Knowledge And Wisdom Part 1

In the Catholic intellectual tradition, philosophy has traditionally been referred to as the “handmaid” of theology. The reason for this is that philosophical truths rooted in our human nature and the natural world give credence to something that is more than merely human or natural; that is, the divine. Hence, philosophy is something which those who believe in God can profit from studying. Traditional philosophical reasoning always leads to the divine; more practically, its truths can be used to engage with nearly any other person regardless of their beliefs. This is why I believe it is important for us to critically analyze the human nature God created us with, as it will help us better understand the reality of His presence in our lives and our world as a whole.

This article is an introductory piece to what I hope will be a series of articles based on my senior thesis in philosophy. The central idea in my thesis was that there is a distinction between knowledge and wisdom, and as a result, knowledge cannot be the way in which we approach moral or (in Aristotelian terminology) political questions. I will divide this series by the different sections in my thesis. As I said, this article will be an introduction to the issue. The second will be focused on Socrates and his distinction between knowledge and wisdom; the third will be on Aristotle and moral courage; finally, I will focus on Hannah Arendt and her criticism of viewing humans and the human political body through a lens of science. Yes, these articles will be primarily philosophical, but I encourage you to read them as they will serve the purpose I’ve highlighted above: to help better understand the human nature God created us with and the life we are supposed to live as His creation. Without further ado, let’s get started!

Socratic thinking demonstrates a fundamental distinction between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge, entailing the sciences and technical skills, is distinct from wisdom, a process of moral formation motivated by the desire to determine what kind of person one ought to be. In short, knowledge is knowing how to do something but wisdom is asking if one ought to do it. The ought question comes precisely from the discipline devoted to asking questions about our human nature and condition, philosophy. Philosophers today continue to wrestle with defining philosophy and its aims. To do so requires an analysis of the meaning of philosophy, which comes from the Greek philosophia, the “love of wisdom.” The emergence of western philosophy has largely been a result of this pursuit of wisdom, with its first major proponent being Socrates. Socrates’ method consists in identifying and then questioning previously unacknowledged, deeply-held convictions related to what we know or believe to be true. Even more fundamentally, however, Socratic inquiry shifts our focus from this or that truth to the underlying question: “What is truth, and would we recognize it if we saw it?” Thus, knowledge has at its roots a deeper sense of truth beyond the knowledge itself, and seeing that hidden meaning is not an act of knowledge solely rooted in the intellect. 

To put it more simply, truth is not the sum total of all facts; rather, it is a type of orientation that leads individuals to care about the truth. If we called this orientation “wisdom,” then we would understand how Socrates views knowledge and wisdom. Socrates suggests that human life should not pass by without considering the reality that there is more to one’s existence beyond matters of knowledge. He famously says, “…the unexamined life is not worth living…” [1] Socrates is suggesting the examined life is a way to live a fulfilling life, what Aristotle would later call eudaimonia, well-being, or human fulfillment (more on that in the next article). Examining requires one to question and ascertain the way in which we evaluate our existence and our capacities as human persons.

Knowledge is our human capacity to be aware of states-of-affairs, which include facts of nature and technical skills. This differs from wisdom, a type of thinking concerned with one’s state of being. Moral formation and virtue are things we can consider a part of the process of wisdom (and this is key in understanding the entire argument). In the Socratic-Aristotelian tradition, moral formation and virtue refer to the goal of forming oneself into a person who is capable of resisting the temptation to take shortcuts, to do what is wrong. This distinction between knowledge and wisdom is fundamental in our entire understanding of what it means to be human and therefore function as a political society. If we examine our lives only in relation to matters of knowledge, we will fall short of Socrates’ admonition and instead become participants in the unexamined life. Socrates points out that humans have a strong tendency to equate knowledge with wisdom. [2] Problems surface on both the individual and political level when we equate knowledge and Wisdom. The foremost of these problems leads to an overemphasis on a scientific understanding of human nature and a type of thinking where moral questions can simply be decided by utilitarian convenience on the basis of us living in a scientific world. This type of thinking neglects the fact that humans are created in the image and likeness of God; that we have a moral capacity apart from other creatures; that we know what’s right and what’s wrong; and that our ability to live moral lives is far more fulfilling than living a solely scientific existence.

Humans are not, according to Aristotle, alike to other species. We don’t simply seek to nourish ourselves to the point where we neglect the examined life, which is our moral capacity to ask “what ought I to do?” or more fundamentally, “what ought I to be?” Every action has at its root the moral action in play, and we will analyze this more as we get into Aristotle in article three. However, it’s important to understand that his idea of moral decisions being the basis of every decision gives proof of the fact that we are moral beings and hence seek the good beyond our own lives. I think I’ve given you enough philosophy so far today, but do look for the next article on Socrates!

[1] Plato, “Apology,” translated by G.M.A. Grube, Hackett Publishing Company (2002), 38a.

[2]  Ibid., 21a-23c.


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