Tyler Cowen is one of the smartest, most able people I’ve ever known. He’s also among the wisest. I mention his wisdom — sincerely so — because in his recent post at Marginal Revolution on The Libertarian Vice Tyler accurately describes himself as a contrarian.
Being contarian is admirable because it keeps the mind open and exploring; it’s of a piece with one of the finest of all intellectual dispositions: skepticism.
But even a disposition as admirable as contrarianism has its downside — what I might call "the contrarian vice." The contrarian vice is to weigh cleverness too heavily against wisdom.
Not all contrarians commit the contrarian vice; Tyler doesn’t. But the contrarian vice is a hazard of being an accomplished contrarian. Contrarians run great risks of rejecting some piece of wisdom simply because it is widely accepted — and of confusing the possible for the plausible.
I very much like Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s definition of widsom: "To recognize the significant in the factual is wisdom." Not all facts are significant, and most facts come at us in a barrage, raw and unsifted. Knowledge and smarts are important tools to use in organizing facts and in distinguishing the more-relevant and reliable ones from the less-relevant and unreliable ones. But that elusive quality that we call wisdom is also key. Because wisdom is not (in my opinion, anyway) highly correlated with cleverness — unless, perhaps, negatively — and because being contrarian is highly correlated with cleverness, I fear that too many contarians are content to bask in the brilliance of their cleverness even if this brilliance blinds them to wisdom.
But to be contrarian for a moment, I point out that Abelard said that "The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we may come upon the truth."