged as a discipline. This appears to have been most appreciated as a source of insight to the extent that it focused either on the more immediate priorities of those in power concerned for the short-term survival of their initiatives or else on narrower ranges of concerns. In this respect it has become a tool of technocrats despite its wider potential in responding to the dimensions faced by those with broader concerns.

(c) Military generals: From earliest times the strategic sense developed by leaders of successful military campaigns as been considered as source of insight beyond purely military concerns. This is partly due to the human insight required of generals in responding to the non-technical factors governing the success of their actions. The classic example is that of Sun Tzu (The Art of War).

7. Hidden and revealed knowledge

(a) Religious authorities: For many, the process whereby religious authorities are elected or appointed is a guarantee that the wisdom available to that community is maximized in the person chosen, whether it is a pope, a priest or a spiritual "elder". Such focal figures perform important functions in this respect. And yet the disaffection with organized religion has progressively undermined the relevance of the insights of such people to the point at which their positions are even perceived by others as exacerbating the crisis rather than alleviating it.

(b) Esoteric societies: Wisdom continues to be sought within esoteric societies, often of a secret nature although "schools of wisdom" continue to be founded, inspired by those of the antiquity. Such societies are usually structured so that participants pass through a series of stages associated with increasing levels of wisdom that cannot be effectively communicated to the uninitiated without danger. At the highest level it is not unusual for a relationship to be claimed to hidden masters as a font of wisdom. And yet, despite rumours of the activities of such societies at the highest levels of society, it remains unclear whether the wisdom to which they claim access can be considered relevant to the challenge of the times.

(c) Sacred books: For many, wisdom is embodied in particular sacred books, and no further wisdom is called for in responding to any crisis. It is argued that if humanity were to abide by the principles indicated therein, society could rise above its problems with ease. And yet society has been torn apart by the constituencies inspired by different sacred books. And even those inspired by the same book have proved unable to reconcile their differences. Somehow the wisdom of such works is insufficient to the task of reconciling the many ways in which it may be interpreted.

8. Sources of wisdom: traditional

(a) Proverbial folk wisdom: There is a large reservoir of confidence in folk wisdom, whether expressed in proverbs or aphorisms or in the person of particular individuals seen to be "close to the earth" and its rhythms. Such wisdom is especially important to those in rural areas. And yet this wisdom has proved vulnerable to novelideas associated with modernization and has largely lost its attractiveness to the young.

(b) Witchcraft: In some forms witchcraft is held to be a source of earth wisdom, traditionally associated with powerful feminine insight. The value of this insight is believed by some to have been distorted as a result of periods of religious repression, especially since its threat to the dominance of male approaches encouraged deliberate misunderstanding of its nature. Past decades have seen a marked resurgence of witchcraft, partly encouraged by certain trends in feminism. Some distinguish the spiritual orientation of the "magician" from the material orientation of the "witch" (with one displacing the other under different circumstances). And yet, despite the ways in which it compensates for the sterility of organized society, such earth wisdom permeates with difficulty into wider society and is frequently corrupted by the dubious initiatives of other forms of witchcraft.

(c) Divination: Many cultures have devices or procedures through which divination is possible without the need for any intermediary. This may involve "casting the bones", casting a horoscope, use of runes, or other such procedures. The results are treated as a form of wisdom by which many continue to live on a daily basis.

(d) Seers: One of the oldest recognized sources of wisdom is the seer, epitomized by the oracle at Delphi. Their authority may come from their skill in divination. Although it might be assumed to be obsolete, this function is now actively filled by a wide spectrum of astrologers, psychics, channels, shaman and others. The number of such people exceeds that of the established clergy in many countries and the amounts invested in consulting them, whether by presidents or paupers, exceed the turnover of major industries. "Channelled" insights are widely sought on a variety of media. And yet, despite the hopes they raise, it is difficult to point to wisdom from such sources that enables society to respond in more appropriate ways, whatever the perceived value for individuals in adjusting to the stresses to which they are exposed.

9. Sources of wisdom: spiritual insight

(a) Spiritual leaders and gurus: Many are drawn to people of special spiritual insight. Such spiritual leaders exert a powerful influence on people in gatherings, through their writings, or in the communities they create. They are often viewed as wisdom incarnate. And yet when they appear together, if they are willing to do so, their interaction does not appear to reconcile their constituencies in a manner which enables a larger wisdom to prevail in initiatives for the future. Where the interaction among them is not indicative of conflicts that their wisdom is unable to resolve, their particular wisdom emerges as lacking in novelty and immediate relevance (often to the point of being banal).

(b) Psychotherapists: Recent decades have seen a burgeoning interest in various forms of psychotherapy perceived as a way for individuals to obtain insight into a more appropriate organization of their lives. As one modern form of the seer or shaman, psychotherapy is recognized as a valued source of wisdom by those who use it, especially when the practitioner is of the status of Freud or Jung.

(c) Wise people: In any period or society, it would seem that certain individuals, usually of some prominence for other reasons, are widely recognized as wise. While being valued for their particular expertise, it is because of this quality that they become a symbol in society. Examples might include: Bateson, Krishnamurti, Schumacher, Jung, Einstein, Bohm, Jantsch. And yet, although their insights continue to inspire and inform many current initiatives, the question remains as to whether such wisdom is adequate to the challenge of the times.

10. Sources of wisdom: inner wisdom

There are many who would argue that ultimately the most meaningful source of wisdom is that derived by the individual from some inner source, however that is experienced or understood.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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