Fifteen minutes of wisdom

A statue of Aristotle and a large, bold, red question mark took the place of a graphed line on a PowerPoint slide in one of the Gleacher Center’s conference rooms. The x-axis was the year and the y was labeled “global wisdom"; the question was what the line would look like. “I don’t think we’ve seen the same increase in wisdom as we would expect,” said Barnaby Marsh, director of strategic initiatives for the John Templeton Foundation, comparing world wisdom to technological progress. “How do we advance our understanding of wisdom?”

Marsh wasn’t searching for the answer alone. The Templeton Foundation and the U of C's Arete Initiative have collaborated to create the Defining Wisdom Project, which gathered 40 young anthropologists, economists, geneticists, philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists in an August 22 symposium, where they competed for grants. The project hopes to fund research that will create a coherent body of knowledge about wisdom, which Marsh sees as having been "elided from public discourse" in recent history. Those 40, termed “candidates” by Howard Nusbaum, chair and professor of psychology and the College and one of the initiative's principal investigators, were selected out of 631 applicants who each submitted a three-page letter of intent and a three-page summary of their qualifications. Finalists presented their proposals for 15 minutes followed by questions. The 20 winners will be announced later this week.

“Our purpose here today,” Nusbaum said, “is to take the first steps in the development of the field of research of wisdom.” He and Marsh are members of the Project Council, which selects the winning research proposals—to be funded up to $2 million total—and is composed of professors from the U of C and other universities.

In his opening address Marsh discussed changing definitions of wisdom throughout history and in the modern world. He argued that the “anti-free market atmosphere in much of the academy” is detrimental to progress. “All systems have advantages and disadvantages,” he said, and people should use the wisdom of the free market to solve problems like world poverty. He touched on the relation between wisdom and personal choices, decision-making, and values. Wisdom has the potential to be dangerous, he said, “without values and ethics,” referring to the examples like Da Vinci's killing machines and the Manhattan Project.

The selected scholars will look further into the topics Marsh presented, connecting with each other through a Web site and quarterly conference calls led by Nusbaum. “Our goal,” Marsh said, “is to create a nexus of people who will be creative, imaginative, and open to creating ways of defining wisdom in the 21st century. We’re hoping this catalyzes something new,” he concluded. “It’s up to all of you to make this successful.”

Shira Tevah, '09

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Photos (left to right): Scholars from around the world gather at the Wisdom Symposium; presenters listen to opening remarks by Howard Nusbaum; Barnaby Marsh demonstrates concepts related to wisdom; John (Jack) M. Templeton Jr.—son of the late Sir John Templeton and president of the John Templeton Foundation—joins the audience.

August 27, 2008