Problem of Wisdom as a Real Problem

by Theodor Oizerman

Our brief excursion into the history of the problem of wisdom suggests the conclusion that in the course of history the significance of this problem has changed. It can also be said that the problem has never been discussed by the positive sciences. Perhaps wisdom has a bearing only on philosophy, and even then only to the extent that it is contrasted with the specialised sciences? Is not the word "wisdom" too vague a designation for philosophical knowledge? Since it is not to be found in the vocabulary of the positive sciences, perhaps we should abandon the word "wisdom" altogether? Bertrand Russell once asked: "Is there such a thing as wisdom, or is what seems such merely the ultimate refinement of folly?" [l]

The word "wisdom" like many other words, has too many meanings. Wisdom has often been understood as the ability to draw a clear distinction between good and evil, as the ability to combine knowledge and conduct on the basis of a correct assessment of the main facts or typical situations. These definitions are correct in the sense that wisdom cannot be only knowledge, and that action not based on knowledge cannot be wise. But here we are faced with the question of the character of knowledge, the extent to which it implies understanding, and not just any understanding but understanding of something that matters in human life. It is obvious that knowledge which is merely a statement of facts, even if the gathering of these facts has entailed considerable research, is still far from wisdom, which manifests itself rather as a conclusion or generalisation. But even generalisation implies wisdom only when it contains an evaluation that can guide the solution of complex questions of theory and practical life.

Understanding, the practice of moderation in one's conduct and affairs, because all extremes are bad, have often been called wisdom. This is also true, of course, if the sense of moderation does not become mere half-heartedness and fear of making radical decisions when they are needed This was what Marx meant when he said that moderation is a category of mediocrity. [2] Needless to say, the latter has nothing whatever to do with wisdom.

Wisdom is often regarded as awareness of one's own errors. There can be no objection to this, of course, because only the person who does nothing never makes mistakes, if doing nothing is not to be considered a mistake in itself. But the wise man differs from the man without wisdom in that he does not make so many mistakes or, at least, manages to avoid making any great and irreparable ones. Perhaps for this reason many have seen wisdom in caution circumspection, the avoidance of haste. These qualities, though positive in themselves, however, can easily be transformed into the defects of vacillation, procrastination and inertia.

Folk wisdom often makes fun of the would‑be wise, of those who think up all kinds of new-fangled ways of doing something while a perfectly simple and reasonable solution to the problem is available.

When we speak of man as a rational being we are presumably trying to define his species. When we call a man intelligent or gifted we attribute to him qualities that not everyone possesses. Wisdom is not inherent in everyone , and yet at the same time it is closely related to universal human knowledge, which is potentially available to all men. Wisdom is to be found in folk sayings and proverbs, although false wisdom and servile attitudes are also to be found there.

And yet it is a fact that man alone out of all the creatures in the universe, just because he is a rational being, may also be irrational.  Does not this indicate some contradiction in wisdom that sometimes puts the whole concept in doubt?

"Man," Eric Weil justly observes, "is a rational animal, but this is not the kind of judgement enunciated by science; it is a project for transforming the world and negating error; it is the expression of man's highest and most human aspiration." Straightaway, however, quite in the spirit of stoicism and the obvious contradiction to what he has just said, Weil adds that man, when he declares himself rational, "is not speaking of a fact and not even claiming to speak of a fact, but expressing his ultimate desire, the desire to be free, though not of need (that he will never be, and it will not worry him any more than need worries an animal), but of desire". [3]

I regard wisdom not as an empty word, not as a name for a phenomenon that does not exist. In my view wisdom exists not only in philosophy; the belief that mere philosophising leads to wisdom is one of the chief illusions of pre-Marxist philosophy. Wisdom is to be acquired in many and various ways and manifests itself in various fields of knowledge and activity.

When Niels Bohr said that a new fundamental theoretical synthesis in modern physics demanded completely new, "mad" ideas, i.e., ideas that seemed incompatible with the established truths of science, this was an extremely rational or, to use another word, wise approach to a question that was of vital importance to the further development of natural science.

The Utopian socialists regarded capitalism as a moral evil and distortion of human nature, and condemned the exploitation of man by man as incompatible with humanity and justice. Marx and Engels, who exposed the capitalist system even more vehemently, held that it was completely untenable to deduce the need for the socialist transformation of society from a moral evaluation of capitalism. This world, notwithstanding Leibnitz's illusion, is not the best of all possible worlds, and a social system does not collapse merely because of its moral shortcomings. Marx and Engels proved the necessity for transition from capitalism to socialism by scientific analysis of the objective economic laws of the development of capitalism which were creating the material prerequisites for the socialist system.

In contrast to the Utopians, who believed that socialism was bound to be achieved as soon as socialist ideas became sufficiently widespread, the founders of Marxism argued that the socialist transformation of social relations would become a necessity only under certain historical conditions. This is not only a scientific, historically grounded positing of a question that is of tremendous import for mankind; it is also a wise one.

Lenin scathingly criticised the trite wisdom of the liberals and opportunists, who justified their fear of revolution with ponderous sentiments to the effect that one must learn from life, not be in too much of a hurry, too impatient and so on. Pointing out that Marx and Engels had been wrong in their estimation of the nearness of the socialist revolution, Lenin stressed that "such errors—the errors of the giants of revolutionary thought, who sought to raise, and did raise, the proletariat of the whole world above the level of petty, commonplace and trivial tasks—are a thousand times more noble and magnificent and historically more valuable and true than the trite wisdom of official liberalism, which lauds, shouts, appeals and holds forth about the vanity of revolutionary vanities, the futility of the revolutionary struggle and the charms of counter-revolutionary 'constitutional' fantasies . . . .” [4]  There is wisdom and there is also the "wisdom" that is fostered by fear and impotence; the latter is the consolation of the slave who seeks to recon­cile himself to his present state in life.

Soon after the victory of the Great October Revolution Lenin spoke against the Menshevik Sukhanov, who was trying to prove that the socialist revolution in Russia had no historical justification since the material conditions for the transition to socialism did not obtain in Russia. "If a definite level of culture," Lenin wrote, "is required for the building of socialism (although nobody can say just what that definite 'level of culture' is, for it differs in every West‑European country), why cannot we begin by first achieving the prerequisites for that definite level of culture in a revolutionary way, and then, with the aid of the workers' and peasants' government and the Soviet system, proceed to overtake the other nations?" [5] This posing of the question of the historical prospects of the Land of Soviets, equally free of fatalism on the one hand, and of subjective bias on the other, is indeed worthy to be called wise.

Wisdom exists because there are great questions to be answered that are of vital importance to the human race (and the individual); these questions take shape in men's minds and they cannot be left unanswered. Even if the answers do not provide a ready and complete solution, they always (if they are wise answers) conduce to the correct posing of further questions, and thus the solution that is bound to come sooner or later.

The philosophers were mistaken when they counterposed wisdom to science. This mistake is being repeated today by many contemporary idealist philosophers of the irrational school. One cannot agree with Walter Ehrlich, for example, who maintains that philosophy "should in fact, signify wisdom and hence a special kind of knowledge, that does not at all coincide with scientific knowledge, which is available to everyone (if one has the necessary time and education)". [6] No knowledge should be counterposed to science. There is no such thing as knowledge that is above science. What does exist is pre-scientific and unscientific knowledge, and this is what wisdom becomes if it is juxtaposed to science. Does this mean that wisdom should become a science or is becoming one? By no means! Science is a system of concepts, whose meaning is organically linked with the subject of the given science. Wisdom is not a system of concepts; the specific nature of wisdom cannot be defined by pointing to the subject of inquiry. Wisdom has no such subject merely because it is not an inquiry, although it is, of course, understanding.

This understanding is based on the data of science, but not only on them. Of no less importance to wisdom are everyday and historical experience.

Wisdom is not an ideal of knowledge, since not all knowledge, ideally conceived, becomes wisdom. The ideally exact and complete cognition of any physical structure has nothing to do with wisdom, which does not, of course, belittle the value of such knowledge. But wisdom is not an unattainable ideal. The rationalism of the New Age, which attempted to create a "perfect science" of wisdom, was obviously unaware that any absolute ideal is a meaningless concept. Ideals are historical; they are generated by social development, which subsequently transcends them in its movement forward. The ideal of knowledge, the ideal of social management as historically concrete ideals are entirely realisable, and for this reason the concept of absolute perfection cannot be applied to them. But does such a concept exist? Not, I believe, as a scientific concept.

Jacques Maritain is, perhaps, more consistent than Leibnitz when he maintains that perfect science is impossible and perfect wisdom exists only in the Scriptures. But this view makes sense only to the religious, and then only to those of them who regard the Bible as "divine revelation" and not a historical document. Philosophy, since it thinks in concepts, cannot stand on faith.

Philosophy begins with reflections on the nature of wisdom. Today the problem of wisdom retains its significance as a philosophical problem. But it would obviously be incorrect to assume that philosophy boils down to the study or attainment of wisdom, as Jean Piaget, for instance, maintains: "The reasoned synthesis of beliefs, no matter what they may be, and of the conditions of knowledge, is what we have called wisdom, and this is what seems to us to be the subject of philosophy." [7]

We cannot agree with these definitions of wisdom and the subject of philosophy. Wisdom may be regarded as a specific form of knowledge, but the "reasoned synthesis of beliefs" may surely be called wisdom only with reference to the distant past, before the dawn of science.

One of the specific features of philosophy is that the universal and necessary significance of its propositions is constantly in the process of becoming and development. Is this characteristic of wisdom? Apparently not. Nevertheless the original meaning of the word "philosophy" retains its significance even today. It speaks of the possibility of human wisdom, but also of the fact that we shall never be replete with it.

Some contemporary philosophers with religious leanings hold that wisdom has declined into science and that art has been replaced by technology. It is my belief that these philosophers have a distorted view of both science and technology. Wisdom, of course, does not lie in the discovery of the structure of DNA, and art is not the mass production of motor‑cars. But a new basis for both wisdom and art is emerging more and more in the latest discoveries of science and the achievements of technology.

Wisdom will not become a science, just as science will not become wisdom. Philosophy, no matter how high a value it places on wisdom, should not identify itself with it. Philosophy can and should be a system of scientifically grounded knowledge. This conclusion has nothing in common, however, with the positivist ridicule of the quest for wisdom as a metaphysical pretension.

We know that neo‑positivism's struggle against "metaphysics" quite unexpectedly brought the neo­positivists to the realisation that the problems of philosophy were unavoidable. This notable fact should be regarded as evidence that the problem of wisdom retains its significance in philosophy, just as the question of the rational ordering of human life is still being discussed in society. One can agree with Bertrand Russell, who for all his hesitations in assessing the significance of the content and meaning of philosophy, finally declares that there are certain general questions that cannot be answered in the laboratory, from which it does not necessarily follow that they should be presented to the theologists for the taking. It is for philosophy to deal with these questions.

"Is the world divided into mind and matter, and, if so, what is mind and what is matter? Is mind subject to matter, or is it possessed of independent powers? Has the universe any unity or purpose? Is it evolving towards some goal? Are there really laws of nature, or do we believe in them only because of our innate love of order? Is man what he seems to the astronomer, a tiny lump of impure carbon and water impotently crawling on a small and unimportant planet? Or is he what he appears to Hamlet? Is he perhaps both at once? Is there a way of living that is noble and another that is base, or are all ways of living merely futile? If there is a way of living that is noble, in what does it consist, and how shall we achieve it? Must the good be eternal in order to deserve to be valued, or is it worth seeking even if the universe is inexorably moving towards death? . . .

"The studying of these questions, if not the answering of them, is the business of philosophy." [8]

It is not our purpose here to discuss how Bertrand Russell formulates the basic questions of philosophy and which of these questions he leaves out of his list. It would seem that these questions are mostly formulated in such a way that any correct answer to them is inconceivable. The philosophy of Marxism formulates these questions differently and does not, of course, confine itself to recognising their unavoidability. Dialectical and historical materialism solves these and other philosophical problems in alliance with natural science and the humanities.

Russell and the philosophers who have transferred their allegiance from positivist nihilism to a recognition of the inevitability of "metaphysics" adopt a different stand. In his efforts to avoid the dogmatism of the theologists, and dogmatism in general, Russell arrives at scepticism and moderate pessimism, which he sees as the only general position worthy of the philosopher (and the scientist in general). The theoretical formulation of this position is as follows. "Uncertainty, in the presence of vivid hopes and fears, is painful, but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of comforting fairy tales. It is not good either to forget the questions that philosophy asks, or to persuade ourselves that we have found indubitable answers to them. To teach how to live without certainty and yet without being paralysed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it." [9] A good many people would be prepared to take these words as the ultimate in wisdom, although it seems that in the state of uncertainty in which we are supposed to live, 'between the comforting fairy tale and the paralysis of hesitation which this British philosopher so rightly deplores, there is no room left for taking any important decisions at all.

We have examined various interpretations of the word "wisdom" in its relation to the origin and development of philosophy. In view of the multiplicity of meanings the word may suggest, it is probably better not to attempt any set definition. The innumerable meanings which it has acquired in the course of history and retains to this day, and which cannot therefore be discounted, would make any such definition purely arbitrary from the standpoint of the history of philosophy, whose function is to sum up the historical development of the philosophical conceptions of wisdom. However the mere enumeration of the semantic meanings of this word and recognition of the fact that these meanings bear some relation to one another are bound in one way or another to lead to a concept. Without claiming to give a definition, I would advocate regarding wisdom as a fact and not a figment, as a fact that can be understood and theoretically defined in conceptual form. In this case wisdom may be understood as the generalisation of the multifarious knowledge and experience of the human race, a generalisation formulated as the principles of cognition, evaluation, behaviour and action. This is, of course, a too general definition, but it does help to move on from the original meaning of the word "philosophy" to an examination of the specific nature of philosophical knowledge.


[1] B. Russell, History of Western Philosophy, London, 1946, p. 11. [—> main text]

[2]  K. Marx and F. Engels, From Early Works, p. 196 (in Russian). [—> main text]

[3] E. Weil, Logique de la philosophie, Paris, 1950, p. 11. [—> main text]

[4] V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 12, p. 378. [—> main text]

[5] Ibid., Vol. 33, pp. 478‑79. [—> main text]

[6] W. Ehrlich, Philosophie der Geschichte der Philosophie, Tübingen, 1965, S. 17. [—> main text]

[7] J. Piaget, Sagesse et illusions de la philosophie, Paris, 1968, p. 281. [—> main text]

[8] B. Russell, History of Western Philosophy, pp. 10‑11. [—> main text]

[9] Ibid., p. 11. [—> main text]

SOURCE: Oizerman, Theodore [Oizerman, Teodor Il´ich]; translated from the Russian by Robert Daglish. Problems of the History of Philosophy (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973), chapter 1, section 4, pp. 52-64.

Problems of the History of Philosophy: Contents

Problems of the History of Philosophy by Theodore Oizerman, review by Ralph Dumain

"A Scientist, or a Man of Wisdom?" by Galina Kirilenko & Lydia Korshunova

Curt J. Ducasse on Wisdom, Norms, Theory, & Pragmatism

Wisdom and Abstract Thought by R. Dumain

Dialectical Materialism and the History of Philosophy (Extracts) by Theodore Oizerman

Principles of the Theory of Historical Process in Philosophy by T.I Oizerman & A.S. Bogomolov

Principles of the Theory of Historical Process in Philosophy by T.I Oizerman & A.S. Bogomolov, review by R. Dumain

The Main Trends in Philosophy (Contents) by T. I. Oizerman

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

Philosophy of History of Philosophy & Historiography of Philosophy: Selected Bibliography

Wisdom, Philosophy & Everyday Life — Theoretical Perspectives: An Unconventional Guide


Problems of the History of Philosophy by Theodore Oizerman
(entire book online)

The Problem of the Scientific Philosophical World-Outlook by T. I. Oizerman

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