Is emotion-based wisdom ‘wise’?

This is a commentary on a piece: “What is wisdom, and is it unwise to pursue it?” authored by Thaddeus Metz, Distinguished Research Professor of Philosophy, University of Johannesburg, South Africa’s “model” university. Of course, the question: “What is wisdom?” is unanswerable in a short public...

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This is a commentary on a piece: “What is wisdom, and is it unwise to pursue it?” authored by Thaddeus Metz, Distinguished Research Professor of Philosophy, University of Johannesburg, South Africa’s “model” university.

Of course, the question: “What is wisdom?” is unanswerable in a short public intellectual piece.

Nevertheless, the author initially offers an ‘incomplete’ definition:

Wisdom is an understanding of what is important, where this understanding informs a (wise) person’s thought and action undertaken with a strategic awareness of limits and potential obstacles.

Here is my (and just about every dictionary’s) definition:

Wisdom is a result of a never-ending process that requires the ability to think, judge and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense, and insight.  It is a virtue allowing an individual to act with high authority, responsibility and accountability under any given circumstance with the goal to limit error or wrongdoing in any given action.

The author is spot on when he implies: What is present in wisdom is absent in folly.

Zille’s and Trump’s tweets are excellent examples of non-wisdom. Hers stem from emotion – but I wish she would learn.  His are also emotional, but have the profoundly disturbing additional factors of ignorance and bigotry. As cartoon character Andy Capp once said: “Naughty we can reform. Stupid is forever”.

What greatly disturbs me is the author’s portrayal of expanded wisdom as having a significant emotional component.  This sort of individual or group ‘wisdom’ can be used to ‘justify’ what are normally considered to be unacceptable actions.

Emotions are real phenomena, but are relatively brief conscious experiences characterized by intense mental activity and a high degree of short-term pleasure or displeasure. In stark contrast, rational wisdom emerges from thoughts that are considered and based on contextualized experiences developed over time into discussable ideas and potentially implementable behaviours that become culturally and legally acceptable norms. Rational wisdom is thus a much deeper thing. Based on this clear dichotomy (at least in humans), I take the position that emotion should take a strongly subordinate position in discussions of wisdom and in its social relevance.

Otherwise (and I say this ‘flippantly’), the famous punchline of comedian Flip Wilson comes into play:

“The devil made me do it!”

In my (and I guess the author’s) own little world, the university, I am literally frightened by what some students and colleagues increasingly say and do. This is most evident during the few and fewer discussions (debates?) on campus about policies relating to concepts such as ‘race’, practices such as ‘racism’ and policies such as ad hominem promotion and ‘decolonization’.

For example, in my ‘world’ (the University of Cape Town), during a serious engagement between two senior academics relating to the appointment of individuals who could determine UCT’s future, discussion collapsed when the speaker was interrupted in mid-sentence because he mispronounced his interlocuter’s surname. Then, after apologizing for this, the ‘perpetrator’ said (or clearly implied) that the ‘victim’s’ people frequently mispronounced his name. Also, in a debate about the merits of quantitatively-scored criteria (teaching, research, university service, professional service to discipline-based societies, community outreach, research rating by the South African National Research Foundation, h-index, etc.), one ‘emotional’ professorial panellist said that he is opposed to any such scheme since he can ‘smell’ someone appointable to full professor. Finally, when a member of the university community unapologetically breaks the law when she/he feels ‘pained’ by the mere existence of some item, is that criminal act ‘socially’ justified based on ‘emotional wisdom’?

I maintain that undisputed lawbreaking behaviour such as this is reified when emotions receive unwarranted recognition.

Taking such ‘wisdom’ further, must an individual (or a prescribed group) accused of inadvertent, ‘suffocating’, ‘invisible violence’ –  alleged to be a closeted continuation of unsubstantiated overt personal or institutional violence in the past – acquire ‘wisdom’ by deeming him/herself guilty by pronouncement and therefore unworthy of consideration?

The primary result of this massive infusion of ‘emotional wisdom’ into UCT has been a balkanization of its community into an untrusting, amorphous ‘federation’ of:

  1. hyper-emotional, self-proclaimed-unworthy, politicized, racialized. lawbreaking fallists bent on receiving amnesty derived from the ‘spirit of expansive, indigenous/religious restorative justice’ and UCT’s deconstructive (and ‘if necessary’ destructive), still-to-be-defined ‘decolonialization’;
  2. an illegitimately-elected, racialized, politicized “interim” Students Representative Council and a guilt-ridden Executive, Council and Alumni Association bent on helping group 1 to achieve its ‘goals’;
  3. a Senate of ‘wise guys/gals’ who assemble on occasion to endorse ‘done deals’ made between groups 1 and 2; and
  4. a terrified and/or apathetic vast, ‘silenced’ majority of kids and junior staff who just want the academic freedom to learn, teach and research as they see fit in peace.

Should one seek only ‘unemotional’ wisdom?

The author’s apparent conclusion [due to the limited “space”] is no. This is because “not just acquiring knowledge of what is important and choosing well in the light of it, but also exhibiting certain [unspecified] emotions” may be preferable because “It’s starting to appear to be unwise to try to become wise, given how difficult it would be to achieve”.

I close by answering the author’s final questions.

Does that make any sense? Is wisdom such that it can be unwise to pursue it?


According to my definition, life is virtually the endless pursuit and application of wisdom.  According to the author’s potential definition, pursuit of emotional wisdom is dangerous at best and suicidal at worst.

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  1. Gillian Benade Reply

    It seems to me that SA society at large is suffering from some kind of psychotic break. I am pleased to see that the sabc has managed to rid itself of the madness of Hlaudi but it will take years to recover. The same process needs to happen at UCT, they need to rid themselves of the person or persons that are perpetuating this irrationality. We seem to be in the grip of a Nongqawuse style catastrophe.

  2. Harald Sitta Reply

    What kind of nuts are running around there??

  3. Paining Reply

    Based on the Professor’s description of the state of the UCT “community”, it appears that the tentacles of ugly Cultural Marxism have extended themselves and achieved their objective. Broken, good and proper.

  4. Mike van Zyl Reply

    Tim, I hope not to know, and I hope that you do not think that you are fighting a losing battle. I support your thinking and your efforts. Never give up, become more thick-skinned, never be politically correct (I think you crossed that one some time ago), and tell the liberals that they have always been wrong – we unfortunately allowed them, for too long, to sow uncontested crap.

Rational Standard
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