The Path to Understanding

wisdomBefore discussing the scope of the problems and potential solutions associated with today's `information age` it is probably worth providing some definition of our terms of reference. It has been suggested that there is a process by which data is transformed into wisdom for lack of a better word. While the following page is not a rigorous treatment of this subject, it hopefully provides an initial outline of the issues that are associated with this topic. So let us begin with the basic elements:

  • Data
  • Information
  • Knowledge
  • Wisdom

We shall also refer to this process of transformation as `the path to understanding`.


Data in isolation infers virtually nothing and might be best described as simply a process of acquisition. While this process itself might be complex and require skill, we shall assume that no analysis of the data is carried out at this stage:

  • Research
  • Gather
  • Discovery


In contrast, information has context by which we mean that it is organised in some way. As we might expect, there can be many different ways to organise data and the following list simply highlights some of the possibilities by which we could structure our data:

  • Location
  • Time/Date
  • Name
  • Subject
  • Hierarchy

Of course, we might also wish to organise data by its source or category. Again, here are but a few examples:

  • Conversational
  • Reference
  • News
  • Cultural

Finally, we could also assign attributes to the data gathered. `Shareability` of data could be described as an attribute because it possibly tells us something about the underlying source of the data, e.g.

  • Distribution: If data is shared it has to have been distributed and the spread of information will depend on speed and size of the distribution mechanisms in use.

  • Accuracy: If distributed, then errors may have occurred in transfer which could lead to information becoming damaged or taken out of context.

  • Longevity: Can be a function of accuracy and distribution plus the durability and reliability of the source.

We could consider `patterns of data` as an attribute; but a pattern is also an attribute of information and knowledge. For example, the prerequisite of a pattern is structure and the recognition of this pattern must be based on experience. Therefore, a pattern of data is also part of the process of converting data into information and information into knowledge.


understandIn turn, we might define knowledge as structured information complemented by the perspective of experience. Volumes have been written on this subject, not least being Immanuel Kant's philosophical work called `Critique of Pure Reason`, in which he examined the basis of human knowledge and detailed his own definition. Kant separates modes of thinking into two types of proposition, i.e. analytic and synthetic.

  • Analytic, e.g. white houses are houses. The proposition appears evident, because to state the reverse would be to make the proposition self-contradictory.

  • Synthetic, e.g. the house is white. Generally, propositions resulting from experience of the world are synthetic.

While Kant's ideas will be explored in more detail in an appropriate section, we will initially try not to make this subject any more complex than necessary. Therefore, let's simplify Kant's two propositions by describing them in terms of `explicit` and `implicit` knowledge that correspond to `content` and `context` and use the following example as an overall illustration of how complex human interpretation can be:

  • Napoleon died on St. Helena.
  • Wellington was greatly saddened.

Humans infer meaning from these sentences by using both explicit and implicit knowledge associated with concepts such as time, space, politics, history, mortality and the complexities of human motivation to understand why Wellington, Napoleon's enemy, mourned his death. By the sum total of this implied process, knowledge based on our experience can lead to wisdom. While I will offer no definition of wisdom, at this stage, the following two quotes probably do a better job in fewer words:

The best-informed man is not necessarily the wisest. Indeed there is a danger that precisely in the multiplicity of his knowledge he will lose sight of what is essential. But on the other hand, knowledge of an apparently trivial detail quite often makes it possible to see into the depth of things. And so the wise man will seek to acquire the best possible knowledge about events, but always without becoming dependent upon this knowledge. To recognise the significant in the `factual` is wisdom - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

However, while the quote above may help us to understand the process, the next quote is, by far, the better example of wisdom itself:

I do not want the peace that passeth understanding.
I want the understanding which bringeth peace.
- Helen Keller