A short commentary on John Vervaeke’s Awakening from The Meaning Crisis (Episodes 43, 44, and 45)
In the present meaning crisis, according to John Vervaeke, we tend to ‘conflate the having mode with the being mode‘—or mistake the ‘product’ for the ‘process’—the shallow representation for the real. Wisdom means to know and love what matters deeply. But wisdom, like love, is not something we can have or acquire — it is deeply existential, complex, and about being in the world.
Vervaeke points out that while there are many valid scientific or psychological theories of wisdom, they too often focus on the product of wisdom—rather than the deeper process of wisdom and relevance. In other words, wisdom is conflated with measurable intelligence or virtue. But real wisdom has more to do with our ability to engage in what Vervaeke calls ‘relevance realisation’ than the acquisition of theoretical or factual knowledge. It would be a mistake, for instance, to think that ‘having’ a PHD makes us wise.
Furthermore, intelligence, or any other virtue, doesn’t guarantee wisdom. That is why there are so many intelligent, courageous, and empathetic fools. A foolish person applies virtues haphazardly without context. For example, if we are courageous against a superior opponent, our courage may be foolish. If we are kind to a sociopath, we may be unwise in our application of kindness. And if we give our love to somebody who abuses us, our love is destructive and foolish, etc.
Many theories of wisdom offer a ‘feature list’ rather than a whole picture. They make us think that wisdom is a combination of traits, rather an underlying ‘meta-ecology’ . Wisdom is in fact a a gestalt of courage, compassion, intelligence, empathy, and other virtues — which cannot be reduced to any combination of these.
Furthermore, wisdom is not about the mastery of facts, information, or theory—even if facts, information, and theories can contribute to wisdom. Sometimes a theory will help us become wise, at other times it is an impediment—if, for instance we are being chased by a lion. Wisdom therefore constitutes our panoramic and deep understanding of a situation, which may be prior to proposition, analysis, or theory.
A theory might help us answer a technical problem or write an exam, but it might not help us in our love life, which is profoundly complex. That is to say: wisdom is not merely a series of intellectual propositions applied to a situation—it is embodied and holistic understanding and action. The intellect may be a vital part of wisdom but it is not the whole story.
Wisdom is therefore not the fireworks of our extraordinary IQ or the application of a strict moral code—it is love and meaning applied to real life. That is why the real meaning of philosophy is not academic: it is quite literally the love of wisdom.
Greek philosophy and folk psychology
We need to know the difference between ‘the language of training’ and ‘the language of meaning’—between our ordinary ‘folk psychological’ notions and and the deep meaning of ideas, Vervaeke tells us. Folk psychology can be equivocal. (For instance, the word consciousness means several different things in different contexts, and has become so equivocal it might not meaning anything at all anymore!).
In the modern world we tend to be either too folksy or too technical in our understanding of words like wisdom, rationality, love etc. Our folk psychological concepts are usually wrong, or shallow, or weak in terms of truth value, even if they have practical application. Furthermore, over time ideas become reified into unthinking, mechanical ‘ready made’ concepts, and lose their existential import, and can change meaning or reveal novel aspects over time. That is why philosophy—the love of wisdom—is so valuable. Philosophy is the work of constantly redefining and renewing the meaning of ideas, which often have a hidden story or unseen dimension.
Furthermore, we have to divest ourselves of the notion that wisdom is merely an individual journey. We actually become wiser in community and in the presence of others, Vervaeke tells us. Since the Cartesian revolution, wisdom has been identified with the atomized individual—the wise person being personified by Rodin’s ‘thinker’. However, real wisdom is also bound up with ‘participatory knowing’ and is profoundly communal, as even empirical science can now prove.
Four kinds of knowing
Philosophically speaking, the Greeks distinguished between 4 kinds of knowing, which Vervaeke translates into the language of cognitive science:
Episteme is the type of knowing that involves science and empiricism and what Vervaeke calls ‘propositional knowing’.
Techne is the knowing of ‘art’ and ‘craft’ and evolves embodied skills and what Vervaeke calls ‘procedural knowing’.
Phronesis, is often poorly translated as prudence, but can also be thought of as ‘awareness’ or what Vervakake calls ‘perspectival’ knowing — that is, being sensitive to different perspectives.
Sophia is an overview or gestalt of wisdom of what Aristotle called ‘universal truths’ or the the capacity for ‘relevance realisation’ in Vervaekese.
To summarize, Episteme — propositional or scientific knowing cannot work in isolation: a mere theory or scientific description does not tell a whole story. Technical or techne is similarly limited on its own — as technique doesn’t equal mastery. Phronesis or ethical awareness is impotent without applied wisdom or skilful means. And finally, sofia, or the overview of wisdom, will not help us with nitty-gritty, technical, epistemological, considerations.
We need to use all modes of knowing in symphonic co-ordination.
Internalising the sage
Wisdom is not a solitary or individualistic endeavour or some kind of expertise: it is the activity of a sage or wise person. This is why we need to ‘Internalise the sage’ Vervaeke tells us, or experiment in perspectives greater than our own.
How do we become wise? This may be equivalent to the question of how we grow. A child grows into an adult by internalising adult role models and imitating them. But the adult can also grow by what Vervaeke calls ‘internalising the sage’. This means having an internal model of a wise person to imitate.
For instance, Christians are told to ‘imitate christ’—not to copy christ’s behavior or lifestyle choices necessarily—but to try to embody christian ethics. The buddhist, similarly, meditates like the Buddha.
In Tantric Buddhism (my own religion of choice) we are told to visualize ourselves as the tantric deity on a throne, decked out in a regal array of powerful objects and jewels. By one-pointedly keeping our mind on the tantric deity and iconography, we penetrate the transparent wisdom of those symbols. Tantric symbols are not considered ultimately true in themselves but are doorways to meaning. Fake it till you make it, to put it prosaically.
Internalising the sage requires a certain romanticism, combined with a pragmatic and humble application of basic discipline. By means of single-minded dedication, we can embody the principles that the sage represents. Becoming wise involves a series of incremental steps which can lead to quantum leaps of understanding, where intelligence and courage are transformed into wisdom and accomplishment.
A symptom of the meaning crisis may be the loss of the sage as a model for continued education. A model of a higher state is necessary for growth at every stage of life — as learning does not end with graduation. Adults need the humility to acknowledge that there are persons far wiser and more accomplished than they are.
One problem of the meaning crisis is arrested development and narcissism—of believing that our own image and ego are sufficient. A contemporary mantra is: you are perfect the way you are. But what a depressing and bogus ideology! Shouldn’t we want to be more than we are. Wanting to merely ‘be ourselves’ betrays a poverty of spirit and a shallow individuality. Should we not be aiming to transcend ourselves?
Many people idolise rock musicians or movie stars because of their youth and beauty and talent, but do not ‘look up’ to accomplished sages. They are easily disappointment when their favourite movie star ends up divorced three times, in rehab and a victim of plastic surgery. Talent, youth, beauty, do not equal wisdom, obviously.
Perhaps today the sage archetype has been replaced by the professor or the scientist, or those who help us with propositional knowledge. But there is a big difference between propositional knowing, book learning, philosophical mastery and real embodied wisdom.
Others essay in this series:
The Man, The Lion, and The Monster
Higher States of Consciousness
Christ and Gnosis
Science and the Death of the Universe
Metanoia — A change of heart
Understanding the Meta-Crisis
Religion and Horror
The Religion of No Religion
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