Schwartz and Sharpe on Practical Wisdom, Part I

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Barry Schwartz, Professor of Psychology, and Kenneth Sharpe, Professor of Political Science, recently released their new book Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing.

The Gazette sat down with the professors to discuss their collaboration over the years and the concept of practical wisdom articulated in the book and in many of the courses they teach at Swarthmore. This first section of the interview deals with their past partnership; check back tomorrow for more on the book itself.

According to Schwartz, Professor Sharpe and he have been “friends and intellectual comrades for almost forty years.” The co-authors began their friendship by teaching the course Liberal Individualism at Swarthmore.

Schwartz recounted how, while having a conversation with each other a few years after the course ended, they discussed the idea of doing it again, or something like it.

Instead of reintroducing the course on liberal individualism, both Schwartz and Sharpe decided to teach a course on virtue, and what “[they] came to view as the master virtue: practical wisdom.”

“We started talking about the insights we had come to from teaching [Liberal Individualism] and that eventually led us to the sense that people here under-appreciate the importance of character and virtue. This in turn led us to think well, what about virtue? What about character?” said Schwartz.

This line of thought led them to Aristotle and his ideas on practical wisdom, a subject Sharpe had long been teaching in his political theory class. The decision to collaborate and introduce a course on practical wisdom thus “evolved organically from a long history of thinking, talking and teaching about related issues,” said Schwartz.

Ten years ago, the Practical Wisdom course came to fruition and the two professors opted to teach it together. Sharpe also started teaching a freshman seminar titled Reason, Power, Happiness, which touched on similar ideas and subjects.

Sharpe said that one motivation for teaching the courses was “wanting to make some of these classical ideas that seemed like they were ancient and not useful […] see the relevance they have for life today.” The idea of writing the book, though, came when “one day, like an idiot – I think it was me – I said you know what, we’ve been teaching this, let’s just write a book. What could be easier!” said Schwartz.

The teaching process also fueled this desire, according to Sharpe. He explains, “The class dynamics pushed us further because people asked questions, they had their examples and doubts. This forced us to answer things we hadn’t thought about before and we ended up ultimately writing the book.”

Actually writing the book, though, turned out to be quite a struggle. “When we ask you guys to rewrite and you think it’s a strain to rewrite once or twice, let me tell you — we’re talking like 25-30 times we’ve been through some of these chapters. We could fill a book shelf with these drafts!” said Sharpe.

Unlike many multiple author books, where one person writes the first chapter, and then another person writes a second and so on, their manner of writing was highly collaborative.

Each draft was passed back and forth until both were content with it. “Just so that the book has a single voice, the last pass, for example, would be my effort to take a chapter that started in Ken’s head and make the prose style consistent with other chapters,” said Schwartz.

By the end, Sharpe said that it was sometimes hard to identify who wrote which sentence because of this method.

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