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Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Knowledge, wisdom, and “common sense”

By: Dr Tamara Besednjak Valič

Some time ago, I came across an illustrative description of the divide between knowledge and wisdom: “Knowledge consists in knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not to add it to the fruit salad.” The illustration I want to point out is not in the cooking advice, but in what was sometimes accompanied by the facetious and nationalised description of “healthy common sense”: we do not put tomatoes in a fruit salad because of its properties and taste, even if it formally belongs there as a fruit. Unfortunately, in today’s society of knowledge, “common sense” is too often stigmatised as something used by those of us who are unadvanced. But maybe it is not a lack of progress, but what if it is just one of the faces of wisdom?

We found out and are still finding out during the covid-19 epidemic that wisdom, and perhaps also “common sense” is important. In March 2020, the world acted almost instinctively; in the face of the threat of the virus, which was spreading uncontrollably, we made the most logical move. You could call it a “common sense” move – we stopped. The whole world stopped. I remember how we joked, saying how privileged we are to fight the war against the virus from an armchair (of course, those of us who could joke about ourselves in this way).

A good two and a half years later, we sociologists ask ourselves the question of what will happen to society after covid. Will we as a society thoroughly rethink our behaviour? Will we start to think more long-term if, as a highly individualised society of the developed Western world, we have been thinking distinctly short-term and hedonistically until now? Will a society that values progress and innovation the most be able to direct this orientation towards sustainability, coexistence, and peace instead of unbridled consumerism?

And here is the key question that sooner or later we will have to ask ourselves. How will the policy address long-term social and economic challenges? It is utopian to expect politics to unite on all social and development issues. It is imperative to demand from politics that they unite towards long-term goals. To establish a long-term plan for the direction of development. If there is no such thing, we plant the forest in such a way that every time the government changes, we cut down the trees and plant others in their place. And we do this in vain, knowing that at the next change of power they will be uprooted again and replaced by others. When we uproot trees, we can quickly cause short-term damage if we are careless. The Dutch situation a few weeks ago comes to mind. In the footage we watched, we could observe the sometimes-violent protests of Dutch farmers. They protested against the intentions of the Dutch government to implement radical measures to reduce nitrogen emissions, especially those caused by livestock farming. Farmers from other EU countries also joined these protests. From the information that was available, we could see the claims that when these measures are implemented, it is expected that 30 percent of farms will cease to operate. What this means for the food supply, I do not want to think – as the responsible for this decision probably also did not want to. They decided to achieve an understandable long-term goal, action against climate change, with an incomprehensible short-term measure. Probably a good example of “common sense” problems.

We have similar examples of hasty and thoughtless ideas in front of us these days as well. The Prime Minister explained the plan of how we will increase self-sufficiency in electricity – we will cover large areas with solar power plants. We have not found out where, whether we will cut down some useless part of the forest or place the panels on the stone karst or even on the Prekmurje plains.

Perhaps I am naively equating wisdom with thorough consideration and constructive dialogue among the broadest group of divergent minds. But perhaps it is considered that wisdom is the privilege of only one social group, the progressives, because they are not hindered by mental frameworks called “common sense”. Maybe that, but it could also be that we stuck a tomato in our own fruit salad.

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