The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Art of Practical Wisdom

“It’s insulting to imply that only a system of rewards and punishments can keep you a decent human being,” Isaac Asimov told Bill Moyers in their magnificent 1988 conversation on science and religion. And yet ours is a culture that frequently turns to rigid external rules — be they of religion or of legislature or of social conduct — as a substitute for the inner moral compass that a truly “decent human being” uses to steer behavior. So what can we do, as a society and as individual humans aspiring to be good, to cultivate that deeper sense of right and wrong, with all its contextual fuzziness and situational fluidity? That’s precisely what celebrated psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of the influential The Paradox of Choice, and political scientist Kenneth Sharpe explore in Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing (public library) — a fascinating and necessary exploration of how to nurture and reclaim the essential moral skill at the heart of character traits like courage, compassion, loyalty, fairness, generosity, and empathy, inspired by the timeless teachings of Aristotle’s philosophy yet grounded in invaluable insights from contemporary psychology.

Schwartz and Sharpe write:

[Aristotle] thought that our fundamental social practices constantly demanded choices — like when to be loyal to a friend, or how to be fair, or how to confront risk, or when and how to be angry—and that making the right choices demanded wisdom. To take the example of anger, the central question for Aristotle was not whether anger was good or bad, or the abstract question about what the nature of the “good” in fact was. It was the particular and concrete issue of what to do in a particular circumstance: who to be angry at, for how long, in what way, and for what purpose. The wisdom to answer such questions and to act rightly was distinctly practical, not theoretical. It depended on our ability to perceive the situation, to have the appropriate feelings or desires about it, to deliberate about what was appropriate in these circumstances, and to act.


Acting wisely demands that we be guided by the proper aims or goals of a particular activity. Aristotle’s word for the purpose or aim of a practice was telos. The telos of teaching is to educate students; the telos of doctoring is to promote health and relieve suffering; the telos of lawyering is to pursue justice. 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 practice. But it takes wisdom — practical wisdom — to translate the very general aims of a practice into concrete action.

External rules, while helpful in other regards, can’t instill in us true telos. Echoing Asimov’s concern, Schwartz and Sharpe consider how this concept helps define a good person and what it necessitates:

People who are practically wise understand the telos of being a friend or a parent or a doctor and are motivated to pursue this aim. A wise practitioner wants to do the right thing not because of some monetary reward or punishment but because it is what being a good teacher or a good doctor demands. But aiming at the right thing is not sufficient. That’s why we say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Translating our aims into action demands expertise.

In an insight that Daniel Pink would later come to echo in exploring the science of what actually motivates us, the authors point out that the rules and incentives used by many of our cultural institutions to foster efficiency and accountability are no substitute for telos and, in fact, often erode rather than nurture it. More than a pragmatic tool of social progress, however, telos is a centerpiece of our well-being as individuals:

We need to appreciate that cultivating wisdom is not only good for society but is, as Aristotle thought, a key to our own happiness. Wisdom isn’t just something we “ought” to have. It’s something we want to have to flourish.

At the heart of practical wisdom is the ability to contemplate our choices and discern the best course of action in the context of a particular set of circumstances, and in order to do that, we rely on framing the situation, telling good and relevant stories about it, using metaphorical thinking to make sense of it, and enlisting empathy — the ability to imagine another’s thoughts and feelings — to grasp the full dimensions of the situation.

That latter emotional capacity is actually an enormously important aspect of practical wisdom and yet, Schwartz and Sharpe point out, most social and institutional regulations are based on rational rules — in fact, they often tend to be about removing emotion from the decision-making process. (That’s precisely what Susan Sontag lamented in condemning how the intellect vs. intuition polarization limits us and what Ray Bradbury bemoaned in asserting that the intellect should serve rather than dominate emotion.) While emotions do have the capacity to blind us and blur our sound judgment, they argue for the power of properly trained and modulated emotion by citing Aristotle himself:

We can experience fear, confidence, desire, anger, pity, and generally any kind of pleasure and pain either too much or too little, and in either case not properly. But to experience all this at the right time, toward the right objects, toward the right people, for the right reason, and in the right manner—that is the median and the best course, the course that is a mark of virtue.

Perhaps most importantly, practical wisdom requires a degree of self-awareness and self-reflection, affirming the notion that it’s more important to understand than to be right — something not always easy in a culture dominated by the illusion of the separate ego:

Practical wisdom demands more than the skill to be perceptive about others. It also demands the capacity to perceive oneself—to assess what our own motives are, to admit our failures, to figure out what has worked or not and why… Such self-reflection is not always so easy when … we feel we’ve been wronged. And it’s also difficult when we’ve been wrong — thoughtless, careless, too self-interested. Being able to criticize our own certainties is often a painful struggle, demanding some courage as we try to stand back and impartially judge ourselves and our own responsibility.

Schwartz and Sharpe go on to outline the six core qualities of the person endowed with telos:

  1. A wise person knows the proper aims of the activity she is engaged in. She wants to do the right thing to achieve these aims—wants to meet the needs of the people she is serving.
  2. A wise person knows how to improvise, balancing conflicting aims and interpreting rules and principles in light of the particularities of each context.
  3. A wise person is perceptive, knows how to read a social context, and knows how to move beyond the black-and-white of rules and see the gray in a situation.
  4. A wise person knows how to take on the perspective of another—to see the situation as the other person does and thus to understand how the other person feels. This perspective-taking is what enables a wise person to feel empathy for others and to make decisions that serve the client’s (student’s, patient’s, friend’s) needs.
  5. A wise person knows how to make emotion an ally of reason, to rely on emotion to signal what a situation calls for, and to inform judgment without distorting it. He can feel, intuit, or “just know” what the right thing to do is, enabling him to act quickly when timing matters. His emotions and intuitions are well educated.
  6. A wise person is an experienced person. Practical wisdom is a craft and craftsmen are trained by having the right experiences. People learn how to be brave, said Aristotle, by doing brave things. So, too, with honesty, justice, loyalty, caring, listening, and counseling.

One enormous cultural impediment we’re constantly facing is the mistaken belief — and its misguided implementation — that rules can substitute for wisdom. They cannot, the authors remind us again and again — the wise person is one who is able to understand the rules and apply them selectively, perceptively, and insightfully according to the specific contextual demands of a situation. They return to Aristotle:

For Aristotle, knowing how to bend the rule to fit the circumstance was exactly what practical wisdom was all about.


Anybody who has raised a child, sustained a friendship or marriage, supervised others in the workplace, or worked to serve others knows the limits of rules and principles. We can’t live without them, but not a day goes by when we don’t have to bend one, or make an exception, or balance them when they conflict. We’re always solving the ethical puzzles or quandaries that are embedded in our practices because most of our choices involve interpreting rules, or balancing clashing principles or aims, or choosing between better and worse. We’re always trying to find the right balance.

How, then, do we cultivate those essential skills that help us find the right balance? It turns out we’re “born to be wise” — not “hardwired,” Schwartz and Sharpe are careful to point out, but endowed with the innate capacity to develop moral skill that wise judgment necessitates, much like we are born with the innate capacity to master language with the proper nurturing.

Illustration from ‘The Little Golden Book of Words.’ Click image for more.

We exercise our capacity for wisdom in three key ways: natural categorization (our predisposition to organize the world into categories of things, arranged in nuanced ways); framing (finding a context of comparison for things we are evaluating); and storytelling (constructing sense-making narratives about our lives and our experiences). One particularly interesting feature of our predilection for categories is the notion of “fuzziness” — the idea that the categories in which we classify the world are more often based on a nuanced spectrum than a binary dichotomy. Take, for instance, the category of fruits, which tend to have a “graded membership” in the category — for instance, we perceive an apple as more “fruity” than a persimmon (Schwartz and Sharpe point to experiments in which people consistently list “apple” as a better example of the fruit category than a persimmon), let alone a tomato, which is biologically a fruit yet culturally a vegetable. What’s more, the fuzziness of our categories fluctuates with our experience — if we moved to a country where persimmons were a national staple far more common than apples, the “fruitiness” of each would slide up or down to the respective end of the spectrum. That innate ability to organize ordinary things into categories and experience the “fuzziness” of nuance, it turns out, translates into a parallel moral skill of discerning more important concepts like fairness and truth with an equal sensitivity to context. In other words, categories are essential to our capacity for wise judgment.

Illustration from ‘The Little Golden Book of Words.’ Click image for more.

That capacity is what psychologists call “framing.” The authors extol the aptness of the frequently misunderstood term:

“Frame” is a wonderful metaphor because it emphasizes our capacity to take the chaos of the social world around us and organize it in an understandable way. In framing the scene, we are setting the picture off from its surroundings, excluding what is on the outside and defining what is inside as special and worthy of attention. Frames tell us what is important and help us establish what should be compared with what. The capacity we have to frame enables us to do one of the most important things that practical wisdom demands — discern what is relevant about a particular context or event in regard to the decision we face. Learning to frame well helps make us wise.


“Framing” has gotten a bad name. In a marketing context, it is characterized as an effort to manipulate us into buying things we don’t need. In a political context, it is labeled as “spin” and characterized as an effort to slant or distort the truth in the direction of our favored position. And evidence that we depend on the frame, or context of comparison, for making judgments is sometimes regarded as a defect of human reason. We should be able to see and evaluate things as they “really” are, unbiased by the way they are packaged. But in fact, it is our capacity to frame that enables all our judgments, and it is nearly impossible to make judgments that do not depend on frames… It is only our capacity to do this automatic framing that enables us to make sensible judgments at all.

Framing is pervasive, inevitable, and often automatic. There is no “neutral,” frame-free way to evaluate anything.

Because no frame is neutral, each makes us aware of and sensitive to a different aspect or context of our choices, affecting our judgment in different ways — the social-science equivalent of Einstein’s theory of relativity, perhaps. To illustrate this in practical terms, consider the options for supporting Brain Pickings. If you happen to live in a refugee camp in Chad, where you entire weekly food budget is $1.23, a donation of even just (“just”) $3 a month is an unthinkable amount. (That’s also why Brain Pickings has always been free); but if you happen to live in a place where you drink several $6 lattes a week, then $7 or $10 a month seems more than reasonable if you find intellectual value, creative inspiration, and spiritual stimulation here. The choice, once again, is modulated by the contextual “frame” of both the price and the value.

Schwartz and Sharpe encapsulate the end result of this phenomenon in terms at once poetic and practical:

We might wish to see things “as they really are,” but there is no way that things “really are,” at least not in the complex and chaotic social world we inhabit.

Our third, and arguably most important, sensemaking mechanism is storytelling. “Part fact part fiction is what life is. And it is always a cover story.” Jeanette Winterson wrote in her superb meditation on how we tell stories to save ourselves. Our inner storytelling is what keeps us sane. Because “narrative truth” rather than “historical truth” shapes our lives, redirecting our behavior and undertaking any effort of psychological change requires revising that inner storytelling. Schwartz and Sharpe put it elegantly, doubly so for citing Joan Didion (who knows a thing or two about telling stories):

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” said novelist and essayist Joan Didion. What she meant was that we understand our own lives as stories, as narratives, with narrative “arcs.” Where we are in our own life story provides the context within which we evaluate relationships and experiences and make decisions. Job offers, illnesses, disagreements with friends or family — each of these will mean something different to us at different points in our lives. We can’t understand ourselves as frozen in time. Self-understanding is a narrative construction.

(On that note, see experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe’s mind-bending contemplation of how, if we change so much, we know who we really are.)

Schwartz and Sharpe summarize the interplay of these three tools of wisdom:

The world is gray. Natural categories enable us to see gray. Judgments are almost always relative. Frames help us see relations. And isolated events or episodes occur in the context of ongoing lives being lived. Narratives enable us to appreciate lives as lived and make sense of the episode before us.

Practical Wisdom, which goes on to explore the importance of cultivating telos in everything from our personal happiness to building better social institutions, is an excellent and enormously enriching read in its entirety. Complement it with Schwartz’s TED talk, one of the genre’s finest:

A wise person knows when and how to make the exception to every rule… A wise person knows how to improvise… Real-world problems are often ambiguous and ill-defined and the context is always changing. A wise person is like a jazz musician — using the notes on the page, but dancing around them, inventing combinations that are appropriate for the situation and the people at hand. A wise person knows how to use these moral skills in the service of the right aims. To serve other people, not to manipulate other people. And finally, perhaps most important, a wise person is made, not born. Wisdom depends on experience, and not just any experience. You need the time to get to know the people that you’re serving. You need permission to be allowed to improvise, try new things, occasionally to fail and to learn from your failures. And you need to be mentored by wise teachers.

Thanks, Tina

Published April 14, 2014




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