The Latest in the Search for Wisdom

The quest for wisdom is as old as Socrates, but it's also an up-to-the-minute economic indicator. A contrarian one: when things are going well, you don't have to go searching for wisdom. It streams nonstop over CNBC, its avatars sit smugly atop the Forbes list of billionaires and each day it proves again the eternal truths of the free market. Then in due course things go to hell; the sages and gurus humbly confess their ignorance to Congress or a grand jury, and the search for new paradigms begins. Tellingly, scholars date the modern scientific study of wisdom to the work of the American psychologist Vivian Clayton in the malaise-ridden 1970s. Clayton devised the first empirical tests for wisdom, which she defined as the ability to acquire knowledge and analyze it both logically and emotionally—picking up on the work begun by Socrates, around the time the Peloponnesian War began to turn into what we would call a "quagmire."

So it's no coincidence that several dozen researchers in fields ranging from neuroscience to art, music and law have just received wisdom-seeking grants under the auspices of the University of Chicago. The $2.7 million program, funded by the Templeton Foundation, is called Defining Wisdom, a name that implies the researchers will know what they were looking for once they find it. Wisdom, according to Robert J. Sternberg of Tufts University, the author of several books on the topic, is still an obscure field with minimal academic cachet. (Clayton dropped her research in 1982; it was carried on at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin until a few years ago.) "The current state of the world is a good example of why wisdom research is needed," he adds. "Look at Robert McNamara or Donald Rumsfeld, brilliant people without wisdom, who get into power and make a mess of things."

With so much at stake, the program's directors, psychologists John Cacioppo and Howard Nusbaum, dismissed the traditional approach to wisdom research, which involves sending grad students with tape recorders to nursing homes and small-town barbershops. So they cast their nets wide and deep into the pools of academe. The 38 proposals they approved include ones aimed at finding wisdom in computer algorithms ("Data Compression as a Mathematical Measure of Wisdom") and in classical literature ("The Price of Wisdom: Community and the Individual in Greek and Roman Poetry"). Starting at the beginning, one scholar observes that "language is the medium by which wisdom-related knowledge is usually conveyed." That sounds self-evident, but another scientist proposes to "explore music as a form of wisdom, by looking more closely at aspects of deep musical experience," and a third nominates pheromones ("The Wisdom of the Ant: The Role of Experience in Sociality and Aggression"). "We're trying to think out of the box," says Nusbaum. "Does it even make sense to ask questions about an animal model for wisdom? We have no clue."

And if ants can teach us something about wisdom, why not Sylvia Miles? An actress notorious for frittering away her career with nonstop partying seems an unlikely source of guidance. But in a new book titled "How to Live: A Search for Wisdom From Old People," the essayist Henry Alford, the Socrates of dilettantes, mines Miles's life for whatever gems of wisdom she might have picked up at Studio 54, along with whatever else she picked up there. In the fullness of age, does she regret dumping a plate of cold cuts on the critic John Simon in revenge for a bad review? Not a chance. If you want reassurance that it's already too late to reform, Alford is the philosopher for you. If Miles isn't your ideal of sagacity, he also interviews the literary theorist Harold Bloom, who warns him, forebodingly if obscurely, that wisdom is "a very dark topic." Perhaps he took a beating on his 401(k), too.

Cacioppo and Nusbaum dismiss quibbles about the inherent circularity of searching for wisdom at the same time as defining it. But they have some preconceptions about what they expect to find. They see "wisdom" in part as a corrective to the "rational choice" paradigm of decision making, the foundation of free-market economics. Rational choice holds that everyone's happiness is best served when people maximize their short-term individual gains, even at the expense of the broad interests of society or the long-term future. That is precisely opposite the approach of, well, ants, who are entirely indifferent to their individual fates, functioning as interchangeable parts of what the entomologists Bert Hölldobler and E. O. Wilson call, in their new book, "The Superorganism." Ant colonies have good years and bad ones, but they don't, as a rule, overexpand out of reckless greed and then collapse in economic crisis. So watch your step. The next Alan Greenspan may be under your feet.