QA 60. None the wiser (On the obligation and cultivation of wisdom)

Last week, I had the pleasure of addressing a conference of family mediators in Cape Town on the topic of “Wisdom in mediation”.

byzantine philosophy

Two stories

First story. An ethics professor once said to an undergraduate philosophy class, “If you believe that a professor of ethics is an ethical person, you are making a category mistake.” The students recognised that this was true. At the same time, at least one of them thought, “Yes, but you ought to be.”

Second story. Václav Havel, the writer and dissident who became the last president of Czechoslovakia, was hypersensitive to the temptations of political power. In 1991, he spoke about the perks of his office – the chef, the chauffeur, the personal assistants, the special access to medical attention – and the “unassailable logic” of their necessity: “It would be laughable and contemptible for me to miss a meeting that served the interests of my country because I had spent my presidential time in a dentist’s waiting room, or lining up for meat, or nervously battling the decrepit Prague telephone system.” Read more


QA 24. (Aug 10) A word to the (would-be) wise

This is the original version of an article published as “A formula for wisdom” in Psychologies (South Africa), August–September 2010

Every society venerates the wisdom of its elders, at least in principle. Wisdom is seen as a consolation for the physical decline of age and the approach of death. And although not every old person is wise (and not every wise person is old), it is partly wisdom that distinguishes elders from those who are merely elderly.

It seems clear that wisdom is something we should want more of, particularly here and now. And not just for our own sakes. For better or worse, disease, violence and tumultuous social and technological change have ruptured the traditional passage of wisdom across generations. So how do we get it?

Confucius has a very concise and helpful answer: There are three methods to gaining wisdom. The first is reflection, which is the highest. The second is imitation, which is the easiest. The third is experience, which is the bitterest. Read more

QA 15. (June 09) Essence of philosophical counselling


I have been explaining, exploring and writing about my philosophical counselling practice since I began in 2002. I’ve presented papers at conferences here in South Africa and in Canada and the US, which are available on my website along with other published articles. But recently a couple of friends challenged me to cut to the chase, and get down to the bare bones: what is this thing you do with people? And so here it is, in less than 300 words! – the essence of philosophical practice.

Who should come to a philosophical counsellor? Basically, anyone who finds the idea appealing – but likely candidates include those who are regularly told that they “think too much” (and get really, really annoyed by that), or those who feel blocked by worries or confusion. It’s not about being intellectual or having high language skills or being able already to clearly express yourself and your troubles. It also isn’t about studying philosophical traditions, although these provide useful resources. Philosophical practice goes back to philosophy’s roots of love (philo) and wisdom (sophia). Read more