The conjunction fallacy re-examined

The following is a famous experiment done by psychologists. Give it a try yourself.

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Which is more probable?

  1. Linda is a bank teller.
  2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

The researchers found that most participants choose the second option. Did you?

If you did, the researchers will reveal that, so they think, you are wrong.

They will argue that option 2 implies option 1 (correct), and therefore option 1 must have a greater probability.

The argument is correct, but under a condition which they fail to see. By “probable”, they mean the ratio of “favourable” possible events to the total possible events. That is they think the question is about comparing the ratio of the number of bank tellers who satisfy the information about Linda to the ratio of the number of active feminist bank tellers who satisfy the conditions.

This is, unless you know the technical use of the term “probable”, almost certainly not what you understood the question to mean. In daily parlence, the word “probable” is used to mean the same thing as the word “plausible”. Hence, the participants – not aware of an alternative precise definition – correctly choose the most probable (in the mathematical sense of the term now) interpretation of the question. Clearly, you have to understand the question in the sense that it is being asked before you are capable of answering it correctly according to that interpretation.

I imagine the researchers thought the participants dumb.

What we can least afford now

An influenza pandemic. One which spreads fast, is severe, and harms/kills people of all age groups in high numbers.

This has ranked as the highest civil emergency risk for years. See

Estimations of how the chance and expected severity of such a possibility have changed owing to recent events, as well as consideration of how to deal effectively with an eventuality, would be well worth the time and money.

When modelling breaks down: why the future will always surprise us


Why long-term models always seem to eventually fail is a commonly asked question, with few good answers usually proposed. Ben Jones tries to rectify this in a follow up to his article published last week.

Before providing some reasons, let’s recall some key points I made in a recent post about the relationship between modelling and decision-making. There it was explained that thinking of modelling as prediction is a mistake, when it is rather about reasoning through various scenarios of how the future may unfold. I noted that competent modellers always emphasise the role of chance, rather than make definitive statements. I also advised that models, being a kind of argument, should be judged on the basis of their assumptions and reasoning rather than on their conclusions. The core message was that decision-making is not reducible to modelling. After all this context, I would now like to change tack to…

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COMMENT: The shaky relations between modelling, policy formation, and decision-making: Part One


Many of the most important decisions which Governments nowadays make are influenced by models of the future as conceived under different scenarios. Take the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic as an example. The heavy task of choosing which civil liberties, if any, to restrict was initially based almost entirely on modelling done by researchers from Imperial College London. Given its obvious significance, then, what should we make of the reliance on modelling in policy-making?

Before offering my thoughts on this question, it must be said that modellers are mainly concerned with determining what the future will be like in a range of scenarios: It is not about predicting the future, but about reasoning through hypotheticals. Policymakers, by contrast, are mainly concerned with what Government ought (not) to do. Modelling can inform policymaking but cannot, to the dismay of technocrats, replace it. Those making policy also have to consider a labyrinth of ethical…

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Ethnicity in the UK – Stats to be aware of

NB: I make no narrative or causal claims based on what is presented here.


Source: Own work based on data from section 3 of
Source: Own work based on data from section 2 of
Source: Own work based on data from section 3 of
Source: Own work using data from section 3 of
Source: Own work using data from section 5 of
Source: Own work using data from section 6 of


Source: HoC library briefing paper number SN-00634 “Police Service Strength”.
Source: Own work based on data from Section 5 of
Source: Own work based on data from Section 2 of
Source: Own work based on data from Section 2 of
Source: Own work based on data from Section 3 of
Source: Ministry of Justice report entitled “Statistics on Race and the Criminal Justice System 2018”
Source: Ministry of Justice report entitled “Statistics on Race and the Criminal Justice System 2018”
Source: Ministry of Justice report entitled “Statistics on Race and the Criminal Justice System 2018”


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Source: Own work based on data from section 4 of
Source: Own work based on data from section 4 of
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Source: Own work based on data from section 3 of
Source: Own work based on data from section 3 of
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Source: UCAS end of cycle report 2019. Data shows the proportion in each ethnic group that go on to university post sixth form studies.
Source: Own work based on data from section 2 of
SOURCE: UK DoE report entitled “Ethnicity, deprivation and educational achievement at age 16 in England: trends over time”
Same source as above
Same source again. FSM meaning ‘free school meals’.
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Same source again
Source: Own work based on data from section 5 of


Source: Own work using data from section 2 of
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Source: Own work using data from section 3 of
Source: Own work using data from section 2 of
Source: Own work using data from section 2 of
Source: Own work using data from section 2 of


Source: Own work using data from section 2 of
Source: Own work based on data from section 2 of
Source: Own work based on data from section 2 of
Source: Own work based on data from section 2 of


  1. Some of this data is based on the 2011 census, so may not reflect the present situation accurately. Feel free to send me any data which is more recent.
  2. Some of this data is for England and Wales, rather than the UK as a whole.
  3. Some of this data is based on surveys, so is dependent on response rates, good sampling procedures, and so on.

International Comparisons and Global Statistics

NB: I make no narrative or causal claims based on what is presented here.

SECTION 1: Crime and Policing

SECTION 2: Demography

SECTION 3: Economics

SECTION 4: Government Finances

SECTION 5: Climate

SECTION 6: Health

SECTION 7: Education

SECTION 8: Social and Political Life

SECTION 9: Government and Legislation

SECTION 10: Belief and Opinion

SECTION 11: Military


I could not possibly include every country here, so I judiciously picked some. My sources contain more information than given here.


Assumptions everywhere

Suppose that, at a funeral, a relative of the recently deceased stands up to make their speech and says “words cannot express the extent of my sorrow”.

Let’s explore some questions:

  1. From what is known about the situation only, is there a deductive argument which determines whether the person is experiencing any sorrow?
  2. From what is known about the situation only, is there a deductive argument which determines the intentions the person has for the making of the statement?
  3. From what is known about the situation only, is there a deductive argument which determines what the statement the person is making is about?
  4. From what is known about the situation only, is there a deductive argument which determines what consequences the making of the statement will have?

Initial Remarks

In what follows, I will be paying very close attention to the phrase “from what is known about the situation only” to an extreme which may seem absurd. The point is to highlight just how much we tacitly assume in ordinary language.

Question 1

What is known about the situation is consistent with both “the person is experiencing sorrow” and with “the person is not experiencing sorrow”. These cannot both hold. If there were a deductive argument that concluded one of them from what is known about the situation, then the other would be inconsistent with what is known about the situation. Hence, the answer to the first question is no. An alternative way to answer the question is to see that there are no any premises about the experiences of the person.

A consequence of this fact is that there is at least one context in which it is impossible to proceed – with no more information than that given – from a statement that has been made to the experiences of the person making the statement in such a way that the inferred experiences are guaranteed to be the same as the actual experiences. It might happen that the inferred experiences are the same as the actual experiences; the point is that this is not guaranteed to be so.

Question 2

The person can have multiple possible intentions that are consistent with what is known about the situation. These include: (1) they intend to express, in hyperbolic language, the extent of sorrow which they are experiencing, (2) they intend to provide comfort to other members of the extended family that are in the audience, (3) they intend to make claims about the expressive power of words, and (4) they intend to impress someone in the audience with their verbal prowess. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list. I stress that the first two can be intentions of the person, even if they are not experiencing sorrow. Note that the third and fourth are dependent on there being people in the audience, which is not known to us based on the information given. It is clearly possible for the person to hold multiple non-contradictory intentions for making the statement. What is known about the situation does not include any premises about the intentions of the person, hence the answer to this question is no.

A consequence of this fact is that there is at least one context in which it is impossible to proceed – with no more information than that given – from a statement that has been made to the intentions of the person making the statement in such a way that the inferred intentions are guaranteed to be the same as the actual intentions. It might happen that the inferred intentions are the same as the actual intentions; the point is that this is not guaranteed to be so.

A question for those with an interest in matters of cognition: does the person making the statement necessarily know what their intentions are in their making of the statement? Please let me know what you think about this via the comments.

Question 3

The first thought here is “isn’t it obvious that the statement is about the power of words to express the extent of the person’s sorrow”? I see two objections to this point. The first is that it assumes that the person actually has sorrow to be expressed. This is not part of what is known about the situation. The second objection is to consider this scenario: you are learning English for the first time and happen to have a terrible teacher who always uses the word “sorrow” in place of the word “happy” and vice versa. From what is known about the situation only, is it possible to deduce the sense in which the word “sorrow” in the statement is being used? What is known about the situation does not include any premises about how the word “sorrow” is being used, so the answer is no. This implies that the answer to the third question is also no.

Being more accurate, the argument here shows the stronger claim that there is no deductive argument that determines what statement was made.

Note: I originally mixed up the presence of “sorrow” with the extent (quantity) of “sorrow”. The first objection is to be ignored.

Question 4

This one is easy. Nothing is known about the audience, nor can anything be deduced about the audience. There could be one hearer of the speech. There could be a hundred hearers. The answer again then is no.


The whole point of this blog post is to demonstrate the ubiquity of our making of tacit assumptions. From what is known about the situation, we cannot pin down the matters discussed above. Imagine the implications this has for translation, assuming the same context of a funeral speech.

It should also be realised in the above that I tacitly allowed any reader of this article to use deductive logic and the English language in any deductive argument they could make, even though – strictly speaking – these go beyond “what is known about the situation only”; it was too cumbersome to make this clarification everywhere, but it is intended. I too used logic and the English language in the arguments I made above about the existence of deductive arguments that have either a positive or negative answer to the question they consider.

What I suspect you initially did when reading the scenario and the questions is recall what you associate with funerals, what you understand about human behaviour, and what you understand about the general usage of aspects of the English language. An alternative possibility is that you imagined yourself in such a situation, then used that as a surrogate for the person in the situation. What is amazing is how quickly all of that happened, and how unaware of it you were. What is also interesting is how little empirical data you have on funerals; I’m sure you haven’t attended many.

Supplementary thoughts 1

It should be noted that even probabilistic premises such as “the person is probably experiencing sorrow” go beyond “what is known about the situation”. (I will return to matters of probability in a future blog post. It is a notoriously slippery concept, but I hope I can offer some useful thoughts.)

Think about how you initially responded when you read the questions. I am willing to bet that you made assumptions that go beyond “what is known about the situation only”. I am also willing to bet that you, at least for a moment, tried to answer different questions to the ones that were asked.

Supplementary thoughts 2

There is no deductive argument that the person in the situation knows what they mean by what they say, as that is dependent on their understanding of the English Language. Statements about this too “go beyond what is known about the situation”.

Notice that there is a distinction between what a person intends to convey and what a person intends to accomplish by what they say.

Supplementary thoughts 3

Assuming now that there is sorrow to be expressed, that they intend to convey its “extent” (this is being understood as a matter of quantity – which does not need to presume a notion of number, but only of greater, lesser, and identical) to the audience, and that they are using the word “sorrow” in the generally used sense, then – following analogous reasoning to that used throughout – there is no deductive argument either to determine whether the statement is to be taken literally or figuratively.

In order for experiences of “sorrow” to be comparable (with “worse”, “better”, and “same”), it is required that the word “sorrow” be meaningfully applied to different emotional states. In the context (with our extra assumptions), the “sorrow” refers to a single such state considered in comparison with other states that are also described as states of “sorrow”.

I note that earlier in this post, I have treated sorrow as a thing in and of it itself, which can be possessed in different quantities, while I just pointed out that the word “sorrow” is used to describe different – but somehow comparable – emotional states. If the reader catches me mixing up the two somewhere, please let me know. For clarity, it is the latter idea which is intended so make the appropriate replacements where I have employed the other.

Supplementary thought 4

I have been loose with the word “quantity” here. All that is required is comparability of emotional states. Do not confuse it with the same idea as “the quantity of apples on the table”.

Supplementary thought 5

Suppose now that we have a complete recording of the brain activity of the person as they are uttering those words. What can now, if anything, be determined about the questions considered in Q1 to Q4 here? What about if we also have recordings of the brain activity of the person in other situations, as well as those of other people in funeral situations?

Just some questions for your ruminations.

Covid-19: a summary


Check these regularly for the latest guidance. (Fullfact) (NHS – National Health Service) (If reading from outside the UK, substitute your country’s healthcare system) (UK Government) (If reading from outside the UK, substitute your country’s Government website)


Do not take claims from these sources at face value. Maintain healthy skepticism of what you read, and make sure any information you share is reliable.


Social Media


Despite causing similar symptoms, Covid-19 is not a strain of flu. It is instead a coronavirus. The visualisation below should make the point plain.

This strain is genetically more alike another kind of coronavirus, which caused some issues several years ago but was (eventually) successfully handled, called SARS. Much of the basis for research into testing and vaccine development is based off of what has worked with this other strain.


The similarity with flu is seen in both the symptoms it causes and the means by which it spreads between people. Here is a comparative list of their symptoms.

Like flu, Covid-19 spreads from person-to-person mainly through the air. This is why maintaining distance from those infected is so important at this time. It is also why it will spread faster, all else equal, in places with a high population density (such as London). Note that even though sneezing is not a symptom of Covid-19, it is still important to use tissues if needed, bin them, and wash your hands. This is to prevent it spreading in case you do have it and it is not yet showing symptoms. This virus is currently thought to be most risky to the elderly, pregnant women, and to those with underlying health conditions.

Why is this worse than the flu you might ask given that people die every year from the flu? There are two main reasons: (1) the death rate from flu is estimated as 0.1% while early estimates for Covid-19 range from 1% to 4% roughly on average (ranging to 8% to 15% for those over 70) so it is estimated to be somewhere between 10 and 40 times more likely to kill, (2) the flu shows symptoms within a day of catching it so people take precautions to stop it spreading to others while Covid-19 can take up to a week to show symptoms so it can go unnoticed and thus can spread far and wide very quickly. These percentages may still seem low, but this is just direct kills. There’s also the second-order effects where people die from other causes because of overwhelmed health services.


This strain of coronavirus is most likely of bat origin, and was transmitted to humans through other animal intermediaries . The first instances were identified in Wuhan in China in December 2019. It is thought that the poor sanitary standards of a food market in the province was a recipe for eventual disaster. Early news was suppressed by Chinese authorities, who have now reversed course and are updating the rest of the world as the situation develops.


In an ideal world, the outbreak would have been identified early and contained. This did not happen and, owing to our ability to travel globally at speeds and volumes greater than ever seen in history, it has spread around the world. Given that it can take up to 7 days for symptoms to show, this implies that there a significant number of people who are likely to already have it and are not yet experiencing any symptoms.

So what can be done?

The visualisation below illustrates the next step in a simplified format.

Note that “risk” here means “assuming you are not currently infected, how severe would the consequences likely be if you do become infected” and is not the same as probability. Possibly due to how it has been reported, many have assumed that younger people are unlikely to get it. This is not known to be the case, and should be assumed false until there is good reason to deny it. It is just that the consequences for younger people are likely to be less severe.

A core part of the strategy is (or at least should be) to separate society into sub-communities so that the virus cannot spread across communities. Those most at risk and those who are infected are the groups that most need to be isolating right now. The fundamental question for the strategy is “how do we know what group someone is in?”. In particular, how do we know when someone is infected and how do we know when someone has become immune to it after having recovered? Testing for both is key to the success of the strategy, as we will need to ensure that those with it are not a danger to others and those who are immune can act to support people through this time. In test development, it is better here to misclassify as “infected” someone who actually isn’t than it is to do the reverse.

It is an amazing feat of medical science that the entire genomic sequence of Covid-19 was identified in a matter of days, allowing for early identification of potential vaccine treatments. These will have to go through testing to see if they work, to ensure they do not have harmful side-effects, and will enter mass production once solid candidates have emerged.


Please check the sources listed at the top of this post for further information. Check them regularly as the situation is ongoing. The below is just a summary.

In addition:

  1. Stay in touch with friends and family members via digital means if possible rather than in person visits.
  2. Avoid unnecessary usage of public transport, and avoid international travel.
  3. Continue using any medications you may be on unless advised otherwise.
  4. Work from home if able. If you are isolating and cannot work, then why not take the time to read books, play games, watch movies, listen to cheerful music, etc to keep morale high?
  5. Many people will be working from home and will require internet usage. As tempting though it is, opt for DVDs and Box Sets rather than online streaming as much as you can to not slow the network.
  6. Beware of scammers. Any emails which claim to have a cure, claim to be the Government offering a tax rebate, or the like are very likely to be scams.
  7. If you display symptoms, do not go to the doctor, hospital, or pharmacy but use the NHS online service or phone 111 if you have no access to the Internet. In an emergency, call 999
  8. Issues specific to yourself that have not been covered here are likely to be addressed on the Government’s website either already or in the near future.

Given the importance of the issue, if you find any errors in this post then please let me know and I will amend it. The same goes if you believe I have inadvertently omitted anything important.

Thoughts on Wisdom and Virtue

Wisdom. A virtue which we all hold in high esteem – judging by our positive evaluations of those, actual or fictional, that merit the label “wise” – yet one which few of us make a discipline of aspiring towards. Many of us would say that this virtue is lacking in society at large, while also saying that we know some wise people. Trying to define it in more basic terms usually results in missing out some important feature with which it would be typically associated. Even though a precise definition may be elusive, we can consider what historical thinkers have thought about the concept in order to get some idea about its features as well as examining attributes common to those – actual or fictional – who are ascribed the label “wise”. What then characterises this virtue and what has been or what can be said about it?

Let’s begin with Aristotle.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle is concerned with the question of what personal qualities (“virtues”) are conducive towards a person being in a state of “eudaimonia”. This is often translated into our word “happiness”, although the meaning is more accurately conveyed in the expression “the good life”. We shall leave the meaning of “the good life” with its ambiguity, recognising that it’s far easier to recognise it’s opposite. In his work, Aristotle identifies several virtues that he claims tend to contribute towards eudaimonia. Before we consider any specific virtues that he identifies, let’s look at the position of virtue in political philosophy.

Virtue in political philosophy

Aristotle uses the Greek word “kalokagathia” to describe a person that possesses all the virtues in large degree and elevates such a person as the ideal to strive towards (we might call such a person “noble”). He deems this kind of person to be the most suited to the activity of Government. Aristotle then was a supporter of aristocracy. In modern parlance, “aristocracy” is associated with a system of hereditary power possessed by the wealthy or by owners of vast amounts of property – but this is not how Aristotle conceived of aristocracy. He would have used the terms “timocracy” to describe rule by landowners and “plutocracy” to describe rule by the wealthy. As the Greek word “aristokratia” means “rule by the best”, and “the best” was understood in the sense of “most virtuous”, Aristotle meant “rule by the most virtuous”, where “virtuous” is meant as “possessing the virtues in a large degree” rather than being synonymous with “benevolence”.

The astute reader will have noticed that many of these forms of Government are not mutually exclusive. In Aristotle’s conception of aristocracy, there is the matter of selection: how does society find “the best”? This system is thus compatible with representative-based forms of democracy provided the demos (the voters) select politicians based on virtue as opposed to, say, identity or charm or even – oddly – policy. Supposing voters do this, we might well find that the assembly is not composed of a representative (in the demographic sense) sample of society as the conditions under which virtue is acquired are not distributed equally among the populace or across subgroups. The “ideal” assembly then may not be one with “people just like us” nor will it necessarily match the demographic structure of society contra the aims of many equality focussed movements.

In all the books I have on political philosophy, there are very relatively few thinkers who elevate virtue to a high position in their thinking. I’d like to concentrate on three of them. We have Aristotle, as already discussed. There is then the 18th Century Old Whig, Edmund Burke, who is generally considered the founder of modern Conservative thought. Burke’s political philosophy is detailed and intricate (and easily misunderstood and misrepresented), but there is one quote of his which is particularly relevant to this post: “What is liberty without wisdom and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint. Those who know what virtuous liberty is, cannot bear to see it disgraced by incapable heads, on account of their having high-sounding words in their mouths.”.

This stands in stark contrast to many other schools of thought in political philosophy which emphasise liberty, equality, power, community, individuality, economy, identity, etc.

The third thinker is Confucius – notably outside the canon of Western Philosophy – who wrote extensively on what character traits (virtues) make for good and effective civil servants. Like Aristotle, he elevates virtuous individuals into their own category of person which he called the “Junzi”. This translates to “ruler’s son” – notice the relation between virtue and Government again. These “Junzi” stand in contrast to the petty and egotistical “Xiaoren”.

There is, of course, the danger that this notion that the most virtuous should be the rulers becomes misconstrued. It is all too easy for those in power to believe that they must be the most virtuous because “well how would we have got here otherwise?”. Indeed, the word “kalokagathia” was used by Athenian aristocrats to refer to themselves. Several centuries later, the Anglo-Saxon “Witenagemot” was a meeting of the Witan, which meant “wise men”, that advised the Monarch as well as kept their power in check. Fans of the Harry Potter series will recognise the word “Wizengamot” – being the wizarding high court – as a portmanteau of “wizard” and “Witenagemot”. The modern incarnation of the Witenagemot institution is Parliament.

If only Parliament were fitting of this description today. We still have an aristocratic element (perhaps you might object that there is a theocratic and plutocratic element) in the form of the House of Lords. Listening to the quality of their debates and reading their reports for the Government, one finds it hard not to have great respect for this part of the UK’s Constitution despite – arguably due to – its members not being subject to election. This is not saying that I think election is a bad thing; quite the contrary, it is the most effective peaceful way for regime changes to occur. I am more that it is not an unconditionally good thing.

Some feminist readers here will be shouting “what about women”? To that I say that I, for one, would rather an assembly composed entirely of wise men than a balanced assembly of mediocre men and women; in principle though, there is no a priori reason to suppose that wisdom is not distributed equally among the sexes. A posteriori, however, we do know that a substantially greater proportion of young women undertake university education than young men (37% compared with 27% at the time of writing). To the degree that university education is associated with wisdom, we might find that the “ideal” assembly ought (by this wisdom-standard) to be composed of more women than men. Is university education probabilistically associated with wisdom, in this sense of practical decision-making, though? A debate for another time.

For all this talk of virtue and its elevation, we nowadays seem to be uncomfortable with the notion. I suspect there are two reasons for this: (1) it has a discriminatory elitist odour to it, and (2) it makes heavy demands of us which we would rather not have to fulfill. The first has already been discussed a lot above when thinking about systems of Government: adopting the notion of virtue entails a hierarchy of better and worse, which is discomforting to those who describe themselves as liberal and egalitarian. The second is similar at root: the notion of virtue conflicts heavily with our desire to live “however we want” as it elevates some forms of being over others. It also tends to be accompanied by notions of duty, responsibility, and honour, which stand in contrast – although not necessarily in contradiction – with the notion of rights that forms the core of much Liberal thought. It furthermore demands that each of us – and not some abstract society – takes the responsibility for our lack of virtue, which can be harder for some than for others given different circumstances; it’s worth commenting that it has often been remarked that times of hardship are the real test of a person’s virtue.

Aristotelian virtue ethics

Returning now to the specific virtues that Aristotle identifies, we find many: courage, justice, temperance, fidelity, humility, friendliness, etc. The two virtues which he ranks most highly – and which are most relevant to this blog post – are “phronesis” and “sophia”. Let’s examine these both in some detail.

“Phronesis” refers to what we would consider to be good decision-making (judgement) both generally and in specific circumstances. In the general case, think of actions such as maintaining one’s health, managing one’s finances, engaging in personal development, evaluating people’s trustworthiness, navigating social relationships, etc. It also includes the negative of knowing what should be avoided. In specific cases, Aristotle means the setting of appropriate ends and their achieving by appropriate means.

“Sophia” is ranked by Aristotle as the highest virtue of them all. It was defined by Aristotle to be a synthesis of “nous” (intellect) and “episteme” (knowledge), which we now think of as rational thought and inquiry. Is it really any surprise to us that a philosopher (the word itself meaning a “love of sophia”) would rank “sophia” as the highest of the virtues? A soldier might rank courage as the highest, while a judge might rank justice as the highest. Aristotle though, remember, is ranking the virtues according to his view on their conduciveness towards eudaimonia. It is worth pointing out here that “sophia” is not, quite unusually, directly represented as a goddess in Greek mythology.

When ranking “phronesis” and “sophia “as the highest virtues, he does not mean that the others are lesser – rather he contends that the possession of these two will automatically lead to the others. In other writings of Greek Philosophy, “phronesis” and “sophia” are even more connected in meaning and collectively manage to constitute a definition that encapsulates what we nowadays mean by “wisdom”.

It can be objected that the possession of “sophia” is not guaranteed to lead to eudaimonia; many of us will know some very bright and well-educated people who are prone to anxiety or depression. Think also about the sorrow that conscious contemplation of some facts can cause. Reflecting on the darkest points in human history or on the inevitability of death can sure take a toll (unless you take Seneca’s views). It’s worth doing on occasion, but probably not a good idea – if one is keen on eudaimonia – to dwell on such facts.

Aristotle though is only making a probabilistic claim about the contribution of these virtues towards eudaimonia and is not saying that they amount to sufficient – or even necessary – conditions. There are many factors left out of Aristotle’s work which would contribute towards eudaimonia. Think of the basic meeting of material needs, exposure to aesthetic pleasure, absence of disease, satisfying social relationships, and opportunities for creative expression. These are all external to a person however, while Aristotle is only concerned with personal qualities in his work. These objections then do not invalidate the value of “sophia” or virtue more generally.

Phronesis and sophia in warfare

A thought-provoking, example of phronesis in action is that of a military general aiming to win a war. One has to anticipate the enemy’s actions using the available intelligence and plan accordingly, while knowing that they are attempting to do the same. One has to be aware of the relative strengths and weaknesses of your own army compared to the enemy’s. One has to consider the terrain on which battles will be fought. One has to be capable of forming alliances. One has to be able to deceive the enemy. One has to be able to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances, which may be unanticipated. One has to command the loyalty of one’s army. All of this is not saying anything about the morality of war, but only that success in it is heavily dependent on the possession of phronesis.

This is of interest here given that Aristotle was a tutor to one of history’s most successful (in the sense of attaining his objectives, whatever the morality of them) military generals: Alexander the Great. Military academics today still study his battles along with the writings of martial thinkers such as Sun Tzu (“the art of war”), Napoleon (his “military maxims”), and Clausewitz (“on war”). It’s also noteworthy that many martial arts films represent the protagonist’s teacher as wise: think of Mr Miyagi in the Karate Kid films, Master Oogway in the Kung Fu Panda series, and Master Splinter in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles television show and movies.

We also find that both ancient Greeks and Romans tended to associate wisdom – in this practical sense – with warfare in their gods. The Greek goddess Athena, named after the city of Athens and not vice versa, was associated with wisdom and warfare. The Roman goddess Minerva too was a goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare. Considering the connection between war and morality, it is interesting to note that Athena was contrasted with her brother, Ares. Ares was considered to be the patron of violence, bloodlust, and slaughter (i.e. obsessed with total destruction), whereas Athena was thought to only support those fighting for a just cause. Given all these observations, it is not surprising that the disciplined soldier was ranked highly in these ancient civilisations. Looking at the Romans, Ares seems to be paralleled by the god Mars from whence comes the name of the planet.

It’s worth making some passing remarks about the role of Mathematics in military affairs. If anything evokes images of rational and abstract thought, it is Mathematics – although a good debate can be had as to whether it is the pinnacle of such thought. The application of Mathematics to defence and warfare is immense. It’s used, for example, in the formation of optimal strategy, in the securing of one’s own communications, in the revealing of the enemy’s secrets, in the design of equipment, and in the analysis of relative strength. The point for us is to observe how products of sophia can contribute to practical decision-making and problem-solving.

Linguistic connections

Moving away from Aristotle for a while, let’s consider the connections that the words “phronesis” and “sophia” have with other words, translations, and synonyms in order to further elucidate the concepts. The word “phronesis” is often translated into our word “prudence”, which captures the notion of good decision-making, although our modern term comes with too much of a sense of caution and hesitancy to be a perfect translation. More significantly for this post, “sophia” translates into the Latin “sapienta”. It is fascinating to learn that the botonist Carl Linnaeus – considered to be “the father of modern taxonomy” – decided to name our species “homo sapiens”. We can see then that the virtue of sapience (that is “sophia”) has been considered to be that which separates us from the other animals. While non-human animals can behave in ways that can be described as “phronesis” – think of the squirrel collecting nuts in advance of winter (saving for a rainy day like this is something many would do well to learn from) – none have demonstrated more than rudimentary capability in rational and abstract thought which severely limits their practical capabilities. Many of the pinnacle accomplishments of our species are the consequence of trying to solve a practical problem, finding a working solution, examining why that solution worked, abstracting general principles, and applying that principle to similar but new situations. This wouldn’t be possible without the ability to reason rationally or abstractly.

The word “sophia” is also connected with the word “sophist”, which today has a negative connotation. In ancient Greece, the sophists were predominantly teachers of rhetoric to young statesmen. The ability to make an emotionally compelling, while also rationally persuasive argument, in support of your ideas is obviously an invaluable trait for a politician in a democratic society. Aristotle, frustrated at how this often led to eloquent sounding but fallacious arguments, wrote the classic text on rhetoric (“the art of rhetoric”) to examine how persuasion works in order to teach people how not to be led astray. What an irony then that his work is now a key text in classics, often studied by politicians in their university years. This is not necessarily bad provided that it comes with enough logic to keep grounded in reality.

Wisdom in Religion

Aristotle is, of course, not the only thinker to have been reasoning about virtue and wisdom. Christianity – not uniquely among the world religions – too put a great deal of emphasis on them. To avoid going too much away from the main threads of this blog post, we will focus only on wisdom here and leave its broader perspective on virtue aside. We make the summarising point though that Christian ethical thinking departs from Greek ethical thinking in that love (Greek: agape) – considered a divine quality – is the highest virtue rather than wisdom. Note – as it is a subtle point that is often missed – that “ethics” here refers to what makes for good lives, as opposed to what is morally permissible, impermissible, or obligatory.

Readers can understand the following literally or otherwise. The non-divine Biblical character most associated with wisdom is King Solomon. [UPDATE: obviously this is shared in Christian and Jewish thought]. After becoming King of Israel after the death of his father, God appears to Solomon in a dream (1 Kings 3, 2 Chronicles 1) and asks Solomon what he wants. Imagine yourself in this situation for a moment: you’ve just become an absolute – insofar as legal power goes – Monarch over a territory and God comes to you offering to give you anything you like. What do you ask for? Wealth? You probably already have that, but you could ask for more. Adoration? Well the people may have initial faith in you given that your father was King David, but it’s not guaranteed to last. Romantic partners? You’re the King, you won’t be short of supply (as Solomon can testify it seems!). World domination? Much easier than fighting. World peace? Doesn’t seem like a bad thing. The end of suffering? Sure would be nice.

Solomon, in the dream, doesn’t ask for any of these. Here’s 1 Kings 3:5-15:

At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon during the night in a dream, and God said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” Solomon answered, “You have shown great kindness to your servant, my father David, because he was faithful to you and righteous and upright in heart. You have continued this great kindness to him and have given him a son to sit on his throne this very day. “Now, Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?” 10 The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. 11 So God said to him, “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, 12 I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. 13 Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for—both wealth and honor—so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings. 14 And if you walk in obedience to me and keep my decrees and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life.” 15 Then Solomon awoke—and he realized it had been a dream.

This is then immediately followed by a legal case where Solomon passes a judgement which is considered wise. A notable point is that Solomon’s request was not self-centered in nature but was concerned with practical judgement in leadership and in the administration of justice. Sounds a lot like phronesis. Furthermore, Solomon’s wise leadership leads to great material prosperity for the kingdom – The king made silver and gold as common in Jerusalem as stones, and cedar as plentiful as sycamore-fig trees in the foothills. (2 Chronicles 1:15). There appears also to be good trading and peaceful relations with neighbouring kingdoms, which was then considered an abnormality. Doesn’t rank too badly for a leader.

“Wisdom” in the Bible is also associated with the book of Proverbs. This contains – as you might expect from the title – practical advice for life in the form of proverbial sayings. Most of these take the form of a contrast between what a wise person does and what a foolish person does. To give just one, of many, examples: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice” (Proverbs 12:10) – don’t we all know some fools?

It’s striking that the admonition in Proverbs to seek wisdom, while good for everybody, is especially aimed at the young. The opening few chapters have a father character – supposedly Solomon – advising his son to seek wisdom and giving him some specific guidance particularly around the importance of marital faithfulness. We don’t typically associate “wisdom” with the young today either – it’s something which is acquired over time with diligent study, listening to advice, and experience (school of hard knocks). Young people can be extremely intelligent and inquisitive, but neither is sufficient to make them “wise”. This is probably why youngsters involved in protest groups shouting, “we need radical change!”, are not viewed positively – “who are they to judge the world?” after all. The statements they make may be right, but that alone is not sufficient to make them credible authorities on the subject matter about which they shout so loudly about.

In contrast, think of characters in the movies that are associated with wisdom such as Gandalf, Dumbledore, and Yoda as well as those we mentioned about when talking about warfare. They’re all old, they are all experts in their fields, they are sought out for practical advice, they have already made the mistakes. Not qualities typical of the young. The characters too are humble, whereas intellect alone can lead to arrogance (think of Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory show). Of course, age is not sufficient for wisdom – you can be old and silly, it’s just rarer. Many older people make the mistake of thinking otherwise.


We’ve done all of this thinking about virtue and wisdom now, and you may be asking “so what?”. Here I haven’t tried to advance a thesis via an argument, but rather have aimed to give a miscellany of thoughts around the theme of wisdom drawing from philosophy, etymology, religion, politics, mythology, and modern culture. I hope to have illustrated the value of this “thematically eclectic” approach by having connected things from the past with the present: think of connecting the old notion that leaders should be virtuous with modern politics, the linking of historical thoughts on wisdom and age with protest groups, the degree to which theoretical thinking can enhance practical capabilities, etc. The take home point from all of this that I think both Aristotle and Solomon would say to us is “seek wisdom” – the problems we face require it more than ever.