Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 40 — Wisdom and Rationality (Summary & Notes)

Mark Mulvey
6 min readNov 27, 2022


“Wisdom is not about what you know. Wisdom has to do with how you know it.”

(In case you missed it: Summary & Notes for Ep. 39:

Ep. 40— Awakening from the Meaning Crisis — Wisdom and Rationality [55:25]

  • A central feature of wisdom is the systematic seeing through illusion and into reality
  • The “seeing through illusion” part is insight. The “systematic” part refers not to seeing a specific problem but rather a family of problems. “Insight not at the level of framing but at the level of transframing.” i.e. it not only reframes the problem but it is is transforming your competence.
  • What systematic insight gives you is “sensibility transcendence,” which is exactly what child development (for example) is. Hence the popular metaphor when talking about wisdom: as the child is to the adult, the adult is to the sage.
  • “Wisdom is not about what you know. Wisdom has to do with how you know it.”
  • Two sense of “how”: how you have come to know it (the processing involved rather than the product), and grasping the significance of what you know (i.e. interpretive knowledge in the work of John Kekes, rather than descriptive knowledge). So wisdom has deep connections to understanding and the process rather than the product.
  • There is also a perspectival, participatory aspect to wisdom. “A pragmatic self-contradiction.” A contradiction in the perspective from which you make the statement and the degree of identity you have in making the statement. (e.g. “I am asleep.” Nothing is logically wrong with that, but it is a pragmatic self-contradiction because in uttering it you are uttering it from the perspective of someone who is awake. So there’s a sense in which you are not just pointing out a fact but are pointing to yourself along with it. You are participating in the fact that’s being disclosed.)
  • The phrase “I am wise” also carries with it a sense of a pragmatic self-contradiction. This is part of the Socratic I know-what-I-don’t-know idea.
  • Another way to overcome being deceived by illusion is through rationality. Rationality cannot (should not) be reduced to logic, or equated to a facility with syllogistic reasoning. What we mean by rationality is: a capacity to overcome self-deception in a reliable, systematic manner. We can also describe rationality as “affording flourishing and optimization.”
  • Let’s compare rationality with expertise. It’s easy to become confused: there’s one sense of the word that is something that we can study, and another in which it is a synonym for “being good at.” (We’re not using the latter sense.) So I can become an expert in, say, tennis. In expertise you find a bounded domain that has a reliable set of complex (if difficult) well defined patterns or problems. And you know it’s expertise because it doesn’t transfer, even for things that are close (e.g. squash, in this case). In fact, expertise will interfere.
  • So if we use the example of a physicist making pronouncements about a philosophy (a field that at first glance appears closely related): “If we don’t pay attention to this fact about expertise, we may fail to see that the similarity between physics and philosophy may actually be good reason for believing these people are the worst people to listen to for philosophical advice. Because their expertise in physics may in fact be interfering with expertise in philosophy.”
  • Expertise is not systematic. It is limited in its domain. Rationality, in contrast, is meant to be apt within individual domains and across different domains. Rationality is a domain-general notion, as opposed to context-specific.
  • So you optimize a set of procedures for achieving the goals you want, but as you optimize your cognition it will also tend to shift and change the goals you are pursuing. The goals also come under revision as we pursing this reliable and systematic overcoming of self-deception.
  • The Rationality Debate. There have been a number of experiments that seem to show that human beings are irrational. People reliably fail (on things like logic puzzles, etc.) when it just comes to thinking.
  • critical detachment: separating your ability to separate your attention and direct it to the argument/process instead of the outcome or desired result. Most people do not have this naturally. Most people, reliably, will say that a bad argument is in fact a good argument if the result is one they like/desire. And will say that a good argument is in fact a bad one if it leads to a conclusion they don’t want/like.
  • People, when shown the correct answer/rationale will say something like “ah yes, of course.” So people know what the right reasoning principle is, but don’t reliably apply it. Experiment after experiment has shown this to be the case. (look up “the conjunction fallacy,” “confirmation bias,” “Wason selection task,” “belief perseverance”…)
  • “So people acknowledge the principle, and then reliably fail to engage in it. So they suffer — and watch my language here—from systematic delusion. Systematic self-deception.”
  • So a bunch of psychologists, cognitive scientists, and philosophers were coming to the conclusion that well, humans are just irrational. “But if you were convinced that this were deeply correct, that humans are irrational, then you’d have a very tough time justifying democracy.” Same with out legal system, which is based on the idea that people are fundamentally reasonable and reliably rational. Kant famously argued that morality depends on rationality. Rationality is a deeply existential thing.
  • A debate ensued. The first major response was from Cohen who makes an important argument: He says that to be rational is to acknowledge and to follow a set of standards. And he says let’s hold on right there—where do we get these standards from? i.e. how do we come up with our normative theory? Normativity (and this is an idea that goes back to Plato) has to be deeply autonomous, and not reliant on coming from a deity or specific source. So we have to possess the standards. “Reason has to be the source of the very norms that constitute and govern reason. Because that’s how reason operates.”
  • Another way of presenting this idea: ought implies can. (ought → can) If I try to impose a standard on you—You out to do this!—then you have to be able to do it. “It makes no sense to apply a standard to you that you do not have the competence to fulfill.”
  • Cohen then says: people make two different kinds of mistakes in knowing what is rational but failing to reliably apply it. We have to make a distinction between competence and performance. Competence is what you’re capable of doing, performance is what you’ve actually done.
  • In between competence and performance are all sorts of implementation processes. e.g. I have a competence to speak English, but because I am extremely tired or drunk the implementation processes lead it to come out garbled. But people don’t think you’ve lost the competence to speak, they just think (rightly) that something is interfering with the implementation processes. But if I get into a car accident and my brain is damaged and I’m slurring my speech all the time, then people think you may have lose your competence to speak English.
  • Cohen says that to come up with the standards (since we are the source of the standards) we look at our performance and we try to subtract from it all of the errors that are due to implementation. i.e. performance errors. And so, by this process of systematic idealization, I try to come up with an account of what my competence looks like completely free of performance errors. And that purified account of our competence is the standard to which we hold ourselves. That is how we come up with the normative theory. “That is how we are the source of it and ultimately capable of it but how we can nevertheless, a lot of the time, fail to meet it.”
  • Cohen argues brilliantly (though we will eventually see there are some problems with it) that all of the errors in these experiments have to be performance errors. Which means human beings are not fundamentally irrational after all.
  • Next time we will see that what is right about that argument and what is deeply wrong about that argument. That human rationality is much more comprehensive than facility with syllogistic logic.

Next up: Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 41 — What is Rationality?(Summary & Notes)

List of Books in the Video:

  • John Kekes — Moral Wisdom and Good Lives



Mark Mulvey

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