Weighing in at just over 800 pages, the recently published Cambridge Handbook of Wisdom was edited by Robert J. Sternberg (Cornell University) and Judith Glück (University of Klagenfurt). The handbook offers an overview of the state of research on wisdom, an area of study that is still something of a rarity at universities, and presents various perspectives describing how a greater understanding of wisdom could contribute to a better world.
The previous issue of the Handbook of Wisdom was published by Robert J. Sternberg and Jennifer Jordan 14 years ago and consisted of 13 chapters. In comparison, research on wisdom has a great deal more to offer nowadays: The new edition is comprised of 32 chapters which were contributed by 26 different research teams from the fields of psychology, philosophy, sociology, political sciences, economic sciences, and medicine. Though many scholars are working in the field of wisdom today, the topic continues to take up very little space in degree and research programmes – including those conducted by large psychology departments.
More knowledge about wisdom would carry societal benefits, according to the editors’ assumption as stated in the preface to the handbook: “We live in a world that needs considerably more wisdom than it currently exhibits.” In their view, research on wisdom – in contrast to many a narrowly defined question from the realm of experimental psychology – is highly relevant for the problems facing contemporary humankind. Yet those situations where wisdom is revealed, typically tend to elude traditional experimental methods, and this represents a key challenge for research on wisdom.
With this book, Robert J. Sternberg and Judith Glück hope to address not only students and the scientific community, but also all those beyond the field who earnestly wish to understand what constitutes wisdom and what potential it bears to change the world. Judith Glück, who investigates the development of wisdom during adulthood in one of the chapters, also explores the extent to which old age or certain stages of life are more likely to encourage the formation of wisdom. She finds that it is not possible to prove beyond doubt that any specific phase of life is a “wise” age, as results strongly depend on the (psychological) measuring instruments used in the respective studies. Wisdom does not develop automatically over the course of a lifetime, so one cannot confidently expect that time is bound to bring forth more wisdom for the individual and for the whole. “Some people work extremely hard to gain a profound understanding of the essential questions of human life. They strive to discover the ways in which we are similar to and different from each other, and to discern what opportunities we can avail ourselves of to improve not merely our own lives, but the lives of many. If these individuals also possess the emotional and cognitive skills to deal with the complexities of these issues, they can acquire a rich and deep knowledge of life, and they can use this to advance the world overall”, Judith Glück explains. The development of wisdom requires empathy, emotional self-regulation, and the capacity to reflect, among others – capacities that can all be consciously encouraged. In turn, they could contribute to the development of more wisdom, both at the individual and at the societal level.
Sternberg, R. J. & Glück, J. (2019). The Cambridge Handbook of Wisdom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.