Wednesday, August 5, 2020

INFORMATION, KNOWLEDGE, & WISDOM

The policymaker undertakes multiple tasks, many of them shaped by his society’s history and culture. He must first of all make an analysis of where his society finds itself. This is inherently where the past meets the future; therefore such a judgment cannot be made without an instinct for both of these elements. He must then try to understand where that trajectory will take him and his society. He must resist the temptation to identify policymaking with projecting the familiar into the future, for on that road lies stagnation and then decline. Increasingly in a time of technological and political upheaval, wisdom counsels that a different path must be chosen. By definition, in leading a society from where it is to where it has never been, a new course presents advantages and disadvantages that will always seem closely balanced. To undertake a journey on a road never before traveled requires character and courage: character because the choice is not obvious; courage because the road will be lonely at first. And the statesman must then inspire his people to persist in the endeavor. Great statesmen (Churchill, both Roosevelts, de Gaulle, and Adenauer) had these qualities of vision and determination; in today’s society, it is increasingly difficult to develop them.

For all the great and indispensable achievements the Internet has brought to our era, its emphasis is on the actual more than the contingent, on the factual rather than the conceptual, on values shaped by consensus rather than by introspection. Knowledge of history and geography is not essential for those who can evoke their data with the touch of a button. The mindset for walking lonely political paths may not be self-evident to those who seek confirmation by hundreds, sometimes thousands of friends on Facebook.

In the Internet age, world order has often been equated with the proposition that if people have the ability to freely know and exchange the world’s information, the natural human drive toward freedom will take root and fulfill itself, and history will run on autopilot, as it were. But philosophers and poets have long separated the mind’s purview into three components: information, knowledge, and wisdom. The Internet focuses on the realm of information, whose spread it facilitates exponentially. Ever-more-complex functions are devised, particularly capable of responding to questions of fact, which are not themselves altered by the passage of time. Search engines are able to handle increasingly complex questions with increasing speed. Yet a surfeit of information may paradoxically inhibit the acquisition of knowledge and push wisdom even further away than it was before.

The poet T. S. Eliot captured this in his “Choruses from ‘The Rock’”: “Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

Facts are rarely self-explanatory; their significance, analysis, and interpretation—at least in the foreign policy world—depend on context and relevance. As ever more issues are treated as if of a factual nature, the premise becomes established that for every question there must be a researchable answer, that problems and solutions are not so much to be thought through as to be “looked up.” But in the relations between states—and in many other fields—information, to be truly useful, must be placed within a broader context of history and experience to emerge as actual knowledge. And a society is fortunate if its leaders can occasionally rise to the level of wisdom.

Henry Kissinger, (2014). World Order (348-350). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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