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  • Geoff Mulgan

A loop theory of wisdom - how do we respond to foolish times?


Is it possible for an organisation, a system or a society, to become wiser? If so, how could we make this real and not just a vague invocation – like wishing people would be kinder or more loving?


In this draft paper (a more developed version of which will be published in a couple of months) I share some answers. I suggest what might be missing in much writing about wisdom and I suggest an alternative framework that cuts across different disciplines, including philosophy, psychology, computer science and organisational design.

I argue that progress in this field is badly needed, and not just because of the very visible lack of wisdom amongst many leaders and institutions, but also because rapid progress in use of data and artificial intelligence has not led to obviously wiser actions, in part because these fields lack a coherent view of the relationship between data, knowledge and wisdom.


I also argue that wisdom, and thought about wisdom matters, because it should sit above other types of knowledge, including scientific knowledge, or the insights of particular disciplines or professions.


Wisdom depends on expertise, but sits above it – and, as I argue, this should shape how we design institutions and laws, as well as science advice and governance, the design of digital technologies, and the crucial institutions that help the world make wiser decisions about complex long-term challenges – such as the IPCC and others around climate change, or IPBES concerned with biodiversity and ecosystems.

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The paper challenges some conventional views of this topic which see wisdom as static rather than dynamic, individual rather than collective, introspective rather than involving argument and open learning, and general rather than domain specific.


All of these assumptions may be misleading. I argue that instead of thinking of wisdom as an attribute we should understand it as a series of loops – loops linking thought, action and results; loops involving feedback from others; and loops involving argument and decision.

The paper shows why attempts at definition and taxonomy have been unsatisfactory and why wisdom is not a single thing but rather a shifting assembly of elements linked by what I call integrative judgement, that is in turn guided by reflection on experience. I suggest how institutions could be designed in ways that partly mimic the sometimes competing and sometimes cooperating parts of the individual brain to come closer to a capacity for wisdom.


I present wisdom as an inherently looped concept. I question the idea that wisdom is an attribute of particular people or institutions, presenting it more in terms of processes and actions. What is wise is what in the long run turns out to be wise. We can only truly recognise wisdom in retrospect, or from a distance. Words alone cannot be wise (and putting too much weight on the declarative, verbal side of wisdom opens up greater risks of hypocrisy and error, and greater risks of taking at face value the traditional hierarchical associations of wisdom - age, status, gender etc).


But if wisdom is looped, as I suggest, this also means that it can be learned, whether by individuals or organisations, through habits that partly mirror those of Bayesian inference. Moreover it is possible to address head-on processes that run counter to wisdom –algorithms that circulate lies, media dynamics that tend to amplify attention to people with vivid but misleading ideas, or legal processes that fuel discord.


I also suggest that wisdom is to some extent collective – dependent on others and their feedback – and that it is contextual; we can only judge it from a vantage point. There is no such thing as universal wisdom and wisdom is unstable because the environment that makes up its context is fluid, meaning that what is wise at one point may not be at another point. Wisdom is also looped in another sense. To think wisely we have to learn both to go out, and then to come back: to go out in the sense of exploring other perspectives, ways of seeing and thinking; and to come back in the sense of returning to an action or decision that will always be simpler than the thoughts that guide it.


Drawing on this idea I show how it is possible to cultivate wisdom; to build it into institutions and systems, usually through a division of labour; how to embed it into physical objects and into a further evolution of knowledge management and search tools, as well as artificial intelligence. I also address how wisdom can be cultivated in making sense of new fields of science and technology, bringing with them uncertain risks and benefits.


By making the pursuit of wisdom more explicit with claims, predictions and formal processes that allow for shared reflection and learning, along with a constant iteration of questions and answers, I argue that we can improve the quality of thought not only of individuals but also of organisations and whole systems. By removing some of the mystique surrounding wisdom we can do more to promote it.


None of this would matter if the world was replete with wisdom. But it’s not. Wisdom is fragile, elusive and often undervalued. In a world where data and information have become ever more ubiquitous and cheap, wisdom may have become even rarer.


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I am sharing this (quite long) paper in a draft form in the spirit of its contents - to encourage critical comment and feedback.


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