An Understanding Of Understanding: Three Features Of Wisdom

Let wisdom, for my purposes anyway, be defined as right conduct directly flowing from right understanding. Then we can ask: how shall we enhance and enrich our understanding to the point at which it could be that from which we act?

Consider but three features of wisdom: perceptiveness, considerateness, and thoughtfulness.

To be very perceptive is to pick up on things–salient facts otherwise overlooked, shifts in the temperature of a room, minor or dramatic changes in people’s moods, and so on–that are very significant to our overall understanding of what is actually going on here. Perceptiveness is an observational virtue. With a quiet mind and attuned senses, the perceptive person notices much more than she can possibly say (or need to say), with this “noticing more” figuring prominently in her overall understanding.

Next, being considerate–that is, giving oneself over to considering a matter–is rather like taking a stone or pebble and turning it over time and again in one’s fingers. The more one turns it over and the more one passes the stone from one finger to the next, the more one is able to assimilate relevant complexity or to come to pristine simplicity. One has not simply touched the soil; one has turned the soil over and over until its richness sings. Being filled with genuine considerations is rather like both of these things.

And next but not finally (for there are surely other features of wisdom), being all filled up with thoughtfulness means seeing something through to the very end. One’s thoughts seem to reach out toward their implications and, in turn, toward those implications until thought, in virtue of its having ranged from the initial proposal to all the foreseeable things that follow therefrom, is sated. Thoughtful people seem to keep asking, “Whence?” and “Where does this go?” They are soberly drunk on depth.

It still remains to be seen how one acts on one’s understanding rather than willy nilly, on impulse, or whatever. I don’t yet know the answer to that question. Yet just given the discussion above, it’s already clear that our understanding of understanding needs to go much further than it has hitherto, and our understandings thereby need to be much profounder than they have been to date.

For as we become more perceptive and as this perceptive begins to inform our considerateness and as this considerateness begins to inform our thoughtfulness, we are already on the path to making our understanding, now vaster and completer, into something we can trust. And that trusted understanding may now be primed and cued for not just informing but transforming at least some of our conduct and, in time, saturating more and more of it.