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4 Jul 2011

Intelligence vs. Wisdom: Primary Difference

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Intelligence vs Wisdom

A question emailed to me asked for elaboration on this quote of mine:

The difference between wisdom and intelligence is that you cannot be wise unless you have sensitivity for the human condition.

The primary difference between intelligence and wisdom that my quote highlights is an emotional one. For instance, who would you consult on relationships, on love; an intelligent person or a wise one?

Stated more pragmatically, we often hear psychopaths described as intelligent but not wise. If they were, would they go around harming people? Thus, we can more easily picture an insensitive, intelligent person than an insensitive, wise one.

Examine our intelligence tests. They have little to do with relational issues among people. Do any of them ask about love, happiness, sadness, hatred? They deal more with concrete concepts such as shapes, numbers and words. Intelligence and sensitivity are segregated.

Yes, the concept emotional intelligence exists; however, its basis is a mental one not an emotional one; it’s intelligence about emotions. It refers to empathy as an “understanding” not a feeling; it’s a mental task. We can see the mental aspect in advanced computers because we’ve begun to program robots to be emotionally intelligent based upon certain observable clues. Emotional intelligence tries to teach people the same thing. Yet, we refer to these robots as “artificial intelligence” not “artificial wisdom.” Again, the segregation of intelligence and sensitivity.

I define empathy as feeling what others feel. Mothers often feel what their children feel. Analogously, the difference between understanding and feeling is the same as the one between seeing a picture of a place and actually being there. Thus, we see wisdom as emotionally very different from intelligence, and that difference has a huge sensitive, empathic component.

Wisdom and sensitivity are not segregated.

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5 Responses

  1. Hi Mike,

    Great post. Something occurred to me later after I initially read this post the other day. And following much of the dialog that was shared on my own post on leadership.

    What occurred to me is that much that we are talking about and writing about (as you have pointed out here) is the difference between head knowledge and experiential knowledge.

    Some of these concepts we can’t ‘teach’ or ‘learn’ via the written or spoken word. We have to experience it in some way thru a human exchange of some sort. I believe empathy is acquired along those lines as well, at least to some degree.

    For example, if we don’t truly KNOW what ’empathy’ is and read about it? If someone tells me, ‘You need to learn to be more empathetic when leading with people or interacting with such and such person.’ Will I suddenly become an all-knowing empathetic person just because someone pointed it out that I lack it? Or am I able to become more empathetic by reading about it?

    Or are we really only capable of learning this by way of example? If someone extends empathy towards me in some way, THEN I know what it feels like. Although perhaps I may have missed it or taken it for granted and didn’t learn very well myself after one shot. However, perhaps if the experience is powerful enough, we learn it that way?

    Or do you believe some of us are just ‘born’ with it while others aren’t?

    Empathy is just one example here. I can think of ‘mercy’ and other concepts as well. Can we truly extend mercy to others if we have not known mercy ourselves?

    I hope these questions make some sense! 🙂

    Thank you for inspiring me to think more on these things Mike.


    1. I also believe we have innate knowledge, Samantha, not just savants. For instance, a woman is born knowing what it feels like to be a woman and a man is born knowing what it feels like to be a man. However, there is a challenge and a growth process knowing how to consciously think about that knowledge and then finally how to express it.

      For example, a neighborhood mother was talking to me about her son of about five who had problems speaking. There was nothing wrong physically. It was especially frustrating because he seemed bright from professional assessments. I asked if he had problems listening, understanding or following her directions. She said, “No. He’s very good at that.” I also learned that he liked to look at books and have his mom read to him. I suggested to her that perhaps he’s thinking on a much higher level and just doesn’t have the right words to express himself so he becomes frustrated with his current vocabulary. So, I suggested that she focus on expanding his vocabulary as quickly as he could learn it.

      The boy is now eleven and rather than partaking in sports as his brother, sister and friends are doing, he’s already earning money mowing lawns and doing other odd jobs for neighbors. While many would consider him quiet, he certainly doesn’t have problems communicating if he can ask ADULTS for work and negotiate pricing. Again, this example is only to show that knowing something is one thing, consciously thinking and expressing that knowledge is quite another especially if we accept the fact that it is possible to know things on a subconscious level. Much of our innate knowledge (i.e. knowing what it’s like to feel like a woman) originally exists in us on a subconscious level.

      In terms of empathy (and really any emotionally related attribute), we are born with empathy. You’re right. Empathy isn’t “head” knowledge (which by the way is generally called “tacit” knowledge) but it’s not quite experiential either. I say this because cognitive scientists have identified where we feel empathy in our brains. Moreover, women tend to show more empathetic activity than men do. This suggests that there is an innate component to empathy, in this case your gender.

      Analogously, I explain empathy using the human body. We are born with muscles. Some of us are born with stronger muscles, more flexible muscles, quicker responding muscles, faster healing muscles, more enduring muscles, etc. However, some of us will be stronger than those born with stronger muscles because we exercise, train and develop them while the other will remain lethargic and atrophy. The same holds true for empathy, intuition and many other emotionally related attributes. We are born with them, but we do need to develop them.

      Is this experiential? Yes, in a very, very broad sense, but it’s not the same kind of experiential as “learning from experience” how to bake a good pie. Why? Because once my experience has taught me how to bake a good pie, it will never leave me. However, once I stop working my muscles their strength, flexibility, responsiveness, endurance, etc. WILL leave me, and the return to their former state after ten years off will be much longer and harder than the return to baking a good pie after not doing so for ten years (i.e. the expression “It’s like riding a bike. You never forget how”).

      All of this is to say that we are born wanting to empathize, so we can learn without example just as we can learn to run better without help. However, it does help in both cases when others show us how to run, how to empathize (i.e. “Just imagine how you would feel if someone did that to you?”). We also have the capability to shut down people’s empathetic tendencies. For example, soldiers often cite that when they first kill someone that it’s like a part of them died. Empathy, in its pure form, is feeling what another is feeling. In its pure form, it would be impossible to kill someone because we would die too. The closest example, is a mother loosing a child. That bond is so tight that mothers will very often feel a very vital part of them died too. No mother ever recovers fully from such an experience. For some mothers it remains a devastating experience. Returning to soldiers, eventually if they kill enough their capacity to empathize will die. They become immune to feeling the death of others. This is what happens to people raised in violent neighborhoods, cultures and societies or in persistent war zones. It’s how warlords, dictators and terrorists turn children into killing machines; they force them to kill more and more until they no longer feel for the death of others.

      So, finally, just as some of us are born with muscles that can do things others can’t do, we are born with emotional attributes that are deeper, stronger, more sensitive, etc. than others. However, it’s also a matter of realizing that potential and not suffering any severe physical, mental or emotional injuries.


  2. Thank you for such a thorough response, Mike. I appreciate it.

    Now when you say we are born knowing how to be a man or a woman, are you referring to DNA knowledge, instinct…? You may have more precise terminology based on your field whereas mine is more of an interested lay person so the question is more for clarification.

    One of the things that came to mind regarding innate knowledge were some accounts I’ve read about children found in the wild; their more animal characteristics and qualities. Also, there is a case here in America of a girl that was found to have been isolated for her entire childhood until she was found where she spent her days strapped to a chair…or a potty chair. She had no verbal skills. When she was removed from her parents and the home, various psychologists and doctors worked with her. When she was taken to the butcher shop, the butcher would hand her various meat in which she would touch to her face, sniff with her nose, taste with her tongue, etc.

    So what I’m wondering is that although we may be initially born with some levels of innate knowledge, we still require some level of ‘mirroring’ from our caretakers and a sense of belonging in order to become ‘civilized’ (well…civilized by society standards related to time period, culture, etc) To my knowledge, she never did grow up to acquire fully expressive language skills, etc.

    Back to the subject of empathy and mirroring. A while back, RSA Animate released a video on youtube called The Empathic Civilization. The speaker was Jeremy Rifkin and in this discussion he investigates the evolution of empathy.


    In summary, he says we are soft-wired with mirror neurons that enable us to experience others distress or feelings as if they were our own. That our need to belong is our most basic and fundamental drive in life, which is also considered to be an empathic drive. Goes on to share how empathy is the opposite of utopia because empathy is grounded in the knowledge of death and the celebration of life. If utopia (or heaven) existed, empathy would not since there is no suffering.

    He also touched on this question: How does consciousness change in history?

    As for soldiers and war, both adult and child soldiers. Yes, empathy dies. Perhaps because like you’ve suggested, they have had to shut off the softer side of their humanity in order to do what they do. And I can only imagine this to be a progressive desensitization process. Actually, it’s beyond my imagination and experience to say I don’t like to imagine it, although I have wondered about it.

    This is why many soldiers who returned from war drank. They needed to numb the pain. The memories of what they saw and experienced were too difficult to bear. (Right along with various issues such as post traumatic stress syndrome, etc)

    Thanks again for taking the time to share your additional insights and knowledge. 🙂


    1. Samantha, just as with any animal we are born knowing things. Yes, instinct might govern some of these; however, in humans I’m really referring to activity within our unconscious selves. Yes, this could be DNA and RNA if you wish to be scientific about it.

      A child living in the wild is completely different from a child living in isolation. Solitary confinement is torture; it will cause any human to begin showing signs of mental illness in about nine days of such treatment. Isolation stunts a child’s growth. I do not consider that pertinent to this discussion. As for the child in the wild, yes, it helps to have someone mirror things; however, it’s not necessary. It does accelerate it though. Children, depending upon their awareness and wisdom, will be able to learn without a caretaker although the path will be slower and perhaps more dangerous, even life threatening.

      Yes, we are hard-wired for empathy, but everyone is empathetic to varying degrees. Women tend to be more empathetic than men are. Psychopaths have no empathy (although this is subject to much debate).

      That’s a good question: How does consciousness change in history? I would begin with this: our consciousness is the means by which we express our unconscious emotions that drive us. All conscious decisions have at their root unconscious emotions. We then try to rationalize them so they appear “reasonable” and “logical.” As we develop our consciousness, we become better at expressing, planning and implementing the emotions that drive us. For example, we see this with people who have been brought up in very violent environments. Their first inclination is to remove (i.e. kill) the person opposing them. Anger management and problem solving skills come in here. They’ve never learned how to covert what they want into any action that didn’t include killing. Compromise, bargaining and negotiation are important here. Laws, rules and traditions help to develop our consciousness; however, they also create the sides of the boxes outside of which we sometimes want to think.

      The only thing I would suggest is this: science doesn’t know everything. However, we tend to believe that if science has not “proven” it then it can’t be true. Freud discovered the unconscious almost a century before science proved it existed. Einstein created the theory of relativity without it being proven until the late 1990’s (almost 75 years); yet, it produced the atom bomb, radiation treatments and many other things.


  3. Thanks for the reply Mike.

    My reference to a child growing up in the wild and the girl growing up in isolation were merely in the context of exploring the need for human mirroring. Both were without it, for the most part. As for the girl, even though she may have seen her caretakers for a brief moment each day, there was not enough of it for her to thrive on. i.e. a sense of belonging, the innate need to love and be loved, etc. Also, I have to wonder about the child in the wild. I can barely imagine what it would be like living all alone like that without human companionship. Very little in the way of a sense of ‘self’ other then ‘existence’ and being driven by basic needs for food and shelter, etc.

    I really like your explanations regarding how our unconscious nature drives the conscious. I once saw an illustration on this of an iceberg. The tip of the iceberg representing our consciousness. The remaining and larger bulk of the iceberg lies beneath the surface of the water, where we can’t see it. Although it is very much there and has the greater influence.

    I once took a course that covered a variety of things such as self-parenting, feeling/emotions, beliefs, etc. I was taught that our feelings are basically messengers from our ‘spirit’ that indicate when something inside of us or outside of us is either in alignment or out of alignment with our highest good. Not as simplistic as it may seem as I’m sure you already know. Very interesting subject though! 🙂

    I”m in full agreement on your statement about science. I’m sure we only know a tiny fraction of what there is to know. Of what is possible. All that exists beyond our current levels of knowledge and beliefs; limited by our own various perspectives and perceptions.

    With all this discussion on the conscious/unconscious, I can’t help but recall my favorite quote by Carl Jung: ‘My destiny is to create more consciousness. The sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.’


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