Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Getting information vs learning wisdom

I'm not very good at teaching. I fail, I think, precisely because I try to be too accurate in what I say. There's an example. As a consequence, I fear that what I write does little to help people but simply gives them reason to dislike me or my views.

Trying to explain ideas precisely sometimes looses the whole gestalt of what's being explained. It would be like describing the Mona Lisa by a very accurate list of Cartesian coordinates and colours. It might be very accurate, but you miss the whole effect of the painting (a cool part of it, from memory, is how it appears she is always looking at you). It is much better to bring someone to the Mona Lisa so that they know the painting on more than just a level of factual information.

Giving people facts and information sometimes doesn't really help them in the way they need to be helped. I think I'm about to begin considering opinions and even true statements in that category. People can learn more facts, but more facts don't necessarily make someone any wiser.

I think I've placed far too much emphasis on trying to convey facts and information, and far too little on the skill of wisdom. I mean, if we knew all the facts and information in the world, what good would it do us? Facts cannot ever tell us how it is good to think. They cannot guide how we should interpret them and see the world. Facts are facts. Information is information. What I would like to do is not merely give people information, but to teach them wisdom.

You'll notice, especially when I point it out, that I didn't say "give people wisdom". That's because wisdom is not something you can "give" like information. It's more like the skill of playing a piano, for example. I can play it for you, explain some useful concepts to help playing, and serve as a guide to help you learn - but you have to learn it. Just telling you things isn't what will ultimately get you to play the piano well.

So, I see that on this blog especially, I've been basically trying to convey my ideas about things. Information... As if that is what would actually benefit people. I'm not sure such information is of much benefit to people. But helping people to be wise, that is something of great benefit to people. Perhaps I can learn not only more wisdom myself, but the wisdom of how to nurture wisdom in others too. Perhaps. I think I have much to learn... so to begin my learning, I will stop typing.


era said...

Can widsom be taught though?

Reuben said...

I don't think it can be taught in the same way information can be taught, as I said in my post. It must be learned. Yet, I think people can help facilitate others to learn. People can provide some stimulus to help people learn wisdom, perhaps providing necessary input to help people learn.

Here's a probably poor analogy. It might be like giving people the necessary ingredients for them to cook a good meal, and perhaps even a cookbook. These things help people cook, but it's it's the person that does the cooking. Without having such ingredients and recipies, though, I don't think people would get the chance to learn to be good chefs.

era said...

Can you explain to me the process of helping someone learn to be wise then? Something along the lines of your cooking analogy, but applied to wisdom instead of cooking.

Reuben said...

No, I can't, for two reasons:
1) I don't think it is as formulaic as you are asking for here.
2) I don't think I know it - that's why I wrote this post.

era said...

Possibly also 3) It is not actually possible to even help someone learn to be wise?

Some of Plato’s dialogues address the question of teaching wisdom, which is why I'm curious to push you on some of the points they raise. I think Plato believes he has a solution, though he doesn't tell you it. Surely beginning The Academy is more than accidental philanthropy.

Reuben said...

Let's think about your point number 3 for a momen... Imagine a person who is totally alone, with no other people or even animals to interact with. It seems difficult that a person in such a situation would have opportunity to learn much wisdom. If the person had opportunity to interact with other people, he would have greater opportunity to learn wisdom. Hence, if you are capable of giving that person opportunity to interact with other people, you are capable of helping him grow wiser.

This example can be extended by considering the nature of the opportunities you are able to provide. For example, if you can only provide this person with 6 month old infants to interact with, you'd hardly expect these to help him learn as much wisdom as giving him a whole community to interact with. Extending the argument to its conclusion, I think it is obvious that the richer a person's environment, the more opportunity they have to learn. This, I believe, is an obvious and well-established principle of education. Hence, I believe we can help people become wiser by enrichening their mental environment.

Do you still disagree?

era said...

Curiously, I've been reading Robinson Crusoe recently, which is the story of a person becoming wise while isolated on a desert island for 20 years. If Defoe's portrayal is possible, then we're probably wrong. But I'm inclined disagree with Defoe and agree with you that a community and communication are prerequisite to becoming wise.

To me the question then becomes, can I personally help someone become more wise, beyond the rather indirect method of enriching their environment?

Reuben said...

Well, there are lots of ways of looking at that. According to our previous discussion, you'd probably be more helpful than having no one to talk to. The issue then, is not so much whether you can help, but whether you can help more than alternatives that people have (e.g. talking with other people, not talking with you). I think you've helped me to become a little more wise. This post echoed a few of our discussions. So at least in my case, I think the answer to your question is yes. =)

era said...

Excuse me while I help myself to the insight of your original post. Telling someone facts and giving them information does provide them with a small opportunity to become wiser than they would have had otherwise. However, as you point out, by actually engaging them in reciprocal communication (read: argument) you are giving them a much richer opportunity to become wiser. I think this goes a little way towards answering the follow up question to the one I just asked: How can I personally help someone become more wise, (beyond the rather indirect method of enriching their environment)?

Ps. At about this point I wish someone would come along and tell us we’re both being silly and talking a lot of nonsense.

Christina said...

Done and done :P