Philosophy Wisdom
Dennis Whitcomb
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0131


The word philosophy stems from philo and sophia, Greek terms often translated as “love” and “wisdom,” respectively. There is very little contemporary philosophical work on wisdom; much historical work exists on the subject, as well as a large body of work in contemporary cognitive psychology, but as for contemporary philosophy, the work on wisdom is confined mainly to attempts by ethicists and epistemologists to broaden their domains of theorizing. This work is growing rapidly, and for good reason; wisdom is intimately associated with numerous issues epistemologists and ethicists have been interested in, and working on, for a long time. Work on wisdom outside of philosophy is also rapidly growing. One testament to all this growth is the University of Chicago’s implementation of a $2 million research grant for an interdisciplinary project titled “Defining Wisdom.”

General Overviews

Ryan 2007 is a good overview of philosophical work on wisdom, whereas Birren and Svensson 2005 is a good overview of psychological work. Philosophers and psychologists often labor in accordance with very different, unarticulated background beliefs. This makes it hard for them to understand each other’s work, and it can make them suspect one another of deep confusion. Some of these suspicions can be avoided by clearly understanding the differences that exist in background beliefs about the nature of concepts. Most philosophers work with a classical, necessary-and-sufficient-conditions model of the wisdom concept, whereas most psychologists work with prototype or exemplar models of that concept. On these models of concepts, see Margolis and Laurence 1999.

  • Birren, James E., and Cheryl M. Svensson. “Wisdom in History.” In A Handbook of Wisdom: Psychological Perspectives. Edited by Robert Sternberg and Jennifer Jordan, 3–31. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    A review of past work on wisdom and a very nice review of recent psychological work on the subject. The review of psychological work ranges from William James to 2005.

  • Margolis, Eric, and Stephen Laurence. “Concepts and Cognitive Science.” In Concepts: Core Readings. Edited by Eric Margolis and Stephen Laurence, 3–82. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

    A classic literature review on the nature of concepts. Useful for philosophers and psychologists who wish to understand each other’s work on wisdom. Reviews the exemplar and prototype models of concepts used (often tacitly) by most psychologists as well as the necessary-and-sufficient-conditions models used (often tacitly) by most philosophers.

  • Osbeck, Lisa M., and Daniel N. Robinson. “Philosophical Theories of Wisdom.” In A Handbook of Wisdom: Psychological Perspectives. Edited by Robert Sternberg and Jennifer Jordan, 61–83. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    A good introduction for psychologists to historically influential philosophical work on wisdom, particularly that of Aristotle. Not a substantive piece of history or philosophy but nonetheless a good introduction for those with psychology backgrounds.

  • Ryan, Sharon. “Wisdom.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2007.

    Reviews recent philosophical work on wisdom, especially epistemology-driven work. Briefly discusses ethics-driven work on the topic and also discusses some historical work.

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