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Art of Wisdom or Arts of Wisdom?

21/05/2013 17:12 BST | Updated 20/07/2013 10:12 BST

Can we separate thinking from being? I'd suggest that thinking, rational and irrational, is part of being, that thinking implies language, and that language is a primary instrument for giving expression to sensation and experience. Literacy is an essential tool, a gateway to knowledge (but not necessarily to wisdom). It is also a means of expression, a gateway to meaning. But not the only gateway to meaning. Pre-literate societies found other ways of individual and collective expression, oral, visual and physical. Native Americans, for example, recorded their tribal past and individual achievements through oral traditions, through images and artefacts, and through dance. Our society stresses literacy as the key, but in doing so has relegated other forms of expression and response - forms of expression that are beyond the rational, but not, I'd suggest, irrational.

Wisdom implies both 'objective' knowledge and experiential - or existential - knowledge. Our education system certainly favours the former, which is easier to transfer and to measure. The current emphasis on marketable skills weighs against experience and the subjective, which resist codification and quantification. It downgrades the arts and humanities. It overlooks at best, derides at worst, imagination and creativity. (The argument that the 'creative industries' contribute significantly to the UK economy is useful, but skews the real value of creativity.)

A range of practical skills is necessary for survival. Most of us are now distanced from an understanding of how to provide food and shelter. We rely on a highly complex network of skills to maintain an existence that we take for granted, and generally have only the vaguest notion of the origins and journeys taken by our food, our water, gas and electricity, our clothes, and the multiplicity of gadgetry that clutters our lives. We don't know how Google finds the information we seek or where the shit goes when we flush the loo. This lack of connection is part of modern life, part of what 'lived experience' is for us. You can argue that in the 21st century 'being' is as much about the disconnection intrinsic to the mundane business of daily life as it is about feeling and expression.

The Enlightenment was practical as well as intellectual. It involved engaging with observed facts and experimenting with cause and effect. As a crucible of new and applied ideas it was creative - you can't have innovation without creativity. As life gets increasingly more complicated, as we struggle to define and connect its complexities, the need for creative thought becomes not just increasingly important but perhaps urgent. Creativity is a conduit for spiritual as well as inventive energy. It can translate 'the joy of being' - and much else - into language, colour, sound, shape, movement - and share these responses. It interprets the world we observe and experience and opens doors into further worlds. But it can't function without imagination. We need to acknowledge, through our education system and in our individual and community lives, the essential role the imagination plays in helping us to relate to the contexts in which we live and to find our place within them.

'Being' is not enough. We need actively to foster and nurture imagination and the means of expression. We need to provide environments where the imagination can flourish, where adults and children can both give and receive its benefits. Imagination is what makes us human. Without it and the expressiveness that it fuels, society is sterile.

To suggest a dislocation between 'rational thought' and 'lived experience' is perhaps not entirely helpful. But to move beyond 'the art of wisdom' to 'the arts of wisdom' - that might get us somewhere.

Jenni Calder will be speaking at this year's HowTheLightGetsIn, the world's largest philosophy and music festival held in association with the Huff Post UK. The festival will host a strand of "ValuesQuest" talks organised by the Club of Rome. For more information, see www.howthelightgetsin.org