Between Knowledge and Wisdom

B L Razdan
“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” (T.S. Eliot) “In pursuit of knowledge, everyday something is gained. In pursuit of wisdom, everyday something is dropped.” (Lao Tzu) “Knowledge is being aware that fire can burn, wisdom is remembering the blister.” (Leo Tolstoy)
There is an old adage that knowledge is not the same as wisdom. Knowledge, gained through studying new information, consists of a rich storage of information. Wisdom, on the other hand, has to do more with the insight, understanding and acceptance of the fundamental ‘nature’ of things in life. “Richest wealth is wisdom. Strongest weapon is patience. Best security is faith. Most effective tonic is laughter and surprisingly all are free.” (APJ Abdul Kalam) The primary difference between the two is that wisdom involves a healthy dose of perspective and the ability to make sound judgment about a subject while knowledge is simply knowing. Knowledge is typically gained through books, research, and delving into facts. Wisdom is “the state of being wise,” which means “having the power of discernment and judging properly as to what is true or right: possessing discernment, judgement, or discretion”
Put more simply, knowledge is composed of facts, information, and skills; wisdom is composed of knowledge, experience, and good judgment.Knowledge gives you the ability to identify whether some fact is true or false; wisdom gives you the ability to discern whether some idea is right or wrong.Knowledge is the acquisition of information and facts; wisdom is the application of the acquired knowledge.Knowledge can be simply acquired through education; wisdom cannot be simply acquired through learning.
Intellectuals and philosophers have tried to define wisdom and differentiate it from knowledge. Michael Witzel and Gavin Flood’s research on Vedas and Upanishads in the context of wisdom, and Catherine A Robinson’s extensive work on the Bhagwad Gita, explains that wisdom is the very spring of life and is life-nourishing, while knowledge is programmed to meet certain goals. The Chhandogya Upanishad describes this phenomenon through the story of Satyakam and Jabala, the essence of which is that a student in the original form is a true seeker of existence. What we learn has to be transcendental, and that we may call as wisdom or a state of supreme knowledge. Knowledge creates memories and wisdom is blossoming of flowers within.
In the Katha Upanishad, the discussion between the boy, Nachiketa, and Yama gives a deeper meaning of wisdom. He tells Yama that those who are unconscious believe you are a reality and those who are conscious know that you are just an appearance. Every child can be described by two words: essence and personality. Essence is individuality and pure nature, while personality is nurtured by society. A simultaneous and balanced growth is needed so that life is centred and not on the periphery. Osho says that Prajna – wisdom – is purity of heart. Knowledge comes from without, wisdom wells up within. Knowledge is borrowed and wisdom is original. He also advises people: ‘Don’t be knowledgeable, be wise.’ Wisdom is pure insight of a seeker, while knowledge is mechanical like a storehouse of memories accumulated over a period of time. Wisdom is born within the seeker and has no external connection, whereas knowledge has no roots within and is acquired from the outside world.
While wisdom and knowledge are apparently synonyms, the other synonyms for either of these words don’t overlap much; and they give more hints at either of these word’s unique meaning. For example, other synonyms for knowledge are ability, awareness, education, expertise, familiarity, grasp; whereas other synonyms for wisdom are caution, experience, foresight, judgment, prudence. Anyone can become knowledgeable about a subject by reading, researching, and memorizing facts. There is a certain correlation between knowledge and wisdom inasmuch as the latter is enhanced by the former. Wisdom is also the ability to use knowledge in a practical and productive manner. Knowledge is often “externally generated,” meaning that it comes primarily from outside sources, such as books, classroom lectures, debates, discussions, videos, etc. whereas wisdom originates from “internal sources,” meaning one’s own introspective thinking, analysis, and judgment. Wisdom cannot be acquired and applied without knowledge, but knowledge isn’t necessarily guided or enhanced by wisdom. “Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.”
(Albert Einstein) “To attain knowledge, add things everyday. To attain wisdom, remove things every day. (Lao Tse)
Knowledge is known as the lowest level of intellectualism, which is the ability to know, recognize, and recall things as in names, numbers, days of the week, colours, words, etc. Children and people who possess limited intelligence have some knowledge.Wisdom is known as the middle level of intellectualism but is considered the most important for living life skilfully and successfully. This form of intellectualism involves the application of knowledge or the ability to apply what you know. In contrast to both of these, understanding is at the top tier of intellectualism. At this level one can articulate and impart one’s knowledge, wisdom, and comprehension to others by analysing, reconfiguring, and assessing information.Oftentimes, wisdom is passed down in cultures in the form of common sayings, philosophical phrases, and quotes, such as aphorisms and proverbs. However, whether such wisdom is absorbed, believed, and applied depends on the individual.
Time affects both knowledge and wisdom, which increase over time, as a person knows more at age 20 than at 10, or is wiser at 50 than at 25. However, time has a more direct correlation with knowledge than with wisdom.It is commonly accepted that a person who spends 20 years studying a topic knows more than someone who has spent only 5 years on the same subject matter. Experiences over time are also a key factor when it comes to wisdom, but the correlation is not so direct. In general, more time equals more knowledge, but more time doesn’t guarantee more wisdom; someone may very well make the same mistake at 60 that he did at 20. The reason for this is that knowledge is often a passive acquisition of data or facts, whereas wisdom requires the additional steps of applying judgment and drawing conclusions or changing behaviour accordingly.
Time can also affect knowledge and wisdom in a negative way, as facts and data can change over time or be forgotten. Wisdom tends to be less negatively affected, though, for once a person is seen as “wise,” they are generally regarded as such indefinitely. However, as wisdom is subjective and context-based, changing times can result in being “out of touch” with the times. For example, in the past, the wise solution to an unwanted pregnancy was a quick marriage, whereas in modern times, a wise solution may entail abortion, adoption, or embracing single parenthood.
Is it better to have wisdom or knowledge? Can you have one without the other? And which comes first? Wisdom and knowledge have quite a bit in common. Both are related to learning and are listed as synonyms for one another in dictionaries and in some situations, they have been used interchangeably.”Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore, get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding” (Proverbs 4: 7); for “Knowledge has a beginning but no end.” (Geeta Iyengar)
(The author retired as Director General of Income Tax (Investigation), Chandigarh.)