Knowledge vs Wisdom: What’s the Difference, and Why Does It Matter?

Updated February 16, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Tanya Harell

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Which is better: being knowledgeable or being wise? The opinion that knowledge is important in our society is evident in the importance that's placed on education. Yet, does all this learning equate to true wisdom? And if not, what does it matter? It certainly matters if understanding the difference between knowledge vs wisdom is the best first step towards living a better life.

Common Views of Knowledge vs Wisdom

Most people have a strong opinion on the difference between knowledge and wisdom. There's an old saying that goes, "I wouldn't want to rely on an educated idiot." The saying expresses a common view that education doesn't create wise, practical minds.

In fact, most people think of wisdom as something you can't learn in school. It's most often associated with age, as if living more years ensures that you'll learn some greater lessons from life.

Knowledge is often seen as simply cramming your brain full of facts and theories that don't really apply to life in a practical way. Is that the truth, though? To find out, you need to look deeper and come to understand the meaning of each.

What Is Knowledge?

Knowledge isn't the simple memorization of data. Instead, it includes the full gamut of facts, information, and skills that you learn through experience and/or education. To be knowledgeable in a subject, you need to be able to put some context to facts.

If you're knowledgeable, you arrange the facts coherently in your mind and are able to come to some conclusions about what you know. You may understand the theories of others, and you may be able to come up with your own well-reasoned theories, too. In short, knowledge is understanding of a subject.

What Factors Are Important for Wisdom?

So, if knowledge is a certain subject-specific type of understanding, how is wisdom different? Is it not understanding as well? Actually, wisdom is a different type of understanding than knowledge. Philosophers, writers, and artists of all kinds have weighed in on the meaning of wisdom since ancient times, yet no one has ever come up with a single, irrefutable description of what knowledge is. The best you can do is to learn from the factors used by various theorists and come up with your own understanding of the word.

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To Know What You Know Not?

Plato's work on the subject of wisdom has been scrutinized since the times of Ancient Greece. One factor Plato brought out was that people who are wise know that they don't know everything. Some have interpreted this as knowing that you know nothing, or at least very little, makes you wise. Others have suggested that wisdom is being confident only in subjects in which you have justifiable reasons to believe you're an expert.

Wide Range of Factual Knowledge

Knowledge isn't totally separate from wisdom. Instead, wisdom relies on knowledge. People who are wise usually have a wide range of educational and life experiences to draw from, and they tend to have factual knowledge in a wide array of subjects.

To get the breadth of knowledge that might lead to wisdom takes most people many, many years. So it makes sense that wisdom builds over the course of the lifetime. That doesn't necessarily mean that if you're old you're also wise. If you don't gain a deeper understanding of how the facts go together or the theories apply to life, you can't become truly wise.

Knowing How to Live Well

One aspect of wisdom is knowing how to live well. What defines living well may be different for different people when it comes to specific choices. One person may believe that having many social relationships is the path to greater happiness, and for them, that might be true. Others may believe that it's more important to be happy in solitude, and that might work for them, too.

What is wise for you might not be wise for someone else when it comes to specific decisions. Still, there may be beliefs that are more general that most wise people agree about. For example, most wise people would believe that there's no reason to take a risk if there's no reward for anyone.

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Succeeding at Living Well

It's one thing to know what would make you happy and quite another to live that way. Some theorists suggest that knowing isn't enough. Instead, you also need to put that knowledge into practice and be successful at making yourself happy.

Having Very Few Unjustified Beliefs

Sometimes, people choose to ignore the facts and believe the way that suits them anyway, despite knowing that there are no facts to back up their beliefs. Yet, beliefs without supporting evidence don't add up to wisdom. In fact, they don't really even add up to knowledge. They represent a turning away from whatever truth might exist in the world.

Knowing How to Live Rationally

Some recent theorists suggest that wisdom has nothing to do with being humble enough to say you don't know everything. They say it doesn't matter whether or not you live a happy life. Instead, what matters is that you live in a rational way. 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 point out that wisdom needs a moral element. Here's an example of why that's important. Imagine a mother who puts her children's needs ahead of her own. She may not be personally happy at that moment, but she chooses to help them because she thinks it's morally right. Now consider the case of a serial killer. They may be very happy terrorizing and destroying others' lives. Does that make them wise? Certainly not!

Practicality

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

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Are Knowledge and Wisdom Incompatible?

Knowledge and wisdom, as mentioned before, overlap considerably. It's very hard to be wise without having extensive knowledge. Yet, knowledge alone doesn't comprise the whole of wisdom. Knowledge, then, is the forerunner of wisdom, but it must continue if wisdom can coexist with it.

For example, a person who lost the ability to learn or even remember what they've learned, due to age, injury, or illness, can't be knowledgeable anymore. Because that knowledge is irretrievable for them, they would have a very hard time showing wisdom.

Why Is It Important to Be Wise?

There are many reasons why wisdom is crucial not only to each person but to the society as well. Here are some of the ways wisdom can benefit you, people you know, and the world at large.

True Progress

With the advancement of technology has come a major debate about the true meaning of progress. Scientific knowledge without wisdom to accompany it can lead to disastrous events and horrible situations.

Consider the development of atomic weapons. This wouldn't have happened without extensive, highly technical knowledge. Yet, how wise was it to pursue that path?

Another example is in the burgeoning robotics industry. It takes an incredible amount of knowledge to build an advanced robot that can take over the job of a skilled worker. Yet, if the needs of replaced workers aren't considered as a part of the push towards robotics, the world may end up with many people who can't meet their most basic needs.

Because of situations like these, wisdom is more important today than ever before.

Personal Happiness

People can have a certain degree of simple happiness without being wise. Yet for satisfaction that continues beyond challenging circumstances, inevitable loss, and occasional failure, you need the depth and breadth of true wisdom.

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How to Become More Knowledgeable

Becoming knowledgeable requires you to learn facts. You can be knowledgeable in one subject area that interests you or take a liberal arts type approach and learn many subject areas. Learning can add great value to your life. It can increase your self-confidence, keep you interested and engaged in life, contribute to your personal 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. You can learn through volunteer experiences or at work. Talking to a mentor is a wonderful way of gaining insider knowledge, as well. You'll have many opportunities to gain knowledge just in the normal course of living.

How to Become Wiser

Becoming wiser is a little less straightforward than gaining knowledge. Here are some techniques to try:

  • Gain balance by considering many aspects of the one situation at the same time.
  • Pay attention to the environment you're in 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.
  • Don't just know what's best. Also do it.
  • Accept that you can never know all there is to know.

What to Do When You Don't Feel Wise Enough

You've probably heard of the "school of hard knocks." That's a cute way of saying that difficult situations teach you lessons you can't learn from a book. Yet if you aren't prepared for those challenging circumstances, you may learn the wrong lesson. You may learn that life is unbearable or even worthless. Without a mentor to guide you through the most trying times, you may find yourself becoming cynical, reckless, or depressed.

If you're facing something that seems too difficult for your level of knowledge and wisdom, the best thing to do is to talk to someone who knows how to help you. Perhaps you could rely on a friend, relative, or mentor for help. Or you can speak with a licensed counselor for online therapy at BetterHelp.com.

A therapist can teach you new ways to look at your problems. They can teach you techniques for calming yourself during a crisis. You can change the way you think about yourself, others, and the world you're living in every day.

You may only need a few sessions to get you past your current crisis. Or you may need longer if you're suffering from the depression that can come from trying to deal with something for which you're completely unprepared. There's no reason to go through it alone when you need someone to listen and guide you to a better life. After all, one more aspect of wisdom is knowing when you need help.


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