A Short Piece Inspired by Jon Badiali
Wisdom Can’t Be Handed Off
What if there are ideas we must (re)learn every generation, ideas we naturally experience though as “already learned?”
Lightbulbs are “handed off” to me — I don’t have to do any work. They appear in my life whole and entire, already invented and constructed — they’re just there. “Technological progress” is like that: it is truly “handed off,” meaning the work and progress made on technology can be passed on to the next generation with relative ease. The steps taken in the past are generally the steps the present starts in: humanity doesn’t have to start every generation from scratch.
Unfortunately, not everything from the past is “handed off” equally, though there seems to be something about us that naturally and subconsciously believes everything from the past is “handed down” to us. Perhaps this is because our “frenemy” brain wants to believe we inherit everything, for that would mean less work for us. The thought that there could be things we must regain every generation, practically from scratch, might be a thought we don’t want to bear. It might suggest history — and us with it — could regress.
Health isn’t like bicycles. Though the bicycle and electric treadmill can be “handed off” from previous generations with relative ease, a healthy person from a generation ago cannot hand over their “good health” to me (tragically, I must exercise for myself). Sure, advances in health technology and technique can be passed on, and it easy to confuse these transferable advancements with “health itself” being gifted to us, but it’s not the same. Yes, our life expectancies are longer thanks to the work of those who came before us, for indeed there have been “healthy advancements” that we inherit, but we don’t inherit “health itself.” Each one of us must do that work ourselves, which we can perhaps do more efficiently thanks to past generations, but we can’t skip the work entirely without risking significant consequences. No one can exercise for us.
There’s something about life that makes it “feel like” we inherit everything from the past (which, do note, logically leads us to conclude that we are “smarter” than past generations). We don’t just think of ourselves as inheriting technologies like machines or methods, but everything: ideas, artistic insights, wisdom, and so on. And in a sense, we do “inherit” new ideas insomuch as they come to exist in the same world as we do, but we don’t inherit ideas nearly as easily as we inherit new technologies. Perhaps we think we do, but ideas are more like health than they are treadmills.
To expand on this point, let’s focus on philosophical development. We do indeed philosophically advance insomuch as we couldn’t have read Heidegger or Foucault a hundred years ago, but the advancements of philosophy are not readily available to me (“at hand”) like say a new car. I can hardly go anywhere and not have “thrown” in front of me the invention of the car, an experience which…
1. Informs me that such things exist.
2. Suggests to me the possibility of owning such an invention.
3. Helps me understand why the car is useful.
4. Informs me the world is such a place that technologies can be discovered and come into existence.
5. Informs me that technologies receive social praise, acknowledgment, and the like.
New technologies easily “appear” to me, without much effort, suggesting to me their use and function without much work on my parts: it’s all just there. But intellectual advancement is different: I will not readily encounter Heidegger “out in the world” like I can encounter cars, nor will I readily understand why Heidegger is useful (I also won’t easily see philosophical work receiving social support). Yes, I might encounter the book or people discussing Heidegger, but Heidegger is far less “part of the landscape” than cars or the internet. In other words, even if Heidegger constitutes a “philosophical advancement,” he is far easier to miss. Considering this, the likelihood that the majority of people will “inherit Heidegger” is far less than the likelihood that the majority will “inherit Instagram” — it’s simply the nature of things.
Technologies are “handed off” far easier than are ideas, but then even distinctions need to be made in the realm of ideas. The ideas for how to fix a laptop are different from the ideas of “how to have a happy marriage,” but the first ideas are probably included in a manual that comes with whatever new device I happen to purchase. The idea that “equality is good” is more readily available than Deleuzian innovations in ontology, because the topic of “equality” is widely discussed in the media. So not all ideas are equally easy to inherit, even though all ideas are arguably more difficult to inherit than technologies.
What I will call “knowledge” in this paper is what seems to be ideas that are easier to inherit than others. “Knowledge” in this context is basically our modern collection of facts and topics of political discourse, all of which are easily encountered online, in classrooms, and on television. No, they’re not as “present” as new laptops, but they’re still very hard to miss. To put it another way, “knowledge” is the collection of ideas that the average person of a given moment will be familiar with, just by virtue of living in a given society. This would suggest that “knowledge” is socially conditioned, yes, but that wouldn’t change the fact that “knowledge” is still that which is “naturally absorbed” from the present socioeconomic order. Since that “knowledge” is indeed shaped and formed by past generations, there is indeed a sense in which “ideas are inherited.” But here’s the trick: it’s only some ideas, and arguably it’s the least important ones (which unfortunately can “present themselves” as all we need to know).
Knowledge can be transferred across generations and often is, even if it’s harder to pass along than technologies. Both technology and knowledge tend to be things we naturally inherit from the past just by virtue of being social creatures, but knowledge isn’t all there is out there which the mind can learn. Knowledge seems to “present itself” as all there is to know, blinding us to the reality that there is more, but knowledge — the “readily-made-available information of the zeitgeist” — is only a fraction of a fraction of all we could know and practice.
(Do note that if “knowledge” consists of the ideas that we “practically must” inherit, then it is arguably the case that we don’t start thinking until we think about something beyond “knowledge,” but this is a Heideggerian and perhaps even Hegelian point that would need to be elaborated on elsewhere.)
In my opinion, the ideas which are most important in our lives are those which ultimately compose wisdom. What exactly is wisdom is discussed in “On Wisdom” by O.G. Rose, but here I think the classic and popular understanding of the term will do. Wisdom is a collection of ideas, insights, and the like which help us “know how to live” (what to say in certain situations; how to control our moods; how to read social situations; etc.). Wisdom harmonizes emotional, social, and abstract intelligence: it is more like an orchestra than it is a piano concerto.
Both Heidegger and Deleuze were aware of the ways in which “technological thinking” could blind us to the need for wisdom, as both were aware that technology could make us think that we “must be thinking because we have these technologies,” when really we aren’t thinking at all. We in a sense can “outsource” our thinking to technology, and the very presence of technology can suggest to us that “thought must be happening” when thinking is absent: the very phenomenological experience of “technology” can trick us.
Wisdom can only be gained by (real) thinking, thinking which technology suggests to us in its presence that we are in fact doing, but the only “thinking” we are probably doing is “thinking about knowledge,” and knowledge isn’t wisdom. Since though knowledge does take some effort to inherit (we must watch the news, attend school, read the newspapers, etc.), it’s easy to think that we’re doing “the mental work we need to do” to be up-to-date intellectually. But to think of ideas that “present themselves” thanks to the zeitgeist might not be thinking at all, only “memorizing.” This isn’t a point I’m willing to take a hard stand on, but I think there is use in the idea that we “might not be thinking” if we only think about what is readily “presented to us.”
Anyway, wisdom is not “handed off” to us; wisdom is “handed down.” Every generation, we must “do the work for ourselves” to really think and achieve wisdom. As it is the case that just because people in the past exercised and ate healthily doesn’t mean we will necessarily be healthy today, so it is the case that I won’t necessarily think or achieve wisdom just because people in the past did so. I might naturally like to think I inherit wisdom — after all, that saves me a lot of time and energy (and, more cynically, I can automatically position myself as superior to others) — but this is just not the case. Unfortunately, there is something about technology and knowledge that say to me, “You are wise,” or at least “We are wiser than past generations.” No, they don’t actually say this, but there is something about our encounter with technology that perhaps our “frenemy brain” uses as an opportunity to make us feel like we don’t need to do any work. (Our brains are in the business of saving energy, after all).
To summarize the points of this section:
Technology and knowledge are “handed off” to me, like a baton in a foot race. What I need to do with the baton is self-evident and “at hand” — little thinking is needed, even if “the work” of running is required to finish the race (again, some work is involved).
Wisdom is “handed down” like a book loaned to me from a friend. To know what I need to do in response to the book, I must read it. What I need to do with the book is not self-evident or “at hand” — real thinking is needed, and then “the work” of implementing and “living out” what I read.
Knowledge is readily inherited.
Wisdom must be (re)learned.
There’s something about wisdom that feels like knowledge and thus is easy to think of as something we just “receive” from the past. We know health doesn’t transfer across time, but it seems easy to think wisdom is so transferred, perhaps precisely because it is so similar to knowledge, knowledge which generally can be “handed off” through the zeitgeist.
Because there were inventors and scientists in the past, we get their knowledge “handed off” to us: there’s little we need to do (the same goes for health techniques even though the logic doesn’t apply to health itself). But just because there were wise sages and teachers in the past, it doesn’t mean we get their wisdom “practically by default”: wisdom is only “handed down” to us, meaning there’s a lot of work we need to do to absorb it and become wise ourselves. But if we conflate “knowledge” and “wisdom,” when wisdom is “handed down” to us, we’ll simply hold the book under our arm and wait.
If we confuse “knowledge” with “wisdom” (and so basically assume “all knowledge is structurally identical”), then we won’t do the work needed to “(re)learn wisdom.” Instead, we’ll generally assume we’re all wiser today because there were wise people in the past, in the same way we can assume we are more “technologically advanced today” because there were inventors in the past. The second premise is a relatively safe assumption, but the first premise is extremely dangerous if it is the case that we need wisdom to live well. If we assume we have wisdom and don’t, our lives may fall apart (worse yet, we won’t be able to figure out why). Compounding the problem, because we can assume we’re wise, when we see no reason for the disaster (precisely because we actually lack wisdom), we can assume there was no reason, that there was nothing we could have done, hence rendering ourselves helpless. After all, we’re wise: if there was something we could have done differently, we would have known and done it.
If we confuse “knowledge” with “wisdom,” we won’t realize there’s work we need to do; instead, we’ll assume “the work has already been done” and that we’ve inherited it. The more technology advances, the more likely and widespread this feeling may become. If this is true and indeed the case, regarding the majority, there is likely an inverse relationship between technology and wisdom. This is not necessarily so, but if it is the case that advancing technology increasing the likelihood of conflating “knowledge” and “wisdom,” and by extension assuming wisdom is “handed off” to us (when it is only “handed down”), then it is probable we will be “less wise” with time even if we become more knowledgeable.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean we’re doomed, because arguably “knowledge” is more practically significant on a social scale than wisdom, but wisdom is how we optimize our “individual lives,” which would mean a “trade-off of wisdom for knowledge through technology” is what the majority would experience, which would be a sacrifice of the individual for the social. Which — who knows — perhaps would make us better off, but perhaps it is actually the case that we need wisdom to assure our technologies don’t destroy us. Hard to say: I’d prefer us all to be more knowledgeable and wiser. And I think we can: we just need to overcome the tricky and deceptive feeling that we are necessarily wiser because we are more knowledgeable.
In closing, if there is something about “improving technology” that makes it easier to conflate “wisdom” and “knowledge,” then if “improving technology” requires us to have more wisdom to use the technology well, as technology improves, technology simultaneously decreases the probability that we’ll have that wisdom to handle it. Also, if technology tends to enable the individual at the expense of the social (which I’m not sure about), since technology may threaten wisdom (which is inherently more individualistic), technology may raise up the very individual it ill-equips to handle that elevation.
“Wisdom” and “knowledge” are not similes, and though technology and knowledge are “handed off” to us like a baton, wisdom is “handed down” to us like a book. Regarding technology and knowledge, we can generally “pick up where the past left off” and keep the race going, but wisdom requires us to do the work anew every generation. If we conflate “wisdom” and “knowledge,” we will not do that work: we will assume the work is done as we suffer the consequences of failing to do it. Truly, the task of keeping history from repeating is great.