3 Kinds of Intelligence: Information, Knowledge, Wisdom

Summary:

Information ≠ Knowledge ≠ Wisdom
Information enables you to answer close-ended questions. Having information is being familiar with facts about the world. It can be acquired through short-form content.
Knowledge enables you to answer "essential questions". Having knowledge means being able to apply concepts to different contexts. It is acquired through long-form content and deliberation.
Wisdom enables you to answer normative questions about what to pursue in life and how to pursue it. It requires perspective-taking, cognitive flexibility, and a blending of mind and heart.

As a child, I thought being intelligent meant knowing lots of facts about the world. I was impressed when people knew the capitals of obscure countries, could list the names of Henry VIII's wives, or when presidents' name rolled off their tongues. I thought intelligent people were those who would make money on game shows, win pub quizzes, and make it onto University Challenge.

When I started university, I learned that knowing lots of facts about the world didn't count as being intelligent. The intelligent guy was the one who could do well in exams even when they didn't follow the lecture slides. The intelligent guy was the one who nodded along when the lecturer says "I'm not asking you to regurgitate what I told you in class, I want you to apply it to some other context." The intelligent guy knew that you couldn't just memorize facts about the world to do well.

Now, as a person trying to do this thing called adulting, both these types of intelligence seem impoverished - especially for the stuff that matters. Neither type of intelligence seems useful in figuring out what it is that I should pursue. Even if I did know what I should pursue, I'm not sure if either types of intelligence would help me figure out what actions I should take to get there.

In his 1934 poem entitled "The Rock", TS Eliot wrote:

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

I wonder if this distinction that Eliot makes between information, knowledge, and wisdom can help me separate the evolving definitions of "intelligence" I've described.

What follows is an attempt to distinguish between these three types of intelligence. But first, a health warning/apology (especially to proper philosophers): I am not an epistemologist. The terms used below need to be interpreted in the context of this article rather than as part of the larger philosophical debate about what knowledge or wisdom is. I apologize for any unconscious abuse of terminology. But I hope this might help some people think about the distinction between information, knowledge, and wisdom in their day-to-day lives.

The difference between information, knowledge, and wisdom

To have information, knowledge, and wisdom is to be familiar with, aware of, or understand Something. What are these Somethings that we are familiar with when we have information, knowledge, and wisdom? What types of questions does this familiarity and understanding allow us to answer? How do we come to understand these different Somethings?

Information

To have information is to be familiar with the properties of a particular Thing - an object, a person, a place. When you have information about something, you know facts about that Thing.

Having information enables you to answer close-ended questions about that Thing. Close-ended questions are well defined and have answers that are either right or wrong (to some level of precision). Because of the nature of these questions, various types of entities can possess information, including machines. Both Siri and a trivia-loving 10 year old would probably be able to answer the following close-ended questions: How tall is the Eiffel Tower? What is the capital of Azerbaijan? Who was Henry VIII's last wife? What key event sparked World War II?

Knowledge

To have knowledge is to be familiar with and understand a particular concept. When you have knowledge about a particular concept, you understand how that concept might play out in different contexts and how that concept is related to other concepts.  

Someone with knowledge about a particular Concept is able to answer what educators McTighe and Wiggins (2013) call "essential questions". They define essential questions as "questions that are not answerable with finality in a brief sentence... Their aim is to stimulate thought, to provoke inquiry, and to spark more questions." Here are some properties of essential questions.

  • They tend to be open-ended: they don't have one single final answer.
  • They tend to raise further questions.
  • They are timeless: they are interesting to both novices and experts.
  • They call for higher-order thinking such as inference, analysis, and evaluation and cannot be answered by recall or memorization alone.
  • They make use of transferable ideas. Essential questions "are those that...demand transfer beyond the particular topic in which we encounter them. They should therefore recur over the years to promote conceptual connections and curriculum coherence."  

The distinction between essential and non-essential questions is helpful in separating information and knowledge. Here's an example. Non-essential question: what key event sparked World War I? Essential question: Are wars ever justified? If you asked Siri the former question, it might say "the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand". If you asked Siri the latter, it will most probably say "Siri didn't quite get that, try again".

How can we help Siri "get that" when we "try again"? I think we need to help Siri with at least a few things. First, we need to help Siri break down the essential question into a series of related concepts. This includes: understanding what the term "just" means, understanding the various motivations of war, understanding some causal relationship between wars and the aftermath of war with respect to justice. Second, we need to give Siri answers to these broken down questions. Third, we need to help Siri connect the answers to these broken down questions so that, for instance, justice is understood in the context of war rather than just as an abstract definition.

So, knowledge seems to be much more than information. A history buff might know a lot of trivia and facts about WWI and yet be unable to answer the essential question of "Was WWI justified?" Knowledge about a topic is more than the sum of bits of information related to that topic; it also requires the ability to connect those bits of Information together in ways that one may not be familiar with.

Wisdom

To have wisdom is to be familiar with and understand... gosh, this one is a tough one. Even philosophers and psychologists haven't figured it all out. I want to begin with two starting points that feel right to me and then come to discuss why I think they might feel right. The first is this quote in Obama's memoir when he describes Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Not only were Judge Sotomayor’s academic credentials outstanding, but I understood the kind of intelligence, grit, and adaptability required of someone of her background to get to where she was. A breadth of experience, familiarity with the vagaries of life, the combination of brains and heart—that, I thought, was where wisdom came from. When asked during the campaign what qualities I’d look for in a Supreme Court nominee, I had talked not only about legal qualifications but also about empathy. Conservative commentators had scoffed at my answer, citing it as evidence that I planned to load up the Court with woolly-headed, social-engineering liberals who cared nothing about the “objective” application of the law. But as far as I was concerned, they had it upside down: It was precisely the ability of a judge to understand the context of his or her decisions, to know what life was like for a pregnant teen as well as for a Catholic priest, a self-made tycoon as well as an assembly-line worker, the minority as well as the majority, that was the wellspring of objectivity.

The second starting point comes from the novelist Elif Shafak. In an article in the New Statesman, she draws on TS Eliot and discusses the different ways of acquiring information, knowledge, and wisdom:

“Wisdom” is harder won – I would argue that it embodies not only knowledge but also empathy and emotional intelligence.

There are several things that feel right to me in these accounts of wisdom. First, the Obama quote suggests that a wise person is familiar with how their decisions and actions will affect our livelihoods. This sits well with the common notion that wisdom can only be earned through life experience. Second, both accounts suggest that a wise person makes such decisions (and is able to judge the quality of these decisions) with a good doze of empathy, emotional intelligence, and cognitive flexibility. This fits with my image of a wise person as someone who is able to dispense good advice to people with whom they share little in common.

Do I just like these accounts of wisdom because they confirm my pre-existing notions of what the old sage sitting under a tree looks like? I think there might actually be something more to these accounts than their consistency with my intuitions. In particular, Obama and Shafak's accounts of wisdom are compatible with this more "formal" account of wisdom put forth by philosophers Valerie Tiberius and Jason Swartwood:

"Practical wisdom... is the intellectual virtue that enables a person to deliberate well about how to live; it includes knowledge or understanding of what the right goals are in human life and the reasoning ability that allows the wise person to apply this knowledge to come to a good decision about what to do."

This theory of wisdom suggests that a wise person is able to answer normative questions regarding life's goals and the action plans that support those goals: "what should I/you/we strive for?" and "what do I/you/we have to do to get there?" type of questions. Supreme Court Justices need to make decisions of these sort on behalf of an entire nation: "what ideals should our country strive for?" and "which laws should be put in place to get us to those ideas?"

Although Tiberius and Swartwood do not explicitly use the terms "empathy", "emotional intelligence", or "cognitive flexibility" to describe the qualities of a person who is able to answer these questions, they describe three abilities that a wise person has which I think hang together with these concepts. First, they argue that a wise person adopts plans of actions that enable them to judge "what is at stake from the perspective of the relevant parties". Second, a wise person is epistemically humble - they don't make "unwarranted inferences based upon an exaggerated estimation of one's own intellectual powers". Third, a wise person is open-minded - "they take seriously the views of others, especially when those views are in conflict with one's own".

The essence of all three of these abilities described by Tiberius and Swartwood seems to be perspective-taking: to be open to various viewpoints, to understand what a decision when implemented would look like from someone elses' shoes, and to make sound judgements about what to do while holding opposing perspectives in mind. I think their theory of wisdom gives some justification for why I find the emphasis on the balance of mind and heart, on intellect and empathy in Obama and Shafak's accounts appealing.

How do you acquire information, knowledge, and wisdom?

Now that we have a brief sketch of the differences between information, knowledge, and wisdom, it would be apt to discuss how we can acquire each type of understanding.

In the same article by Shafak mentioned above, she writes:

We have plenty of “information” – and if we don’t we can always google it. Then there is “knowledge”, which, however imperfect, requires depth and focus and slowing the flow of time... Wisdom is difficult to achieve because it requires cognitive flexibility.

This suggests that information can be acquired by exposing yourself to lots of short bits of information - breaking news snippets, tweets - and committing to those bits of information to memory.

While information can be acquired by exposing yourself to short bits of text, acquiring knowledge requires more depth and focus. Consuming long-form content - books, long articles, good talks and podcasts - pushes us towards the acquisition of Knowledge. There are at least two reasons why long-form content facilitates the acquisition of knowledge over information. First, since the content is long, the writer is more likely to explore differenct concepts in the same piece. A writer will also link these concepts in a coherent manner to advance the thesis of that piece, exposing the reader to a web of ideas. Second, even if the writer doesn't explore multiple concepts in the piece, they're more likely to explore how one concept works in different contexts compared to short-form content. This exposes the reader to how one concept might transfer across different contexts. I think most good educational institutions aim to assist their students in acquiring knowledge rather than information, emphasizing critical thinking over rote learning.

I used to think that wisdom is something reserved for very special people (special in the good sense) and that the majority of us mere mortals would never achieve a level of intelligence worthy of the label "wisdom". While I'm not sure if that position is correct, I'm certain that even if it were true we should still aspire to acquire a type of intelligence worthy of the label "wisdom".

The definition of practical wisdom discussed above is suggestive of certain action that one can take to aspire to that ideal. If it is correct that the wise person needs to have certain social skills, like the ability to understand and respond appropriately to others’ emotions and concerns, then we should practise these skills.

This might involve seeking out opportunities to wear another person's shoes, to engage in acts of imaginative rationality. As the Obama quote suggests: when you're asked to make judgements about an abortion ban, consider what it is like "for a pregnant teen as well as for a Catholic priest"; and when you're making judgements about a tax hike, consider what its ramifications are for both "a self-made tycoon as well as an assembly-line worker". I'm sure we're presented with these opportunities multiple times per day. Many of us engage it in subconsciously when we read fiction, watch films, and hear stories about people's lives. But few of us think of it as an opportunity to practise perspective-taking. So, when you spot such opportunities, don't just use your brain - also use your ears to listen, use your eyes to see, and above all your heart to feel. Then, bring the brain and heart together and maybe we'll be just a little wiser than yesterday.