The Difference Between Wisdom and Intelligence

The hardest words to define are the ones we use most.

For example, try to sufficiently articulate a definition for “you.”

For “love”—or “hate”.

For “I.”

How about “the”?

It is much easier to define some technical terms, such as “psychology,” or “biosphere.” This is doubtless due in part to our having memorized someone else’s definition, however. It’s much more fun (and challenging) to do the mindwork ourselves.

The very act of defining stretches the mind, testing the limits of intelligence. The resultant definition, if successful, fully encloses its object, keeping everything necessary and excluding everything extraneous.

Some things I would like to attempt to define concern the constellation of terms that relate to being “smart.” It’s thrown around often—but what does it mean? I can conceive of several such variations, many of which are used interchangeably, to the detriment of clear thought (when poetic, I am often guilty of this transgression, being often much looser with words than when being philosophic).

Following is my attempt to differentiate, define, and describe some variants of smartness (can you think of more?). For ease, I have used the adjectival forms of each word, and assume they are applied to a single human:

  • Intelligentpossesses a high ability to think rationally
    • Doubtless my learned (see definition below) readers are well aware of the many different types of intelligence put forth, such as “emotional intelligence,” “musical intelligence,” and perhaps “kinesthetic intelligence” (loosely defined as a high ability to use the body well in a particular physical enterprise). Furthermore, I shall not attempt to delineate these different intelligences, as such terms are more the work of others than those described here; I stick only with that familiar, cognitive intelligence.

[I am indebted to the many sources that claim intelligence is simply a faculty of association—but relying on this definition defeats my purposes outlined at the outset. Finally, (rational) intelligence, in my opinion, cannot be learned, trained, or increased; it is innate.]

  • Smartpossesses an above-average ability to think rationally
    • Smartness seems very similar to intelligence, yet it ‘feels’ like a second-class type of quality beneath intelligence. One cannot be both smart and intelligent. Smartness cannot be learned; it is innate.
  • Wittypossesses an ability to make thoughtful, often lighthearted or humorous remarks
    • It seems wittiness is both innate and able to be learned. Certainly there are those who are naturally predisposed to being the quick-witted class clown, but the class clown needs to cash in on their innate wittiness by doing the legwork of understanding something useful about the people or objects they joke about, putting together off-the-cuff remarks based on quick and active observations.
  • Insightfuluses deliberate thought to produce novel observations
    • Insightfulness appears mostly a productive of deliberate reflection. Oddly, it is neither innate (assuming the person can think at all) nor learned; rather, it is simply something someone may choose to do.
  • Learnedhas acquired knowledge informally through individual effort or experience with the world or others
    • The psychologically literate will note this is a strictly cognitive definition; my fading remembrances of recent psychology classes hint at other types of learning that do not take into consideration cognitive knowledge, such as ‘learning’ physiological responses to certain stimuli.
  • Educatedhas acquired knowledge through formal and recognized means
    • I include both formal and recognized due to the popular usage of educated, usually when referring to someone who went to a prestigious institution of higher learning.
  • Wisehas an ability to view mere knowledge in a wider context, determining its timely application 
    • Methinks wisdom has less to do with acquiring cognitive knowledge and more to do with its understanding knowledge’s reciprocal relationship to experience. I think wisdom can be learned, but it is probably so rare because few care to really observe reality at long enough length, or else have not garnered enough experiences to help empower them to transcend mere knowledge. One cannot, however, be wise without first having knowledge.
    • A fascinating question that has emerged during this writing exercise—something I wouldn’t have gotten if I had simply consulted a dictionary—is whether someone can be wise without actually doing anything. Think of that seeming sage with a white beard sitting cross-legged atop some remote mountain, entertaining a few brave souls a year who climb their way up to receive some morsel of “wisdom”: is that sage truly wise, or are they just learned? (Or are they indeed wise for having realized the emptiness of events that ensnare most of us, transcending the welter of chaos below?) If the sage had acquired all the world’s knowledge, and had an eye for its wider context of use, but never used it, would they be considered wise?
    • Lastly, can you think of anyone wise and evil—whether real or imagined? I cannot. This hints at a positive quality in the wise, something akin to moral virtue, which would need to be folded into a definition.
  • Creativeacts on an ability to produce original works
    • Creativity is hard to define because we harbor a romantic notion of creativity that appears distinct from, say, building a basic shed for practical purposes as opposed to creating a work of art like a Gothic cathedral. Doubtless there is a primarily noncognitive aspect to creativity. Very often the creative are using several types of the smartnesses described here. Finally, being creative necessitates actually doing something; it is not simply a propensity to create. (If the term “original” stands out to you, check here for my views on whether originality is possible.) Creativity can be learned, but great artists (who are all creative) doubtless reach beyond the rules of, say, music theory or color theory.

Notice I use “possessing” often, which indicates these traits are something an individual may have, as separate from a quality concerning who or what someone is. I defend the position that we are not our intelligence—or any of our abilities.

Hopefully this helps clarify some distinctions; hopefully you can use some of these words in a more accurate and timely fashion as necessary :]