18 February 2021



Topic by Pedro 

(The original title was Knowledge vs Wisdom, but we recently discussed many topics on knowledge.)


Essay by Lawrence


There seems to be a trend in our relationship with nature and the environment in trying to be one step ahead of the basics of survival. Our task in life is precisely to bridge our rudimentary sense perceptions and process them to survive against nature and then move on to live the comfortable life. Cats and dogs are very successful at this strategy for survival.


So we start with sense perceptions, basically raw data that in reality are perceptions that are filtered by the senses. We then move on to decide whether these perceptions are familiar and if not try to familiarise ourselves with these unknown perceptions: the end result ought to be information. At this stage we ought to be able to distinguish between information and white noise. This process should then really lead us to what we call knowledge. We confirm this status that our beliefs about this new information is justified and, therefore, complements our existing knowledge and should be considered as knowledge. We can even categorise our knowledge into nice-to-know and necessary-to-have for practical action. For example, it is quite fun to know that the “Morning star” and the “Evening star” are the same celestial body which we call Venus. But it is necessary to know if someone wants to observe Venus with a telescope.


This long and convoluted route should end in what we call “wisdom”. Wisdom we are told is the difference from living to living the comfortable life. For practical purposes, we can look at this definition of wisdom from the Google dictionary: “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgement; the quality of being wise.” (Google dictionary: wisdom). I want to argue that a necessary condition for wisdom is good judgment. The issue for us to have good judgment is the difference between acting correctly and a lucky strike? How many times do we have to make the right judgement to be considered a wise person? When are we wise and when we have a lucky strike?


Professor Grayling in his public lecture at Lincoln University (1) touches on this issue and his answer is basically thinking: indeed thinking and wisdom have been linked since the classical Greeks. We are familiar with the dictum by Socrates "The unexamined life is not worth living" (2). For our purpose we can interpret “unexamined” (i.e. examined) to involve thinking, but also to “improve”, remembering that the context is the good life.


Aristotle comes even closer to our idea of “good judgement” for example: For men of experience know that the thing is so, but do not know why, while the others know the 'why' and the cause……  Clearly then Wisdom is knowledge about certain principles and causes…..” Metaphysics by Aristotle (3). But consider Socrates (4),”….I seem, then, in just this little thing to be wiser than this man at any rate, that what I do not know I do not think I know either.” (Socrates – Apology). Usually interpreted as “I know that I don’t know”.


Of course, Socrates is not contradicting himself on the grounds that thinking for Socrates is based on the “Socratic method of questioning” (5). Learning by asking questions leads to two important states in our mind so necessary for wisdom. We get to confirm what we know, and we get to know that we don’t know: we might then be motivated to investigate what we don’t know. And there is nothing more motivating that having a need and finding out things to meet that need.


We can, therefore, say that wisdom is first of all our ability to interact with our environment successfully on a regular basis: a lucky strike is not an inductive trend. Questioning is the most effective way of learning-what and leaning-how-to. From this background we are justified in thinking that the life worth living depends on the life that makes us curious and motivated. Of course, there is a weakness here. Since this Socratic Method should, by rights, lead us to new knowledge that knowledge, like all knowledge, is valid in a specific context and not valid for all contexts. A consequence of this is that a successful and wise entertainer is not necessarily also wise to pontificate about the love life of viruses and bacteria.


Wisdom is wisdom in a specific context and, therefore, it is not universalisable over all contexts or even for the same context. This is partially because it is knowledge that is objective and not the thinking process. Consider the Socratic Method for the examined life: this method does not prescribe what questions to ask, but rather that questions ought to be asked.


This does not exclude two persons from reaching the same conclusion for a similar problem, irrespective of whether they have similar knowledge or not. This implies that a wise person A and a wise person B do not necessarily have the same wisdom just because they both arrived at the same conclusion. The common belief that great minds think alike is obviously false: however, great minds think! What we can safely assume is that what we think about a problem is unique to us, and by extension one might argue also how we think about it is unique to us.


In conclusion, a wise person knows when they don’t know, and, therefore, keep their mouth shut: Socrates. And when the wise person knows that they know, they must know both the “what” and the “why”: Aristotle.



1 - "Professor A.C. Grayling: Knowledge, Truth and Wisdom | University of Lincoln" on YouTube https://youtu.be/JPI_4n_QNtc


2 - Plato  Apology (38a5–6 http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0170%3Atext%3DApol.%3Asection%3D38a).


3 - Metaphysics By Aristotle  BOOK I Part 1 http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/metaphysics.mb.txt 


4- Socrates Plat. Apol. 21d  -- Apology http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0170%3Atext%3DApol.%3Asection%3D21d


5 - see for example Socratic Method, Socratic Questioning e.g. in Wikipedia and What is Socratic Questioning at Starting Point-Teaching Entry Level Geoscience https://serc.carleton.edu/introgeo/socratic/second.html  


Best Lawrence


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