Jungian Society

At the University of Toronto

Mind Matters II

New Perspectives on the Psychology of Wisdom

Mind Matters II - Colour Poster


Wisdom is often considered the summit of knowledge about human existence and our place in the world. Plato called it “the highest of human things” – enshrined in the very word philosophia, “the love or pursuit of wisdom.”

Yet in our modern era what does wisdom mean, and how can we seek it? What can recent advances in science tell us about the nature of wisdom, the nature of foolishness, and the paradoxes of how they might intertwine? How can our civilisation steer itself onto a wiser road before the hour grows too late?


John Vervaeke, Ph.D.

Dr. John Vervaeke has been teaching at the University of Toronto since 1994. He currently teaches in the cognitive science program, the psychology department, and the Buddhism, Psychology, and Mental Health program. He has won and been nominated for several teaching awards. His research interests are relevance realization, insight problem-solving, the nature of general intelligence, consciousness, mindfulness, and wisdom.

Title: “The Cognitive Science of Wisdom: Wisdom as Rationally Self-Transcending Rationality that Enhances Relevance Realization”

Wisdom involves the enhancement of cognition (broadly construed). Cognitive science is converging on the conclusion that the central process of cognition that makes us intelligent agents is the ability to realize relevance. Therefore, a powerful way to enhance cognition is to enhance the process of relevance realization. Yet intelligence, although necessary, is not sufficient for wisdom. This makes good sense because there is good evidence that intelligence is not sufficient for rationality. Rationality involves the recursive application of intelligence to the problem of using intelligence well. In a similar manner, wisdom is the recursive application of rationality to the problem of developing good use of rationality. Wisdom is a process whereby rationality transcends itself in a rational manner so as to greatly enhance our central abilities of relevance realization. In particular, people who engage in this development should have enhanced abilities of active open-mindedness, insight, self-regulation, and perspectival knowing.

Monika Ardelt, Ph.D.

Monika Ardelt is Associate Professor of Sociology and the 2008 Colonel Allan R. and Margaret G. Crow Term Professor at the University of Florida. She is also a 1999 Brookdale National Fellow and a 2005 Positive Psychology Templeton Senior Fellow. She is a Founding Faculty Member and Member of the Advisory Committee of the Center for Spirituality and Health at the University of Florida. Dr. Ardelt received her diploma (M.A.) in sociology from the Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University of Frankfurt/Main in Germany and her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research focuses on successful human development across the life course with particular emphasis on the relations between wisdom, religion, spirituality, aging well, and dying well.

Title: “The Paradoxical Nature of Personal Wisdom and Its Relation to Human Development in the Reflective, Cognitive, and Affective Domains”

(My co-authors on the paper are W. Andrew Achenbaum, Ph.D., University of Houston, and Hunhui Oh, M.A., M.S.W., University of Florida.)
The concept of wisdom has long defied easy definition and operationalization, although many scholars agree that one essential feature is its paradoxical nature. There is also a growing consensus that wisdom includes a combination of reflective, cognitive, and affective dimensions. In this chapter, we elaborate paradoxical aspects of the concept of wisdom by illuminating how divergent facets in its three dimensions come together. The paradoxes discussed are (1) “I know that I do not know,” (2) a will-not-to-will and an act of non-action, (3) loss is gain, and (4) liberation through the acceptance of limitations in the reflective dimension; (1) wise judgment in the face of uncertainty, (2) the foolishness of the wise and the wisdom of fools, and (3) wisdom is timeless and universal yet relative and changing in the cognitive dimension; and (1) self-development through selflessness, (2) involvement through detachment, and (3) change through acceptance in the affective dimension. We suggest that people who follow the paradoxical path to wisdom ultimately will gain liberation, truth, and a sense of unlimited love. Narratives of the life of Buddha are used to illustrate the individual paradoxes.
Slideshow: Click here to view presentation slides.

Dan Merkur, Ph.D.

Dr. Dan Merkur is a psychoanalyst in private practice in Toronto.  He is also a Visiting Scholar in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto.  He has taught religious studies at five universities in Canada and the United States and currently teaches psychotherapy at both the Toronto Institute for Contemporary Psychoanalysis and the Living Institute in Toronto.  He chairs a study group on religion and spirituality attached to the Toronto Society for Contemporary Psychoanalysis. The author of thirteen books and many articles, he writes currently on clinical psychoanalysis, the history of psychotherapy, and the history and psychoanalysis of spirituality cross-culturally.  His books include Unconscious Wisdom:  A Superego Function in Dreams, Conscience, and Inspiration (2001) and most recently Explorations of the Psychoanalytic Mystics (2010).

Title: “Psychoanalytic Contributions on the Mystical”

Because most psychoanalysts scorn and ignore mysticism, the mystical character of the writings of clinical psychoanalysts who were or are mystics has rarely been appreciated.  Truncated, secularizing reductions of mystical theories circulate within the profession as consensus (mis)readings of eminent analysts from several major schools within psychoanalysis.  The roster of psychoanalyst mystics includes Otto Rank, Paul Federn, Erich Fromm, Marion Milner, D. W. Winnicott, Heinz Kohut, Hans W. Loewald, Wilfred R. Bion and, among living writers, James S. Grotstein, Neville Symington, and Michael Eigen.  The mainstream of psychoanalytic publications on mysticism has followed Freud in treating mystical experiences as transient regressions to or manifestations of infantile solipsism.  This paradigm naively perpetuates the Christian assumption that mystical union is discontinuous with the rest of life.  Whether mystical experience is regarded as a supernatural grace that intervenes within the natural workings of the soul, or is treated instead as a mother-infant fusion fantasy that interrupts a more mature psychic organization, mystical experience is isolated as something apart from the rest of psychology that can be safely ignored for most practical purposes.  The psychoanalytic mystics have consistently taken the radically different position that mystical experience is only one part of something much more central to human psychology.  In this paradigm, the mystical is a line of development that commences in infancy but changes and matures throughout life.  It is also subject to pathological vicissitudes.  Clinical goals include the removal of inhibitions and correction of pathological distortions of the mystical.

Michel Ferrari, Ph.D.

Michel Ferrari teaches developmental and educational psychology at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto in the Department of Applied Psychology & Human Development. In 2004-2005 he was a visiting scholar at Harvard and at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, and has been awarded the Canadian Studies Visiting Lecturership to lecture and pursue research on wisdom in India in 2012.  He is interested in developing wisdom throughout the lifespan, and is leading an international project on the personal experience of wisdom among younger and older adults in 6 countries (Canada, USA, India, China, Ukraine, and Serbia).  He has also edited or co-edited several books, including, Teaching for Wisdom (with Georges Potworowski, Amsterdam: Springer, 2008), Developmental Relations among Mind, Brain, and Education: Essays in honor of Robbie Case (with Ljiljana Vuletic, Amsterdam: Springer, 2010), and with Nic Weststrate, he is currently preparing an edited book on Personal Wisdom (Amsterdam: Springer, in press) and an ebook on Educating for Wisdom (with Nic Weststrate and jack Miller, Amsterdam: SpringerBrief, in press).

Title: “In Search of a Unified Science of Personal Wisdom”

This talk explores the science of wisdom and the choices that need to be made in undertaking such a science. Two main approaches have been adopted in the scientific study of wisdom. One approach is task-focused, exemplified by the work of Paul Baltes and Ursula Staudinger, in which wisdom is discerned through how skillfully one completes a task said to involve ‘the fundamental pragmatics of life’. The other approach is person focused, as seen in the work of Monika Ardelt, which assumes wisdom is the expression of a particular sort of personality. Wisdom on this view is assessed both through implicit theories of what makes someone wise and by testing explicit theories of wisdom though self-report questionnaires designed to measure factors associated with wisdom and its relation to quality of life. This talk proposes that, considered developmentally across the lifespan, autobiographical narratives of wisdom, as exemplified in the work of Judith Glueck and Susan Bluck (in Austria and the USA), and our own work allow us to integrate the strengths of both earlier approaches to studying wisdom scientifically, and to do so cross-culturally. What is more, autobiographical memories of personal wisdom illustrate personal engagement with cultural narratives that highlight how people make sense of wisdom in different cultures, and thus what they most value in their lives.

Nicholas Maxwell

Nicholas Maxwell has devoted much of his working life to arguing that we need to bring about a revolution in academia so that it seeks and promotes wisdom and does not just acquire knowledge.  He has published many papers and six books on this theme: What’s Wrong With Science?, From Knowledge to Wisdom, The Comprehensibility of the Universe, The Human World in the Physical Universe, Is Science Neurotic?, and Cutting God in Half – And Putting the Pieces Together Again.  For thirty years he taught philosophy of science at University College London, where he is now Emeritus Reader.
A relevant paper entitled: An Idea To Save the World.

Title: “How Universities Can Help Create a Wiser World: The Need for an Academic Revolution”

We are in a state of impending crisis.  And the fault lies in part with academia.  For centuries, academia has been devoted to the pursuit of knowledge.  This has enormously increased our power to act which has, in turn, brought us both all the great benefits of the modern world and the crises we now face.  Modern science and technology have made possible modern industry and agriculture, the explosive growth of the world’s population, global warming, modern armaments and the lethal character of modern warfare, destruction of natural habitats and rapid extinction of species, immense inequalities of wealth and power across the globe, pollution of earth, sea and air.  All these global problems have arisen because some of us have acquired unprecedented powers to act without acquiring the capacity to act wisely.  We urgently need to bring about a revolution in universities so that the basic intellectual aim becomes, not knowledge merely, but rather wisdom – wisdom being the capacity to realize what is of value in life, for oneself and others, thus including knowledge and technological know-how, but much else besides.  Every branch of academia needs to change.  Social inquiry needs to give intellectual priority to articulating problems of living, and proposing and critically assessing possible solutions, possible actions.   It needs to help humanity build cooperatively rational methods of problem-solving into social and political life, so that we may gradually acquire the capacity to resolve conflicts and problems of living in more cooperatively rational ways than at present. Natural science needs to change to include three domains of discussion: evidence, theory, and aims – the latter including discussion of metaphysics, values and politics. Academic inquiry becomes a kind of people’s civil service, doing openly for the public what actual civil services are supposed to do in secret for governments.
Slideshow: Click here to view presentation slides