October 4, 2010

Wisdom is keeping a balance between knowing and doubting

What is wisdom? In a book chapter on wisdom, organizational scholar Karl Weick builds on age-old wisdom by philosophers like Confucius who said: "To know that one knows what one knows, and to know that one doesn't know what one doesn't know, there lies true wisdom".

Weick quotes J. Meacham (1990) who wrote: "The essence of wisdom ... lies not in what is known but rather in the manner in which that knowledge is held and in how that knowledge is put to use. To be wise is not to know particular facts but to know without excessive confidence or excessive cautiousness. To both accumulate knowledge while remaining suspicious of it, and recognizing that much remains unknown, is to be wise."

Weick builds on this view on wisdom and describes wisdom as keeping a balance between knowing and doubting. The balance can be disturbed in two ways: 1) overconfidence in one's own knowledge can keep one from asking new questions, paying attention things unknown, new and uncertain which can diminish one's capacity to adapt and thereby threaten one's vitality. 2) Too much doubt can lead to inertion, indecision and passivity.


  1. Wisdom lies in applied knowledge or, to rephrase it in terms of knowledge, wisdom is in experimental knowledge.

    To better explain this think about Meditation:
    1. Superficial knowledge is to know that Meditation is very good for you (maybe you've read a Positive Psychology article and you trust the author)
    2. Rational knowledge is to understand a lot of reasons for why Meditation is good for you. Maybe you've studied some of the research on meditation, read some books by Jon Kabbat-Zinn, Mark Williams or some other expert in the field.
    3. Experimental knowledge is the understanding you get after practicing meditation for some time.

    This last type of knowledge is the true wisdom. The rest are just concepts, just words.

    Wisdom lies in the doing or being, in the embodiment of certain knowledge.

  2. Hi Peter, that is a nice addition to what I wrote. I maintain though that there is an extra component of wisdom which is an acknowledgement of the limits of your knowing.

  3. True! Taught by their discoveries, the wise will always be aware of how little they know.

    There is this description in one of Jon Kabbat-Zinn's videos where he speaks about a Korean Zen monk who says something like:

    Who am I? Don't know... :)


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