Collective Wisdom and Civilization: Revitalizing Ancient Wisdom Traditions

By Kiefer, Thomas | Comparative Civilizations Review, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

Collective Wisdom and Civilization: Revitalizing Ancient Wisdom Traditions


Kiefer, Thomas, Comparative Civilizations Review


Introduction

Our question is: can collective wisdom save civilization? On one rendition this question is rather straightforward and can be empirically answered. For if 'collective wisdom' is understood as the collective knowledge of a society or culture and 'civilization' is associated with a certain level of social or technological advancement, then our question concerns whether collective knowledge can help create or maintain certain kinds of social structures or technologies, certain levels of urbanization or kinds of civil infrastructural technology.

Characterized this way, the answer to our question is an obvious, and perhaps trivial, "yes." But both 'collective wisdom' and 'civilization' have alternative definitions, which render our question less trivial and more important, though more difficult to answer.

'Collective wisdom' may not refer merely to the collective knowledge of a particular society or culture, but can refer instead to wisdom understood as a collective interpretation of human experience, of what kind of intellect, knowledge, experience, and judgment is required to live a good and successful human life as such.

'Civilization,' although often associated solely with certain levels of social and technological advancement, can also refer to the moral status and level of development of an action or individual as when we refer to specific actions or persons as "civilized" or "uncivilized" in a distinctly normative moral sense.1 To be 'civilized' in an individual moral sense is what Aristotle called to be eleutherios, to have the individual disposition to be concerned with virtue (arete) in both thought and action as the result of proper education and habituation.2

With these alternative definitions, our question becomes: Can collective interpretations of human experience, interpretations of the thoughts and skills required to live a good and successful human life as such, create or maintain individual dispositions to be concerned with virtue?

This essay is an attempt to answer our question thus formulated. I argue that, in one sense, yes, collective wisdom can save civilization. But in a more important sense, collective wisdom should be understood as a form of civilization, as the result and expression of a moral civilizing-process that comes about through the creation and transmission of collective interpretations of human experience and the concomitant skills to be developed.

Collective wisdom traditions function in this manner by providing an interpretation of what it means to be human and what thoughts, skills, and actions are required to live a successful human life at the most general level of analysis. Collective wisdom can have a civilizing effect on individuals, and indirectly on societies, by providing a type of orienting theoretical and practical framework for understanding the proper relationship between the self, others, and the world. Such traditions in effect provide a "blueprint" for the successful human life as such, by providing guidance on thought and action, on what is appropriate to think, feel, desire, and do in theoretical and practical contexts.

A wise individual will be a 'civilized' individual in this moral sense, an individual who is properly habituated and educated so as to now reflectively endorse and desire thinking and acting in morally civilized ways.

However, this understanding of collective wisdom and civilization is in many ways today controversial and met with justified critiques and skeptical criticisms. To defend this way of approaching and answering our question against these critiques, I turn first to ancient wisdom traditions from civilizations in ancient India, China, and Greece as paradigms for understanding exactly how collective wisdom can achieve the end of civilizing humanity. Based on this analysis, I sketch the outlines of a revitalized wisdom tradition able to civilize individuals today. But any such tradition must be updated to reflect the advancement of modern natural science and to meet the demands of living in our diverse, pluralistic, and globalized world. …

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