Epistemology is the study or theory of knowledge, especially that of distinguishing knowledge from opinion. As one involved in the industry of learning and development, I have a keen interest in this topic, and of how one takes it to the ultimate level, wisdom.
We have progressed as a society in leaps and bounds in many areas. But somewhere along the line we have also lost something important, the village elder, the wise one who we turned to for advice and guidance. Their knowledge seemed superior to others and contained a deep level of understanding that enabled them to offer sage advice.
Today with the loss of our village elder, we instead Google, and we swim in the ocean of information looking for answers, it’s up to us now to convert what we find, into our own form of wisdom.
But how is this achieved?
Step 1 – Acquisition
Our journey towards wisdom begins with the acquisition of data or information.
Data – Single or multiple items of perceived facts
Information – organised data
We use our senses to collect data and information, for example, to check the weather we can step outside and feel it, or we can look at our smart phone and read it. Feeling the weather is data, which we perceive as fact, while reading our phone we may gather information on the current temperature and predicted forecast for the rest of the day or days to come.
Step 2 – Evaluating
The thinking process of evaluating data or information and accepting or denying it is what becomes our own form of knowledge. Knowledge is unique to every single person, as it is based upon our own life experiences and the justified beliefs we have around them.
Knowledge – Justified personal belief about information
It is here that the difference between opinion and knowledge can be challenging to distinguish. Opinions are a close relative to ideas, seeds of some concept not yet verified fully. Where an opinion is a belief about something, knowledge takes it further as a justified belief, where you have perceived evidence supporting it.
I look outside and by appearance alone I am of the opinion that it is cold out. When I step outside and physically feel the temperature, I now know that it is indeed cold for me. My opinion is now justified by evidence and becomes knowledge to me.
We can agree that some people’s knowledge may be very similar to others on some topics, but certainly not on all topics. This may be connected to the level of understanding.
Understanding – Awareness about how knowledge is supported by other justified beliefs
Consider how we use the terms knowledge and understanding in conversations, I could say for example, I know my boss has asked me to do this, but I don’t understand why. I have only been given limited information and therefor cannot connect the reason for the instruction.
If my boss explained the purpose behind the request, I receive groups of further information, which in turn form groups of knowledge, and as we connect knowledge to other knowledge that supports it we begin to form understanding.
Step 3 – Applying
Through deeper understanding we are able to apply our knowledge in an intelligent manner, to problem-solve and formulate complex theories.
Intelligence – Ability to use understanding in complex or new ways
We normally consider intelligence as a cognitive ability, where through deep understanding we are able to problem solve and generate new ideas and solutions. However, Howard Gardner has identified seven distinct types of intelligences. Visual-Spatial, Bodily-kinaesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Linguistic and Logical-Mathematical. All seven of these intelligences may be developed independently.
It is the logical aspect of intelligence that most of us consider general intelligence, and the ability to apply it is the key to wisdom. But its not always the case, some use their intelligence for other purposes.
Manipulation – using intelligence for selfish purposes
If only he used his power for good, instead of evil
Maxwell Smart (Agent 86)
So we finally arrive at wisdom thanks to the wise words of Maxwell Smart.
Wisdom – using intelligence for progressive purposes
At the intelligent level of understanding, we have a choice in how we use our abilities. This decision is firmly based on our core values that have been shaped by our past experiences and our justified personal beliefs.
This leads us right back to the beginning, where we acquire and interpret data and information, how we justify our beliefs. Do we apply critical thinking and analysis? Do we weigh decisions against conscious values? How we view integrity, accountability, humility, respect, honesty and the many other values, impact our decision-making and direct us in either using our intelligence for self gain at the expense of others, or for the good of all.