Toward a Wisdom Index

Where is wisdom coming alive? How can we best assess the level of wisdom of an individual, a group, an organization, an institution, a nation or the world? Developing a reliable wisdom index can provide visibility of where wisdom is thriving and where it is lacking—based on objective measures. Various Individuals or groups striving to increase their wisdom could use the index to assess their current status, identify specific areas for improvement, and measure progress along the journey toward wisdom.

Several existing indices designed to measure positive outcomes provide a range of useful models we can learn from in designing a wisdom index. These include the:

  • Global Peace Index —measures the relative position of nations’ and regions’ peacefulness,
  • Human Development Index — a composite statistic of life expectancy, education, and income indices used to rank countries into four tiers of human development,
  • Happy Planet Index — an index of human well-being and environmental impact weighted to give progressively higher scores to nations with lower ecological footprints,
  • Environmental Performance Index — a method of quantifying and numerically benchmarking the environmental performance of a state’s policies,
  • Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index® — daily assessment of U.S. residents’ health and well-being,
  • Global Innovation Index — recognizes the key role of innovation as a driver of economic growth and prosperity and acknowledges the need for a broad horizontal vision of innovation that is applicable to both developed and emerging economies,
  • Democracy Index — measures the state of democracy in 167 countries,
  • Gross national happiness —measures quality of life or social progress in more holistic and psychological terms than the economic indicator of gross domestic product,
  • Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award recognizes U.S. organizations in the business, health care, education, and nonprofit sectors for performance excellence, and
  • this list of freedom indices.

A useful assessment instrument and index will:

  • Accurately reflect a well-conceived definition of wisdom,
  • Rely on observations, data, and measurements that can be reliably obtained,
  • Be easy to use,
  • Provide valid, reliable, and repeatable results,
  • Provide results that are easy to interpret,
  • Be perceived as providing an accurate assessment of wisdom,
  • Provide a wisdom model that encourages learning how to increase wisdom,
  • Identify specific areas for improvement so that the assessed organization can use the assessment results to guide their improvement efforts, and
  • Be freely available.

Developing an index will begin by choosing a definition of wisdom. Many have been suggested, and several useful definitions are collected in the Wikiversity course on wisdom.

Next the definition of wisdom needs to be translated into operational terms—observable and measurable behaviors. A few instruments have been developed for assessing the wisdom of a particular individual. These include:

New instruments for assessing organizational wisdom need to be developed. These may be based on measures of well-being of members and stakeholders and might also consider environment, inputs, and results of the organization as a whole.

After the assessment instrument is designed it needs to be validated, calibrated, and then put into use.

What are your thoughts on this proposal? Would such an index help bring wisdom to life? What should the design of the index include? How can we best create, apply, and report results from such an index? How would you like to contribute to this project?

12 thoughts on “Toward a Wisdom Index

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  2. Thanks for the thought-provoking and information- (and link-) rich post, Lee.

    Regarding two related (sort of) subjects — the idea of a Wisdom Index, and the/a definition of Wisdom — here are my quick thoughts, offered in the context of the subject, the state of the world today, and our loose but important aim:

    I can’t see wisdom being measured in terms of a single number, an “index”, even as the single number would be some sort of weighted combination of other more specific numbers, each of which would also involve various problems. I wouldn’t want to reduce wisdom to, or rather capture wisdom in, a single measure. HOWEVER, the value of the idea here, it seems to me, might be that the (ongoing) exercise of identifying the various components of wisdom, and the hoped-for outcomes of the use of wisdom, would be a great learning exercise. Does society presently have good measures of/for the hoped-for outcomes of the use of wisdom? Right now, many of our societies are shaped around the use of GDP and other such things as the measures of success. So, let’s do a better job, of course, of measuring the “right” things.

    Regarding definitions, here again, I think there is a strong case for embracing a range of overlapping and complementary “definitions” of wisdom, expressed in different styles, and allowing for narrative definitions, poetic definitions, visual definitions, essay-length definitions, and so forth, as well as for various stabs at single-sentence “precise” definitions. All of them. Let’s be welcoming and embracing. What is much, much more important than agreeing to a single definition of wisdom is realizing that there is no single definition, and certainly none that most people will agree to agree to; so, it’s more important to begin to activate “wisdom” in ways that, well, “you’ll know it when you see it”.

    Philosophers — we philosophers, including me — often have inherited and habitual tendencies that sometimes keep pulling us away from implementing wisdom — away from bringing wisdom to life. Some of these include the very strong preference for writing (to each other, especially) rather than for doing; the desire to find the precise Truth of something before acting to bring the approximate truth to fruition; the desire/need to “win” an intellectual contest rather than to cooperate with each other to move real progress forward in the real world; and so forth. To me, part of wisdom is recognizing these tendencies in ourselves as philosophers, and then trying to shift gears and emphases (at least in some substantial proportion of our time) in order to bring to fruition, or rather make fruitful, what we already “approximately, directionally believe to be the case”. In other words, let’s begin to try to discuss ways to try to put out the fire before the place burns down.

    Of course, it DOES help to have a rough but good-as-posslble collection of complementary conceptions of wisdom in mind as we try to bring Her to Life; and it does help to discuss the ideal outcomes and how we ought to begin trying to measure what we actually want to realize; but …

    Am I wrong on this?

    Cheers and Be Well,


    • Jeff,
      Thanks for your comments, and I largely agree. In large part the proof of the definition is in creation of the index. Deciding what to pay attention to (and I agree with Jeff that it needs to be wide ranging. (Your comment prompted me to add the MBNQA to the list.)) is a powerful way to communicate specifically what we mean by wisdom. This moves the tasks of defining wisdom beyond the realm of wordsmithing and begins to bring it to life.

      So what would such an index include? Perhaps we can begin to develop a list of candidate measures, questions, outcomes, and observations that might be included. I suggest beginning with a measure based on the Universal declaration of human rights. See: for an example.

      We can also assess if people are spending time on what matters. See:

      Also, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index mentioned above can play an important role.

      What else do we include? How do we measure organization effectiveness in the context of wisdom rather than profit, or even organizational goals? Can we leverage any of the index examples from the above list?

      I have a pretty good handle on wise individuals, see, for example: but I am a loss to list “wise organizations” where it is clear that “two heads are better than one.” The US Congress is an example of an organization consisting of individually wise people (OK, work with me here!) that gets terrible results. What are examples of organizations that amplify the wisdom of the members to get extraordinary results?

      Perhaps Wikipedia is an example of a wise “organization” where the outcome (the best encyclopedia ever written) is the result (emergent result?) of the efforts of many ordinary people. An ant colony or bee colony may be other examples, but obviously these are not human organizations.

      Copthorne Macdonald provided A Brief Introduction to Collective Wisdom at: This may be very helpful.

      • Not by any means the main measure, but one component of many (although as I’ve said, I think the value is more in the discussion and exercise itself, not in coming up with a single weighted “index”), but, one component could be some sort of genuine measure of the effectiveness of government. Ours is presently ineffective.

        Another component might include some sort of assessment of the degree to which a society does not embrace and believe several deeply faulty and ultimately harmful assumptions, such as that real material growth can continue infinitely on a finite planet. And that sort of thing.

        But, given these sorts of measures, as well as others (for example, some assessment regarding the degree to which a society’s economic system is or even can be genuinely sustainable), we in the U.S., as a society, are so far from being a wise society that I doubt a grade could even be given; it would have to be an ‘F’ or at best a ‘D-minus’. This is also, to some degree, a measure of the failure of modern philosophy. That’s why we’re here, presumably, to help change that situation.

        Be Well,


        • Thanks, I recently rediscovered A Brief Introduction to Collective Wisdom compiled by Copthorne Macdonald that seems quite relevant to this. I will begin to study it here:

          The book The Power of Collective Wisdom and the Trap of Collective Folly identifies five stances for collective wisdom. These are identified in my review of the book here:

          The five stances are:
          1) deep listening—an authentic curiosity about what is going on inside the speaker, 2) suspending uncertainty—deferring judgment and allowing a new truth to emerge, 3) seeing whole systems and seeking diverse perspectives—seeking the origins of positive deviance through appreciative inquiry to understand solutions that now exist within the system, 4) respect for others and group discernment, and 5) welcoming all that is arising—embracing unexpected participants and allowing unplanned events to contribute to the solution. A
          constant trust in the transcendent provides the confidence and patience often required for the connections to be made and the wisdom to emerge.

          Here is a key question: Did the collective group arrive at a wiser outcome than any individual member of the group could have arrived at?

    • Hi Jeff, Lee and all,

      This “But” expressed by Jeff, is really the same concern I just expressed against the “Introducing Wisdom Index Alpha” post.

      Measuring the “right” things, invariably turns the right things into the wrong things if we place too much focus on them, particularly if reduced to a single quantifiable “thing”, rather than a balanced, overlapping, evolving set of considerations.

      I think we need to trust our instincts to act and evaluate what we do, whilst in parallel using such indeces in our conversation to reach (evolving) consensus on our definitions.


  3. Dear Lee,

    Towards a Wisdom Index. Great idea. It seems to me that it is really important to use the definition of wisdom that I have proposed – roughly, the capacity, active endeavour and desire to realize what is of value in life for oneself and others (realize meaning both apprehend or experience, and create or make real). Not only does this definition of wisdom emerge out of the argument for wisdom-inquiry (which seems important); not only can it be readily adapted to apply to institutions and social endeavours; also, because of its generality it includes all other worthwhile definitions, as I explain in a recently published article: see the brief attached article. The final paragraph is especially relevant, but the rest of the text has some relevance too.

    It could be argued that “what is of value” is too general, too open to be interpreted in undesirable ways. Possibly. The solution is twofold. To require that wisdom involves implementing aim-oriented rationality – what is of value being represented in the hierarchical way that that demands. And to narrow down “what is of value” a bit to exclude the unacceptable. In other words, refine the above definition so that it becomes appropriate to the matter in hand.

    All good wishes,

    Publications online:

    • Nick looks a lot like Ian here — twins? — or at least Nick didn’t have this wonderful hat when I visited him in London. In any case, I’m glad to see/read that Nick is back!

      Be Well, Jeff

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