Friends of Wisdom


Friends of Wisdom

We Need a Revolution

We need a revolution in the aims and methods of academic inquiry.  Instead of giving priority to the search for knowledge, academia needs to devote itself to seeking and promoting wisdom by rational means, wisdom being the capacity to realize what is of value in life, for oneself and others, wisdom thus including knowledge but much else besides.  A basic task ought to be to help humanity learn how to create a better world. 
Acquiring scientific knowledge dissociated from a more basic concern for wisdom, as we do at present, is dangerously and damagingly irrational.

Natural science has been extraordinarily successful in increasing knowledge.  This has been of great benefit to humanity.  But new knowledge and technological know-how increase our power to act which, without wisdom, may cause human suffering and death as well as human benefit.  All our modern global problems have arisen in this way: global warming, the lethal character of modern war and terrorism, vast inequalities of wealth and power round the globe, rapid increase in population, rapid extinction of other species, even the aids epidemic (aids being spread by modern travel).  All these have been made possible by modern science dissociated from the rational pursuit of wisdom.  If we are to avoid in this century the horrors of the last one - wars, death camps, dictatorships, poverty, environmental damage - we urgently need to learn how to acquire more wisdom, which in turn means that our institutions of learning become devoted to that end.

The revolution we need would change every branch and aspect of academic inquiry.  A basic intellectual task of academic inquiry would be to articulate our problems of living (personal, social and global) and propose and critically assess possible solutions, possible actions.  This would be the task of social inquiry and the humanities.  Tackling problems of knowledge would be secondary.  Social inquiry would be at the heart of the academic enterprise, intellectually more fundamental than natural science.  On a rather more long-term basis, social inquiry would be concerned to help humanity build cooperatively rational methods of problem-solving into the fabric of social and political life, so that we may gradually acquire the capacity to resolve our conflicts and problems of living in more cooperatively rational ways than at present.  Natural science would change to include three domains of discussion: evidence, theory, and aims - the latter including discussion of metaphysics, values and politics. Academic inquiry as a whole would become a kind of people's civil service, doing openly for the public what actual civil services are supposed to do in secret for governments.  Academia would actively seek to educate the public by means of discussion and debate, and would not just study the public.

These changes are not arbitrary.  They all come from demanding that academia cure its current structural irrationality, so that reason - the authentic article - may be devoted to promoting human welfare.

For more detailed presentations of the above argument see the following by Nicholas Maxwell: "Can Humanity Learn to become Civilized? The Crisis of Science without Civilization", Journal of Applied Philosophy 17, 2000, pp. 29-44.
From Knowledge to Wisdom: A Revolution in the Aims and Methods of Science, Blackwell, Oxford, 1984 (2nd extended edition Pentire Press, 2007).