Tuesday, October 06, 2009

... Just as Beauty lies in the Eyes of the Beholder … is Wisdom found in the Mind of the Receiver

by Leif Thomas Olsen, Associate Professor, International Relations, Rushmore University

Many futurists and thinkers are today engaged in the revival of the concept of Wisdom. For generations, this concept has been second to more scientific exploits, where evidence rather than reflection is at the core. Although Wisdom still is, if and when inquired, typically ranked as the highest level of knowledge, it at the same time is - due to the vagueness associated with it - often
overlooked when more important decisions are to be made. Here will - at least in the West - facts and evidence be considered the only reliable source of guidance.

Since the strength of Wisdom is often argued in terms of quotes of statements made throughout history of man, that are considered 'universal' in time as well as in place, it could be worth looking at Wisdom from a cultural horizon. What will happen to the concept of Wisdom if/when it is fully exposed to cultural 'globalization'?

Just as the concept of Beauty has suffered immensely - when seen from a multicultural horizon - from the heavy influx of sponsored beauty-contests and promoted design-trends that by
default reduce the chances for any local preferences to at all survive, will the concept of Wisdom run a similar risk of being culturally streamlined into hard-hitting one-liners, once our 'know-all' international media joins the trend.

To explain my concern, and point to a way to protect Wisdom as the valuable source of inspiration it is, I need to argue both in favor of Wisdom and in favor of Culture.

Wisdom must - because of its interactive nature - be seen from two angles. The first one is the process of establishing it; the second one the process of absorbing it. The person establishing it is indeed the wise person, i.e. the source of Wisdom (below re-ferred to as the message-sender). But a wise statement is not wise enough if it cannot be absorbed by those receiving it. If the one reading or hearing the quote (below refer-red to as the message-receiver) cannot make proper sense of it, the Wisdom is hidden, and therefore either neutral to the world or, in worst case, counter-productive (if it is misunderstood, that is).

Although I do share the view that Wisdom as a concept is 'global', any particular piece of Wisdom is, at best, only 'global to a certain degree'. Not even Wisdom can actually become altogether global, since it is based on induction (inductive reasoning), which - although this allows far greater flexibility than does deductive reasoning, both in its creation (i.e. for the message-sender) and
in its application (i.e. for the message receiver) - means that 'interpretation' becomes a very important part of Wisdom, just as is the case with anything of 'interactive' nature.

No doubt is Wisdom, because of its inductive base, very different from more specific 'claims' - typically based on deduction - which, even if they are true, still suffer from the fact that their truth-factors boil down to very specific premises, i.e. if these premises are in place, the claims are true, but if they are not, the claims are false.

As far as the concept of 'global' goes, my concern is that it is only when all related premises actually are accepted as valid that anything at all can become truly 'global'. Everything else can only, at best, become 'global to a certain degree'. However, even in favorable cases, the majority (which in a worst case scenario will translate as 'stronger') will enforce the 'global' aspect of whatever is at stake, at the expense of the minority (which in these worst case scenarios will translate as 'weaker').

As one may understand from this, I do not see 'global' as anything we need to strive for, since the abuse of this term has been immense, often allowing the stronger to oppress the weaker in the name of 'equal opportunity' - an opportunity that no matter its basic equality will always depend on available resources. I rather think 'glocal' is the way forward, where local conditions and local interpretations are encouraged.

In my mind this means that although it may be hard to guess when or where any given 'wise' statement was first minted - in that respect making them 'universal' - they will still induce different behavior among those who try to apply the Wisdom the statement expresses. Such differences in application are typically instructed by cultural patterns. This should be encouraged rather than discouraged, or we risk ending up in an ethno-centric world where dominant cultures steamroll everything standing in its way.

Let me come back to the 'premise' component, and how it comes into play. Let us assume that all human beings respond in accordance with the following formula for logical behavior: Observation + Premise = Conclusion (see Olsen: A Book About Culture). The Wisdom statement can then be said to be a Conclusion made by the message-sender (i.e. the source of Wisdom), as well as an 'Observation' made by the message receiver (i.e. the person trying to apply the Wisdom). When the latter combines this Observation with any chosen Premises, he/she will draw Conclusions of some sort (consciously or unconsciously). This means that the chosen Premises will decide how the Wisdom is interpreted, meaning we actually 'apply' the same Wisdom differently in different cultures.

Let me stress that by 'cultural differences' I actually refer to the fact that different cultures always have different 'premises' in place. This is actually what constitutes cultural differences in
the first place.
These premises affect the message receiver greatly, and since this is mostly unconsciously, the receiver typically does not even realizes that s/he applies the Wisdom
in a different way than what someone with a different cultural origin would do.

We westerners often try to take on non-western wisdom, but we tend to interpret it and apply it in quite different ways than do non-westerners. By 'different' I do not intend 'wrong' - but simply 'different'.

It is important to point out that I by "culture" refer to a wide range of 'cultures' - not only national or social ones. Cultures can also be professional or generational, they can be driven by gender, religion, interests, education or lineage, or by any other trait that people value.

Cultural dominance can hence be of a wide range of types. Let's take e.g. women and 'non-westerners', just to demonstrate. These groups are often forced to emulate male and/or western cultural behavior if they wish to reach the top in any of those environments where male / western culture dominates - which for that matter happens to be just about everywhere where money is an
issue of concern. If they do not take on the dominant culture's approach, their efforts will be less successful (although exceptions of course do exist).

That also includes the dominant culture's way of interpreting and applying certain Wisdom.

Take for example Diane Ackerman's quote (by some listed among 'wise statements'): "I don't want to get to the end of my life and find that I have just lived the length of it. I want to have lived
the width of it as well."

To some, this quote could suggest that the best advice to a Laotian woman who wants a slice of the global pie would be to act as what the sport-shoemaker Nike suggests: Just do it! But how many Laotian women would interpret this Wisdom like that? 'Width' could alternatively represent a spiritual dimension, which - if that was the interpretation made - would not take her any closer to the slice in question. Another example could be Chinese philosopher Chuang-tsu's saying: "Live
so you are at ease, in harmony with the world, and full of joy."
The way in which we define 'the world' is here critical for how we apply this Wisdom. Is 'the world' the society we live in and the friends we already have, which means we can disregard those parts of the world we have never encountered, or is 'the world' everything we or our fellow humans may encounter in life - including strangers, non-believers, divine beings and ecological systems?

Just like so many others I consider Wisdom an underutilized force, one that should be given a far greater role in society. However, I also consider cultural differences both a strength and advantage, why I see no reason to downplay or suppress them by making efforts to eliminate Wisdom's cultural associations in favor of its universalism.

Instead I believe there are some core messages running through all these expressions of Wisdom. These could be entangled and put in context, using a truly 'multicultural' approach (considering the wide range of different types of cultures indicated above). These core messages need to be elevated to human fundamentals, to which different societies could link different examples and guidelines, accommodating its prevailing culture or cultures. In a process like this, the fundamentals that all societies can agree to would serve as common denominators, while the culturally accepted
references that the respective societies can positively relate to can serve as more direct guidelines for social development.

If we all had the same culture there would be no rainbow, just a monotonous light of blue, yellow or red. We must allow Wisdom to retain its truly glocal sentiment, or it will run the risk of meeting
the same fate as Beauty - to be hijacked by media in its never-ending hunt for simplifications and glamour.

… and yet I haven't even touched upon another global problem: "Lost in translation"!

In October, 2009