Collective Wisdom and Civilization: Revitalizing Ancient Wisdom Traditions

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I argue that, in one sense, collective wisdom can save civilization. But in a more important sense, collective wisdom should be understood as a form of civilization, as the result and expression of a moral civilizing-process that comes about through the creation and transmission of collective interpretations of human experience and human nature. Collective wisdom traditions function in this manner by providing an interpretation of what it means to be human and what thoughts, skills, and actions are required to live a successful human life at the most general level of analysis. Collective wisdom can have a civilizing effect on individuals, and indirectly on societies, by providing a type of orienting framework for understanding the proper relationship between the self, others, and the world. Such traditions in effect provide a “blueprint” for the successful human life as such, by providing guidance on thought and action, on what is appropriate to think, feel, desire, and do in theoretical and practical contexts. A wise individual will be a 'civilized' individual in this moral sense, an individual who is properly habituated and educated so as to now reflectively endorse and desire thinking and acting in virtuous ways. However, this understanding of collective wisdom and civilization is in many ways today controversial and met with justified critiques and skeptical criticisms. To defend this way of approaching and answering our question against these critiques, I turn to ancient wisdom traditions from ancient India, China, and Greece as paradigms for understanding exactly how collective wisdom can achieve the end of civilizing humanity. Based on this analysis, I sketch the outlines of a revitalized ancient wisdom tradition able to civilize individuals today, but such a tradition must be updated to reflect the advancement of modern natural science and to meet the demands of living in our diverse, pluralistic, and globalized world.
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