Wisdom and Knowledge

Gauri Deák

What is the difference between knowledge and wisdom?


There are multiple methods for examining differences between disparate concepts. The word difference itself may have several connotations, based on their source. They can stem from mathematical, cultural, perceptual or other ways of thinking.

One way of comparing the two concepts is to examine their source or origin. There are multiple types of knowledge, each of which has a different source. Inductive, deductive, logical and mathematic knowledge are based on reasoning, a priori knowledge on rational intuition, experiential knowledge on perception, semantic knowledge on inherent ability and moral knowledge on a combination of perception, intuition and reason or as the supporters of emotivism (Ayer), prescriptivism (Hare) and expressivism (Gibbard) argue, on some completely noncognitive source. In general, “among the basic sources of knowledge and justification are perception, testimony, reason and inference” (Bernecker 326).

On the other hand, the sources of wisdom are difficult to identify. Difficulties arise because of two reasons. The first reason relates to the lack of an established and widely accepted epistemic definition. It would be quite unwise to pursue the origin of an indeterminate concept. The second reason concerns the following question: Is wisdom an active innate ability with varying rates of activity in different minds, a latent innate ability that can be discovered in each individual and developed or an ability that can be acquired externally and taught?

One may always refer to the traditional model presented by R. Ackoff – the DIKW pyramid. This model arranges data, information, knowledge and wisdom into a systematic hierarchy that tends upwards according to their level of abstraction. Ackoff’s model states that wisdom is obtained from knowledge, knowledge is obtained from information and information is obtained from data. On the other hand, an opposing model constructed by Illka Tuomi says that wisdom and knowledge encourage us look for information and data, which sets the flow of the pyramid in the opposite direction.

Revisionists question both models and have constructed a revised model of the pyramid, which flows in both directions and strives to be context specific, incorporating sensory learning, insight, analysis, intelligence and organisational learning. In accordance with the revised model, Jennex describes knowledge as: “information that has been culturally understood such that it explains the how and the why about something or provides insight and understanding into something” and wisdom as “placing knowledge into a framework or nomological net that allows the knowledge to be applied to different and not necessarily intuitive situations” (6). In other words, these definitions suggest that knowledge comes hand in hand with understanding while wisdom comes hand in hand with judgement.

The DIKW model represents the existence of hierarchy and correlation between wisdom and knowledge. Examining the sources of wisdom becomes easier if we adopt the definition of interrelation that the DIKW model stands for. In essence, since wisdom and knowledge are interrelated, wisdom becomes a type of knowledge, or in fact, a meta-combination of theoretical and practical knowledge, which express themselves in the form of judgement. This corresponds with the definition put forward by Socrates, the twofold virtue theory of sophia (theoretical wisdom) and phronesis (practical wisdom). The theory holds the word virtue, which we shall examine later.

In the meanwhile, the DIKW model and twofold theory do not answer whether wisdom is inherent or acquired. If we consider the two-direction revised model, then knowledge is either acquired from information or somehow inferred from existing wisdom. On the other hand, wisdom is not marginalized by two concepts in the pyramid (being on the peak) but only by one. The pyramid merely suggests its interrelation with knowledge.

The differences between the sources of wisdom and knowledge can be discerned upon closer inspection of the human brain and its mechanisms. Surprisingly and quite opposite to philosophical thought, definition and categorization, when studying brain mechanisms, knowledge becomes complex and unfathomable while the explanation of wisdom comes within reach.

The neural mechanisms of knowledge are complex and diverse mostly owing to the diversity of knowledge itself. Some forms of knowledge accumulate and are stored by the brain. Episodic memories which contribute to perceptual knowledge are stored in the hippocampus while motor knowledge necessary for movement and coordination is stored in the cerebellum. Knowledge retrieval mechanisms are complex and are believed to involve primary sensory regions in relation with multimodal convergence areas.

Other types of knowledge involve reasoning rather than memory (for example inductive, deductive, logical and mathematic knowledge). These are far more difficult to describe in terms of brain activity. For example, inductive knowledge is believed to be the result of yet unspecified spatiotemporal centric thinking mechanisms. In other words, research and experiments suggest that it involves the co-dependency of multiple brain regions.

Wisdom combines both memory retrieval and reason. (It should be noted that memory does not equal just long term memory. A person suffering from long-term memory loss can still retain their wisdom.) Goldberg writes that: “As we age, we accumulate generic memories, which allow us increasingly to employ shortcut problem-solving skills to escape the grinding mental work required to crack new mental challenges, and to condense it into pattern recognition” (25). (It is then no coincidence that old people have been named wise rather than children.)  Unlike with knowledge, memory and reasoning required for wisdom stem from neural activity in the frontal lobes of the brain. Each frontal lobe functions according to the activity ratio of the its respective cerebral hemisphere. Wisdom (and incidentally, creativity as well) emerge from the unified work of both the right and left hemisphere.

The question has now been answered because it is apparent that wisdom is a latent inherent quality, which can be developed as the brain trains itself in pattern-recognition and improves its intuition and judgement over time. Whether the potency of this quality is equal in all individuals is a different question altogether. So neurologically, knowledge is quite different from wisdom because it is stored or inferred in the brain through multiple centric neural pathways while wisdom is obtained from neural processing in the frontal lobes.

We can now return to the word virtue and its significance in comparing knowledge and wisdom. Socrates, Sharon Ryan, Robert Nozick and Richard Garrett stand by the definition that wisdom is the “knowledge of how to lead a good life”. Wise people should be able to give advice for the benefit of the greater good. Knowledgeable people are endowed with expertise in specific subjects but they do not have the ability of holistic, wise judgement. This theory suggests that wisdom and knowledge differ in regard to some sort of moral, context-specific cultural connotation.

            Speaking of cultural connotation, definitions of wisdom and knowledge may differ in different contexts simply becauseWisdom and Knowledge of language. The biologist Lewis Thomas writes that: “Separate languages can exist side by side for centuries without touching each other, maintaining their integrity with the vigour of incompatible tissues” (106). This statement points out the irregularity of our definitions in a culturally based global framework. Is it wise to compare concepts, which form the underlying matrix of our very ability to conceptualize if their differences differ in different cultures? Perhaps this question has no answer. It certainly refutes the aim of this essay.

            In conclusion, wisdom and knowledge differ in regard to their position in the hierarchy of concepts in the DIKW pyramid, in regard to their source, since knowledge is acquired and wisdom is inherent (and the knowledge, which is inherent is neurologically incompatible with the source of wisdom), in their moral connotation and in their cultural basis and context-specific application in different perspectives.



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