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Can we learn to be wise?

April 12, 2012


Jason Swartwood.

Photo by David Mendolia.

Philosophy is most enjoyable when shared with others, U student says

By Bill Magdalene

Jason Swartwood will be among the presenters at the Doctoral Research Showcase, April 17. He took time out to discuss his work on practical wisdom.

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Q&A with Jason Swartwood

What are you seeking in your research?
Most of us are brought up to care about justice, honesty, compassion, and the like, and we can see what they require in some common cases. Nevertheless, we often still get things wrong, especially in tough cases. We show concern for others in ways we shouldn't. We give our unvarnished opinion when listening silently but attentively is best. We fail to see subtle but profound injustices, and so on. But wise people have the understanding that enables them to avoid these mistakes and achieve superior conduct.

Practical wisdom is thus a very important and high-level achievement. As such, it prompts pressing questions:
-- What sort of achievement is wisdom?
-- Can real people actually develop wisdom?
-- How can people develop wisdom, if indeed they can?

How do you approach answering such questions?
I argue that wisdom is the same kind of understanding as expert decision making skill in areas like firefighting, where decisions about what to do are complex and require a challenging coordination of feeling, thought, and behavior to carry out successfully. Just as a firefighter understands how to channel her fear and concern for others into a good decision about how to deal with a fire, a wise person understands how to channel her commitments to honesty, justice, self-respect, and so on, into truly virtuous conduct.

By making this empirically informed philosophical argument for what I call "the expert skill model of wisdom," I hope to shed light on how practical wisdom manifests itself in real people and how it can be developed.

How did you come to pursue this research?
I came into graduate school with a variety of philosophical interests (including some that I can no longer identify with much), but the more courses I took the more I realized that I was interested in understanding what makes moral judgments true or false, and justified or unjustified.

Fortunately for me, I got the opportunity to work as a research assistant for Professor Valerie Tiberius, whose research focuses on giving an account of wisdom that is compatible with what empirical research tells us about human psychological capacities and limitations. Working with her helped me see how studying practical wisdom could be a fruitful lens through which to examine my questions about moral judgments. Perhaps more importantly, it also gave me a chance to learn how to do research from someone who is a great philosopher (and, incidentally, a great person).

What's the biggest challenge in the work?
Not to get too bogged down by the magnitude and complexity of the subject. I sometimes have to remind myself that the goal is to advance the dialogue about wisdom so that we can all get closer to understanding it. That helps me stay comfortable with the fact that I'm often going to be confused about how to proceed and sometimes (or perhaps often!) get things plain wrong. Progress in philosophy mostly takes place in baby steps and through discussion between people, so I just hope to contribute helpfully to that discussion in some way or other.

What do you love most about philosophy?
It allows me to explore very fundamental and important questions and to take on this task with others. Although one stereotype is that philosophers are lonely hermits, I think doing philosophy is most enjoyable when it can be shared with others (through teaching, taking classes, discussions, etc.).

What's your career goal?
To obtain a job teaching and researching philosophy at a college or university. I can't imagine anything else I'd love to do quite as much as that!

What inspires you in a teacher or fellow student?
When I meet people who strive to make their work as accessible as possible to non-specialists and who take pleasure in the process of discovery. I'm also inspired by people who work to be both excellent researchers and excellent people.

What do you like to do outside of class?
I have a seven-month-old baby daughter, Adelaide, who has me wrapped tightly around her finger. So I like to spend lots of time these days hanging out with her and my partner, Ruth, doing fun things like swimming, going to the zoo, and going to book readings for babies. But I also love hanging out with friends for movies or racquetball, spending time with my extended family, and reading science fiction novels.

Why the U of M?
The breadth of the resources available to students. There are so many reading groups to go to and so much exciting research to learn about that you can really dig into whatever project you find compelling. Since my research in philosophy integrates finding from empirical psychology, it is nice that world-class psychologists are just across the bridge from my office!

What's been key to your U of M student experience?
Being part of a strong intellectual community. Taking part in classes, talks, informal reading groups, research, and casual discussions with people interested in what I'm interested in has been really rewarding. If I had to give students one tip about how to get the most of their education, I would suggest seeking out (or if necessary, creating) this kind of community.

What's one tip a researcher should keep in mind?
Trying to make interdisciplinary connections is often a good way to keep your research accessible to non-specialists, to stimulate new ways of looking at things, and to remind you why your work is important.

Related Links

Doctoral Research Showcase

Philosophy