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Perspective on knowledge: What’s greater than knowledge?

This article appears in the issue November/December 2015, [Volume 24, Issue 10]

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I’ve long been irked by the Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom pyramid that is so often casually embraced as if its truth were obvious. I disagree with its implication that knowledge is a filtering down of information. I disagree even more that wisdom is a filtering of knowledge. But perhaps most irksome to me is its leaving understanding out of the picture entirely.

In fact, understanding is the missing step between knowledge and wisdom. If you know a lot but don’t know how it applies, you’re a know-it-all. But knowing what knowledge applies doesn’t make you wise. It just means that you have some understanding. We know so that we understand. We know more so that we understand more.

But what is understanding?

For a question such as this, I find two heuristics helpful: ordinary language and prototypes.

Ordinary language analysis is a branch of 20th century philosophy that tried to resolve age-old questions by naively asking, “Well, how do ordinary people use the term?” For example, what does “real” mean? Instead of building some metaphysical framework, just look at how people use the term in sentences such as, “That’s not his real hair” or “A real Scotsman wouldn’t have done that.” You’ll find a contradictory set of meanings, none of which have anything to do with what philosophers have insisted reality is about. Ordinary language analysis concludes that because words have no meaning outside of their use, the philosophical sense of “real” is empty.

I’m not convinced that words have no meaning outside of their ordinary usages, but I nevertheless find this way of proceeding helpful. So, what does “understand” mean in our ordinary ways of speaking?

“Yes, I understand,” can mean, “You can now hold me accountable,” but more often it means, “Got it. Move on.” Similarly, “I don’t understand” usually means, “Please explain it again, and better this time.”

Understanding, therefore, seems to promise a type of completeness, of sufficiency. But of what?

Compare what it means to know something as opposed to understanding it. And here I want to switch from ordinary language to prototypes: Imagine a case of knowledge and of understanding that are such unambiguous examples that if someone genuinely didn’t know what those two terms were, you could give them those examples and they would. Here’s one: I know that a couple of months ago there was a dramatic lunar eclipse, but I don’t fully understand it.

I know it because I have excellent evidence attesting to the fact of the eclipse, including having seen it with my own eyes. And of course I understand it in some sense: The Earth passed between the Sun and the Moon, casting a shadow on the Moon. That sort of rudimentary understanding kept it from being a mysterious and threatening event, the way it must have been in the old days. 

But I don’t fully understand lunar eclipses. I thought I did until a group of us who were watching it generated questions that we couldn’t answer. Does the shadow always go horizontally straight across? If the Earth is blocking it, why was the part in shadow still visible? (It was a “super moon,” so the shaded part was surprisingly bright.) Is there ever an eclipse of a non-full moon? Is that what a partial eclipse is? How much bigger than the Moon is the shadow cast by the Earth? How common are eclipses in other solar systems?

I’m not proud of not knowing the answers to some of these questions. But that I have them means that I don’t really understand lunar eclipses. Operationally, that means that I can’t respond to questions except of the most basic kind. In terms of mental concepts, it means that I don’t see how my knowledge connects. 

That’s the key. Understanding is about seeing things connected into larger contexts. That’s why understanding admits of degrees—I can understand a little about something or understand a lot—whereas knowledge is generally binary: You know or you don’t know.

Knowing without understanding is useless. Understanding is the goal of knowing. But even if we made a layer for understanding in the DIKW pyramid, the very form of a pyramid terribly misrepresents it. Understanding is not a narrowing of knowledge. It is an enhancement of it: knowledge + connection.

Personally, I’d stand that damn pyramid on its head. And then I get rid of Wisdom.

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