The Hierarchy of Knowledge

Language can sometimes be a barrier for communication. This is especially the case when two people or groups use the same word(s) to mean different things. Some of the most intractable conflicts result from relatively simple misunderstandings. To debate any issue with the hope of resolution of a conflict, it is imperative the terms being used are well defined.

Russell Achoff, one of the greatest thinkers of the 21st century, pioneered the field of systems thinking. He understood the value of properly defining words. One of his many contributions was to provide concrete definitions for the set of words we used to discuss the Hierarchy of Knowledge (see link for a more complete summary than noted below).

The hierarchy of knowledge as Ackoff defined it:

1. Data: symbols

2. Information: data that are processed to be useful; provides answers to “who”, “what”, “where”, and “when” questions.

3. Knowledge: application of data and information; answers “how” questions.  Know-how constitutes knowledge.

4. Understanding: appreciation of “why”.  Being aware of why something does what it does is understanding.

5. Wisdom: evaluated understanding.  Being aware of whether something ought to be doing it.

In ethical terms, “I feel therefore I know Ethics” is a simple an effective proof.  How is it you know ethics?  You can feel physical and emotional pain; it’s a priori; its an innate ability.

Why do you think your analysis of an ethical situation is correct or at least better than someone else’s?  That requires understanding which requires the ability to take note of all pertinent facts applicable to the situation, and being able to effectively ask good questions to derive at the right answers.

2 thoughts on The Hierarchy of Knowledge

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