Book coverReg Naulty, Canberra Regional Meeting.
Review of Hall, S. (2010) Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Stephen S. Hall asks whether there is any real place for wisdom in our frenetic, postmodern, quasi-apocalyptic, multi-tasking, dual-income, economically challenging world.

Wisdom is an unusual quality which is difficult to define, but easy to identify. Former Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, remarked that you have only to speak to someone for twenty minutes to find out whether they have any. Wisdom is not the same as intelligence. Everyone can think of intelligent people who are not wise. Hall, who has both, writes that knowledge is fixed, impersonal, and in odd way, non-social. Wisdom, on the other hand, is profoundly social, deeply personal, adaptive and intuitive. It has an important emotional component.

Hall writes about science and society for The New York Times Magazine. He has written five other books and seems to have interviewed just about everyone in America in philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience who writes about wisdom. He has done a daunting amount of reading, enlivened by meetings with kindred spirits at Fanelli`s Restaurant and Bar, New York.

Hall does not neglect the classics. What Socrates, Confucius, and Buddha have in common in their thinking about wisdom, he writes, is a concern for social justice and a code of public morality, altruism, an insistence on mastering the emotions that urge immediate sensory gratification, and a mission to share their knowledge. My major criticism of this delightful and instructive book is that, in my view, these thinkers have something else  in common. They draw on a wisdom which is higher than human. Socrates attended to an inner voice that stopped him in the middle of a speech; Confucius said that at fifty he knew the biddings of Heaven, and that at sixty he heard them with a docile ear. The Buddha believed in a metaphysical dimension to life: ‘There is, oh monks, that which is not born, not become, not made, not compounded.’

Hall enumerates different aspects of wisdom: patience, altruism, discernment, emotional calm. He realizes that love is not enough. Altruism needs a diverse suite of cognitive and emotional skills: discerning the fundamental unfairness of a situation; having the courage to defy one`s immediate self-interest; patience to wait for the rewards of a larger goal.

The book claims to move from philosophy to neuroscience, and there is a lot of neuroscience in it. But what has that got to do with qualities of wisdom like knowing what`s important and a capacity to deal with uncertainty? Hall himself puts the question: ‘does all this dense, constrained, hyper-qualified and speculative science-speak ultimately tell us anything useful about wisdom?’ But it remains unclear from the book that studying our brains will make us wiser. The description of the neural machinery throws into strong relief the distinctness of mind and brain. We know from within what it is like to evaluate, deliberate and ponder. We never notice from within the hiss and the pop of neural circuitry. I infer that it is taking place in a different reality.

Occasionally, Hall transfers a description which belongs to mind and applies it to brain, with unintended comic effect. For example, he writes of an immensely ‘astute’ molecule called dopamine ‘like a movie critic assessing, broadcasting its opinion’ (p. 48). What a smart little molecule!

The psychologists and neuroscientists Hall brings to these pages come across as intelligent, constructive, sensitive to criticism, and humane. They may save America yet. Philosophers make a splendid contribution to the book, especially Confucius. Though he spent the last ten years of his life in poverty, he is still being heard.

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