18.553 knowledge, wisdom, data, information

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Wed, 2 Feb 2005 06:33:20 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 18, No. 553.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

   [1] From: Charles Ess <cmess_at_drury.edu> (102)
         Subject: Re: 18.546 knowledge, wisdom, data, information?

   [2] From: robert delius royar <r.royar_at_morehead-st.edu> (21)
         Subject: Re: 18.546 knowledge, wisdom, data, information?

   [3] From: lachance_at_origin.chass.utoronto.ca (Francois (42)
         Subject: Re: 18.546 knowledge, wisdom, data, information?

   [4] From: Naomi Standen <naomi.standen_at_ncl.ac.uk> (93)
         Subject: Re: 18.546 knowledge, wisdom, data, information?

   [5] From: Erik Hatcher <esh6h_at_virginia.edu> (14)
         Subject: Re: 18.546 knowledge, wisdom, data, information?

         Date: Wed, 02 Feb 2005 06:21:07 +0000
         From: Charles Ess <cmess_at_drury.edu>
         Subject: Re: 18.546 knowledge, wisdom, data, information?

Vika Zafrin wrote:
> "...[D]ata is not information, which is not knowledge, which is not
> I wonder whether practicing humanities computing has changed people's
> perceptions with regard to the distinctions among these terms. Has it
> changed yours? What *are* the distinctions?
> My own answer isn't quite formulated. I'm unclear, for example, on
> the difference between data and information, and on whether one can
> talk about a generalized difference between information and knowledge,
> without referring to one or more specific cases.

To my knowledge (smile), this distinction is relatively old and commonplace
- Frank Zappa's daughter, Moon Unit, used it in her "epistemology" of
rock-n-roll (with the last, not surprisingly, at the top).

I'm tempted to think that computing has changed people's perceptions - in
the direction of what O'Leary and Brasher in their 1996 essay have
identified as a form of Gnosticism:
One issue raised in computer-mediated communication that we find
particularly troubling is the extent to which the new media reduce all
discourse to information. This can result in a contemporary analogue of
Gnosticism, the mystical quest for the knowledge that saves. Physicist Heinz
Pagels puts the problem succinctly:

<quote>Some intellectual prophets have declared the end of the age of
knowledge and the beginning of the age of information. Information tends to
drive out knowledge. Information is just signs and numbers, while knowledge
has semantic value. What we want is knowledge, but what we often get is
information. It is a sign of the times that many people cannot tell the
difference between information and knowledge, not to mention wisdom, which
even knowledge tends to drive out. (1988, 49) </quote>

   If our traditions cannot keep knowledge and wisdom alive, these
distinctions will disappear as all is reduced to information. The cyborg's
spiritual quest would become an endless search for the information that
saves-a quest doomed to failure, an endless and eternally restless
manipulation of signs and numbers that, like the search for the
philosopher's stone, can never produce the gold or the semantic value that
we seek. When the ambitious dream described by Richard Lanham in The
Electronic Word is realized, and the whole record of human culture is
digitized and available on computer databases connected to each other by a
global web, our spiritual crisis will remain and even intensify, for we will
be forced to confront the fact that no electronic alchemy can turn
information into knowledge, or into the wisdom that will teach us how to
Pagels, Heinz. 1988. The Dreams of Reason. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Cited in O'Leary and Brasher, The Unknown God of the Internet: Religious
Communication from the Ancient Agora to the Virtual Forum, in Ess (ed.)
Philosophical Perspectives on Computer-Mediated Communication (Albany, NY:
SUNY Press), 262.

I think both Pagels and O'Leary and Brasher are spot on here.

Whether humanities computing would help people at least recognize and, if
supported by critical reflection, sustain these distinctions, I've no idea.

As for defining the distinctions, fairly simple, if operational definitions
can be offered for initial discussion:

data - bits (1/0s) as recognized and manipulated by computational devices.

information - data organized into both basic and complex units (e.g., the
boiling point of water is 100 degrees centigrade.)

knowledge - (human) awareness of units of information and their
interconnections, as these build into larger conceptual complexes (e.g., in
physics, ranging from the formula for gravitational attraction to a possible
grant theory of everything)

wisdom - _praxis_ informed knowledge of how to live well / appropriately as
a human being in a human / natural community.

For the philosophical community that has emerged in the past 15 years or so
around the Computers and Philosophy conferences, originally in North America
but now more spread about the planet (the 2nd Asian-Pacific CAP conference
was held this month in Bangkok, for example), much of this is discussed in
terms of a "computational turn" in philosophy, which in part means a focus
on how computation and the new venues / experiences / interactions made
possible by computing technologies helps / forces philosophers to re-examine
old questions and raise new ones.
Broadly speaking, there is some consensus among this group (so far) that
"wisdom" would include an Aristotelian sense of _phronesis_ or "practical
wisdom" - a sense of wisdom that is apparently fairly cross-cultural, for
example, as it at least resonates with notions of wisdom found in Confucian
thought, some African traditions, etc.
The discussion gets even more interesting in the work of Luciano Floridi
(Wolfson College, Oxford), whose information ontology turns traditional
philosophical ontology upside down and takes information as the basic
building block of reality.
For his part, Hubert Dreyfus, in _On the Internet_ (2001) argues from a
phenomenological perspective that the most important kinds of human
knowledge and wisdom (also in the Aristotelian sense) can only be gained
through embodied experience with other embodied human beings - a point made
earlier by Albert Borgmann in his _Holding on to Reality_ (1999), also from
a phenomenological perspective.

I can provide further discussion and references of these points if anyone is
still reading and interested (smile).

Hope this helps!


Charles Ess

Distinguished Research Professor, Interdisciplinary Studies
Drury University
900 N. Benton Ave. Voice: 417-873-7230
Springfield, MO 65802 USA FAX: 417-873-7435

Home page: http://www.drury.edu/ess/ess.html
Co-chair, CATaC: http://www.it.murdoch.edu.au/catac/

Exemplary persons seek harmony, not sameness. -- Analects 13.23

         Date: Wed, 02 Feb 2005 06:23:05 +0000
         From: robert delius royar <r.royar_at_morehead-st.edu>
         Subject: Re: 18.546 knowledge, wisdom, data, information?

Tue, 1 Feb 2005 (06:31 +0000) Vika Zafrin wrote
>I wasn't *actually* going to start another thread, but this quote from
>Bruce Horn (the programmer behind the Mac Finder) seems perfect:
>"...[D]ata is not information, which is not knowledge, which is not wisdom."

The original is much less pedestrian:
   Information is not knowledge.
   Knowledge is not wisdom.
   Wisdom is not truth.
   Truth is not beauty.
   Beauty is not love.
   Love is not music.
   Music is the best.
          - Frank Zappa "Packard Goose"

    Finder is down right catered to the pathetic.
                                    -Chris Millar

Dr. Robert Delius Royar <r.royar_at_morehead-st.edu>
Associate Professor of English, Morehead State University
                      Making meaning one message at a time.
         Date: Wed, 02 Feb 2005 06:23:37 +0000
         From: lachance_at_origin.chass.utoronto.ca (Francois Lachance)
         Subject: Re: 18.546 knowledge, wisdom, data, information?
Vika and Willard
"Skill is the perception of knowledge."
What happens when skill is added to the data-information-knowledge triad?
The succession is less a pyramind and indeed less a succession when one
takes into account the material practices of intellectual transactions.
Nikhil Sharma has a short piece on the origin of the DIKW hierarchy in
the Knowledgement Management literature with a nod to T.S. Eliot via
Harlan Cleveland.
Sharma also points to informant-supplied reference to the work of Milan
<quote> Zeleny builds the DIKW hierarchy by equating Data, Information,
Knowledge and Wisdom to "know-nothing", "know-what", "know-how" and
"know-why"  respectively. </quote>
If one understands that skill is at play and perception encounters and
parses unending semiosis, then one is likely to invert the positioning of
"information" and "data"
Information is from the world in its materiality (the "hyle" of the
phenomenologists). Data is that which is given. What was in formation now
has form (and continues to be informing).  As tempting as it is to map
Knowledge onto the ability to break with the power of analysis the given
data and Wisdom onto the synthetic capability to rearrange data into new
formations, I want to abandon the metaphysical securities of know how and
know why. I also for obvious reasons don't want to eleveate the
synthetic over the analytic.
Skill is a treasure that rests upon being open to other ways how and
certainly the wisest people I know never ask why. They observe. They
communicate what they observe. Ah perception and communication --
activities that the Knowlege Management literature recognizes as
belonging to the purview of social capital. Such very fragile social
capital. So very easy to erode. So very easy to restore in communities and
societies that have the wisdom to pass on the knowledge that information
precedes data. And dares not to fetishize information in its merely
electronic form.
"Skill is the communication of wisdom."
Francois Lachance, Scholar-at-large
2005 Year of Comparative Connections. DIA: Comparative connections? LOGZ:
Connection, first. Comparison, next. DIA: Check. Comparable ways of
connecting. LOGZ: Selection outcomes, first. Comparative Connections,
         Date: Wed, 02 Feb 2005 06:24:06 +0000
         From: Naomi Standen <naomi.standen_at_ncl.ac.uk>
         Subject: Re: 18.546 knowledge, wisdom, data, information?
 >"...[D]ata is not information, which is not knowledge, which is not wisdom."
 >I wonder whether practicing humanities computing has changed people's
 >perceptions with regard to the distinctions among these terms.  Has it
 >changed yours?  What *are* the distinctions?
 >My own answer isn't quite formulated.  I'm unclear, for example, on
 >the difference between data and information, and on whether one can
 >talk about a generalized difference between information and knowledge,
 >without referring to one or more specific cases.
To my mind the distinctions in the sequence above are of increasing
interpretation and connectedness (which may well be the same thing). The
further along the list you go, the more *meaning* the output conveys, at
least potentially, to others (that it has meaning to people outside the
creator seems an important element here). I, too, had not added data to my
list as something distinct from information, but I can see how one usefully
could do so, and it is using computers that has led me to think about the
How about this for starters, noting, along the way, the difficulty of
vocabulary, at least for someone who doesn't make a habit of reading the
theory of these things:
Data consists of very basic statements about perceptions of what is "out
there", ranging from isolated notes that on this day this person sold this
cow for this many beans, up to series of population statistics. Processing
has happened in each case (of course), but the range varies considerably
from unselfconscious writing down (or speaking or other form of recording)
of something as someone perceived it to have happened, to more or less
sophisticated (re)arrangement of material culled from one or more sources.
Information is a first stage of making meaning from such data. Information
is data made use of, typically in forming some kind of statement that goes
beyond the data itself. Hence, "Jack received five beans for his cow, which
goes to show he didn't understand the value of cows or beans, or the
urgency of the situation he and his mother were in." Or: the population
statistics for China between 1400 and 1800 show a quadrupling. The
statement about Jack's economic sense gives meaning to an otherwise random
report, and the calculation of the population rise in China suggests that
these numbers are significant, at least to the person making the statement.
To me, information of this type implies a need for explanation rather than
being the explanation in and of itself. It suggests that something about
what is being reported is not how you might expect if working from some
kind of more or less Platonic or otherwise idealised model of the world.
Information like this is what you use when you construct more or less
conscious or deliberate arguments (which is, yes, the other way round from
something that needs explanation, but there's surely a dialectical
relationship between the two). In using it in this way you process it a bit
from when it was just data and thereby add (your) meaning to it.
Knowledge, it seems to me (and doubtless epistemologists will laugh at my
simplicity), may be less a thing than a process. (Perhaps information is a
process, or beginning to be a process, too). Knowledge is what you end up
with after you have processed information for yourself, and some large or
small portion of it has made meaning for you. In other words, you have
*used* the information for your own purposes, which is likely to involve
combining some understanding of the presenter's intent with whatever you
bring to the information and the argument within which it made sense
(meaning) for the presenter. You have internalised something (even if only
for the duration of an exam... :-)  ) and you are changed as a result. Your
knowledge, or knowing, changes continually as new things (information,
data, experience) get added to the mix. Knowledge is about setting
information within a network of everything else you have available to make
meaning about the world, or some particular bit of it that you're focused
on right then.
Wisdom is a whole other level, but I'm not sure I can describe it as
accurately as I'd like. When I was at school I got laughed at when I said I
thought that history was about wisdom, but actually, I still believe it,
although now I wouldn't claim that this goal was exclusive to history
(except when I'm being a real disciplinary partisan!) I meant then that it
wasn't enough to just make sense of things for oneself (that is, to make
knowledge), although that is essential, but that that knowledge had to find
some kind of practical form, as in knowing what to say, how to respond, in
order to achieve a (not the) best outcome in the circumstances. Perhaps
wisdom is knowledge in action. Perhaps it's what happens when your
knowledge (or your knowing, perhaps) is sufficiently internalised that it
begins to affect not just *what* you can say about something in terms of
your understanding of that thing (that would be knowledge), but what you
*do* about it and *how* you do that thing. Wisdom, perhaps, is when the
changes wrought in you by the knowledge (or meanings) that you have made
actually get put into practice in the world you inhabit. All the complexity
of the connections you have made between the information and data available
to you can be focused onto an awareness and understanding that goes beyond
the here and now (although it may well be applied there) and enables you to
produce a right action. I think I've just said the same thing at least
twice, but there you go, that's what happens when you think on-screen.
Of course I don't claim any primacy for this explanation, which is merely
my own first, and doubtless naive, effort, but I'm glad of the question
that sparked me to think about this, and await other answers with interest.
Naomi Standen
Dr. Naomi Standen               | School of Historical Studies, Armstrong
Lecturer in Chinese History     | University of Newcastle, NE1 7RU
Admissions Tutor for History | Tel: +44 191 222 6490   Fax: +44 191 222 6484
                                               | Homepage:
         Date: Wed, 02 Feb 2005 06:24:30 +0000
         From: Erik Hatcher <esh6h_at_virginia.edu>
         Subject: Re: 18.546 knowledge, wisdom, data, information?
On Feb 1, 2005, at 1:37 AM, Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard
McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>) wrote:
 >         From: Vika Zafrin <amarena_at_gmail.com>
 >         >
 >I wasn't *actually* going to start another thread, but this quote from
 >Bruce Horn (the programmer behind the Mac Finder) seems perfect:
 >"...[D]ata is not information, which is not knowledge, which is not wisdom."
And to give that quote some historical perspective, he borrowed it from
Frank Zappa:
"Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not
truth. Truth is not beauty. Beauty is not love. Love is not music. MUSIC IS
Received on Wed Feb 02 2005 - 01:44:36 EST

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.2.0 : Wed Feb 02 2005 - 01:44:36 EST