Wisdom vs. Intelligence:

An interesting essay by Paul Graham; thanks to Arnold Kling (EconLog) for the pointer. Here are some excerpts, selected by Kling:

"Wise" and "smart" are both ways of saying someone knows what to do. The difference is that "wise" means one has a high average outcome across all situations, and "smart" means one does spectacularly well in a few.

...As knowledge gets more specialized...intelligence and wisdom drift apart, [and] we may have to decide which we prefer. We may not be able to optimize for both simultaneously. knowledge has grown more specialized, there are more and more types of work in which people have to make up new things, and in which performance is therefore unbounded. Intelligence has become increasingly important relative to wisdom because there is more room for spikes.

...Wisdom seems to come largely from curing childish qualities, and intelligence largely from cultivating them.

...cultivating intelligence seems to be a matter of identifying some bias in one's character—some tendency to be interested in certain types of things—and nurturing it. Instead of obliterating your idiosyncrasies in an effort to make yourself a neutral vessel for the truth, you select one and try to grow it from a seedling into a tree.

...perhaps one reason schools work badly is that they're trying to make intelligence using recipes for wisdom. Most recipes for wisdom have an element of subjection. At the very least, you're supposed to do what the teacher says. The more extreme recipes aim to break down your individuality the way basic training does. But that's not the route to intelligence. Whereas wisdom comes through humility, it may actually help, in cultivating intelligence, to have a mistakenly high opinion of your abilities.

Hmmm, I've always equated "intelligence" with raw mental skill or learning potential, and "wisdom" with the knowledge gained through experience.
4.14.2007 7:23pm
I've always thought of intelligence as raw mental talent and wisdom as the ability and skill to use this intelligence prudently and effectively.
4.14.2007 7:36pm
Hattio (mail):
I have to second (third?) what Fantasia and ishissong are saying. It seems like his definition of intelligence is actually closer to my definition of wisdom. BTW, my definition of wisdom would be the ability to consider all the factors in a decision and make the "right" decision. What's the right decision? Well the wisest one...Yeah, I know it's circular.
4.14.2007 7:57pm
DiverDan (mail):
In my opinion, the commonly accepted definitions for "intelligence", "wisdom", and "smart" are all too imprecise, and all fail to reflect the many varied elements that go into what is generally referred to as "intelligence." Even the standard IQ tests break down scores on several categories of mental abilities, like spacial visualization, verbal comprehension, quantitative analysis, pattern recognition, etc. Some very "smart" people are really only extraordinary in one or two of the categories, while only slightly above-average (or even below average) in others. I have known people who are near genius level in dealing with numbers and mathematical formulae, but so deficient in spacial visualization that they literally get lost within two blocks of their home. The common vocabulary also fails to fully differentiate between (1) knowledge of facts and concepts (i.e., education), and (2) mental ability to analyze and manipulate those facts and concepts to reach a conclusion. A person can be highly educated (i.e., very well versed in facts, figures, concepts), but not very intelligent in that he/she has trouble in logically analyzing the facts to reach a conclusion; similarly, a person can be a genius in analytical skills, but very poorly educated and thus lacking in the necessary "data" to make effective use of those mental abilities. A computer is a useful metaphor - a P.C. with the world's fastest CPU -- mental processing speed -- and best applications -- instructions for logical analysis, whether of numbers, formulae,language, geometric constructs, etc. -- is useless without both the memory and data to make full use of those assets.
4.14.2007 8:08pm
I always thought it was an arcane vs. divine thing... Sorry, couldn't resist.
4.14.2007 9:39pm
bornyesterday (mail) (www):
Intelligence defines how well you learn new skills and your reasoning ability.

Wisdom defines your willpower, common sense, perception, and intuition.

Oh wait, we're talking real life, not D&D.
4.14.2007 10:07pm
By these definitions, if I don' aim for wisdom, I'm doomed.
4.14.2007 10:32pm
Well, the smart thing would have been not to forget the 't'...
4.14.2007 10:34pm
But you were wise enough to realize your error....
4.15.2007 12:17am
Avatar (mail):
Intelligence is your ability to be smart. Wisdom is your ability not to be stupid. These aren't the same thing.
4.15.2007 1:32am
Dave Wangen (mail):

Intelligence is your ability to be smart. Wisdom is your ability not to be stupid. These aren't the same thing.

I like that definition. Gonna have to remember that one.
4.15.2007 3:40am
logicnazi (mail) (www):
While these terms are clearly not precisely defined the observation about how our schools are working is definitely onto something.

It is very clear that the biggest obstacle to teaching the students I TA mathematics is convincing them to genuienly try to figure things out on their own. Not only will the students not venture a guess to the TA but it is clear that at a very deep level the students refuse to even try to figure things out or place them in a broader context. They cling to rote application of algorithms like they are young children too afraid of swimming to let go of the poolside.

Admittedly whether one was good and received praise for doing math or was bad and felt stupid at math as a young child accounts for much of the observed differences in behavior. However, the behavior and attitude of pre-college math teachers doesn't help the matter. Despite going to some very good schools almost all of my pre-college math teachers either weren't interested in math at all or were only interested in it as a bag of nifty tricks to calculate areas of polygons and the like. While it is useful that math has these applications it is exactly the tendency to elevate the result over the why that interferes students from really coming to understand the subject.

Most annoying to me though is the way in which schools seem to actively try to crush any interest or enjoyment of mathematics. What students learn pre-college seems to be an arbitrary collection of rules picked mostly for it's ability to be applied without thought rather than any real need for them to master the material. Everyone needs to add, subtract, multiply and divide and to a lesser extent solve basic one variable linear algebra problems. While I might think these should be taught in a less rote manner (at least to the honor's students) at least there is a justification for the rote work.

Unfortunately after the students have learned this basic skills we just continue one stuffing them full of rules for no good reason other than continuity with what we have already done (college and pre-college). Almost all adults I know who didn't go into or study some technical area no longer has the slightest clue how to solve quadratic equations, do trigonometry or calculus. Apparently they get along just fine without it so what the hell is the point of teaching them how to do it in the first place?

The justifications for teaching students these rote techniques are even less compelling now that we have advanced computer algebra systems. If you really ever need to integrate something now you can just use mathematica or maple. If we aren't going to try to make them understand the material anyway they would be far better served by being made familiar with getting a computer to do it.

What the real goal of these courses should be is to teach the students how to think and reason. Unfortunately what we actually teach them is very ill-suited to this purpose. The foundations of calculus (understanding why) are fairly complex and confusing and trigonometry is just a bunch of formulas. As far as I can the reason we keep teaching them what we do is simply out of tradition and fear of change. The HS's teach it because it's what the colleges expect. The colleges expect it because the HS's teach it. The colleges don't start offering more appropriate replacements for calculus for the non-technical majors (intro to logic or intro to programming) because the math departments don't want to risk people deciding that if calculus isn't that important maybe they don't really need to employ this many math profs.
4.15.2007 4:43am
Blar (mail) (www):
I think that the difference between the two is that wisdom is more meta, and more intimately related to goals, perspective, and self-knowledge. Intelligence is the ability to do well on specific tasks or problems that require thinking. Wisdom involves the ability to figure out which tasks are worth doing well and which problems are worth pursuing. Wisdom requires keeping track of the goals and values that are directing you're action, and making sure that they're reasonable ones. Tyler Cowen showed intelligence by being a chess prodigy and wisdom by abandoning chess in favor of economics. An intelligent man might come up with intricate and sophisticated rationalizations to support some mistaken belief of his, while a wise man would catch himself trying to deceive himself, keep in mind how reasoning is supposed to be conducted in order to arrive at truth, and accept the strength of the arguments and evidence against his view.
4.15.2007 5:07am
Peter Wimsey:
I think that Blar has pretty much hit the nail on the head IMO. Intelligence, or "being smart" is the ability to make decisions or find answers based on the analysis or application of explicit facts or propositions. If you are smart, you can show your work. Sherlock Holmes was smart. Albert Einstein and other good scientists are smart, too.

Wisdom is the ability to intuitively find answers, without necessarily knowing why or being able to explain, in a meaningful way, how you found the answer. Wisdom is knowing within 20 minutes that your daughter's new boyfriend won't work out, even if it takes her two years to figure that out. Wisdom is also knowing that maybe you shouldn't walk down this street late at night, or trust this person, or make this particular argument to the jury.

It's easier to be smart if you're wise, since the ability to intuitively exclude a lot of wrong solutions allows you to efficiently focus your analytic powers on more productive avenues.

I don't really think that focusing on analytical skills harms intuitive skills in general...although sometimes teaching people not to completely disregard intuition might be useful.
4.15.2007 11:08am
AppSocRes (mail):

Intelligence is your ability to be smart. Wisdom is your ability not to be stupid. These aren't the same thing.

This -- from Avatar -- is the best definition I've ever seen.

I'd like to add that wisdom seems to come in three forms: innate, hard won, and that obtained naturally, through aging. Some lucky people seem born (or maybe raised to be) wise. They avoid many of the stupid mistakes the rest of us make: marrying the wrong person, choosing the wrong career, dissipating our youth. Most of us gain wisdom through painful experience or as a natural result of aging: A first love affair teaches that one is scarred, but eventually gets over heartbreak; a first drinking experience teaches that mixing many different kinds of alcohol is a very bad idea.

Aging seems to naturally impart certain elements of wisdom, e.g., that most apparently important things have only a transitory significance and -- contrary to youthful ideas of personal exceptionality -- everbody really does get old, become decrepit, and die.

Unfortunately, my hard-earned wisdom has also taught me that some people are born without wisdom and without the capacity to learn or age into it.
4.15.2007 2:47pm
Avatar (mail):
Heh. Just based off the observations of someone who has a hell of a lot of the one and none too much of the other. I have absolutely no trouble being smart, but that doesn't prevent me from being stupid... ;p

The original poster raises an excellent point, in that wisdom is tied in with humility. Possibly you can characterize it in terms of knowing exactly how much good your intelligence is for any given situation? If you have a great deal of confidence in your intelligence and abilities, and the situation can be encompassed with those, then your confidence is quite useful. However, if you have a great confidence in your abilities and your abilities are not equal to the task, you're likely to fail in spectacular fashion. Also, if you have little confidence in your abilities, you're likely to sell yourself short in areas where you could have been technically capable... so in a way, you can't win.

But if you have an excellent grasp of your own abilities, and an honest one, then you've got a good shot at wisdom; you'll know when you're over your head, when to ask for help, when to take advice, and also when you don't need help or advice. But having that kind of grasp of your own abilities requires a lot of self-examination, and so it's not something to try without at least some moxie to back you up; if you're really pathetic, you're not likely to survive an honest assessment of yourself, right?

Naturally, I've found that you can get away with a significant ego if you also have a good sense of humor about it and yourself - that is, if you don't take yourself entirely seriously. Maybe that's also a bit of wisdom too?
4.15.2007 5:20pm
God help the intelligent people's children.
4.15.2007 6:08pm

"Why" type knowledge provides essentially no help in achieving the aim of improving ones performance by 10-15 points on a multiple-choice standardized test.
4.15.2007 6:12pm
markm (mail):
Logicnazi: First, the teacher has to understand math as more than a collection of tricks and algorithms. In some very good school systems, I think I had just two teachers below high-school who qualified, not including the 8th-grade honors algebra teacher - and I think I was lucky to draw that many. Half the kids in my elementary school never had a class with the one teacher who was good in math. The 7th grade teacher who taught me to love math burned out and quit teaching after three years, and he probably taught about 150 out 500 students in each years cohort. High schools might have better math teachers (mine did, but I transferred my son to another school after meeting a high school math teacher who seemed to be outright math-phobic), but by that time it's too late for most of the kids.

I think that it's not just the kids with some talent for math that need teachers who really understand mathemeatics. That outstanding 7th grade teacher also taught remedial classes (maybe because he had the least seniority), and from what I heard did an excellent job. Most teachers only knew one way of tackling a particular math problem, but a real mathematician knows there are many alternatives, and these might be a big help in teaching kids with some kind of disability or mental block.

But if you really understand math, you've got all sorts of employment possibilities, most of which pay more and get more respect than a unionized public school teaching job. Teacher's pay in general isn't bad when you compare it to BA's in such things as Literature, nor is it bad for a major that draws most entrants from the lower third of students entering college, but it may be insufficient to get better teachers - but the bigger barrier to getting better teachers is that the teacher's unions are utterly opposed to any way of rating them, to firing all but the most egregiously bad teachers, and to paying good teachers more. If you insist on a contract that gives co-workers who just show up and go through the motions the same pay as you, don't be surprised if you get the pay and respect accorded to deadwood.
4.16.2007 9:57am