The road to wisdom

Nicholas Maxwell on why a new kind of learning is needed to better our lives

Academia is devoted to acquiring expert knowledge and technological know-how, in the hope that that knowledge will be used to better the lot of humanity. In countless ways, this has come to pass. But the scientific pursuit of knowledge dissociated from a more fundamental concern with problems of living is fraught with danger.

Technological know-how enormously increases our power to act, which, without wisdom, is just as likely to lead to human suffering and death as human benefit. All our modern global problems have arisen in this way: global warming, the utterly lethal character of modern warfare, vast inequalities of wealth and power around the globe, rapid increases in population, destruction of tropical rainforests and other natural habitats, even epidemics of disease that are spread by modern travel.

Many blame science for the ills of the world, but this is to miss the point. What we urgently need to do - given the unprecedented powers bequeathed to us by science - is to learn how to tackle our immense, intractable problems of living in rather more intelligent, humane, co- operatively rational ways than we do at present. And for that, in turn, we need institutions of learning, rationally designed - well-designed - from that standpoint.

We need a new kind of academic inquiry that gives intellectual priority to our problems of living - to clarifying what our problems are, and to proposing and critically assessing the possible solutions.

This would be the task of social inquiry and the humanities. Tackling problems of knowledge would be secondary. Social inquiry would be at the heart of the academic enterprise, in order to help humanity build co-operatively rational methods of problem-solving into the fabric of social and political life.

Natural science, too, would change so that it included three domains of discussion: evidence, theory and aims - this last category covering discussion of metaphysics, values and politics. Pursued for its own sake, science would be more like natural philosophy, intermingling science, metaphysics and philosophy, as in the time of Newton. Academic inquiry as a whole would become a kind of people's civil service, doing openly for the public what actual civil services are supposed to do in secret for governments. Academia would actively seek to educate, rather than simply study, the public.

These changes are not arbitrary. They all come from demanding that academia cure its current structural irrationality, so that reason - the authentic article - may be devoted to helping humanity learn how to make progress towards a better, wiser world.

The revised edition of Nicholas Maxwell's "From Knowledge to Wisdom: a Revolution for Science and the Humanities" is published by Pentire Press (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Art is the new activism