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Review of "Wisdom, Intuition and Ethics"

By Trevor Curnow
Ashgate, 1999
Review by Peter B. Raabe Ph.D. on Mar 14th 2002
Wisdom, Intuition and Ethics

The aim of this book is  “to take a fresh look at the possibilities of ethical intuitionism”  (1).  The author begins with a sense of dissatisfaction with present day morality, and with the belief that philosophy seems to have abandoned wisdom.   His book is an attempt to rescue ethical intuitionism, and to describe how it connects with or reflects the perennial, but perpetually shifting, concept of wisdom.  Curnow does this by discussing how wise ethical decisions-making is affected by a number of seemingly disparate elements such as perception, faith, knowledge, the relationship between the body and mind, consciousness, Freud’s conception of the unconscious, and Jung’s claims for mysticism.

Curnow offers a sweeping but solid examination of both western and non-western traditions of thought, and follows these from ancient times to the present day.  In the first section titled  “The History of Wisdom” Curnow takes his reader on an exploration of what constitutes knowledge from early Egypt and Israel to Greece to Medieval Christianity and on to the modern age. 

In the second section titled  “The Nature of Wisdom” he discusses the concepts of self-knowledge, detachment, integration, and transcendence, each from three different perspective:  from the western tradition, from the eastern tradition, and finally from psychology.  In this section he draws on westerners Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Roberto Assagioli, Abraham Maslow, and Ken Wilber, and easterners Ramana Maharishi, Dogen, and Wang Yang-ming.

In the third and final section Curnow discusses various topics such as perception, emotion, good and evil, and the sage in terms of what he calls  “the new intuitionism.”   Here he tackles the problem of how to explain an ethical sensibility among common individuals if one accepts the stereotypical wise person or sage as the primary possessor of the wisdom necessary for ethical intuition.  Curnow’s main conclusion seems to be that  “the new intuitionism is elitist, but I see this as a potential strength rather than a weakness” (310).  Along the way Curnow comes to a number of unsurprising minor conclusions, such as, for example, that some people have a more acute sense of perception than others, and that those with a “higher” sense of perception can teach those with a “lower” perceptive sense how to improve theirs.  He also examines what he terms a “higher” and “lower” emotional sense and reasoning capacity, and analogizes these with different levels of ethical sensibility.  But while this two-tiered argument for perception, emotion, reason, and ethical wisdom seems rather self-evident, much can be learned from this section, and indeed this entire book, by noting the process of his argument construction. 

While this book does not pretend to have the final answer regarding the interrelationship between wisdom, intuition, and ethics, it is a solid introduction to discussion in this area.  Curnow’s research is impressive, and his effort to synthesize the various elements is commendable.  Anyone with an interest in how both western and eastern traditions of knowledge come to bear on our ethical intuitions will find this book informative. 


© 2002 Peter B. Raabe

Peter B. Raabe teaches philosophy and has a private practice in philosophical counseling in North Vancouver, Canada. He is the author of the book Philosophical Counseling: Theory and Practice (Praeger, 2001).