I've been watching John Vervaeke's awakening from the meaning crises ( I haven't seen the whole lecture series). And while I am finding it intriguing I think to myself is this really wisdom? I mean in first world countries we are obsessing with what is meaning while there is a genocide in Israel.

All this reminds me of a Buddhist parable which went like this: two monks saw an injured deer with an arrow in it's belly. They start debating when will the soul exit the deer's body. Soon they see Shakyamuni approaching and ask him about their dilemma. Shakyamuni ignores their question pulls out the arrow and leaves. The deer survives.

I feel a kind of deja-vu. It is far too ironic that people in the pursuit of wisdom were debating about wisdom rather than enacting it.

Are my fears legitimate? (I haven't engaged with the entire depth of his material so my worries might be for naught). P.S: I'd be willing to be redirected to some philosopher who does deal with my worries if not him.

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    I like the Heart Sutra.
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 25 at 11:21
  • Action is better than debate? Seems like the lesson of Shakyamuni's response.
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 11 at 21:26

4 Answers 4


This is a long running debate in the West stemming from conversion from a religious culture to a secular one. This point is usually said to have been made forcefully Nietzsche. But Coleridge was aware of this and its dangers roughly a hundred years before him.

One of the historical forces behind this conversion is science as an alternative cosmogony to that of Christian world. And it is no surprise that behind Nietzsche's worldview lay science - specifically evolution. This was his 'wisdom' and he refers to it these terms:

The weak and the failures shall perish: first principle of our love of man. And they shall be even be given every possible assistance (The Will to Power: 872)

When that 'wisdom' came to fruition it led to concentration camps, gulags and genocides. Another philosopher of science is Simone Weil, she complained of what exactly was the point of piling up ever higher mountains of knowledge that simply was not assimilable by the anyone, never mind the average person. Of course, as a philosopher she knew exactly what was the point of this, that a complex society like the West requires complex systems of knowledge to keep the whole thing ticking over. Nevertheless, she was making the deeper point that information per se does not tell you how to live your life, what to aim for and what indeed to hope for. And nor merely information, but also science. This is the same reason why Sokrates turned away from natural philosophy which intrigued him so much as young man to those questions of the soul, of ethics, society and its political and moral constitution.

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    The idea of us ceasing to be influenced by the drivers that gave rise to religion, seems like a canard, a red herring. Following Durkheim on religion as primarily about social cohesion that arises from enacting shared values in community, we can find a lot of continuity. The issue is really about state authority backed by violence to suppress cultural change, by calling it heresy. In Rome, & China, the military/cultural cohesion generally meant a lot more religious diversity could be tolerated. Whereas monotheism has supported cultural unity despite political fragmentation.
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 12 at 19:39
  • @CriglCragl: Durkheim's explanation of religion is a secular explanation, it is not how they explain it to themselves. Aug 20 at 12:02
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    @CriglCragl: No, not quite - as they explain it to themselves they are that and much more. This is why rational argument fails to get at the heart of the religious experience. There, it is viewed as a kind of epihenomena of human activity, a habitus of society, a kind of mulch within which people live. This is the angle that's taken, roughly, in William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience. Aug 20 at 15:32
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    @Scott Rowe: According to Hannah Arendt, the Jews in Europe were initially banned from the more respectable profession which is why many of them went into unsavory professions like money-lending - and this memory still persists in anti-semitic imagery - and worked hard to establish themselves. However, they kept themselves apart and on the whole did not assimilate. They were persecuted because they were a conveniant scapegoat for politicians into popular demagoguery. Also according to Hannah Arendt amd Aime Cesaire the Europeans doomed themselves by turning the savagery they had visited ... Sep 16 at 12:19
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    @ScottRowe: upon their colonial subjects onto themselves. If you make a deal with the devil don't be surprised when you find the devil had the better of it. Sep 16 at 12:21

I would say that Vervaeke is precisely the sort of philosopher/thinker who is attempting to practice what he preaches in terms of wisdom. In a number of interviews, he discusses his own wisdom practices which include Tai Chi, Buddhist meditation, and Western psychotherapy. In terms of the way he teaches and engages in dialogue with other thinkers, I find there is a deep sense of generosity and compassion.

In terms of the content of Vervaeke's work, his central theory is what he calls Relevance Realization. This theory posits that discerning relevance (perceiving what features of a situation could be important in each moment) is essential for human cognition. By advancing this theory, he seeks to put questions of value, importance, significance, the sacred (or whatever term you prefer) back at the center of our understanding of how the human mind works. He is attempting to overcome the gap between "is" and "ought" as well as the gap between science and religion. If that isn't a thinker who is enacting wisdom through the medium of scholarship I don't know what is.

  • I wonder if Relevance Realization "puts questions of value at the center" or just replaces them by focussing on something simpler, more obvious and universal? I guess I'll have to read what he has to say. Hopefully, what I said.
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 11 at 21:29
  • @ScottRowe You might find the video linked below relevant. In the YouTube comments I critique V's claims about sacredness being grounded in relevance realization (RR) rather than the other way around. I argue that he is tacitly appealing to an absolute normative horizon to make sense of RR as a process of improving sensitivity to relevance and for this he needs the very notion of an independent transcognitive reality of the Good which he disavows. youtu.be/rpivf1SoEdc
    – Avi C
    Sep 18 at 18:35
  • Thank you. I wasn't able to find your comment, there seems to be no order to them, which is why I stopped using facebook. I'm not sure what you are referring to. I guess I thought relevance simply meant what my brain happened to link together. So there would be no need to appeal to the existence of any sort of fundamental or universal. I just paired up 2 things for no special reason. This would answer negatively our questions about the significance of reality: there is none. Then pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and move on, as Churchill said. There is important stuff to do.
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 18 at 20:22
  • I copied the comment into a doc here. docs.google.com/document/d/…
    – Avi C
    Sep 18 at 20:35
  • Thanks again. I am sure I can't follow what you mean because I haven't seen the episodes and the terms. Perhaps you are saying that he got caught up in his own definitions and departed from his own argument? This is always a problem when people try to develop ideas about reality and how it can be grasped. Nonduality would just say: don't drink your own Kool aid, or anyone else's. The world is beautiful enough without trying to add anything to it.
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 19 at 1:18

Even Marx - maybe the most radical philosopher - declined to offer blueprints for a better world. So presumably debates help, but is a poor substitute for action.

Our theory is not a dogma, but a guide to action, said Marx and Engels.

So presumably you need to know not just your goal but what you've got to do to get there (Buddhist references aside).

The theory praxis debate is long, and I have read some of it (though not Vervaeke). I guess it can seem overly academic because these are not a Blanquist minority seeking to seize power for the oppressed, but invariably Marxists. Again, maintaining the difference requires knowledge etc..

I hope that does not come off as legit "obsessing what is meaning", which - outside the kibbutz, retreat and commune - is invariably an obsession with yourself and your own happiness (however you want to phrase it).

Ask better questions (I don't mean that sardonically!)


Modern philosophy has largely abandoned any interest in wisdom, Vervaeke is part of a movement to reclaim it. It seems ironic to quote a Buddhist story, in defence of a disinterest in wisdom, when it is a tradition that puts a high priority on wisdom - one of the 'perennialist' wisdom traditions. The similar parable of the arrow, a key story in how Buddhism defines itself, is exactly an example of wisdom, but yes I admit of a practical applied, rather than theory-focused kind - what James C Scott calls metis, maybe.

One of the ways of describing wisdom is that it is about avoiding bullshit: pursuasion without regard to truth; which can include correcting for or avoiding appeals to cognitive biases, identifying rhetoric like types of fallacy.

Solomon is an exemplar of wisdom for his judicial judgements reconciling apparently impossible dilemmas. Jesus reconciled an impossible dilemma when he said 'render unto Caesar what is Caesar's'. Socrates did the same, when he took the Oracle At Delphi's answer and used it to illustrate wisdom as praxis.

There has been a lot of cultural variation on what comprises important character tests, and choice of exemplars in cultural narratives. Bravery. Cleverness. Submission to higher powers. Dilemmas are a particularly interesting one. They are a framing device, which brings a narrative to a culminating decision, a feature of or type of narrative, especially important for courts of law. Creativity that transcends an apparent binary or lose-lose decision has been highly valued, in history and stories, usually requiring a clearer, deeper view of the situation - wisdom.

Precedent in interpreting accepted primary law in specific situations, is a formal illustration of how decision making can develop in scope and intelligence, building on a record. If you frame a primary or the primary quality of people, as the judging of them for their decision making, then of course you will see dilemmas. If bravery is prioritised, a person would see tests for that everywhere, and judge others by their record when facing those. But whereas the latter system cannot truly progress, an approach valuing dilemmas and preserving the narratives of them, and preserving what is transferable about them, can progress in intelligence. Like a judicial system can (should..). It develops practices to support good decision making, and to challenge whether and what kind of decision has to be made on appeals, etc. A good or wise decision, is a pursuasive one.

Science, our leading culture of intelligence, does not prioritise dilemmas, but the distinguishing of hypotheses that best account for evidence. It prioritises having the best model of systems - over decision making. This I would sat is why wisdom is a rarely used term now I'd say.

We generally assume the best model, will lead to the best decision to make being obvious. There are dilemmas in science, between different risks, help vs harm, ethics, which having the best model cannot solve. But they are rarely discussed in science teaching, to our detriment. Climate change, nuclear de-escalation, epidemic & pandemic responses, show having a good model of consequences of choices is nit enough. We need to reclaim the value of being good at facing dilemmas, and providing pursuasive answers to them. We need to value, wisdom.

I love Vervaeke's take on the Greeks, on Romanticism, his terms 'salience landscape' and 'cognitive grip'. I felt the series trailed off a bit somewhere around episode 20. And Vervaeke talks with people I wouldn't, like some people with frothing-at-the-mouth enthusiasm for Jordan Peterson - who deserves zero credibility now, less even. But I think Vervaeke's aim to reclaim wisdom is good, and his narration of Western philosophy excellent - way better than say Bertrand Russell's, imho.

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    Yes. When I was growing up I kept looking for the field where good models would lead to right action - science, Philosophy, Psychology.... But I found only people.
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 25 at 11:27
  • Your point that simply seeking a peak does not lead to progress is so great that I missed it on the first read. Amazing. This is why things like eugenics must be wrong: narrowing our options can never be the right answer.
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 11 at 21:51
  • @ScottRowe: I'm struggling to see what you are referencing.. I discussed eugenics directly here: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/75984/… I think you could contort a case where coercively selecting genes/traits was appropriate, say if someone's genes had a virally inserted copy of smallpox that could re-emerge from there somehow. Making a blanket statement seems too close to getting an Ought from an Is to me.
    – CriglCragl
    Sep 11 at 22:16
  • I was thinking of your sentence, "But whereas the latter system cannot truly progress" - meaning, a one dimensional valuation cuts off options. Similarly, eugenics removes part of the collective genome. Was reading recently that humanity has passed through "population bottlenecks", which have permanently reduced our range of genetic options. That can't be good, and so choosing to do it deliberately has to be a losing strategy. (So where was I 90 years ago? I know...) I guess I see no problems getting an ought from an is, but then I'm an Engineer. Figure something out and it is right or wrong.
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 12 at 0:18
  • Get your Ought wrong and reality will let you know. Byron Katie says, "When you argue with what is, you lose, but only 100% of the time." You ought to do what works best. I see no opinions in that.
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 12 at 0:23

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