Knowledge vs. wisdom

Many people mistake knowledge for wisdom because they are intimately related, and this is unfortunate because they are quite different in an important way. Knowledge is the accumulation of facts and information. Wisdom is the synthesis of knowledge and experiences into insights that deepen one’s understanding of relationships and the meaning of life. In other words, knowledge is a tool, and wisdom is the craft in which the tool is used.

If one understands this difference, he or she will also appreciate why it is vital to properly distinguish between the two. With the Internet, it is now relatively easy for a reasonably diligent person to quickly become knowledgeable in virtually any field of his or her choosing. We are literally awash in a sea of information! But having a hammer and knowing how to use it are two entirely different propositions. A hammer is amoral. Whether it is used for good or ill depends entirely on the wielder. Sadly, history is a lengthy record of the harms wrought by knowledgeable, well-meaning people who lacked wisdom.

In contrast to knowledge, wisdom is generally considered to be morally good. Why is this the case? Albert Einstein once said, ‘Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.’ Such a process is lengthy and arduous, which teaches the pursuer patience and humility. Seldom is a person unchanged by such a trial. When one finally uncovers a connection or insight that he or she believes to be universally applicable ‘truth,’ it often inspires awe akin to a spiritual experience.

‘Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers,’ wrote Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Truths stay with a person for the rest of his or her life, coloring all subsequent thoughts and actions. Wisdom requires no law or threat of punishment to ensure compliance. The practitioner typically feels a strong compulsion to obey his or her own beliefs. The wise can still fall prey to indiscretions and questionable moral behavior–being flesh and blood like us all–however, if one tracks such statistics, the odds of such failings are likely to be very small compared to the general populace.

Society esteems the wise for their virtuosity and for their rarity. Subject matter experts number in the thousands, but the wise may only number in the tens or hundreds. And history records their names and achievements for posterity’s sake.

31 thoughts on “Knowledge vs. wisdom

  1. Dear author,

    Wonderful article about knowledge Vs Wisdom. Everybody thought otherwise.
    Beautifully explained with related quotes by Einstein & Alfred,Lord Tennsson. . . So nice.Thank you!

    Regards,
    Henry
    Zonal Chairman_Interact Clubs,
    Rotary International District 3201,
    Coimbatore.

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  2. I found this to be deep and enlightening and it was a succint expression of the thoughts i’ve had without being able to adequately capture them as you have. The first paragraph is eloquent, would you mind if i quote the first paragraph of this on my website and reference your article.

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  3. knowledge tells you, that a tomato is a fruit but wisdom tells you that even though it’s a fruit doesn’t go well in the fruit salad

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  4. Nice presentation. I always have believed that wisdom is a torch you hold on a trek to freedom and truth. It wisdom not knowledge that sets humanity free from its indulgence in what its refer to as reality.

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    1. Wisdom requires knowledge. You have to know how to use a hammer to build a house. But hammering wood together is not the same as designing a house. Wisdom is knowing when to use knowledge and how your knowledge fits together into something bigger.

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  5. I remember I read something by Descarte where he talked about the difference between (I think he used the terms) knowing and imagining. Like you can know a figure has three sides in a mathematical sense. You can do calculations based on the lengths of the sides or the measures of it’s angles etc. But you can also imagine that figure with relative ease; it’s triangle. It’s easy to imagine a triangle.

    You can also know a figure with one thousand sides in the same intellectually distant way, doing calculations and stuff like that, just like you would with the triangle. But when you try to imagine a figure with one thousand sides it’s not really possible. This secondary, more complete and more difficult to achieve mental state is like wisdom.

    Wisdom is an achieved, positive, emotional relationship between a person and the most fundamental boundaries of human life. The measurements of a triangle are what allow us to achieve it’s imagination. In the same way, the knowledge of life’s boundaries, once that knowledge is final, is what allows us to create functional and morally sound solutions to its obstacles. And once we are comfortable with those solutions, then we become comfortable with meaning itself; hence why wise men are always depicted as deliberate, calm, and sort of finally un-rushed human beings. Because they know what’s coming next. And they already know what to do about it and they already know it will work. They can see it now.

    ****Sub question. If society is going to be progressive, then it’s got to be different than it was before. Since wisdom is something that can only be achieved through life experience then doesn’t that mean that wisdom has the potential to work as a regressive or at least stagnating social force? There is no social progress without telling old people that they don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. What do we do with that? HUH SOCRATES! HUH! WHERE’S YOUR PRECIOUS HEMLOCK NOW YOU HAIRY OLD LOSER! I WILL USE YOUR METHOD ON YOU UNTIL YOU BEG FOR DEATH WONT I? WONT I!!!!!!

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    1. Interesting insight, George. I suppose wisdom does have the potential to be regressive or stagnating if one becomes too content and stops learning. But I would hope that a truly wise person knows that the world does not stand still and will continue to learn and adapt his views as needed.

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  6. Yeah I feel like adaptation would be a necessary component in wisdom since change is one of the most fundamental qualities of life. I think that’s the essence of Buddhist insight. Still it seems like wisdom is necessarily a kind of graduated moral correctness, one that must be the result of experience. The thing that I really have a tough time wrapping my head around is this:

    When we talk about what we should do we are making that consideration inside of an accepted circumstance. But in western society one of our primary endeavors is altering human circumstance itself; space travel, genetic modification, technological interconnectedness and the death of privacy etc.

    We can only determine what a good choice is once our options for action are settled, but in a world which is constantly seeking to alter and expand the boundaries in which choices can be made then how can wisdom be a relevant presence in moral activity?

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    1. Quite the dilemma indeed. I too wrestle with this. There are no easy answers. What I try to do when faced with unfamiliar or new situations is to ask myself, “Does this new thing cohere with or add to what I know to be essential or meaningful about life (quality)?” For example, many people assume that social media brings people closer together, but this is not exactly true. Yes, you get to “keep in touch” with people you otherwise wouldn’t see, but what is the quality of that interaction? You only get to see one side of that person: the side he chooses to show you. In effect, aren’t we just watching personal ads then? If everyone is a “friend” then is anyone one? If we augment our bodies to be superhuman and immortal, does this make us better people? If we replace all workers with robots, the economy will be more efficient, but what are the people supposed to do then? Are we really better off as a society?

      Wisdom is distilled experience–what we consider the best or most important parts of life. Perhaps it cannot tell you exactly what to do in a new situation, but it can give you an intuition. If something “feels” odd, I stop and consider. This extra step does slow “progress”, but what is progress without meaning? Is it worth it if we sacrifice what makes us human? Sure, I’ve hesitated and “missed out” on some things. I’ve also made myself do hard things that felt right and been immensely enriched on a personal level.

      Wisdom is not a blueprint–maybe not even a compass. Perhaps it’s only a candle in the dark. Visibility is limited, but at least you will never lose yourself.

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  7. As brilliant as you may have put things. I can’t help but think that you may have struck a nerve with​ some of your reader’s; especially since most people may not know how to separate the two. And I’m sure several people that run with knowledge are a little insulted, because it diminishes their intellectual comprehension. However; it is not so, or they wouldn’t be insulted. I believe that some people don’t acknowledge wisdom in themselves. But we live in a present society where people won’t take time to rationalize most situations, they just want to be right and move on, no matter what the consequences may be. The truth be said; society may have lost the real reality of wisdom. I’m sure there are more people with knowledge running around without wisdom. One only has to look at our world leaders to see that. I’m not saying people don’t have wisdom. I’m saying; most of society don’t stop and use it anymore. This is why most people that are perceived as being wise, are usually just taking a little time to ponder on most situations. As sad as it may be, true wisdom might be a thing of the past. Well as far as someone seeking insight on different situations. When was the last time anyone has ever mentioned any current “Great Thinkers?” Peace and kindness to all.

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  8. For example, if I don’t accept that there is a difference between knowledge and wisdom, how can you persuade me? or what are your arguments? I am writing an argumentative essay on this two topics and need some arguments to support my idea. Thank you.

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    1. You COULD say that wisdom is simply another form of knowledge, or “knowing how to apply/use knowledge”, but this is semantics. Wisdom is commonly understood to be something different than knowledge. Why? Wisdom is linked to positive action. In other words, you have to have some positive effect on the world around you to be considered wise. If you stay in your room all day and read books or surf the internet, you may become the most knowledgeable person on earth but not the wisest. You actually have to leave your room, interact with people, put your knowledge to use somehow to be considered wise. Wisdom is a value judgment, a subjective label people award you. The same knowledgeable person may not be considered wise in two different cultures. Wisdom require more than factual knowledge. It is the application of knowledge in the “appropriate way” given the circumstances.

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