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Knowledge and Wisdom || Bertrand Russel || Compulsory English Grade 12


Knowledge and Wisdom || Bertrand Russel || Compulsory English Grade 12

Literature | Essays

3. Knowledge and Wisdom

Bertrand Russell


Knowledge /ˈnɒlɪdʒ/: facts, information, and skills acquired through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject or awareness or familiarity gained by experience of a fact or situation. 


Knowledge refers to facts, information, and skills acquired through learning and education. Knowing and understanding a specific subject and, being aware of certain ideas, subjects can be defined as knowledge. We acquire knowledge through learning, education, and training. Knowledge can refer to both theoretical and practical aspects of a subject. For example, when we learn a language, we learn new facts, information about that language; we also acquire skills through language learning. The result of this learning process is acquiring new knowledge.


Wisdom /ˈwɪzdəm/: the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment; the quality of being wise. 


It is the ability to know what is true or right, common sense or the collection of one's knowledge. It means the ability to think and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense and insight. Wisdom is associated with attributes such as unbiased judgment, compassion, experiential self-knowledge, self-transcendence and non-attachment, and virtues such as ethics and benevolence. Wisdom is the ability to recognize or judge what is true, right, or lasting. Wisdom consists of knowledge, experience, and good judgment. A person cannot have wisdom without knowing, but being knowledgeable about something does not necessarily indicate wisdom.




What is the difference between wisdom and knowledge?

The primary difference between the two words is that wisdom involves a healthy dose of perspective and the ability to make sound judgments about a subject while knowledge means understanding the subject matter simply. Anyone can become knowledgeable about a subject by reading, researching, and memorizing facts. In common sense, knowledge means to understand something and wisdom is the sensible application of that knowledge in practical life. For example, you may know how to use a weapon, but wisdom means knowing when to use it. Wisdom cannot be simply acquired through learning or education; one needs experience as well as sound judgment to gain wisdom.



Bertrand Russell

v  Bertrand Arthur William Russell, (18 May 1872 – 2 February 1970) was a British polymath a person of wide knowledge or learning,

v  He is a philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist, and Nobel laureate.

v  He is famous for championing logicism, and a campaigner for peace,

v  Popular writer on social, political, and moral subjects,

v  He published more than 70 books and about 2000 articles,

v  He married four times, 


About the Essay:                                                          

In this essay "Knowledge and Wisdom" published in 1954, Russell defines knowledge as the acquisition of data and information, while wisdom is defined as the practical application and use of the knowledge to create value. Wisdom is gained through learning and practical experience, not just memorization. In this essay, Russell defines what wisdom is in the first part and in the second part he talks about how it can be attained. He says that wisdom and knowledge must go ahead simultaneously. He has defined wisdom giving several components with philosophical and common examples. According to him the factors that contribute to wisdom are:

Ø A sense of proportion or ratio,

Ø Comprehensiveness without narrow feeling,

Ø Emancipation from personal prejudices and tyranny of sensory perceptions

Ø Impartiality

Ø Awareness of human needs and understanding




The knowledge has surpassed all ages. In comparison to the people in previous ages, in recent time many people have gained knowledge. But wisdom has not been increased that much to the knowledge. People have been changed, time has been changed, and knowledge has become more and more advanced, but the degree of wisdom that the people should have has not been as much expected. People have a different opinion on wisdom when we try to define it and talk about the components that promote it. 


According to Russell, several factors contribute to wisdom. The first thing is the sense of proportion or ratio. It means the capacity to give exact value to each reason of a problem. We must have a sense of which reason has what percentage of role to that problem. To develop this ability, we must have specialized knowledge, skill and technique related to that field. But this is not possible for all people. 


For example, as if we are engaged in research for making medicine for reducing the infant mortality rate. This task is too difficult and we invest the whole of our intellectual energy. We are successful in our discovery but we can't find out the effects of that discovery on other fields. Our discovery might be successful in reducing the infant mortality rate all over the world. But it has an involuntary result. This reduces the food supply and quality of life because it contributes to population growth. 


You may study the composition of an atom despite your disinterest in desire for knowledge. When you give your knowledge to some powerful lunatics, it means you are giving your knowledge to destroy the entire human race because they use your knowledge to produce an atom bomb. It must be used in the right way not for making bombs. In this way, the pursuit of knowledge may become harmful unless it is combined with wisdom. It doesn't mean that a person, who is a specialist in one sector, may know another sector.


Comprehensive in one area is not enough to have wisdom. We must be aware of the goals of human life. Your knowledge must have a positive impact on the human race. Even a person having broad knowledge can ruin the human race if he twists it with personal emotion and passion. Let's take an example of the study of history. Like Hegel (Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, August 27, 1770- August 27, 1770, a German philosopher and historian) many historians have harmed because they view the facts through distorting medium of their passion. They became much more subjective while viewing the facts. Hegel had a wide knowledge of history from ancient times to his age and influenced the future. But what he concluded is that Germany had been the most important nation since 400 A.D. to his time. This made Germany proud and arrogant that caused the most devastating wars: 1st WW and 2nd WW. In this way, even a well-known historian twists the facts with their own emotion. Even a person with wide knowledge lacks wisdom if he has a narrow feeling.  


Wisdom is also needed in private life. It is needed in the pursuit of the self-goal and emancipation of prejudices. We should find our target wisely if it is attainable. Even our pursuit of knowledge is noble but unattainable, we must not spoil our lives running after it. In the past, many people spoiled their life in search of the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life. These aims are a noble one, and beneficial for the humankind, but it is unattainable. 


To be clear about this, let's see this simple example. Mr. A and Mr. B hate each other. They think of destroying each other. Suppose you go to Mr. A and say, "Why do you hate Mr. B?" He will give a list of vices of Mr. B. When you go to Mr. B and ask the same question to him and Mr. B does the same. Now you come back to Mr. A and Mr. B and tell exactly to them what they said to each other. When you do so, you will increase mutual hatred. But if you have sufficient patience and sufficient persuasiveness, you may succeed in convincing each that the other has only the normal share of human wickedness and their enmity is harmful to both. If you can do this you will have instilled some fragment of wisdom.


To have wisdom is to be able to emancipate yourself from the tyranny of the egoism of senses. Our sense organs are attached to our body and we are unable to be free from the perceptions through them. We trust in our sensory perceptions. But our emotions start from ourselves and we can control them. Let's take an example of an infant. He doesn't rely too much on sensory perception except he is aware of his physical condition. Gradually his horizon widens, if he makes his thoughts and feeling less personal and less concerned with physical states, he achieves growing wisdom. We can't view the world as being completely impartial. If anyone could, he would hardly be able to survive. But it is possible to make a continual approach towards impartiality by knowing things somewhat remote in time or space and by giving to such things their due weight in our feelings. This approach towards impartiality constitutes growth in wisdom. 


Wisdom can be taught in this way. It must be one of the aims of education. We are told on Sundays that we should love our neighbours as ourselves. On the other six days of the week, we are encouraged to hate. The precept "We should love our neighbours as ourselves." exemplifies the parable of Good Samaritan. Samaritans are good people and they help all people, even they are Jews. Jews hate all Samaritans however Jesus told them to love their neighbours. During the time there was rivalry between the USA and the USSR however some organizations were preaching peace and unity. People might say that it is good to hate those who harm. Russell doesn't think so. To hate our enemies is to become harmful equally. Hatred of evil is a kind of bondage of evil. The middle path is found through understanding. Resistance is also needed in preventing the spread of evil. Our conflict should be combined with the greatest degree of understanding and the smallest degree of force that is compatible with the survival of the good things that we wish to preserve. For most people, it is true, what Russell says is incompatible in action. It is not applicable. During the time of Queen Elizabeth I in England and Henry IV in France, people were divided into the protestant and Catholic. But both of them remained free. Abraham Lincoln conducted a great war without ever departing from what has called wisdom. It is much more than the moral lesson. In the course of giving knowledge, the disastrous results of hatred and narrow mindedness to those who feel them can be pointed out incidentally. Wisdom indeed has nothing to do with the kind of specialized knowledge required for various skills. But it should be supplemented in education. It needs in everyday activities. It helps to make everybody be a good citizen. It is the most important human quality needed for all people, no matter they are scientists, historians, doctors, researchers, and so on. 


Understanding the text           

Answer the following questions.

a. What are the factors that contribute to wisdom?

Ans: - In the essay “Knowledge and Wisdom”, Bertrand Russell talks about several factors that contribute to wisdom. According to him, the factors that contribute to wisdom are: i) a sense of proportion, ii) comprehensiveness with broad feeling, iii) emancipation from personal prejudices and tyranny of sensory perception, iv) impartiality and v) awareness of human needs and understanding. 


b. What message does the writer try to convey with the examples of technicians?

Ans: - Russell has given some examples of technicians to convey the message that the lone technical knowledge can be harmful to humankind if that knowledge is applied without wisdom. They can’t find out how their knowledge in one field can be harmful in another field. For example, the discovery of medicine to decrease the infant mortality rate can cause population growth and food scarcity. Similarly, the knowledge of atomic theory can be misused in making atom bombs. 


c. Which leaders does Russell say were able to mix knowledge and wisdom soundly?

Ans: - According to Russell, Queen Elizabeth I in England, Henry IV in France and Abrahan Lincoln can mix knowledge and wisdom soundly. Queen Elizabeth I and Henry IV remained free from the errors of their time being unaffected by the conflict between the Protestants and the Catholics. Similarly, Abraham Lincoln conducted a great war without ever departing from wisdom.


d. Why is the wisdom needed not only in public ways but in private life equally?

Ans: - Wisdom is not only needed in public ways but also used in private life equally. It is needed in the choice of ends to be pursued and in emancipation from personal prejudice. In the lack of wisdom, we may fail in choosing the target of our life and we may not have sufficient patience and sufficient persuasiveness in convincing people. 


e. What, according to Russell, is the true aim of education?

Ans: - The true aim of education, according to Russell, is installing wisdom in people. It is wisdom that makes us utilize our knowledge in practical life purposefully without making any harm to humankind. Along with knowledge, people must have the wisdom to be good citizens. 


f. Can wisdom be taught? If so, how?

Ans: - Yes, wisdom can be taught. The teaching of wisdom should have a larger intellectual element more than moral instruction. The disastrous results of hatred and narrow mindedness to those who feel them can be pointed out incidentally in the course of giving knowledge. For example, while teaching the composition of an atom, the disastrous results of it must be taught to eliminate its misuse such as making an atom bomb. 


g. Why does the world need more wisdom in the future?

Ans: - When we observe the growth of knowledge in various sectors in the present time, it is obvious that there will be even more development of knowledge in the future. In the absence of wisdom, most people are misusing knowledge bringing several negative impacts and this reality will continue in the future too if knowledge is not mixed with wisdom. It is only wisdom, that makes people use the acquired knowledge wisely. For a better future, more wisdom is needed. 



Reference to the context

a. According to Russell, “The Pursuit of Knowledge may become harmful unless it is combined with wisdom.” Justify this statement.

Ans: - Humans are curious creatures and they always want to learn new things. Most people have spent their whole lives in pursuit of knowledge. Some pieces of knowledge are noble and beneficial for humans whereas some pieces of knowledge are harmful to us. The knowledge which is combined with wisdom is useful for us because it addresses the total needs of mankind. The knowledge of atomic composition has become harmful to mankind because it is used in making bombs. Similarly, Hegal, though he had great knowledge about history, made the Germans believe that they were a master race. It led to the great disastrous wars. So, it is necessary to combine knowledge with the feeling of humanity. We need it an event to decide the aim of our life. It makes us free from personal prejudices. Even noble things are applied unwisely in the lack of wisdom 



b. What, according to Russell, is the essence of wisdom? And how can one acquire the very essence?

Ans: - According to Russell, the essence of wisdom is emancipation from the tyranny of being partiality. It makes our thoughts and feeling less personal and less concerned with our physical states. It is wisdom that makes us care and love the entire human race, it takes us into the higher stage of spirituality. It makes us be able to make the right decision, install a broad vision and unbiasedness in our minds. We can acquire the very essence by breaking the chain of the egoism of our sense, understanding the ends of human life, applying our knowledge wisely for the benefit of humans, finding noble and attainable goals of our life, controlling our sensory perceptions, being impartial gradually and loving others.



Reference beyond the text

a. Why is wisdom necessary in education? Discuss.

Ans: - It is wisdom that makes our mind broad and unbiased. When we gain wisdom, our thoughts and feelings become less personal. It makes us use our knowledge wisely. It helps us to utilize our knowledge for the benefit of humankind. When we have wisdom we love even our enemy, we completely get rid of ego, we don’t have any kind of prejudices. If education/knowledge is one part of human life then wisdom is another part. If one compasses these both parts appropriately, then s/he become a perfect being. The goal of education is not only imparting knowledge but also creating good citizens. People may misuse the acquired knowledge if they don’t have wisdom and it doesn’t come automatically, it must be taught. It must be one of the goals of education and must be taught in schools. It must be planted and nursed in one’s mind with practical examples. 




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