Monday, October 18, 2010

Wisdom: From philosophy to neuroscience

Book Club... And Then Some!

Wisdom: From philosophy to neuroscience  

by Stephen S. Hall

Book Review by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.
This is a 333-page book with a 14-page index, 15-page bibliography, 23-page section of notes, and a 5-page acknowledgments section.  This makes it 272-pages of content.  There is nothing negative in noting this; however, be aware that this (comparatively speaking) is a large book.

The front flyleaf clarifies the content: “[The book] is a dramatic history of wisdom, from its sudden emergence in four different locations (Greece, China, Israel, and India) in the fifth century B.C. to its modern manifestations in education, politics, and the workplace.  We learn how wisom became the provenance of philosophy and religion through its embodiment in individuals such as Buddha, Confucius, and Jesus; how it has consistently been a catalyst for social change; and how revelatory work in the last fifty years by psychologists, economists, and neuroscientists has begun to shed light on the biology of cognitive traits long associated with wisdom—and in doing so, has begun to suggest how we might cultivate it.”

There are three parts.  The first discusses the definition of wisdom, the second, eight neural pillars of wisdom, and the third, becoming wise.  The 15 chapters give you a better idea of how well the book relates to people’s lives (after the first three on philosophical and psychological roots): the art of coping, establishing value, judging right from wrong, the biology of loving-kindness and empathy, the gift of perspective, social justice, fairness, and the wisdom of punishment, temptation and delayed gratification, change, the wisdom of aging, and everyday wisdom.

There is a great deal of substance in this book, and clearly it is not of the “pop-psych” variety—full of cute quips, lively anecdotes, and suggestions for improvement and change.  On the other hand, you get an extremely well-written, easy-to-follow book, that includes great illustrations, many historical references and stories, the incorporation of interesting and relevant recent research, insights and revelations that only a science writer like Hall would not just understand but digest and make palatable for readers, and a fascinating—maybe even a landmark—examination of a topic relevant to everyone.

What Hall delivers is interesting discourse, as witnessed when he talks about the content of his book: “The world doesn’t need another book about neuroeconomics, and this doesn’t plan on being one.  But a lot of recent research in neuroeconomics and (in a broader sense) social neuroscience—including related fields like cognitive neuroscience, behavioral psychology, moral philosophy, and the like—strikes me as an immensely fertile area to till for fresh new insights into the nature of wisdom” (p. 16).

Dr. Vivian Clayton offers this excellent review of Hall’s book on “Stephen Hall's book on Wisdom manages to integrate the empirical research that's been conducted over the last thirty-five years in a style and convivial manner that has eluded the scientific community. I felt the book delivered on its promise: it offered much information about the ways we go about making complex life decisions. It reflected honestly on the real life shortcomings of people who have always been perceived as wise historically, such as Solomon. In my opinion, the best part of the book was delivered by offering examples of how adopting a wisdom based approach can affect how things are done in settings such as the classroom and the boardroom.

This is not a ‘How to be wise’ manual. If you like labyrinths, and recognize that many paths can lead to the center of things, this is the book for you. Like many portraits in an art gallery, you will find yourself pausing at various junctures to look more carefully at this or that quality of wisdom - be it patience, humility or compassion. Fortunately, there is no 'closing time' to this gallery. At the end of my visit, I personally felt a sense of gratitude that a writer could capture such an illusive topic without diminishing its potential for further study in matters both personal and societal.”

With all of this information it should be easy now to know whether this book would be one that would interest you.  I found it wonderful, interesting, insightful, and full of valuable information seldom found elsewhere. 

This book is available from Wisdom: From philosophy to neuroscience.

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