Wisdom and Culture

First, I again apologize for not posting for four months.  I’ve been traveling (Japan, Virginia, Utah, New Mexico, etc.) and in January I began to teach a class on the Role of Wisdom in Adult Learning at the University of New Mexico.  It is an on-line class, and is interesting and challenging to teach.  I’m learning more and more about what people think about wisdom.  My trip to Japan was informative—and thus, the topic I’d like to write on today concerns the questions of whether different cultures see wisdom in the same way.

Defining culture presents the first hurdle for this post.  Culture has been called “the way of life for an entire society.”  As such, it includes codes of manners, dress, language, religion, rituals, law and morality, and systems of belief, as well as the arts and diet.  As with wisdom, various definitions of culture reflect differing theories for understanding, or criteria for evaluating human activity.  Edward Burnett Tylor, writing from the perspective of social anthropology in the United Kingdom–long ago in 1871–described culture in the following way:

“Culture or civilization taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, laws, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” Tyler, E. B., 1974/1871.  Primitive Culture: Research into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, and Religion, Art and Custom.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, most people lived in villages and were isolated from foreigners from remote and different cultures (somewhat).  Now at the beginning of the twenty-first century, people all over the world come come into contact with individuals from far-flung worldwide cultures.  Television (for good or bad), facebook (for good or bad), brings western views and lifestyles into the Bedouin tent.  Cultural interaction is pandemic.  We are presently witnessing rioting in the streets of Cairo, Tripoli, and other Middle Eastern countries, as well as riotous demonstrations in the capital of Wisconsin.  This type of interaction will result perhaps either in globalization or cultural fragmentation.  There is evidence that it is bringing about both.  Where is wisdom in this mix?

Traditional peoples in non-western cultures speak of life in Western cultures as being out of balance. That there are forms of knowledge that differ from western notions of knowledge is becoming extremely evident. John Broomfield (1997), in his book Other Ways of Knowing, finds that it is precisely the diversity and wisdom of all human cultures that offer the greatest hope for humanity’s future. He wrote:

‘Take heart! Humanity is wise and, in its rich diversity, possessed of vast reservoirs of creativity, inspiration, and spiritual energy with which to meet the challenges of the new millennium. . . . In the twentieth century humans have been hell-bent on acquiring new knowledge. In the twenty-first century we must have the wisdom to save ourselves from the effects of this knowledge.’ (p. 1)
Additionally, common sense and biological science tell us that diversity is necessary. Our common future may involve our using common sense or wisdom.  As Socrates so famously declared:

We are discussing no small matter, but how we ought to live.
(Socrates as reported by Plato in the Republic, ca 390 BCE)


Hopefully, more will follow in the next few days.  I’d welcome your comments!

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