Because I have answered many questions on the Intelligence and IQ categories on Quora, I attempt many of the questions about being smart, improving one’s intelligence, and all those “Is there One Weird Trick to being a genius?”  I don’t answer about genius at all, as I don’t have a clear enough idea in my own mind what it means, so I shouldn’t be spreading my ignorance to others.  When I use the word at all, I tend to use it about an idea or single framework ability, not as a description of a person, as in “she had a peculiar genius for bestowing the perfect compliment for encouragement.” I answer the “intelligence” questions very specifically about IQ, or about general ability.  For specific abilities, such as music or spatial visualisation, I tend to use the word talent.

But most of all, I redirect the questioner to the idea that Wisdom is more important than Intelligence.  Because it is. Every religious tradition within Christianity and Judaism are adamant on the point, and as well as I know other traditions, they universally agree.  No group of thinkers that has thought long and hard about the good life, the meaning of existence, or the definition of virtue has even mentioned raw candlepower, so far as I can see.  If anything, the closest equivalent “cleverness” seems to be associated more with evil or chaos, as in Milton’s Satan, or Norse Loki. Intelligence is a wonderful attribute, like beauty, artistry, strength, or gracefulness. Yet it can be used for evil and manipulation, the same as those others. It is morally neutral.

There are many approaches to wisdom, but I prefer to highlight the Western Civ tradition that comes down to us from the Greeks through the Medieval Church: Three Theological Virtues, Faith, Hope, and Charity; and Four Cardinal Virtues, Justice, Fortitude, Prudence, Temperance.  If you have been practicing those for a few decades, you’re pretty smart, regardless of what your IQ is.

15 thoughts on “Wisdom”

  1. Wisdom tends to have getting the right answer built in, if not in its strict definition, then at least in its idiomatic usage. It’s not very idiomatic to lament how Joe’s wisdom was wasted because he used it to pursue such counterproductive objectives. (You could perhaps get away with it if the objectives were counterproductive because of effects that were completely unfairly atypical, e.g. wisely building a new settlement someplace much safer than the old one, and then having it be obliterated by a freak asteroid strike.)

    To the extent that correct answers and good outcomes are built into “wisdom”, it is roughly as natural to say “I’d rather be wise than intelligent” as to say “I’d rather be lucky than good.” In the end, there is much to be said for arriving at the good outcome, even if the process by which we did so isn’t a particularly trainable or measurable one.

    The concrete virtues you mentioned seem to be a much fairer comparison to intelligence than abstract wisdom is: we can lament freely about how e.g. Joe’s virtuous fortitude and temperance were wasted in some misguided effort.

  2. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.
    -Proverbs 1:7

  3. An onlooker’s perhaps naive take: Common sense and good judgement are surely more useful than great skill at abstractions – but wisdom seems to be combining these with a sense not of just muddling through but where the muddling is going. We onlookers can take pleasure in the play of another’s ability with abstractions and admire another’s ability to make fine & sensible judgements. These are not always the same people, of course. Nor are they necessarily honorable virtuous people – but surely good judgement must come from an understanding of virtue – at least if the world repays, as I believe it does in the long run, such goodness.

  4. Indeed, I argue that, if there was a “WQ” to match “IQ”, that Democrats/Liberals would consistently rank in the lower third of the resultant bell curve.

    Once you grasp this, it explains A LOT of their behaviors, including most especially their undying love for Marxism.

  5. I assume many/most of those here have seen at least some of the IQ debate being waged on the interwebs the last week or so between Nassim Taleb and a motley band of interlocutors. Taleb can be an acquired taste and isn’t always right, but I think he’s pretty spot on on this.
    I especially like these:
    “[IQ] is meant to select exam-takers, paper shufflers, obedient IYIs (intellectuals yet idiots), ill adapted for “real life”.”
    “If you renamed IQ, from “Intelligent Quotient” to FQ “Functionary Quotient” or SQ “Salaryperson Quotient”, then some of the stuff will be true. It measures best the ability to be a good slave.”
    My goodness, the man doesn’t hold back, does he?

    I think the fact that the concept of IQ is way more influential for the past few generations than ever before in American (and world) history is strongly related to our current problems.

  6. My goodness, the man doesn’t hold back, does he?

    In his last book, he wrote a chapter explaining Coase’s theorem that was entitled, “How To legally Own Another Person”. It was biting, to say the least, considering that most of his readers are probably drawing a salary and thus would fit the description of being owned.

    Complaints about Taleb going back to his finance days are that his work is either too obvious, too typical, too esoteric, too elitist, too something etc. I think it may be because many people can’t get past the savage jabs to see what’s actually going on.

    In this particular case he helpfully spells out the main concern a few pages later when he writes, “People whose survival depends on qualitative ‘job assessments’ by someone of higher rank in an organization cannot be trusted for critical decisions.”

    With IQ it may be similar. Whether or not it is actually scientific or not, we now assign great significance to it. And with that comes asymmetric risk.

    If you measure someone with low IQ but their intelligence is really high, it is uncertain what, if any, achievements we might miss out on because they were shut out of high status institutions. If you measure someone with high IQ but their intelligence is really low, then their mistakes in high status institutions can now reverberate across our society and across the world.

  7. An observation from spending some time in large corporations which seemed to devote a lot of effort to assessing the abilities of their staff (which could be viewed as an expanded form of intelligence testing) — the selected high-flyers mostly seemed to be “intellectual sprinters”. These were people who had an astonishing ability to absorb facts quickly and reach conclusions promptly — very impressive.

    However, in the sporting world, most sprinters are not competitive in long distance running. There seemed to be something similar in this business world selection process — the intellectual sprinters were fast and smart … but then they were on to the next challenge, no looking back; they seemed to have great difficulty revisiting their earlier conclusions in the light of additional information. I suspect this is part of the reason why many large corporations which have the resources to hire the cream of the crop end up failing — their senior ranks become intellectual mono-cultures, without the ability to react to changing circumstances.

    Another analogy might be that businesses tend to select the best basketball players — which works great, until they need to field a football squad, or a swim team. It is unfortunate that the Far Left has smeared such a stink on the word “diversity”, because diversity of intellects and capabilities is a key to the success of any organization, whether business or government.

  8. Jordan Peterson has a recent video talk open IQ which is pretty interesting.

    When I was in high school, we were all marched one day to the study hall and told we were taking a test. It was the SAT. To this day, I don’t know my score but it was good enough to be one of the 100 National Merit Scholars that year. No prep courses or repeat testing.

    times have changed.

  9. I also wrote about the Taleb and IQ tweets, partially agreeing. https://assistantvillageidiot.blogspot.com/2019/01/taleb-and-iq.html

    I’ve written about IQ a fair bit over the years. I often use a height/basketball analogy similar to Gavin’s. I like his sprinter-distance runner analogy as well. To extend it, the very best at both are at least very good at the other, even if not Olympic. Even better, there is the Decathlon, and every four years we declare that winner the world’s best athlete, then forget about him a week later. It is both true and false that this is the world’s best athlete, for very similar reasons to the IQ/Other Smarts debate.

  10. What I’ve observed in corporate settings: generally speaking, it takes a fairly high abstract intelligence to play at any significant management level. But when people flame out, it is generally a character or wisdom issue that was the cause.

  11. My observation, based on 60 years, is that Engineering requires skills different from Medicine. Medicine is mostly memory and pattern recognition.

    Engineering is more calculation and logic.

    For what it’s worth.

    Of course, Surgery requires manual dexterity but I have seen plenty of undextrous surgeons. A friend told me that when he took the FRCS exam, he was required to manipulate structures in a jar. That seemed more practical to me. Professors of Surgery tend to be equipped with ten thumbs.

  12. I made up a little chart, printed a couple of copies out and posted it on my cubical wall and on my refrigerator.

    It had two columns. One was the Seven Deadly Sins. The other column was the Seven Cardinal Virtues.

    I try to refer to the chart at least once a week.

    I realized at an early age that I was smart but not wise.

    I’ve spent my adult life trying to balance that.

  13. Whitehall,
    I identify with that post. I realized early on I could be very clever, skilled intellectually and self aware, but what I really wanted was to be good. It wasn’t my natural inclination. I’ve worked on what that means and how to become that ever since. If others don’t like me now, they should have met me earlier in my life. Even I didn’t like me very much. I appreciate the time and opportunities I have been given to improve even this much.


  14. I too was tested for the SAT in Canada, way back when. I pulled a 98.9 out of my posterior. I had figured out multiple choice a while before they dropped that little test on us.

    I got an invite from MIT. ;)

    I’m smart, always have been but I’m terminally lazy as well. As I get into my 70s a smattering of wisdom is starting to appear but really, that’s just attrition. ;)

  15. “As I get into my 70s a smattering of wisdom is starting to appear but really, that’s just attrition.”

    I identify with that, but I believe the attrition is caused by the kinetic results of many unwise past actions or inactions.


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