Capturing the Ineffable: Wisdom in Perspective

March 20, 2015 - 8:00am to March 21, 2015 - 11:00pm

Capturing the Ineffable:  Wisdom in Perspective

March 20 and 21, 2015

Univerisity of Pittsburgh, Faculty Club

A group of appoximately 12 scholars including Veena Das, Richard Doyle, Wim van Binsbergen, Charlotte Linde, Thomas Csordas, Steven Collins, Howard Nusbaum, James Faubion, Philip Kao and Joseph Alter will participate in a two day workshop.  Keynote presentations and some sessions will be open to the public.

Conceptual Overview of the Workshop

Wisdom is ineffable.  It is an elusive and provocative concept at once linked to other domains of knowledge and experience but also inherently distinct.  Although often correlated with a particular context, wisdom, almost by definition, pushes against boundaries and frameworks.  It is uncommon, inspired, and multidimensional; arcane and mystical as well as practical, philosophical and judicial.  It can be defined in many different ways but inherently wisdom involves deep insight based on experience that is more profound than knowledge and understanding that is simply learned, shared and communicated.   What, then, is the place of wisdom within the domain of culture?

Anthropology as a discipline is especially well suited to engage in questioning the nature of wisdom, knowledge and experience.  In a most general sense – and the construct of culture notwithstanding – it provides a broadly comparative intellectual approach from a perspective that is compatible with the nature of the subject.  To understand wisdom one must examine the experiences from which it emerges and the persons, places and things to which those experiences give rise, without assuming, a priori, what those experiences are or how they are linked to social and cultural institutions and practices.   In other words, wisdom begs the question of holism as reflected in the particular and the specific.

To understand the nature of wisdom is to engage in the most basic but also the most profound aspect of anthropological inquiry, namely, relativism; but not only cross-cultural relativism, but what might be called the meta-relativism of philosophical skepticism and the contingent suspension of belief.  To the extent that it is often disembodied, how is wisdom manifest in forms that force a reconceptualization of delimited bodies, human and non-human animals and the larger distinction between animate and inanimate things?  Where is wisdom located in relation to personhood and community as these domains, and their relationship, one to the other, reflect the interplay of mind, self-perception and social practice?  We venture to seek out just where and how wisdom is emplaced, moving from formulations and instantiations of wisdom in our minds, bodies, and institutions.  

Precisely because it is ineffable, wisdom also begs the question of how it is linked to institutionalized forms of practice that cross the social and cultural spectrum, from regimented and prescriptive forms of ritualized orthopraxy to highly creative, inspired and ecstatic forms of self-expression.  In most general terms our goal in this workshop is to formulate an understanding of wisdom as reflected in experience and to examine the ways in which it shapes and takes shape in social practice.  The purpose of this exercise is to gain a better understanding of the complex ways in which communities struggle with the systems of meaning produced by their sociality, and – most fundamentally – a better understanding of how meaning and value takes on a life of its own apart from the kind of insight that characterizes experiential wisdom.

The workshop is purposefully designed to be broad and expansive as well as focused.  Continuity and cohesiveness is provided by the structure of the most general questions rather than by topical problems or regional issues.   Although a number of the proposed participants are senior scholars who have published on wisdom as an aspect of human experience, many of the invitees have produced important insight on specific, related issues that, we think, can be productively framed in terms of a more general and critically engaged conceptualization of wisdom as social practice.

We feel that an intellectual engagment with problems and question of wisdom in human experience can provide broad theroetical insight on critical aspects of culture and the cultural construction of meaning in different contexts.  To the extent that wisdom can be understood as a kind of counterpoint to cultural knowledge and cultural systems of meaning, its theorization can provide new ways to think into areas that are difficult to conceptualize within standard framworks of knowledge, including areas such as “artificial” intelligence, cross-species communication and biosemiotics,  inter-specific social ecologies, virtual “social” media,  and bioethics at a time of rapid techno-scientific innovation.  We feel that theorizing wisdom is also especially relevant in the context of globalization and broad tendencies in national and international policy that tend to authorize econometirc reasoning and crude or schematic empiricism in characterizations of human difference.  As such, we feel, a theorization of wisdom at this time in this forum can provide critical insight on articulations of knowledge and power, and on the power of culture in the disciplinary practices of various institutions.

Questions my be addressed to


Location and Address

University Faculty Club