Wisdom Lexicon Project

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Steps Towards the Scientific Study of Sapience

This project began when it more or less suddenly occurred to me that there are two very different definitions of the word, 'wisdom'. One definition is a kind of practical knowledge gained by experience; we associate it with age -- for example, we speak of 'the wisdom that comes with age'.

The second kind of wisdom is something harder to define, but the consensus seems to be that it has a certain transcendent quality, in the sense that it may be like a stepping outside of mental processes and 'seeing' them in operation. This meaning of the word, 'wisdom', is closely related to discernment, and it is often associated with religion and spirituality. One also often sees allusions to spiritual senses, especially vision, in connection with it. Perhaps we could call this kind of wisdom a basic quality, like sharpness or keenness, of consciousness. It seems like a distinct kind of phenomenological experience, in any case.

As I investigated further, I found discussion of this second kind of wisdom in many different religious traditions, where it seems a subject of special interest. For example, unless I miss my guess entirely, this second kind of wisdom is the main concern of the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament. That would make sense -- it's hard to imagine people eulogizing so profoundly, even to the point of expressing affection for, a mere 'practical knowledge gained by age and experience'. Rather, it appears to me that what they're referring to is this other kind of wisdom, something more rightly thought of as an extraordinary or spiritual or mental/cognitive faculty, or set of faculties.

Elsewhere I will discuss this idea as occurs in the Christian tradition, where it's discussed especially by St. Augustine, among others. One thing is worth noting: in the religious and philosophical literature, there is a consistent opinion expressed such that not everybody is capable of experiencing this kind of wisdom. The explanation given is that mental, moral, or ethical shortcomings (attachment to appetites, etc.), becloud the mind and obscure this faculty. Or, to state things in the positive, it requires a certain level of ascesis or mental/ethical 'purification' for the faculty to develop. A corollary is that many people, not experiencing this subtler kind of wisdom, understandably equate the word 'wisdom' with the other, more common meaning.

I believe, then, there is ample evidence and sufficient agreement on the subject across traditions and cultures that we have good grounds to study the second kind of wisdom as an empirical psychological and cognitive-science question, as well, of course, as a philosophical and religious one. Further, should it be the case that such a distinct faculty or set of sapiential faculties exist -- that is, if we take the religious and philosophical literature at face value -- this would appear to have substantial and diverse practical implications. If these exist, to study and understand them would be a tremendous asset to the fields of counseling and psychotherapy. The faculties would also apply in a very direct way to the treatment of health-compromising behaviors -- including cigarette smoking, alcohol and drug abuse, and overeating -- where failures of particular kinds of discernment and attention seem to be the critical issue. These are just the beginning. At issue is whether there exists such a thing as Wisdom, and whether we, as scientists, may and should study it with the aim of contributing to the advancement of humankind.

This subject is interdisciplinary in nature, falling under the technical purview of: psychology, cognitive science, linguistics and philology, philosophy, sociology, and comparative religion -- just to name a few. Should any doubt exist that we might make practical cognitive discoveries by studying something that is traditionally in the realm of religion, we need only consider the example of meditation, which, although once viewed skeptically, is now considered to have a scientific basis and even constitutes standard medical therapy.

Now, as scientists, we understand that the first step of science is observation. But even before observation, one needs to define the subject, and that presents an immediate need here. The definitions here are imprecise and overlap to a considerable degree. If, however, we allow that these operations and experiences are physiologically mediated (or have physiological epiphenomena), then we have grounds to expect that people in different places, times, and cultures experience more or less the same phenomena, and that they have specific terms for them. The initial step, then, I suggest, is to collect and compare relevant definitions from several different languages and see what that suggests. To this end, I've begun with two sets of words that seem most appropriate. The first set all, in my (limited) opinion, can be interpreted as varieties of these special faculties or senses. The second set appear to be related, but less so.

In any case, it seems fairly clear that one of the best ways to get wise is to investigate the meaning of Wisdom.

Clearly many other columns (languages) could be added. I'm open to any and all suggestions. Some I've considered but aren't shown are Japanese (with special attention to the terminology of Zen Buddhism), and indigenous languages.

A Meta-Terminological Issue

It is helpful to note a fundamental issue concerning words. There are, in general, two different ways by which a word carries meaning, or, perhaps we could say, two kinds of words. The first kind we could call a natural word. In this case, a word is assigned to a specific object, event, or relation which is the subject of personal sensory experience. For example, a young child, never having seen a dog before, points to one and asks, "What is that?", to which the mother replies, "dog"; the child then learns this new, natural word.

In contrast are what we could call abstract words. These are basically terms we use in conceptual theories about the world -- scientific or otherwise. For example, the referent of the word "atom" is no definite object of experience; it's basically an abstraction. Abstract words have no definite meaning, but are only operationally defined relative to a particular theoretical framework. For a geneticist and a biologist, the abstract meaning of "dog" is different, and neither meaning is the same as the actual experienced thing we call a dog.

Just as in the case of "dog", there can also be different natural and abstract meanings of the words associated with mental events or experiences. Consider the example of a young child daydreaming. From the child's demeanor, facial expression, or perhaps the position or movements of the eyes, a mother may take notice and tell the child, "Stop daydreaming." There is no question for either the child or the mother what is being referred to. At some level or in some way, the cognitive process we call "daydreaming" is a matter of direct experience. The natural meaning is learned, as with "dog", by its association to one or more specific experiences.

Yet one would be hard-pressed to show that daydreaming is a scientifically recognized entity. Perhaps the closest we could come to a scientific term is "imagination." If the child daydreamed too much, and was sent to a psychologist, the latter might feel the need to give the child a scientific diagnosis. But there is no diagnosis of "too much daydreaming". The condition would have to be explained as some disorder involving excessive imagination, and then that linked to a still more remote theoretical diagnostic entity -- a neurosis or personality disorder.

The point of this example is to call to attention the great extent to which (1) we tend to have natural words for our mental experiences, but (2) there is a marked modern trend for the natural meanings to be replaced by scientific, abstract ones. This is very problematic. The danger is that one may come to rely too exclusively on abstract words and theoretical meanings in thinking about oneself, and in trying to understand, make sense of, and organize ones interior mental experiences (one of the primary and most challenging tasks of the human being).

Thus, to continue our example, the child may one day come home from school, quite confused, and announce to the parents, "I have something called Attention Deficit Disorder", a thing that has no specific definition, certainly not one that is agreed on, and is, in any case, a much less concretely useful and experientially relevant term than "daydreaming." To the extent that Attention Deficit Disorder then becomes a concept in the child's own thinking about him- or herself, this thinking is alienated from actual experience. Further, the child must contend with all the implications of having this social label. So layer upon layer of abstract thinking ensues, all of which has very little, if anything, to do with any actual experiences of the child.

Extrapolating this, I think it is fair to suggest that we are in danger, as a society and as individuals, of having all our natural understanding of our own mental processes, and therefore of our own natures, gradually displaced by narrow, dry, and essentially soulless abstractions. To the extent that our minds are increasingly occupied with considering abstractions of ourselves and each other, then we become abstractions.

This issue might even seem to argue against the kind of project that I propose to pursue here; after all, we are not exactly pointing to some definite mental event and saying, "Here is what we call this in English. What do you call it in Chinese?" (although that doesn't seem, a priori, like such a bad idea). But, hopefully, if we are alert to it, we may try to sidestep the problem of overly abstract understanding of these terms as much as possible. In short, what I am suggesting is that, in trying relate the various wisdom-related terms used in different cultures, we attempt to focus as much as possible on the natural, experiential meaning of the words and not abstract meanings.

Where to Go from Here?

How about hearing from some National Science Foundation or NIH project managers looking for good research to support? Does something like the "First International Interdisciplinary Conference on Sapiential Cognition" have a nice ring to it?

Okay, maybe things aren't quite at that stage yet. But I do think there's some important material here and would be interested in hearing from others with similar research interests or related ideas or suggestions.

In the meantime, I'll be mentioning this webpage to various people or groups, with the aim of trying to fill in the currently empty cells of the following tables, and perhaps to get a more concrete understanding of these words in general.

Wisdom Words

Note. Hebrew and Chinese are two other obvious choices, but to keep the tables on this page small they are not shown.
English Greek Latin Sanskrit Arabic
Wisdom Sophia Sapientia Jhana, Dhyana  
cognitive acuity     prajna  
conscience suneidesis conscientia    
contemplation theoria, theôriai contemplatio    
direct apprehending noesis   pratyaksa?  
discernment     samjna, viveka  
discrimination     jnana  
foresight pronoia   jnana  
illumination, enlightenment     moksha  
inner vision enoptike   viveka  
insight     vipassana  
intelligence (the) nous      
prudence phronesis prudentia    
the Spirit who knows what is in man (1 Cor 2:11)

the spark of conscience (i.e., not conscience itself)

synderesis scintilla conscientiae    
spiritual intelligence     buddhi  
subtle inner perception     sukshma prajna  

Canonical Definitions

Whether this project shall be a thorough, empirical study, or just a 'thought- experiment' remains to be seen. It would seem to have value in either case. Regardless, a systematic and methodical approach seems useful, even though we recognize that the subject matter is such that this may only take us partway.

Here, then, is a set of canonical definitions which can be used as reference points for cross-language comparisons. In most cases, these words have multiple meanings, senses, or nuances, some being more relevant to the kind of Wisdom which is the focus of investigation here.

The proposed canonical definitions rely partly on my subjective judgment, but are based on specific data: the definitions of these terms supplied in standard references sources. What I have mainly done is to select from among the alternative senses or meanings those which seem most applicable.

Two primary online sources were used for the initial definitions (which are supplied in the appendix.). One source is recent -- the WordNet system developed by the Cognitive Science Laboratory of Princeton University; the second is Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913).

The contrast between old and new is itself interesting, as it is apparent that the meanings of many of these terms have shifted over the last 100 years. (Much could be said of this in terms of cultural implications; it may reflect a trend towards increased 'behaviorism' and reluctance to admit the spiritual dimension of human existence.)

The current plan is to present the definitions for each word in two parts. First to appear are the most relevant literal meanings. These are mostly gleaned from the dictionary definitions. In some cases where it seemed necessary, I've made plausible additions, but have done so sparingly. These literal definitions we understand to be necessarily limited; they are just the starting point. These will be then be complemented with more 'poetic' definitions in the form of quotes or phrases taken from relevant literature; this second part will be an ongoing process.

Proposed Definitions

Related Words

Note. Hebrew and Chinese are two other obvious choices, but to keep the tables on this page small they are not shown.
English Greek Latin Sanskrit Arabic
belief pistis, doxa      
common sense        
conjecture eikasia      
construct (mental)        
idea eidon?      
meditation   meditatio sikshma prajna?  
memory   memoria    
mental image ikon?      
mindfulness     sati (Pali)  
piety, devoutness        
reason logos? ratio    
understanding sunesis?      

To Cite this Page

Uebersax, John S. (2007). "Wisdom Lexicon Project: Steps Towards the Scientific Study of Sapience". Online article. Retrieved from http://john-uebersax.com/plato/lexicon.htm on mmm dd, yyyy.

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Copyright © 2007-9
John Uebersax PhD

Vers. 1.0: 8 Jan 2007
Vers. 1.5: 8 Mar 2007 (natural and abstract words)