Wisdom as Knowledge in the Pragmatics of Life

The Berlin Wisdom Paradigm.

Posted Feb 27, 2021

This post is part of a “Wisdom in Mainstream (Academic, Research, and Applied) Psychology Series.” We take a look at the dominant models and perspectives in the field studying wisdom and see what they have to say. We ask of each the same three questions: What is wisdom? Why does it matter? And, how might it be developed or applied? Today we’ll be looking at wisdom from the perspective of the Berlin Wisdom Paradigm. This approach to wisdom studies originated in the early 1980s with Paul B. Baltes and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. It has been developed and refined over the years with the collaboration of Freya Dittmann-Kohli, Jacqui Smith, Ursula M. Staudinger, and Ute Kunzmann, and others. As with the other posts, the aim of this series is not to critique or evaluate the different perspectives, but rather to give the interested reader a sense of them. Their relative merits and possible limitations may be implied or explicitly addressed in future blog series exploring alternative views.

What is wisdom?

Steve Harvey/Unsplash
Source: Steve Harvey/Unsplash

Inspired by their search for a comprehensive picture, Baltes and others identified general properties of wisdom that emerged from analyzing and synthesizing cultural-historical and philosophical sources. They came up with the broad definition of wisdom as “excellence in the conduct and meaning of life” that could encompass the diversity of what they found. However, unlike many other approaches, they wanted to study the phenomenon as social scientists and so needed to operationalize their view (convert it into terms that could be empirically studied). To do that, they furthered refined their definition of wisdom as “expert knowledge and judgment in the fundamental pragmatics of life” (Baltes & Smith, 2008). “With fundamental pragmatics, we mean knowledge and judgment about the essence of the human condition and the ways and means of planning, managing, and understanding a good life” (Baltes & Staudinger, 2000, p. 124).

More specifically, they assert that wisdom requires both rich factual knowledge as well as procedural knowledge. Factual knowledge “involves a deep understanding of human nature, lifelong development, social norms and their implications, variations in developmental processes and outcomes, interpersonal and intergenerational relations, and identity issues” (Baltes & Smith, 2008, p. 58). “Procedural knowledge about the fundamental pragmatics of life involves strategies and heuristics for dealing with the meaning and conduct of life—for example, heuristics for giving advice and for the structuring and weighing of life goals, ways to handle life conflicts and life decisions, and knowledge about alternative back-up strategies if development were not to proceed as expected” (Baltes & Staudinger, 2000, p. 125). So, wisdom, on their account is not only having knowledge of various kinds but knowing how and when to use it.

Adapted from Baltes & Smith (2008)
Source: Adapted from Baltes & Smith (2008)

To this, they add three additional “metacriteria,” largely derived from their familiarity with life-span psychology of cognition and personality. The first is “lifespan contextualism” and refers to the ability to reflect upon the various contexts of one’s life (e.g., education, family, work, friends, leisure, the public good of society, etc.), their interrelations and cultural variations, and put these in a lifetime perspective (i.e., past, present, and future). The second is “value relativism” and refers to the ability to consider and have tolerance for interindividual differences in values. By this, they don’t mean to suggest a disregard of values but insert flexibility so as to balance and optimize the individual and common good. The third metacriterion is the capacity to acknowledge uncertainty (i.e., that our existential predicament is one of not knowing entirely why things happen the way they do, all the possible information to know what is happening or what the future will bring, etc.) and have developed ways to manage it.

Why does it matter?

“In our view, wisdom is a research topic that holds much promise for the future as psychologists turn their attention to positive qualities and excellence in human behavior and to significant contributions made to the common good of society. In particular, as suggested by philosophers, studies of the nature, ontogeny, and application of wisdom will also further our understanding of life quality, individual competence, social justice, and human dignity” (Baltes & Smith, 2008, p. 61).

How might it be developed or applied?

Based on the findings that have emerged from their research, the Berlin group has uncovered what it believes to be critical antecedents, correlates, and mediators of wisdom-related knowledge. The implications of these findings are that various conditions may be intentionally orchestrated to facilitate its development.

Adapted from Baltes & Smith (2008)
Source: Adapted from Baltes & Smith (2008)

For example, they identified three sets of factors thought to be associated with the development, maintenance, and application of wisdom: general person factors (e.g., creativity, openness to experience, specific cognitive style and cognitive mechanics, and a certain degree of mental health and ego strength), expertise-specific factors (e.g., they had experience in critical life matters, organized tutelage, mentorship in dealing with life matters, specific cognitive heuristics, and certain motivational dispositions such as generativity and striving for excellence), and facilitative experiential contexts (e.g., one’s historical period, education, parents, professional and work context, age, etc.) (Baltes & Smith, 2008). Additionally, they identified, what they believe to be, key perceptual and organizing regulators for the development of wisdom: life planning (e.g., which future life goals to pursue and how?), life management (e.g., how to deal best with critical problems such as suicide or family conflict?), and life review (e.g., how best to make sense of our life history and past experiences?) (Baltes & Smith, 2008).

A concrete example of the recent application of their work has been to use their findings (e.g., on the nature of wisdom, life management strategies, and unrealized longings into personal meaning) to assist adults to deal with the challenges of living. This is quite significant in light of how our current moment in history led to an ever-increasing population of individuals living much longer. Dealing with aging well will be one of the major tasks of the future. What is very encouraging is that the research is showing how these very same domains (wisdom, life management strategies, and possible selves and life longings) “do not show the typical patterns of age-related decline found in many other psychological domains (e.g., cognition and physical functioning)” (Baltes & Smith, 2008, p. 63).


Baltes, P. B., & Smith, J. (2008). The fascination of wisdom: Its nature, ontogeny, and function. Sage Journals, 3(1), 56-64. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-6916.2008.00062.x

Baltes, P. B., & U. M., Staudinger (2000). Wisdom: A metaheuristic (pragmatic) to orchestrate mind and virtue toward excellence. American Psychologist, 55(1), 122-136. DOI:10.1037//0003-066X.55.1.122