A Few Words About…The Distinction Between Wisdom and Knowledge

I was thinking recently about the distinction between knowledge and wisdom. Some people confuse the two, which is a huge mistake. As always, I begin with some relevant quotes, and there are a few more quotes than usual, so stick with me here.

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems

“Human knowledge had become too great for the human mind. All that remained was the scientific specialist, who know “more and more about less and less,” and the philosophical speculator, who knew less and less about more and more. The specialist put on blinders in order to shut out from his vision all the world but one little spot, to which he glued his nose. Perspective was lost. “Facts” replaced understanding; and knowledge, split into a thousand isolated fragments, no longer generated wisdom.” Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy

“To wisdom belongs the intellectual apprehension of eternal things; to knowledge, the rational knowledge of temporal things.” St. Augustine

“Patience is the companion of wisdom.” St. Augustine

“To know what we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, this is true knowledge.” Nicolaus Copernicus

“To know, is to know you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge.” Socrates

“It is not lawful or proper for you to know everything.” Lucian

“It is much better to know something about everything than to know everything about one thing.” Blaise Pascal

“Useful knowledge is great support for intuition.” Charles B. Rogers

“When a man’s knowledge is not in order, the more of it he has the greater will be his confusion.” Herbert Spencer

“There is a thing called knowledge of the world which people do not have until they are middle aged. It is something that cannot be taught to younger people because it is not logical and does not obey laws which are constant. It has no rules.” Theodore H. White

“A prudent question is one-half of wisdom.” Sir Francis Bacon

“Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers.” Calvin Coolidge

“Knowledge is proud that he has learned so much; wisdom is humble that he knows no more. William Cowper

“Science gives us knowledge, but only philosophy can give us wisdom.” Will Durant

“Wisdom is knowing when to speak your mind and when to mind your speech.” Evangel

“Knowledge without wisdom is double folly.” Baltasar Gracian

“Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, be fortified by it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.” Herman Hesse

“It is the province of knowledge to speak, and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.” Oliver Wendell Holmes

“The wisdom of the wise is an uncommon degree of common sense.” William Ralph Inge

“Knowledge without wisdom is a load of books on the back of an ass.” Japanese proverb

The above quotes make clear beyond cavil that there is a large difference between wisdom and knowledge. Knowledge seems easier to define, while wisdom is a little more difficult to pin down. What exactly is wisdom? Is it like the famous judicial definition of pornography, i.e., you know it when you see it? That’s not really a satisfactory answer.

Clearly, the quotes above demonstrate that it’s possible to have knowledge without wisdom. Is the converse also true, i.e., it’s possible to have wisdom without knowledge? I believe that it is. Is this true because knowledge can be easily imparted from one to another, while wisdom as such can’t be?

We can load computers with knowledge, but can we teach them to be wise? I’m not sure, but I doubt it, although the world of artificial intelligence is certainly challenging my conclusion. While I do believe that computers can be taught to think critically, I just don’t think that they can be imbued with wisdom. There seems to be an experiential aspect of wisdom. Yet some very wise decisions are made daily without much experience, so that’s not a wholly satisfactory answer either.

Is Will Durant correct that in our meta-complex world of dizzying data, knowledge no longer produces wisdom? Is there a hierarchy here, i.e., is it a pyramid of sorts? If so, it begins at the bottom with data, which can range from gobbledygook to actual information, which is the second lowest level in the pyramid. In grad school, we used to say if you torture the data long enough, it will confess to whatever you want it to say. You know, garbage in garbage out.

Information requires analysis and organization of data in order to draw conclusions or to make inferences about the data. Information takes data and provides some context or explanation of it.

Now, armed with information, how is wisdom generated? We have come back full circle: what exactly is wisdom? To start, some people are armed with lots of knowledge but little wisdom. As Baltasar Gracian so eloquently and concisely stated above, knowledge without wisdom is double folly. As did the Japanese proverb quoted above.

Is Theodore H. White correct that wisdom requires life experiences? I concur in part and dissent in part. In my opinion, some people’s experience just doesn’t generate wisdom. Therefore, while there may be an experiential component to wisdom, it is not linear, and, in fact, for some it may be nonexistent. However, I will concede that life experiences may play a role in wisdom, although it may be possible to learn some lessons from those who have failed in the past.

Many of us, particularly those who endured law school, are familiar with the often maddening, hide the ball nature of the Socratic Method, where one seeks truth by asking a series of pointed and piercing questions. Is Socrates correct in that to know means that you know that you know nothing?

I disagree with Socrates here, and I believe that as long as the person is humble about the limits of his or knowledge and understands that no one can know everything, that suffices. I do agree with Socrates and with Sir Francis Bacon that the ability to ask good questions is inextricably intertwined with wisdom. I also agree with Oliver Wendell Holmes that wise people possess above average listening skills.

Does wisdom involve mere common sense, as William Ralph Inge posits? I don’t have any data to support this, but in my experience, wise people usually exhibit a significant amount of common sense. Therefore, I posit that there is a common sense component of wisdom. But I submit that wisdom is more than mere common sense. In my experience, wise people also possess high Emotional Quotients (also known as EQ, as opposed to mere IQ).

Clearly, the world would greatly benefit if the level of human wisdom increased. Therefore, can wisdom be taught? Or are Theodore H. White and Herman Hesse correct that wisdom cannot be taught? I wouldn’t go that far and believe that we can shorten the wisdom accumulation curve through education and close observation, but I do think that there is some ethereal component of wisdom that cannot be taught.

What else can be said about wisdom? Is there a perspective aspect of wisdom. Clearly, there is a time and a place to release one’s wisdom. I agree with Evangel that wise people pick the right time, place and context to impart their wisdom. Sometimes, people aren’t ready to hear your wisdom at a particular time. A wise person perceptibly knows this and demurs. Does one have to study philosophy in order to be wise, as Will Durant contends? I don’t think so, but I concede that the study of philosophy can shorten the length of time prior to attaining wisdom.

Finally, we can’t be wise about everything, as Lucian concludes.

Therefore, we can say that knowledge aids wisdom, but the two are not the same. Wisdom is acquired by thinking about the state of the knowledge of some subject in order to draw inferences and deductions about organized data.

In conclusion, while we strive for knowledge, we should yearn for wisdom.






About lpaulhoodjr

I am an inactive lawyer who practiced almost 20 years as a tax and estate planning lawyer. Today, I am a speaker, author and consultant on tax and estate planning. In the recent past, I was the Director of Planned Giving for The University of Toledo Foundation. I am the co-author of six books, the sole author of another book and a frequent speaker and writer on estate planning, planned giving and business valuation.
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