The Difference Between Information and Knowledge

Martin Heidegger once instructed his students that “[i]t is advisable, therefore, that you postpone reading Nietzsche for the time being, and first study Aristotle for ten to fifteen years.”

To one uninitiated in the field of ancient philosophy (and probably even to some in that field) this demand might seem absurd. Why devote so much time in studying a writer who lived thousands ago in order to understand someone who lived thousands of years later? Even if one did consider a thinker worthwhile, would it really take ten years to understand what he said?

There are many causes for reflection here, but in grasping one distinction, we might understand both why Heidegger’s demand is eminently reasonable and why it seems so incredible. That distinction may be formulated as the difference between knowledge and information.

The difference here should not be understood primarily in terms of the content of information on the one hand and the content of knowledge on the other; information about Aristotle and knowledge of Aristotle might be similar in terms of what they reference (e.g., both could address Aristotle’s concept of nature, but would not do so in the same way).

However, information and knowledge both should be understood as products of different sorts of reflection, as products that cannot be understood without grasping their form of production.

Information lies most conspicuously within the bounds of modern experience, and so we begin there.

What do we do when we gather information? Most simply and most often, we look up the information on the internet. Before that, we searched for information in file folders and dossiers. Some great differences stand out between a library filing system and the Google search engine, but they are similar enough in that the information lies ready to hand, uncovered and understood in the cursory act of viewing.

What of the information gained by such devices? Most obviously, information is that which the search process yields (we can almost add: “and nothing else”).

The information, while it keeps its referential character, is itself a tool, a means to an end. The information yielded by the search has its own use-value, the use-value being completely circumscribed by the intent of the inquirer.

Information has a discrete, finite, and — most importantly — objective character. The information is “out there” to be found; it exists and has its existence in full apart from the one who seeks it.

Words on a page, numbers in an Excel file; their character as information is not changed when someone reads it. One finds information much as one finds a natural resource.

The search for information determines both what information shows up and the significance of that information. Like a natural resource, information is mined, processed, and consumed.

Information, therefore, is easily come by; once one has found it, one has understood it. One then moves on to the next question; in this way, information is gathered progressively.

Information cannot be distinguished from the process of finding and using information.

At all points the “informational intent” delimits what shows up; and whatever shows up as useful is information. The question asked is always fully understood in the asking; the answer given is always readily digested. Information belongs to an inquiry that is inherently technological.

Knowledge, by comparison, is enigmatic.

It too is tied to a process. One comes across knowledge of, say, Aristotle, by reading him and reading about him, by hearing lectures on him, and by discussing his ideas with others.

However, even when one has heard an answer to a question, one has not necessarily understood it. One can ask “does Aristotle believe in the existence of God?”, and receive an affirmative answer; but although one has asked the question and listened to the answer one has not necessarily understood, because one has not fully understood the question.

After all, when Aristotle argues for the existence of God, what does he mean by God? And what would it mean for God to exist? And, what would existence itself mean in light of the question?

The informational impulse here immediately understands the question and the answer, already understanding what “God” means (and blithely indifferent to what Aristotle thinks the word means), and by not returning to the question, the informational impulse blocks off the possibility of knowledge.

One of my best philosophy professors once said that philosophy was the perpetual asking the question of what philosophy is.

Philosophy does not fit the model of a progressive science, which begins from a definite starting point, and, gathering information by stages, corrects itself and proceeds ever upward in both the quantity of information gathered and its accuracy.

Instead, philosophy constantly returns to its basic questions. An answer might be given, and it may be correct, but this does not make it a good answer. A good answer directs the philosopher to previously unnoticed folds of the question. The dialectic of knowledge follows a cycle: from question to answer, then back to the question.

Unlike the information yielded by a search, an answer cannot be divorced from its referential character; an answer has in itself no use-value.

The answer serves only to plunge one back into the perplexity of the question, and often its use is only to return one squarely to where one started. The lack of a use-value, to return to our example of natural resources, cannot be processed and consumed, it must be cared for and cultivated, and it exhibits a cyclical character.

Knowledge cannot be characterized as objective in the sense that information can be, as the sort of thing that anyone could find and, in the finding, immediately understand. Rather, knowledge confounds the means by which it may be obtained, inspiring perplexity in the seeker (as Plato argues in the Phaedo).

The difference between information and knowledge may be analogized to Aquinas’ distinction between ordinary physical food and the spiritual food of the Eucharist.

Taking the Aristotelian account of eating as that activity which destroys the formal integrity of the food, turning the material of the food instead toward the activity of the body, and forcing upon the material the form of the body (incompletely though, for the material gradually reasserts its own nature, resulting in the death of the person and the disintegration of his body), Aquinas inverts the formula.

Spiritual food, rather than having its sort of being destroyed and the material turned towards the activity of the soul that consumes it, retains its own form and turns the soul of him who consumes it towards the activity of what is consumed–the body of Jesus Christ.

In eating the body of Christ, one does not consume but is rather himself consumed.

Likewise, whereas the intent of the information-gathering process delimits in advance the nature of the information that shows up, the intent of the knowledge seeker, in the process of gaining knowledge, does not determine the object of its search, but is rather determined by it.

In finding out what one seeks to know, one must learn to surpass the form of the question posed, and one must go beyond oneself.

The process of learning involves necessarily being at the mercy of what one seeks; we can think of Aristotle’s image of the soul as being potentially all possible forms. The seeker of information consumes the information he finds. The seeker of knowledge is himself consumed by the knowledge that he seeks. Where information is technological, knowledge is contemplative.

The process of learning, therefore, requires the student to change and develop not only what he knows, but how he knows and how he goes about knowing more.

Knowledge isn’t so much acquired as it is lived, and this explains why, for the Greek philosophers, virtue is a prerequisite for knowing.

The student is wholly involved in the process of learning; he is, as it were, within the question itself. In order to know the answer, the student must realize the insufficiency of the way he asked the question. This task cannot be performed in a short period of time; it is a task for a lifetime.

This explains in part why Heidegger instructs his students to spend so much time studying Aristotle. Coming to any true knowledge of Aristotle (or anyone worth understanding) does not consist in simply sketching out his positions, as one would sketch out the positions of a politician running for office, nor does it consist in placing Aristotle in predetermined categories (e.g., materialist, empiricist, and so on); it requires getting at the heart of Aristotle’s philosophy by fully entering the cycle in which one’s previous intent is confounded and altered by the object of knowledge, and one is placed at the mercy of the dialectic of philosophy.


One Response

  1. I found this post through seeking information on Google, but it has helped my knowledge of the subject immensely!

    Would you agree that one of the defining aspects of knowledge is that it can admit ignorance? Meanwhile, modern ideas of information can be quite empiricist, and admit to no reality outside of the information. I am a library professional and we often see this with young people who use Google: if it is not “on Google” it’s not out there at all!

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