A Word About the Wise

Jim Holt in The New York Times:

Holt-t_CA0-popup There are two things I would hope for in a book about wisdom. First, some intellectual enlightenment as to what wisdom really is. Second, some practical ideas on how to be wiser in my own life. This book was a letdown in both respects. Yet reading it proved to be far from a waste of time. Stephen S. Hall is a veteran science journalist and the author of several previous books, most recently one about how the height of boys affects their life prospects, called “Size Matters.” As one might guess from that earlier title, Hall has a weakness for the arresting phrase. In the present book, bodies fall from the World Trade Center on 9/11 “like paperweight angels.” Montaigne’s pen is a “drill bit,” his essays are a “microscope.” The road to ­knowledge is “nettled with potential potholes.” (The nettle is a stinging plant, but it does not usually sting pavement.)

Nor can Hall resist a bit of spurious drama. One chapter opens with Inquisitor-like scientists “torturing” a gray-haired woman, when all they are really doing is giving her psychometric tests. His relentlessly fetching prose might be tolerable in a magazine piece — indeed, “Wisdom” germinated from an article he wrote on wisdom research for The New York Times Magazine — but at book length it becomes tiresome. All that is a matter of taste. It is in matters of substance that “Wisdom” can be most frustrating. Expectations raised by the importance of the topic and the obvious intelligence of the author are continually dashed by sketchy, hit-and-run exposition. Hall mentions five “strategies of emotion regulation” but divulges just one of them (“reappraisal”), leaving us to guess what the others might be. He says that “at least four distinct neurological approaches to problem solving” have been identified, yet I could count only two before he scudded off to a new theme. There’s both too little and too much here. One scientific study blurs into the next, amid a blizzard of truisms (“And finally, we must be open to change”) and references to Solon, the Buddha and Benjamin Franklin. If, as William James wisely observed, wisdom is knowing what to leave out, this is not a wise book.

But what is wisdom, really?

More here.