Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 43 — Wisdom and Virtue (Summary & Notes)

Mark Mulvey
7 min readMay 4


”Real life situations do not come labeled with the needed virtues or strengths attached. There is thus the problem of relevance.”

(In case you missed it: Summary & Notes for Ep. 42:

Ep. 43 — Awakening from the Meaning Crisis —Wisdom and Virtue [59:04]

  • Let’s discuss the work of Schwartz & Sharpe (2006) in the article “Practical Wisdom: Aristotle Meets Positive Psychology. ” Positive psychology is the idea that we should study the mind not only in how it breaks down into its parts, we should also study it in terms of how it excels as an integrated system—as a whole. It studies states that are considered ‘excellent’ (i.e. where the mind “excels”).
  • The work of Peterson and Zeligman discuss virtue as as a form of human excellence, and list several virtues (e.g. honest, courageous, etc.), but Schwartz & Sharpe take issue with this presentation of the virtues as being logically independent of one another. This “feature list” of virtues without any indication of how they relate to each other. What we should be looking for is a feature schema: a structural-functional organization.
  • The feature list also carries with it the implication that what you should simply do is maximize each virtue, which right away tells you the inadequacy of the feature list. e.g. if you are maximally honest all of the time you with sometimes be cruel, having given up on kindness.
  • The ancient Greeks has this idea that the virtues were significantly independent with one another, either as an interdependent system or as different versions of some core ability.
  • Schwartz & Sharpe talk about a couple situations in which we can see virtues in conflict with each other. e.g. you’re with a bride-to-be and she’s trying on wedding dresses and time is running out and she asks you “How do I look?” You’re caught between being honest, being kind, and being helpful.
  • Another example involves grading an assignment for a student. The student has made terrific progress and overcome barriers, going from a low C to a high B. If you try to grade the paper as completely “objectively” as possible, there’s a good chance that feedback will stop that growth and the person will remain a B student. But if you give them a little bit of encouragement and extend it to be a low A… is that lying? What are we doing when we’re grading papers—are we grading what they’ve done or indicating what they also can do? Lifting the grade into an A range may also “lift” them into being an A student. What’s our moral obligation here? Is it to give the student brutally “objective” truth or to make them into being the best student they can possibly be?
  • This raises important issues. A quote from Schwartz & Sharpe: “Real life situations do not come labeled with the needed virtues or strengths attached. There is thus the problem of relevance.” (relevance is actually emphasized in the original)
  • Virtues can conflict with each other, pulling you into different kinds of behavior.
  • We often represent virtues with rules. e.g. “Be kind.” The problem with this rule is that it doesn’t specify its conditions of application. “Being kind to my son is not the same thing as being kind to my partner, or being kind to my students, or my friends…”
  • “Rule application specification depends on relevance realization.”
  • Schwartz & Sharpe specify 3 interconnected problems of relevance, conflict, and specification, but Vervaeke would adds a fourth: development. Sometimes the best response to a situation is to realize that you need to develop a virtue that you do not have. It’s an aspirational response.
  • They argue the higher order ability to deal with relevance and deal with these interconnected problems is wisdom. “Wisdom is what you need to be virtuous.” The ancient Greeks have actually described each of the virtues not as being in conflict but as being different ways in which you are wise.
  • Aristotle’s distinction betweein sophia and phronesis. Both of these words can be translated as wisdom. Sophia is often translated as theoretical wisdom, and phronesis is often translated as practical wisdom. Schwartz & Sharpe argue that phronesis is what you need for virtue.
  • “Phronesis is the ability to be very contextually sensitive, to exercise good judgment. It overlaps very considerably with the relationship between procedural knowledge (knowing how to do various things. How to be honest, how to be kind…) and perspectival knowing (a situational awareness of what is best fitted or most appropriate)”
  • They resist trying to understand phronesis as “having rules.” Schwartz especially has been critical of this, as it can lead to the tendency to want to legislate everything. It’s impossible of course given the problems/dilemmas discussed above, but it can lead to the illusion that you can somehow replace people becoming wise with people having laws.
  • Rules are propositions, and they see sophia as theoretical knowledge largely propositional, but Vervaeke thinks this is an unfair representation of sophia. Instead of thinking of it as rules or a set of propositions (somewhat analogous to the Kantian model), think of sophia instead as the awareness of principles. Whereas phronesis is about getting you into a process.
  • “Sophia is something like a deep ontological depth perception. To be able to see deep underlying principles.” Aristotle’s point is that you need both sophia and phronesis. You need to know how to put principles into processes, and how to regulate processes with principles.
  • Another issue with Schwartz & Sharpe is that they talk about phronesis in the language of expertise, in that an expert doesn’t necessarily have the best theory but the expert has the best know-how. But to think of this as something separate from sophia—the perspectival knowing—is a mistake, because the word expertise, in psychology when used in a precise manner, is a domain-specific thing. Phronesis is indeed context-sensitive, but this is not the same thing as having expertise. Phronesis is the ability to be sensitive in multiple contexts, not just one domain-specific one. What we need is a domain-general ability. (We have the ability to be foolish in almost every domain of our life, often many domains simultaneously!)
  • One of the seminal psychological theories of wisdom turned it into an empirical, experimental process, which is the work of Baltes and Staudinger: The Berlin Wisdom Paradigm. The seminal article was one called “Wisdom: A meta-heuristic (pragmatic) to orchestrate mind and virtue towards excellence.” Vervaeke argues that relevance realization plays an important role in this theory.
  • Starting with this word they use, pragmatic. One definition associated with the term has to do with an aspect of language (syntax, semantics, and pragmatics). Another has to do with pragmatism, which is related to the work of psychologist nd philosopher William James (one of Vervaeke’s heroes), and the idea that you should evaluate your knowledge claims in terms of their efficaciousness—how much they can be viably used in your life in order to adapt you to the world. “Pragmatism tries to situate your intellectual claims into this deeper lived, experienced, viable ability to fit your world, to develop your connectedness, to develop yourself.” Both of these definitions can be plausibly brought together with the meta-heuristic of: realizing relevance.
  • Baltes and Staudinger have an account of the 5 criteria you need in order to be wise. The features needed to judge someone wise, and the features that need to be investigated. 1. Rich factual knowledge of the pragmatics of life. (this is related to sophia), 2. Rich procedural knowledge of the pragmatics of life, 3. Lifespan contextualism (a kind of perspectival knowing—the ability to zoom out, see the big picture, etc.), 4. Relativism of values and priorities (Vervaeke challenges this one, because many people he considers wise—like Socrates or Plato or Buddha or Jesus of Nazareth—would not be considered moral relativists. He thinks what they’re really getting at is our capacity for tolerance, a kind of fallibilism, and humility), 5. Recognition and management of uncertainty (We cannot pursue certainty. “We have to act as best we can within unavoidable contexts of uncertainty.”)
  • “What they tend to be arguing for is a very comprehensive kind of cognitive flexibility and adaptability. That your cognition is flexible enough that it can adapt itself to different situations in a very efficacious manner.”
  • They started to generate some empirical work. They took situations that, if solved correctly, would generally lead to the attribution of wisdom, give them to several people, and evaluate their answers to see if they exemplify what’s being described in the five criteria. These were the first attempts to empirically measure wisdom.
  • They put people into one of 3 conditions: one where they could discuss the problem with a significant other first, in another they could imagine a virtual or internal dialogue, and in a third they were just given more time to think about it. What they found is that the first and second groups clearly outperformed the third. “You’re wiser if you talk to other people. Which is like, ‘well, duh.’ Well if it’s ‘duh’ then why do we carry around this bullshit mythology of complete individualism?”
  • “This goes back to the Platonic dialogue. That in discussion with others we get to a level of wisdom that we cannot get to on our own.”
  • What was interesting is that there was no important difference between group 1 and group 2. Imagining talking to another person was just as good as actually talking to another person. “If you can internalize other people, they can give you the meta-cognitive ability to overcome your biases.”
  • This points to more recent work by Igor Grossman re: The Solomon Effect. Remember: your framing is often transparent to you. You can’t see it, you see through it. And when you’re in the first-person perspective you can be locked into it, but if you get people to re-describe the same problem from the third-person perspective, they often have an insight. (Notice what that word literally means) They often notice something they hadn’t noticed before.
  • So Baltes and Staudinger, though they’re not invoking it or theoretically discussing it, are relying on perspectival knowing in their experimental work.
  • Next time we will discuss some important criticisms of the work of Baltes and Staudinger, discussing the work of others and ultimately pointing towards a way to reintegrate the account of wisdom with the account of enlightenment, ultimately resituating us back into awakening from the meaning crisis.

Next up: Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 44 — Theories of Wisdom (Summary & Notes)

List of Books in the Video:

  • Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe — Practical Wisdom



Mark Mulvey

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