Philosophy of Wisdom Research Paper

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Wisdom is not a central topic of contemporary philosophy.   Today’s  philosophers seem  to  confirm Nietzsche’s observation: ‘When philosophers meet among  themselves  they  start  casting  off all sorts  of wonderful rubbish; above all … they hang up ‘‘the love of  wisdom’’  like  stuffy  robes  of  office’  (Nietzsche 1980a, p. 511). Common  sense, on the contrary, still expects wisdom to be provided by philosophy, and the discipline’s social reputation is partly  based  on  this expectation.  But as contemporary philosophy  seems scarcely inclined or able to fulfill this demand,  common sense draws on forms of wisdom from nonoccidental cultures or from esoterics. While ‘wisdom’ is a term rarely used in contemporary philosophy,  the literature about wisdom from the esoteric and the anthropological–cultural side is flourishing.

There is nothing  wrong with sensing deficiencies in the academic field and turning to other sources instead. Yet in the second part of this article I will demonstrate that  contemporary philosophy  can in fact provide  a great  many elements of wisdom appropriate for our times.  The  first  part  is devoted  to  an  accurate  reconstruction of the main historical turns in the philosophical understanding of wisdom.

1.    Philosophy—A  Concept Introduced By Plato

As is commonly known, philosophy is related through its name  to  wisdom:  ‘philo-sophy’  (in Greek:  philosophia) means ‘love of wisdom’ or ‘quest for wisdom’ (in  Greek:  sophia). But  this  concept  of  philosophia corresponds neither  to the original  understanding of philosophical thinking  nor  to  that  of  wisdom.  The concept of philosophia was first created by Plato in the first half of the fourth  century BC.

1.1    The Pre-Platonic Understanding Of Philosophy And Wisdom

Philosophers before Plato  neither  deployed  the term ‘philosophy’ nor described their enterprise with respect to wisdom (sophia). Rather, they characterized their doctrines  as ‘histories’. Moreover,  the Greek  under-standing of wisdom—as paradigmatically expressed in the  topical  talk  of  the  ‘Seven  Sages  of  Greece’— focused  on  practical,  not  theoretical  knowledge.  In everyday language, a wise person was just an expert of some  kind   or  other   (a  craftsman,   artist,   doctor, military  leader  etc.); in order  to  be included  in the catalogue of the Seven Sages his work had, in addition, to be of extraordinary political relevance. So Thales, the only ancient philosopher ever to figure among the Seven  Sages,  was  included  in  this  group  not  as  a philosopher, but as an astronomer and engineer who brought  military    success   to   his   community    by predicting an eclipse and redirecting  a river.

1.2    Plato’s Turn

What, then, is the specific sense of Plato’s introduction of the concept of philo-sophia—an innovation so successful that his concept is commonly taken to be the concept of philosophy  altogether?

Three shifts are characteristic. First, the emphasis in the understanding of sophia as well as philosophia is put on theory instead of praxis. Philosophers observe the nature of things not for the sake of practical usage but  for that  of pure  cognition.  The new concept  of philosophy is strictly opposed to the old practical aims of  sophia. Second,  a  border  line  is drawn  between philosophy  and wisdom: philosophers can only strive for wisdom—without ever actually reaching wisdom. This is why philosophy  is defined as philo-sophy (lo e of wisdom), not as wisdom proper (sophia). ‘Philosophy’ implies an element of modesty and limitation. Thirdly,  this limitation  cannot  be overcome— complete  wisdom  is reserved  for the Gods  only.  By philosophizing we do not surpass philosophy to actual wisdom.

1.3    Strategic Implications

Plato’s innovation was directed  not  only against  the traditional and the everyday understanding of wisdom but  above all against  his contemporary competitors, the Sophists. In everyday language at Plato’s time—where compositions with ‘philo’ had long since become popular—‘philosophizing’ (philosophein) was a term without any extravagant meaning; it just meant studying, educating oneself, being inclined to reflective activity.  So  Plato’s  declaration that  wisdom  is impossible for humans  and  reserved to the Gods  alone discredited not only the mythical Seven Sages but also his  compatriots’ devotion   to  philosophical  activity and above all the Sophists,  who at the time of Plato roved from city to city offering, for payment, lessons in rhetoric,   virtue,  poetry,  mathematics, music  or  astronomy. As their name (Sophists) indicates, they were considered to be bearers of wisdom (sophia). The idea that  they were in fact  frauds—Plato was constantly trying to discredit the Sophists as dealers in fake knowledge, and as being the morally and intellectually dubious counterparts of the real philosopher—was the logical result of Plato’s redefinition: If wisdom is altogether  unattainable for humans,  then the Sophists who  masquerade as  teachers  of  wisdom,  must  obviously be frauds.

2.    Philosophy’s Claim To Represent True Praxis And Wisdom

The   introduction  of   modesty   and   limitations   in matters of wisdom with the new concept of philosophy was an efficient strategy in distancing the Sophists, but once  this  was  achieved  the  proponents of  the  new concept  soon turned  to more ambitious  claims. Philosophy was successively considered capable of representing  the utmost  fulfillment  of both  practical and theoretical  wisdom.

2.1    Philosophical Theory As The Highest Praxis

The move from a practical  to a theoretical  emphasis was  meant   as  an  empowerment   of  philosophy   in matters   of  true  praxis.  The  traditional concept  of praxis, so characteristic of the original understanding of wisdom, was criticized for having in fact provided only a concept  of pragmatic  utility, one ignoring  the very kind of praxis pertaining  to the full accomplishment  of  human  life. This  higher  and  true  sense of praxis was to be fulfilled precisely by philosophy in the new sense of theoretical  activity. This tendency is obvious  already  in Plato,  who  always  conceived  of philosophy as the best way of human life, with respect to both the philosophizing individual and societies complying  with  philosophical insights.  Aristotle  (in his emphatic  eulogy of theory  in Nicomachean Ethics X,  7–9) declared  the  theoretical   life to  be  the  best and highest form of human  praxis and life altogether. Significantly  enough,  he explained  the supremacy  of theoretical  life by contrasting its self-sufficiency with the purposeful  orientation of ordinary practical  life: according  to  him,  philosophical theory  is the  only activity ‘loved for its own sake; for nothing arises from it apart  from the contemplating, while from practical activities we gain more or less apart  from the action.’

2.2    Philosophy As Wisdom Proper

Although Plato  had  initially  declared  wisdom  to  be reserved  for the Gods,  he made  the border  between human philosophy and divine wisdom permeable. Ultimately philosophizing  should result in a homoiosis theo, a ‘becoming like the divine’ (Plato,  Theiatetos, 176 b 1 f). Aristotle  definitely  dropped  the Platonic reserve. According to him, philosophy and wisdom are one—his appraisal  of philosophical theoria in Nicomachean Ethics X, 7–9 is one of sophia. In theoretical  life, he says, we realize ‘the divine in our midst’  and   hence  our   ‘true  Self’.  With   Aristotle, ‘philosophia’ is no  longer  a modest  term  inferior  to sophia. Hegel’s  phrase  that  philosophy   should  ‘lay aside  the  title  ‘‘lo e  of  knowing’’  and   be  actual knowing’ (Hegel 1977, p. 3) is Aristotelean in spirit.

3.    Reaccentuating The Practical

3.1    Theory’s Open Flank

But philosophy’s effort to completely absorb the older practical  aspects of wisdom has an open flank. In his theoretical  attitude  the philosopher may well possess the utmost  theoretical  knowledge—but this is not to possess all kinds of knowledge: genuinely practical insight,  ethical  knowledge  and  situational prudence (phronesis) are  lacking.  And,  although theory  may represent the highest form of praxis, it cannot as such replace all forms of praxis. Hence, specifically practical knowledge—lying  outside  theoretical   sophia— requires respect and clarification in addition. This applies all the more, given that practical knowledge is (as, quite properly, Aristotle was the first to demonstrate) of an intrinsically different type from theoretical knowledge. So the new concept of philosophical theory,  as impressive as it may be, remains in need of supplementation. Genuinely practical  knowledge (which is so decisive for all our everyday orientation) requires a different approach.

3.2    Hellenistic And Roman Philosophy: The Return Of The Sage As A Practical Expert

Following   Greek   philosophy’s   classical  period,   a return  to conceiving the sage as an expert in practical matters  took  place  in  Hellenistic  and  Roman   philosophy  (with  the  Epicureans  and  Stoics).  The  sage once again  became  a figure of outstanding practical knowledge  and  exemplariness,  knowing  how to lead the best life. From  now on wisdom  was seen as the archetype  of accomplished  living. Theoretical  capacities were to serve this goal.

This  understanding of  wisdom  prevailed  even  in modern  times. So Montaigne defined the sage as someone who appreciates  that ‘our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately’ (Montaigne 1958, p. 851). Kant  too  still declared  that  ‘the teacher  of wisdom through doctrine and example,’ ‘the practical philosopher,’  ‘is the real philosopher’  (Kant  1992, p. 537).  Even  today  we still  expect  a  wise person  to embody the right mode of human  living.

4.    Middle Ages

The  Christian   philosophy   of  the  Middle  Ages  had trouble  with wisdom. In the Bible the wisdom of this world had been declared to be foolishness before God (Paul, 1 Cor. 3:19; similar  1 Cor. 1:20 and  Romans 1:22). This did, on the one side, have its advantages over pagan thinking, but on the other side it also called into   question   the   very   possibility   of   reasonable reflection  and  hence  of  Christian  philosophy altogether.  At the least it imposed severe limitations. Some philosophers tried to settle the conflict by developing the doctrine of ‘double truth.’ But distrust of purely human knowledge—be it wisdom, reason or science—prevailed. Luther was later to renew the accusation  that  reason  is ‘the devil’s whore’ (Luther 1964, p. 164, cf. also Luther  1967, p. 82).

5.    Philosophy In League With Science—Not With Wisdom

In modern  times, philosophy’s  ally has been science not wisdom. When philosophers, occasionally, do still use the term ‘wisdom’ what they actually have in mind is science. So Descartes  uses ‘wisdom’ as just another name for the sum total  of science (Descartes  1998, p. 65). Even Kant,  though  affording  wisdom the highest rank,  emphasizes  that  ‘science … is the narrow  gate that  leads to the doctrine of wisdom’  (Kant  1993, p. 171). Husserl was to resume this modern emphasis on science instead  of wisdom  by declaring  ‘science has spoken, from now on wisdom has the task of learning’ (Husserl 1965, p. 63).

6.    Modern Philosophy’s Practical Intentions

But modern philosophy has a strong practical side too. It  comes  in two  flavors:  as  technical  purposiveness along the lines of science, and as moral-practical orientation taking up older elements of wisdom.

6.1    Technical–Practical Side

From   the  start   modern   science  was  addressed   to technical  ends. It was in this respect that  Bacon and Descartes commended it. Marx then claimed that philosophy  should  become altogether  practical—and thus realize itself by vanishing as philosophy.  Even if this project has failed, the prospect of technically reshaping  reality has proven widely successful.

6.2    Moral–Practical Side

Complementary to  this scientific-technical  strain,  to which wisdom is irrelevant,  practical  aspects  of wisdom survive in modern  philosophy’s other strain,  the practical  one devoted to ethics and morals. It is here, if anywhere, that ‘wisdom’ can be a substantial term in modern  times.  Descartes  had  already  conceived  of ethics as ‘the final stage of wisdom’ (Descartes 1983, p. XXIV), and Kant,  having defined wisdom as ‘the idea of the practical use of reason’s complete conformity to law’ (Kant  1983), afforded  this practical  wisdom the highest  rank,   declaring   ‘the  practical   philosopher’ to be ‘the real philosopher’ (Kant 1992, p. 537). In the moral-practical respect wisdom retains the highest esteem.

Enlightenment philosophers, as well as their opponents, agreed that  true morality—and by consequence wisdom in its practical sense—is the most important thing  for  us humans.  Rousseau  certainly emphasized,  in  contrast   to  Kant,   the  simplicity  of moral knowledge, but even this claim to simplicity was shared by a great many philosophers of the Enlightenment. In  this  they  could  even  see the  great advantage of practical  over theoretical  knowledge: ‘It took centuries to know part of nature’s laws. A single day suffices to recognize man’s duties.’ (Voltaire 1967, p. 342) With respect to this simplicity distinguishing practical  wisdom, Wolff, D’Holbach and Voltaire proclaimed Confucius, the exemplary ‘simple sage’, to have been the wisest person ever.

But obviously this modern line of revalidating practical  wisdom  was not  very fortunate. Why  else would we feel disoriented  and lament  the absence of wisdom appropriate to our times and problems?

7.    Protest Against Wisdom—Nietzsche

In the course  of time modern  philosophers came to protest  more and more against  all traditional understanding  of wisdom. Nietzsche is the most prominent example.

He generally suspected the traditional ideal of wisdom to have been simply a symptom of weakness. The old philosophers’  ‘claim that they possessed wisdom’ appears to him to have always been ‘a screen behind which the philosopher saves himself because he has become weary, old, cold, hard—as  a premonition that  the end is near,  like the prudence  animals  have before they die: tey go off by themselves, become still, choose solitude, hide in caves, and become wise’ (Nietzsche  1974, p. 315). The Stoic is the  paradigm case for  Nietzsche.  His  wisdom  consists  in  making himself insensible of the tensions of life and acquiring an armor-plated attitude. Hence Nietzsche’s ruthless formula: ‘The stoic type. Or: the perfect ox’ (Nietzsche 1980b, p. 125).

The attitude  of the ‘genuine philosopher’  would, in Nietzsche’s opinion,  be completely different: he ‘lives ‘‘unphilosophically’’  and  ‘‘unwisely,’’ above  all  imprudently,   and  feels the  burden  and  the  duty  of  a hundred  attempts and  temptations of life—he risks himself constantly, he plays the wicked game’ (Nietzsche 1989, p. 125). ‘The wisest person  would be the richest in contradictions, who has, at it were, organs of touch  for all kinds of person:  and  in their  midst  his great moments  of grandiose  harmony—in us too the lofty coincidence!’ (Nietzsche 1980a, p. 182).

Ultimately, however, ‘wisdom’ remains an improper expression   in  Nietzsche’s  view—it  is  too   strongly impregnated by its traditional meanings.  Only  in a critical manner can we still refer to or draw on wisdom. The  first  possibility   is  exemplified  by  Nietzsche’s phrase:  ‘There is more  reason  in your  body,  than  in your  best  wisdom.’  (Nietzsche   1966,  p.  146)  The second is represented  by a striking claim of Nietzsche: ‘My  wisdom  has  long  gathered   like  a  cloud;  it  is becoming stiller and darker.  Thus does every wisdom that is yet to give birth to lightning bolts … For these men of today I do not wish to be light, or to be called light. These I wish to blind. Lightening of my wisdom! put out their eyes!’ (Nietzsche 1966, p. 401).

Languid wisdom or lightning wisdom, wisdom as a sedative or as dynamite—this is Nietzsche’s alternative in matters  of wisdom.  If wisdom  is referred  to,  one should be on one’s guard as to which type of wisdom is involved.

8.    Epistemological Contours

8.1    Shifting From Practical To Theoretical Philosophy

The disappointment with contemporary philosophy’s neglect  of  wisdom  is flawed  by  one-sidedness.  One assumes elements of wisdom must be found in the field of practical philosophy, where it would indeed be hard to discover any. Conversely, however, insights of contemporary theoretical  philosophy  provide  a great many elements giving contours to a contemporary concept  of wisdom.  My  thesis is that  the  design  of wisdom today is to be drawn from the epistemological development  in recent decades.

8.2    Recent Insights: Theoretical Reason With The Characteristics Of Practical Reason

Shifting to epistemology  in matters  of contemporary wisdom makes all the more sense given that in recent decades theoretical reason has been shown to be characterized by traits  formerly considered  typical of practical  reason  alone.  Since Aristotle  the difference between the two types of reason had been considered fundamental: theoretical  reason considers permanent things, whereas practical reason deals with changeable things. Correspondingly, theoretical  reason  demands distance and provides perfect cognition, whereas practical reason requires involvement and allows only context-dependent cognition.  In recent decades, however, theoretical  reasoning has been shown to bear the same basic traits as practical reasoning: theoretical cognition  too  represents  relative,  not  absolute  cognition; it too is context-bound and its validity is tied to specific (axiomatic, historical, social, etc.) frameworks. In short, theoretical reasoning also exhibits the characteristics   of  practical  reasoning.  This  explains why  the  shape   of  contemporary  wisdom   can  be inferred from innovations on the theoretical  side.

9.    Elements Of Modern Epistemology Relevant For A Contemporary Concept Of Wisdom

As this view is unusual,  I will set out in the following the relevant elements in some detail.

9.1    From Nietzsche To Quine: The Uncertainty Of Fundaments

Nietzsche  can  be  regarded   as  a  forerunner of  the contemporary condition  in having  pointed  out  that our  theoretical  cognition  is of a piece with practical and  pragmatic  cognition:  ‘one may certainly  admire man as a mighty genius of construction, who succeeds in piling up an infinitely complicated dome of concepts upon  an  unstable  foundation, and,  as  it  were,  on running water. Of course, in order to be supported by such a foundation, his construction must be like one constructed of spiders’ webs: delicate  enough  to  be carried  along by the waves, strong  enough  not to be blown apart by every wind’ (Nietzsche 1979, p. 85). In the twentieth century Neurath said quite similarly, ‘we are like mariners  who must rebuild  their ship on the open sea, without  ever being able to disassemble it in dock and reassemble it with the best components’ (Neurath 1932  3, p. 206). Popper’s  diagnosis  reads: ‘just when we believed that  we were standing  on firm and safe ground,  all things are, in reality, insecure and unstable’  (Popper  1992, p. 65); ‘the basis is unstable’ (Popper  1969, p. 76). Quine later adopted  Neurath’s phrase as the motto  of Word and Object (Quine 1960, p. VII).

9.2    Scientific Pluralism (Quine)

The  inevitability  of scientific pluralism  is a decisive insight  of contemporary epistemology  that  was first formulated by  Quine.  Even  in  the  strong  realm  of science  no   one,   singularly   valid  theory   is  to   be expected, but a multitude  of equally valuable alternative candidates  has to be taken into account.  This is a consequence  of the empirical under-determination of theory shown by Quine in his seminal essay ‘Two Dogmas  of  Empiricism’  from  1951: ‘Total  science, mathematical and  natural and  human,  is … underdetermined  by experience’ (Quine  1980, p. 45). Empirical tests can only tell us that something is in need of being  altered  in  the  theory,  but  not  exactly  which element is to be changed.  ‘Any statement can be held true come what may. Conversely, by the same token, no statement is immune  to revision’ (Quine 1980, p. 43).

In Word and Object (Quine 1960), Quine resolutely drew the consequences of scientific pluralism: ‘we have no  reason  to  suppose  that  man’s  surface  irritations even unto  eternity  admit  of any one systematization that is scientifically better or simpler than all possible others.  It seems likelier … that  countless  alternative theories would be tied for first place’ (Quine 1960, p. 23). ‘We can never do better  than  occupy the stand-point of some theory or other, the best we can muster at the time’ (Quine 1960, p. 22).

9.3    The Impossibility Of Any Meta-Position  (An Insight Common To Hermeneutics, Poststructuralism, And Analytic Philosophy)

This also means that  it is impossible to assume some meta-position which  would  allow  us  to  regard  the multitude of scientific theories from a superior point of view and  select  the  ‘truly  right’  one  among  them. There is no God’s-eye standpoint, no view from nowhere—neither in theoretical  nor in practical matters.  The impossibility  of such a meta-stance  is a decisive insight of recent philosophy  that  is common to all (superficially so variant)  strands:  to Gadamer’s hermeneutics (according to which we cannot achieve a metahistorical standpoint towards  history),  to Lyotard’s  poststructuralism (‘Simplifying to  the  extreme,  I  define  postmodern  as  incredulity   toward metanarratives,’  Lyotard  1984,  p.   xxiv),  and,   of course, to analytic philosophy,  where this insight was first  formulated not  by Quine,  but  by Wittgenstein who declared it his ‘leading principle’ that there is no ‘metaphilosophy’  (Wittgenstein  1974, p. 116).

9.4    Wittgenstein:  Limits Of Justification

Wittgenstein   has  developed  insights  crucial  to  the present understanding of cognition  and also relevant to every conception of contemporary wisdom altogether.

First, Wittgenstein  demonstrated limits of justification with respect to the certainties  of common  sense. These are neither  based on cognition  nor could they ever be secured  by cognitive  justification.  For  these certainties  are  by themselves  constitutive  of all our activities of justification:  ‘All testing, all confirmation and   disconfirmation  of  a  hypothesis   takes   place already within a system. And this system is not a more or less arbitrary and doubtful point of departure for all our arguments: no, it belongs to the essence of what we call an argument. The system is   the element in which arguments  have their life’ (Wittgenstein  1972, p. 16).

Second,  Wittgenstein   showed  how  this  structure affects  all  our  decisions:  ‘Nothing   we  do  can  be defended absolutely and finally. But only by reference to something else that is not questioned’ (Wittgenstein 1984, p. 16). Decisions  necessarily  have  recourse  to something which they take for granted: ‘the questions that  we raise and our doubts  depend on the fact that some propositions are exempt  from  doubt,  are as it were like hinges on  which those  turn’  (Wittgenstein 1972, p. 44). ‘If I want  the door  to turn,  the hinges must stay put’ (Wittgenstein  1972, p. 44).

So  far  this  means  that  not  only  the  validity  of scientific theories  (Quine),  but  also  of our  everyday certainties and all our argumentation cannot  be conclusively secured, they possess only conditional validity.  In the regress of justifications  one does not reach some incontrovertible ground,  but only postulates, which in principle are once again questionable. While admitting good and varied justifiability, there is no such thing as an absolute,  ultimate  justification.

Finally,  Wittgenstein  has also shown  how all this applies even to the whole framework  of justification and argumentation (to ‘rationality’): ‘We can’t talk of reasons for thinking  … We can describe the game of thinking, but not the reasons why we think. ‘‘Reason’’ only applies within a system of rules … It is nonsense to ask for reasons  for the whole system of thought’ (Wittgenstein  1980, p. 88). What  Wittgenstein  wants to draw our attention to is that  the quest for reasons (for  example,  for  reasons  for  the  whole business  of reasoning) suggests leading behind this game, but obviously it does not do so: it asks the very question that typifies this game itself and thus remains within its realm.

Hence there is no possibility  of justification  which absolutely  vouches for itself. This is expressed in the following   sentence   (which,   significantly    enough, sounds  like the dictum  of a sage): ‘You must bear in mind that  the language-game  is so to say something unpredictable. I mean: it is not based on grounds. It is not reasonable  (or unreasonable). It is there—like our life’ (Wittgenstein  1972, p. 73).

10.    Epistemic Contemporariness And Wisdom

These  epistemic   advances,   which  characterize   the present state of affairs in philosophy,  surprisingly also correspond to  contemporary standards of everyday consciousness. The latter is molded to a high degree by the acknowledgment that all validity is relative and by an awareness of the plurality  of modes of experience, cultures, forms of life and even worlds. Owing to this correspondence, the new epistemic philosophical standards are  also  apt  to  serve as maxims  for  contemporary everyday orientation. They match our expectations and needs in matters of wisdom, and they do  so  in  a  manner   specifically  appropriate to  the contemporary situation.

The present understanding of wisdom typically implies circumspection, awareness  of limitation,  and competence  in dealing  with uncertainty. The sage is someone  who  is attentive  to  neighboring  and  commonly neglected aspects. She is aware of the context and brings it to bear regulatively. Whereas an ignorant person  confidently  attributes himself a grasp  of the whole, the wise person objects to such totalization. She recognizes the limited nature of all singular perspectives, is aware of differing viewpoints and attentive to the open potential  for additional alternatives.  She warns against misrecognizing particularities, infringements  and  overbearingness. She advocates  justice at the level of detail and openness on the whole. So the wise person is an expert in uncertainty too. Wisdom is particularly needed in situations  where justice is required with respect to diverging demands  without  a meta-rule   being   available   from   which  one   could deduce the right decision. In these cases, even though it be cognized,  but  only found,  the wise person  will have a sense for what is right. Sometimes, however, it will be important just to fend off the wrong thing while leaving open what’s right. Such composure also distinguishes  the wise person.

Contemporary epistemology, which emphasizes the limits of all justification  and demands  their respect, is thus properly tailored to the aspects of wisdom just set out.   It  inherently   works   towards   a  consciousness which bears traits of wisdom in high measure.

This is why a state of consciousness that has incorporated those epistemic standards and which knows how to practice  them can provide  orientation for our  time and  satisfy our  demands  in matters  of wisdom.  Whoever   has  made  this  genuinely  philosophical possibility her own will be in no great need of extra-philosophical and esoteric doctrines  of wisdom that have become so popular in recent years.


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