The Poetics of Thought

The Data Information Knowledge Wisdom Hierarchy

Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on December 15, 2009

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?

(Eliot, 1934)


The ‘Data Information Knowledge Wisdom Hierarchy’ is an epistemological system usually associated with Russell Ackoff (Ackoff, 1989)  although elements of it are prefigured in the work of Milan Zeleny (1987), and in more poetic form in T.S. Eliot (above) and in the lyrics of a song by Frank Zappa[1].

To introduce this model, a brief description of what is meant by the ‘Data Information Knowledge Wisdom Hierarchy’ is in order. As indicated in the name, the model organises the range of epistemological phenomena into four categories, these are:

  • Data – this indicates the set of individual facts, figures, sensory impressions, etc.  Data is regarded as essentially meaningless, although it is the raw material from which meaning is derived.
  • Information – is regarded as data which has undergone some kind of organisation.  Data sets may be divided into categories according to some criteria; individual data items may be linked together according to some salient feature.
  • Knowledge – this is, essentially, information which has been internalised by the person such that they might put it to use. An important feature of knowledge is that, whereas information and data may reside in texts, objects, and events, knowledge acquisition, ownership, and transfer can only be effected by human agents.
  • Wisdom – this is seen as the possession of knowledge such that one is able not only to observe patterns of information within data and make intelligent connections between different patterns, but also to feel the principles which underlie the patterns themselves.  Wisdom allows one to see these various patterns in their contexts and to be able to remain independent of immersion in that context oneself.

What I want to argue is that this model draws on certain key metaphors.  These are partially spatial metaphors which, I will argue, map coherently onto those outlined in my previous analysis of ‘tacit’ and ‘explicit’ knowledge in the work of Michael Polanyi (and indeed to the less formal ideas of ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ knowledge).  In addition though, a close reading of the Data Information Knowledge Wisdom distinctions reveals a set of metaphors drawn not only from the properties of space but also to the properties of objects, specifically the substantial properties of hardness and softness, lightness and heaviness, liquidity, granularity, and evanescence.


Data is understood primarily as a physical resource, and the metaphorical form of this resource has a number of properties which distinguish it from information and knowledge. Firstly it is conceptualised as a large number of individual, separate, atomistic, entities, like an aggregate of small stones, or a pile of leaves blown by the wind.  Items of data have an ontological irreducibility which prevents their being understood as composites themselves; just as when one is collecting pebbles from the beach one would not think to increase one’s collection by splitting each pebble in half, so individual datum cannot be divided.  Data is also understood as pre-existing any efforts to effect its collection; we conceive it as simply ‘out there’ waiting for some kind of exploratory practice to discover it.   Such entities might be ‘collected’, ‘mined’, ‘gathered’, or ‘stored’; on the other hand, because items of data are unconnected to every other item, they might also easily be lost, fall away from one another, disaggregate, or slip through the cracks.

[1] The 1979 song ‘Packard’s Goose’ by Frank Zappa, on the Album ‘Joe’s Garage Act II and III contains the lines: Information is not knowledge/Knowledge is not wisdom/Wisdom is not truth/Truth is not beauty/Beauty is not love/Love is not music/and Music is THE BEST.(Tower Records, 1979).

ACKOFF, R. L. (1989) From Data to Wisdom. Journal of Applied Systems Analysis, 16, 3-9.

ELIOT, T. S. (1934) The Rock, Faber & Faber.

ZELENY, M. (1987) Management Support Systems: Towards Integrated Knowledge Management. Human Systems Management, 7, 59-70.

Tacit Space

Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on December 3, 2009

The other term in Polanyi’s apparent binary is, as already noted, ‘tacit’, and is familiar from its derivative, ‘taciturn’.  (‘Apparent’ because they are neither complementary not opposite, as Polanyi himself indicates they are terms which describe the structure of a ‘dimension’, not separate and isolated alternatives ). Both words have in common their origins in silence, and in that which is passed over in silence.  The difference that makes a difference is that, whilst taciturn suggests a reluctance or unwillingness to speak, tacit does not offer even the possibility.  .  Paralleling the physical principle of ‘subsidiary awareness’ outlined above, to be tacit is to be constitutive of expressibility but to take no part in that expression.  Though it has position within the body of the speaker, that position is disposition.   In contrast to explicit knowledge which folds out in the direction of a metaphorically external, distant object, tacit knowledge stays close to home and the condition of the subject.  In the spectrum of knowing and being, tacit knowledge blends into being.

The overall image that Polanyi provides is one in which an understanding of knowledge and knowing  maps onto our experience of being the being at the centre of phenomenal space and makes consistent use of metaphors of space as well as the different sensory modalities which function at different spatial removes.  That which is tacit and which is close to us, or which is interior to us, does not extend into space and cannot be visualized and objectified.  If it is sensed at all this sense is felt rather than observed, a sensorial engagement appropriate to its proximal intimacy.  That knowledge which is tacit is held in the necessary silence of our being.  As knowledge becomes explicit it coalesces into another being beyond the limits of our skin and the limits of our arms.  Performing its primal act, knowledge rolls out toward the horizon, leading our eyes to the object created by that unfolding.