Wisdom: Understanding and the Good Life


I argue that a necessary condition for being wise is: understanding how to live well. The condition, by requiring understanding rather than a wide variety of justified beliefs or knowledge, as Ryan and Whitcomb respectively require, yields the desirable result that being wise is compatible with having some false beliefs but not just any false beliefs about how to live well—regardless of whether those beliefs are justified or not. In arguing for understanding how to live well as a necessary condition for wisdom, I reject the view, proposed by both Ryan and Whitcomb, that subjects such as chemistry lies within the domain of wisdom. I show that the argued for condition yields the desirable result that being wise is not a common achievement, but that it is not something that can only plausibly be achieved in the modern era.

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  1. 1.

    Fileva and Tresan (2013, 235) express doubt as to whether an iff account of wisdom is possible. If one were to give up on providing an iff account, one might provide a generalist account. Such an account would make general rather than exceptionless claims about wisdom. Alternatively, the view that that wisdom can only be determined holistically might be defended. Such a view is akin to Jonathan Dancy’s (2004) particularism in the moral realm.

  2. 2.

    More analyses than are considered here can be found in Ryan (2013). For an interesting and somewhat unusual contemporary strand in the philosophical wisdom literature that does not figure in Ryan (2013), see Lehrer (1997) and Miščević (2012). In addition, there is also an extensive literature on wisdom in the psychology literature. See Birren and Fisher (1990), who record 23 different definitions of wisdom from that literature.

  3. 3.

    This reading is also found in Ryan (2007), whom Whitcomb (2010) cites. Ryan, however, cashes out epistemic accuracy in terms of belief, formulating the analysis thus: “S is wise iff for all p, (S believes S knows p iff S knows p.)”.

  4. 4.

    As we shall see, I argue that it is understanding rather than knowledge that is required.

  5. 5.

    Ryan (2013) cites John Kekes (1983) and Tiberius (2008) as also endorsing similar views. Whitcomb (2011), also discussing Nozick’s view, cites Garrett (1996) as defending a like position.

  6. 6.

    Ryan (2012), Whitcomb (2011), Baehr (2012) each support such a view. Previously Ryan (1999) omitted such a condition. Michel de Montaigne (2004), a prominent sixteenth century French philosopher not referred to in the contemporary debate, writes extensively on wisdom and rejects such a view.

  7. 7.

    Ryan (2012, 107) writes that “Ptolemy had justified beliefs about a geocentric solar system. I will assume that, given how intelligent he was, he had a lot of epistemically justified beliefs about a wide variety of subjects. He discussed his ideas and experiments with the best scientists of his time. As it turned out, many of Ptolemy’s justified beliefs about the solar system were false. Ptolemy did not know that the earth is the centre of the solar system” (Ryan’s emphasis).

  8. 8.

    In fact, such a knowledge condition is not obviously inconsistent with an agent having lots of false beliefs in the same domain. Depending on how “wide variety” is spelt out, however, we either get the result that such a knowledge condition would rule out thinkers such as Ptolemy as being counted as wise or, on a weaker reading, allow these thinkers such as Ptolemy to be counted as wise but also allow many others to be so counted who we do not think of as being wise. Such a condition will either be too strong or too weak.

  9. 9.

    I have made some slight stylistic changes here to how they present their case.

  10. 10.

    We are at risk of getting bogged-down in needless complications here, let us just say that “could not” here covers nearby possible worlds and not far away possible worlds.

  11. 11.

    This is a point that Fileva and Tresan (2013) missed.

  12. 12.

    Perhaps one might dispute whether the named agents were in fact wise. This would miss the point. Surely there were some agents prior to the scientific revolution who were wise.

  13. 13.

    I am not convinced that this true, but I would not pursue the point here.

  14. 14.

    Note that Ryan’s second condition is not sufficiently strong to help us here.

  15. 15.

    This is something that Fileva and Tresan (2013) also point out.

  16. 16.

    It also seems a plausible case in which the opinion of people we think of as wise could be divided. We can imagine a wise mystic saying one thing and a wise ascetic saying another.

  17. 17.

    It might sometimes be difficult to determine whether someone lacks understanding or not, nonetheless I take it that there is a fact of the matter as to whether an agent lacks understanding. I do not, therefore, take that difficulty to present a problem for my view. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pressing me on this point.

  18. 18.

    While it might be desirable in one respect to provide a full theory of understanding here, my concern with doing so is that it would divert us away from the aim of this paper and is unnecessary if what I have said about understanding is already plausible, which I believe it is.

  19. 19.

    Alternatives are still possible. Someone could attempt to defend a position close to Ryan’s by arguing either for a condition with a mixed epistemic requirement, that is, one for example that requires understanding of how to live rationally and justified beliefs in the domain of valuable academic subjects. Similarly, one might seek to make minimal alterations to the domain, and in acknowledgement of what has been previously argued exclude the sciences from the domain in which the wise person is required to have understanding. Either move though would be less theoretically elegant than the alternative I have argued for and would lack appropriate motivation. I say more about why the first move lacks motivation later.

  20. 20.

    Whitcomb describes person A as doing much better epistemically with regard to theoretical wisdom, though theoretical wisdom is taken to involve subjects such as chemistry (Whitcomb 2011, 102).

  21. 21.

    Note, however, that “B has few or no justified beliefs in the domain of academic subjects” should be understood in such a way so as to be consistent my condition (2)*. I argue for condition (2)* later.

  22. 22.

    Grimm (2015, 151) suggests, somewhat differently, that there are positions on the good life according to which what has been called theoretical wisdom is, as a class, a requirement of the good life, and that this is a way that such theoretical knowledge could turn out to be a requirement for living well. Note that Grimm’s position is that the fully wise person lives well, whereas my position is that this need not be the case. The discussion in “Additional Conditions: the Commitment Condition” makes clear the motivation for not requiring that the wise person succeed at living well.

  23. 23.

    There are a number of well known competing theories of the good life that would be relevant if one wished to develop an account of living well. Such theories are typically divided up as desire-fulfilment theory, hedonism, objective list theory.

  24. 24.

    I take it, however, that saying S understands how to live well implies that S’s understanding is not merely something theoretical; S is able to bring that understanding to bear in day-to-day situations.

  25. 25.

    One might worry that this condition, despite the absence of academic subjects from the domain, still rules out Aristotle, and perhaps some of the other candidates Ryan mentions, from being counted as wise. The worry that Aristotle is ruled out as being wise by the condition depends on whether some of his beliefs, such as his belief in the institution of slavery, are incompatible with understanding how to live well. If they are, then, on this account, we will have to concede that Aristotle is not wise. My concern in putting forward this account is not that we get the result that each of the historical figures that Ryan names as paradigmatically wise turn out to be wise. It is that some agents living in a time prior to the scientific revolution turn out to be wise. The condition still allows for the possibility that some agents from thousands of years ago and from communities lacking formal education today might be wise. Indeed, it seems intuitive that there is a timeless aspect to wisdom. This condition gives us that result.

  26. 26.

    Believing as is “epistemically appropriate” here means believing as it is appropriate for one to believe given the epistemically relevant particulars of one’s situation, such as the evidence available to one.

  27. 27.

    Requiring that an agent believes as is epistemically appropriate echoes Hume’s (1999, 170) claim that the wise man “proportions his belief to the evidence” without committing one to evidentialism. Grimm (2015, 146, fn. 12) also sees Ryan’s position as similar to Hume’s own position, albeit not on this point but in her rational beliefs requirement.

  28. 28.

    Ryan (2012, 109) has epistemic limitations in mind when she refers to “limitations”, but not just epistemic limitations. She does not go into any detail, however, as to what non-epistemic limitations might be. The result is that it is not clear what those non-epistemic limitations might be and why being sensitive to them is a requirement of the wise person.

  29. 29.

    Sensitivity here is a fuzzy notion. Perhaps occasionally she will betray ignorance of her epistemic limitations. Anything more demanding than this will likely rule out the possibility of even some human agents being wise agents.

  30. 30.

    This is based on a case described by Parfit (1984, 499–500).

  31. 31.

    For criticism and a more detailed defence of adopting a condition of this type see Whitcomb (2011) and Ryan (2012), respectively. Grimm’s (2015, 140) position does not seem to be informed by this aspect of the dialectic. He writes that the fully wise person would not only know what is necessary for well-being but would have attained what is necessary for well-being.)

  32. 32.

    Credit for this point goes to an anonymous reviewer for this journal.

  33. 33.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for Acta Analytica for valuable feedback on an earlier version of this article. Thanks also to John Greco, Catherine Elgin, Andrea Kruse, Christos Kyriacou, and others who offered comments and suggestions. I completed this article while in receipt of funding from the Taiwanese Ministry of Science and Technology.


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Ryan, S. Wisdom: Understanding and the Good Life. Acta Anal 31, 235–251 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12136-015-0278-4

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  • Wisdom
  • Epistemology
  • Understanding
  • The good life