Wisdom and Knowledge through Saber and Conhecer

laotzuUm homem sábio não tem um conhecimento extenso; Aquele quem tem um conhecimento extenso não é um homem sábio.


[Lao-tzu, “Tao te Ching”, c.550 B.C.E.]

(A wise man has no extensive knowledge; He who has extensive knowledge is not a wise man.)

What is the difference between wisdom and knowledge? In this short article, I intend to offer a linguistic interpretation of these two concepts, using the Portuguese language to support it with examples.

The verb associated to knowledge is to know, but what is the verb associated to wisdom? The word wise comes from weid, from the Proto-Indo-European language (spoken between 4500 to 2500 B.C.) and its related verb used be to wit, which is now archaic. The verb to know comes from the Latin (g)noscere. In Portuguese it is conhecer. Thus, to know shares the same root as conhecer.

Because English has stopped using to wit a long time ago, it now lacks a verb for wisdom and to know is used to represent all ideas related to both wisdom and knowledge. Portuguese does not do that, so the concepts are split into two verbs: saber, for sabedoria (wisdom) and conhecer, for conhecimento (knowledge). Saber comes from the Latin scire (also the root of science). All romance languages present this distinction:

To know
To know

If English had developed itself with both concepts originating from Latin, the word wisdom would not exist and it would be replaced by something derived from scire, something similar to the word “science”.

Wisdom is usually considered a better virtue to have than knowledge. In general, knowledge is understood as the possession of a great quantity of information, while wisdom is understood as the positive or practical use of information. However, from a linguistic perspective, the meaning of these concepts may be slightly different. In Portuguese saber is “to know facts” or “to present skills”, while conhecer is to know through your senses, such as knowing a person, a place or an object. You must “visit” the information to acquire it; it is cognition. For example:

1. To know facts:
Eu soube o que aconteceu. = I know what happened.
Eu sei que dia ele nasceu. = I know when he was born.
Eu não sei a resposta. = I don’t know the answer.
Eu sei onde você mora. = I know where you live.

2. To present skills:
Eu sei falar português. = I know how to (I can) speak Portuguese.
Eu sei tocar piano. = I know how to play the piano.
Eu sei contar até 10. = I know how to count to ten.

1. To know a person:
Eu conheço o João. = I know John.
Eu não conheço ele. = I don’t know him.

2. To know a place:
Eu conheço Paris. = I have been to Paris.
Eu quero conhecer São Paulo. = I want to go (for the 1st time) to São Paulo.
Eu conheço essa loja. = I know this shop.

3. To know objects through your senses (vision, hearing, taste, etc):
Eu conheço essa marca de telefone. = I know this telephone brand.
Eu conheço essa música. = I know this song.
Eu conheço esse vinho. = I know this wine.

So if we follow this lead, we could say that sabedoria (wisdom) is to possess information about facts and to possess skills, while conhecimento (knowledge) is to possess information which you have acquired through your senses. If you have met many people in your life, many places and many types of wine, you will be a conhecedor (equivalent to the English/French word, connoisseur). If you know many facts, you can speak languages and play instruments, you are a sábio (wise person).

Perhaps the fact that wisdom involves “skills” is the reason why it is more praised than knowledge. If you possess skills such as rhetoric, philosophical thought or problem-solving skills, you have practical information which can benefit you or the others. Nevertheless, knowledge or cognition is also fundamental to human beings and to be able to recognize things and develop knowledge can be considered a skill itself, such as in the art of memory.

sabedoriaThis is one possible interpretation of the differences between wisdom and knowledge, which considers the functional meaning of the verbs derived from Latin. If you have another view about it or would like to add something, please share it with us on this Blog by leaving a comment.


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