Writings found on ancient Sumerian tablets such as this one show that wisdom was expressed as practical advice for daily life

Historical Perspectives of Wisdom
A Two-Pronged Focus: Pragmatism and Morality
In many ways, the conceptual evolution of wisdom exemplifies its multi-faceted nature. Wisdom has always been seen as the practical know-how essential for a successful and constructive life. Even in the most ancient wisdom texts (e.g., the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, the Egyptian //Wisdom of Amenemope// , and the Hebrew //Wisdom of Sirach// ), there is a sense of order in which one’s actions are reason-driven and aim to benefit oneself and the society in which one lives (Karelitz et al., 2010).

The meaning of wisdom expanded and evolved with ancient cultures, and people began associating wisdom with the divine. Behaving wisely was seen as a commitment to live a moral and just life, following a divine ethical code. This dual emphasis on practical knowledge and morality can be traced from the earliest recorded civilizations right through to the present time. Many modern conceptualizations of wisdom continue to balance both a pragmatic and moral view of wisdom (Karelitz et al., 2010).

The Eastern-Western Divide
The concept of wisdom evolved differently for Eastern and Western cultures across history, although wisdom as a whole began to be thought of in ways that were more practical and human-based (Karelitz et al., 2010).

Western thinkers
  • 5th century B.C. - Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotlegave the first intensive Western analysis of the concept of wisdom.
  • Overall emphasis on rationally-driven cognition and behavior.
  • Possession of knowledge of the right rationale considered wisdom.
(Karelitz et al., 2010)

In the following video, Dr. Sean Kelly, a primary researcher for the University of Chicago's Defining Wisdom Project, gives a modern perspective on the ancient Greek conceptualization of wisdom:

Artist's Depiction of Confucius
Artist's Depiction of Confucius

Eastern thinkers
  • Eastern wisdom seen as an advanced stage of the mind
  • Also emphasizes noncognitive features such as holistic experiences involving the integration of mind, affect, intuition, and behavior
  • Eastern traditions tend to downplay the role of rational thought in the path to enlightenment.
  • More attention given to the spiritual, transformational, and integrative aspects of human consciousness.
  • Nearly a century prior to when Greek philosophers began systematically discussing wisdom, individuals such as Confucius and Gautama Buddha were conceptualizing wisdom as a way of life that is oriented toward self-actualization and that leads to an ideal state of being.
    • In both Confucianism and Buddhism, moral, ethical, balanced, and peaceful conducts of life are all directly related to wisdom.
    • A wise person would denounce greed and selfishness, and embrace compassion, calmness, and a genuine desire to improve oneself and one’s surroundings.
  • Ultimately, Eastern philosophies perceive wisdom as a utopian state of mind, but one that can be achieved by education, dedication, and experience.
(Karelitz et al., 2010)

"Tying it All Together"
Societal events and movements have continued to shape the philosophic and academic discourse of wisdom throughout history. At different times and places in the past, wisdom has been “studied” through different lenses: religious, scientific, practical, moral, experiential, and societal; yet each body of text emphasizes different aspects of the same phenemona. Despite such diverse emphases, one line of thought permeates almost all of these historical perspectives: Wisdom requires both the intent and the knowledge to act according to higher principles (whether these are based on supreme reason, divine knowledge, impeccable morals, or a utopian state of being). In other words, wisdom involves the application of sound sense to all matters of life with the purpose of becoming and remaining a good person. Being good toward yourself and being good to others will in turn eventually lead to flourishing. The basic goal of wisdom is thus to protect us and to help us grow (Karelitz et al., 2010).

Issues of Diversity
The Many Faces of Wisdom
  • Wisdom is highly context-dependentWhat we consider wise today might be deemed foolish tomorrow; what is considered wise in one culture or situation may be inappropriate in another (Kareltiz, et al., 2010)
    • For example, consider the changing application of practical wisdom as it relates to infant sleeping positions. Whereas parents were once told that it was best to place infants on their stomachs when sleeping, it is now considered wise to place them on their backs or sides to help prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
  • Conceptions of wisdom tend to differ with respondents’ characteristics, such as age, spiritual beliefs, professions, gender, and culture (Karelitz et al., 2010)
    • For example, Denny, Dew, & Kroupa (1995) found that although both genders share a similar understanding of the meaning of wisdom, males were nominated as being wise with respect to specific skills, whereas females were nominated as being wise in interpersonal relationships.
  • Nearly every identified culture in the world has its own ideal of wisdom. Thus, individuals within a given culture tend to share a common understanding of what it means to be wise, but that meaning differs across cultures(Karelitz et al., 2010).
    • For example, studies of Hispanic American communities have shown that spiritual and interpersonal, rather than cognitive aspects, are related to perceived wisdom. (Valdez, 1994)

Below is a video of proverbs/words of wisdom collected from different cultures all over the world:

The Eastern-Western Divide Revisited
In 2001, Yang studied wisdom among the Taiwanese Chinese, and discovered four pairs of components commonly associated with wisdom:
  • Competencies and Knowledge
  • Benevolence and Compassion
  • Openness and Profundity
  • Modesty and Unobtrusiveness
Such a conceptualization of wisdom appears to closely align with the historical Eastern focus on the integration of mind, affect, intuition, and behavior (Kareltiz et al., 2010).

Along similar lines, comparisons of implicit theories of wisdom in Eastern and Western cultures have shown that Eastern participants believe that the adjective wise, is most semantically similar to discreet, followed by aged and experienced. By contrast, Western participants rated wise as least similar to discreet, and most similar to experienced and knowledgable (Takahashi & Bordia, 2000).

It thus appears that the differential influences of Eastern and Western philosophies of wisdom are still very present today. In general, modern Western cultures still tend to emphasize an analytic mode of wisdom that simplifies human experience into manageable pieces of information and examines their relationships. Modern Eastern cultures, on the other hand, tend to focus on the synthetic mode of wisdom, emphasizing a more holistic view of experience as well as reflective, integrative, and transformational aspects of the mind (Karelitz et al., 2010).

The following table outlines some of the basic concepts/issues related to Eastern vs. Western philosophies. Many of the issues listed below may serve to shape how Eastern and Western cultures both conceptualize and pursue wisdom.

Eastern Philosophy
Western Philosophy
Main Schools
Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Integral Yoga, Islam, Taoism, Zen
Christianity, Rational, Scientific, Logical schools
Relationship with Religion
Search for Absolute Truth
  • Systemic approach – all events in the universe are interconnected
  • Searching inside yourself – by becoming a part of the universe through meditation and right living
  • More focused on individual events and the role of the person
  • Searching outside yourself - through research and analysis
Search for Truth & Fundamental Research
The truth is given; does not to have be proved. The philosophic base for and culture of fundamental research is weaker.
The truth needs to be proven. The philosophic base for and culture of fundamental research is stronger.
Improvement / Evolution
Cyclic development, hence improvement is a never ending journey that has no limits.
Linear development, hence improvement has a goal. Development stops when the goal is reached.
Achievement & Winning
Winning is inside yourself.
"Though he should conquer a thousand men in the battlefield a thousand times, yet he, indeed, who would conquer himself is the noblest victor." ~ Buddha
"He who conquers others is strong; he who conquers himself is mighty." ~ Lao Tzu
"The most excellent Jihad is that for the conquest of self." Mohammad
Winning is outside yourself."You're not a star until they can spell your name in Karachi." ~ Roger Moore"Life affords no higher pleasure than that of surmounting difficulties, passing from one stop of success to another, forming new wishes and seeing them gratified." ~ Samuel Johnson"It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult."
Spiritual and missionary approach.
"To create and develop without any feelings of ownership, to work and guide without any expectation and control, is the best quality" ~ Lao Tzu
To achieve self-liberation and nirvana you need to perform your duties without expecting any reward for it. ~ Vedanta, Hinduism
"Action can be achieved by inaction, where the result is achieved by "Not-Me" ~ Zen
Pragmatic and emotional approach."The supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play." ~ Arnold Toynbee"Since most of us spend our lives doing ordinary tasks, the most important thing is to carry them out extraordinary well." ~ Henry David Thoreau"Every minute you spend in planning saves 10 minutes in execution." ~ Brian Tracy

Living Principles
"Be satisfied with whatever you have, and enjoy the same. When you come to know that you have everything, and you are not short of anything, then the whole world will be yours." ~ Lao Tzu
"The thought manifests as the word; The word manifests as the deed; The deed develops into habit; And habit hardens into character. So watch the thought and its ways with care, And let it spring from love born out of concern for all beings." ~ Buddha
" Refrain from doing ill; for one all powerful reason, lest our children should copy our misdeeds; we are all to prone to imitate whatever is base and depraved." ~ Juvenal
"There is no real excellence in all this world which can be separated from right living." ~ David Starr Jordan
Establishing Control Over Your Emotions
Through meditation
A man can separate his/her mind from his/her emotions and control them. ~ Taoism
Through analysis
"I can control my passions and emotions if I can understand their nature." ~ Spinosa
Spiritual; walking behind people; silence is golden.
"In order to guide people, the leader must put himself behind them. Thus when he is ahead they feel no hurt." ~ Lao Tzu
Hands-on; walking ahead of people; speech is golden.
"Leadership is done from in front. Never ask others to do what you, if challenged, would not be willing to do yourself." ~ Xenophon

Denney, N.W., Dew, J.R., & Kroupa, S.L. (1995). Perceptions of wisdom: What is it and who has it? Journal of Adult Development, 2(1), 37-47.

Karelitz, T.M., Jarvin, L., & Sternberg, R.J. (2010). Chapter 23: The meaning of wisdom and its development throughout life. In R.M. Lerner & W.F. Overton (Eds.), The handbook of lifespan development: Cognition, biology, and methods (Vol. 1, pp. 837-875). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Takahashi, M., & Bordia, P. (2000). The concept of wisdom: A cross cultural comparison. International Journal of Psychology, 35(1), 1-9.

Valdez, J.M. (1994). Wisdom: A Hispanic perspective (Doctoral dissertation, Colorado State University, 1993). Dissertation International Abstract, 54, 6482-B.

Yang, S. (2001). Conceptions of wisdom among Taiwanese Chinese. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 32(6), 662-680.