Knowledge Vs. Wisdom: What's The Difference, And Why Does It Matter?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia
Updated February 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Acquiring knowledge is often valuable in many societies worldwide, considering the emphasis placed on education. However, some may wonder whether learning equates to wisdom and vice versa. For others, the answer can depend on one's background and cultural norms. 

Some may consider wisdom a concept you can't learn in school. It's most often associated with age, with an assumption that living more years ensures you'll learn more extraordinary lessons from life. Knowledge is sometimes viewed as the process of accumulating information, facts, and theories. 

To understand the difference between knowledge and wisdom, it may be helpful to look for experts' definitions and compare the characteristics of each. 

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Wisdom can help cultivate healthy coping skills

Defining knowledge and wisdom

To understand knowledge and wisdom, it can be helpful to look at their official definitions. 

What is knowledge? 

Knowledge is defined as "information, understanding, or skill that you get from experience or education." Putting context to facts is often necessary to have knowledge of a subject. If you're knowledgeable, you can arrange the facts coherently in your mind and establish conclusions based on what you've learned. You may understand the theories of others and come up with your own well-reasoned theories. By this definition, knowledge is the understanding of a subject. 

What is wisdom? 

Wisdom's definition is often more nuanced and subjective. According to the Britannica dictionary, wisdom is "knowledge that is gained by having many experiences in life, the natural ability to understand things that most other people cannot understand, knowledge of what is proper or reasonable, and good sense or judgment" According to some definitions, one cannot have wisdom without knowledge. 

What do experts say about these definitions? 

Philosophers, writers, and artists have weighed in on the meaning of wisdom since ancient times. For example, Plato's work on wisdom has been scrutinized since Ancient Greece. Plato suggests that wise people know that they don't know everything. Some have interpreted this quote as knowing that you know little makes you wise. Others have suggested that wisdom is being confident only in subjects where you have justifiable reasons to believe you're an expert.

What factors are important in wisdom?

The reasons people strive to acquire knowledge are often transparent. For example, people use the knowledge of grammar to read, an understanding of numbers to calculate figures, and proficiency in a language to communicate with others. However, what makes wisdom important may vary from person to person and change with time. Below are a few common factors people may cite as necessary in becoming wise. 

Knowing how to live "well"

Regardless of what "living well" looks like to you, it may take wisdom to discover the unique aspects of life that make you happy. One may believe that having many social relationships is the path to happiness. For them, this form of contentment may work. Others may believe that it's more important to be happy in solitude.

While what is wise for you may not be wise for someone else, there are often beliefs about quality of life the wise agree on. For example, wise people may agree that people require happiness to understand each person's unique definition of contentment. 

Succeeding at living well

Knowing what makes you happy may not translate to living that way. Some theorists suggest that knowing isn't enough for wisdom. Putting that knowledge into practice and having the wisdom to use it successfully can also be essential. 

Having few unjustified beliefs

At times, humans choose to ignore facts and believe what suits them, despite knowing that there are no facts to back up their beliefs. Yet, beliefs without supporting evidence don't add up to wisdom. They represent a turning away from whatever truth might exist. 

Knowing how to live rationally

Some recent theorists suggest that wisdom has nothing to do with being humble or acknowledging that you don't know everything. They say it doesn't matter whether you live a happy life. Instead, they believe what matters is that you live rationally. Being rational includes being aware of facts and using them to construct beliefs based on accuracy and sound judgment.

Morality

Some people who discuss wisdom believe that it needs a moral element. For them, the primary markers of wisdom include intelligence and morality, and it's only when the two are combined that true wisdom can be fully realized.   

Practicality

If there's no practical purpose for knowledge, can that knowledge be considered wisdom? Some theorists suggest that learning facts and theories doesn't make you wiser. Other theorists deny that practicality is an issue, claiming that all knowledge adds to that broad understanding they call wisdom.

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Why is wisdom important? 

There can be various reasons wisdom is crucial on an individual and societal level. For some, the advancement of technology has stirred a debate about the meaning of progress. Some contend that scientific knowledge without wisdom to accompany it can lead to destruction, such as the development of atomic weapons. These weapons wouldn't exist without extensive, highly technical knowledge. However, people wonder how wise it was to pursue that path. 

Another example of a potential lack of wisdom comes from the burgeoning robotics industry. It can take significant knowledge to build an advanced robot that can take over the job of a skilled worker. However, if humans don't have the wisdom to consider the needs of replaced workers when striving toward robotic advancement, the world may end up with people who can't meet their basic needs.

How can you gain knowledge? 

Becoming knowledgeable requires learning facts. You can be knowledgeable in one subject area that interests you or learn many subjects. For many, learning offers value and enrichment to life. It can increase self-confidence, keep you interested and engaged in the world around you, contribute to your success, and help you get along well with others.

Typical ways of learning include taking classes at schools, universities, or online. You can learn through various types of hands-on training, volunteer experiences, or work. Talking to a mentor is another way of gaining insider knowledge. Opportunities to gain knowledge are often plentiful if you seek them out. 

How can you gain wisdom? 

Becoming wiser may be less straightforward than gaining knowledge. Below are a few techniques to try: 

  • Gain balance by considering various aspects of a situation simultaneously. 
  • Pay attention to your environment and notice how it's changing.
  • Step back and look at the situation from a different perspective.
  • Consider the ways others are different from you.
  • Turn your knowledge into action.
  • Accept that you can't know all there is to know.
An older man is sitting on a couch and looking straight ahead; he is holding a cane and is smiling.
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Wisdom can help cultivate healthy coping skills

Support options 

If you're facing a situation that seems too overwhelming to cope with alone, it may be beneficial to speak to a professional. Some people use therapy to develop new, more helpful ways to look at life's problems and change how they think about themselves, others, and the world. 

Therapy may be a way to gain wisdom. However, despite its benefits, some people face barriers that make connecting with a therapist in person difficult. Others may believe therapy isn't worthwhile because in-person options are expensive or time-consuming. Online therapy through platforms like BetterHelp may offer a solution in these cases.  

Online platforms match individuals with licensed, accredited online counselors experienced in helping people cope with various mental health and life concerns. Online counseling is as effective and more convenient than in-person therapy and is often more affordable than traditional therapy without insurance. You can book sessions at your convenience from the comfort of your home via phone, video, or chat.  

Takeaway

Difficult situations often teach lessons that may not be learned from a book. Without being prepared for the possibility of these scenarios, people may learn the wrong lessons. For example, you might not know how to move forward healthily without a mentor to support you when experiencing a mental health challenge. This lack of support may affect how you cognitively interpret information, leading to thoughts and behaviors that negatively affect you in daily life. 

Speaking to a therapist is one way to acquire wisdom and knowledge about mental health, morality, and being human. A therapist is an expert in knowledge about mental health but may also have wisdom from their experiences in supporting clients with various mental health challenges. If you think you might benefit from learning about this wisdom, consider contacting a professional for further guidance and support.

Wisdom can be learned with support

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
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