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Distinguishing Between Knowledge, Intelligence, and Wisdom

Updated on December 3, 2019


We all tend to use the terms “knowledge”, “intelligence”, and “wisdom” interchangeably. But should we? Of course not. I would not have taken the time to write this up if I thought we should. But what, then, are the differences between the three? And why should anybody bother with these differences, anyway?

It is not that there are nitpicky differences between the three that only a linguist’s eye could catch. None of them are even close to the same thing, and still, these days, they’re swapped out for one another like they’re synonyms. This is of great detriment to our understanding of ourselves. It makes it more difficult for us to differentiate between types of what are typically simply called “smart” people. We wonder why some titans of writing can’t seem to grasp mathematics for the life of them, or why wise old philosophers can’t seem to grasp astronomy as well as the average Cosmos enthusiast. The answer to such wonderings is an easy one; there’s more than one types of “smart” person, and while they often overlap, these types aren’t necessarily connected at all. Let us, then, explore what knowledge, intelligence, and wisdom really are, and how these distinctions may be applied in life.


Knowledge is not something fundamental. We are not born with it or predetermined to attain it. Knowledge is an entirely experiential phenomenon. Birth does, undoubtedly, play a role in it; some of us are naturally more adept at learning or more eager to learn. But, simply put, knowledge is what we know, and as such, it grows and changes along with us. It is the sum of all that we have learned over the years, and so, those who have soaked in the most info during their stay on Earth are the most knowledgeable. Note that being knowledgeable does not make one smart. Being intelligent makes one smart. Having more knowledge may make one more able to wield their intelligence, but it does not in and of itself make one more intelligent.


So if you didn’t know what knowledge was before that explanation, but now do, then you weren’t knowledgeable about it before, but are now. On the other hand, if you didn’t know what knowledge was before or after that explanation, you probably aren’t intelligent. Intelligence isn’t a measure of how much we know. It’s a measure of how much we understand. Knowledgeable people know things. Intelligent people know how to interpret, analyze, and apply things. Intelligence (which can be equated with the formal definition of “smarts”) is largely a result of genetics — if you have intelligent parents, then you’re probably intelligent, and vice versa, even if environmental factors can still play a large part. No matter how it arises, though, it cannot be called the same thing as knowledgeability. You can be intelligent and still not know a single random factoid, and you can be knowledgeable and still be the most unintelligent person this side of the Mississippi. In short, Jeopardy! contestants are knowledgeable. Astrophysicists are intelligent.


Lastly, we move on to likely the least understood of the three, and that is wisdom. Unlike the previous two, which can at least be somewhat measured, wisdom is unquantifiable. It is totally qualitative — a subjective measure of the quality of one’s insights. Of course, in our increasingly quantitative world, such hazy traits are largely being abandoned for their more scientific counterparts. The wise old men; philosophers, prophets, wizards, mages, magi, druids, gurus, yogis, and more, have all seen their roles in their respective societies fade under the pressure of the unending progression of time. Wisdom exists in its own domain, wholly unaffected by intelligence and only sparingly intertwined with knowledgeability. One can be simultaneously unintelligent and wise, as paradoxical as it may seem. It might appear as if no formal definition of wisdom is being given. And that is, indeed, exactly what’s happening, for again, wisdom is an abstract and subjective quality with no one real formal definition. It can only be best described as the ability to intuitively understand the natural order of things.

Applications in Education and Life in General

Now, having described all three terms, we must realize why it is that we’ve muddied our understandings of them. We have an education system that wholly promotes knowledge, pats intelligence on the back, and pushes wisdom to the side. The dominant education system worldwide tends to only further knowledge — hammering facts into our heads for years without any end. It pays only little attention to intelligence, placing great weights of work and stress upon students and robbing them of basic needs like time and sleep. Wisdom has been eradicated entirely, for the individualization of the classroom has been erased. Teachers are not allowed to inject their own wisdom into their classes like they used to. Programs are not allowed to be as unique and experimental as before. Standardization rules the day, and as a result, in the Age of Information, education has regressed. But, at a time when anyone can learn anything simply with a keyboard and an Internet connection, the world does not have to live in so sorrowful a state.

Knowledge, intelligence, and wisdom are all intertwined, and when we allow them to, they can all compliment each other. Intelligence forms a basis for one’s ability to understand, knowledge allows one to learn the understandings of others, and wisdom bestows upon one a sense of deep-seeded peace surrounding all of one’s revelations. In our language, we should separate them, for equating them has already proven to bolster our collective forgetting of their individual greatnesses. In our education, we should combine them, for no one can complete a person without the aid of the other two. And, in life, we should strive to utilize them in the best and most trailblazing ways imaginable.


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