July 28, 2022
 min read

Mind Macros 27: Explicit and tacit knowledge, categories of desire, and acquiring wisdom

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Hello, friend.

Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.

Food for Thought

I.  Explicit and tacit knowledge

In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt uses the metaphor of a rider on the back of an elephant to describe the reasoning part of the mind (rider) and the emotional part (the elephant).

We can begin to understand the relationship between rider and elephant by examining an everyday occurrence for many of us, setting the morning alarm. When we set the alarm the night before, we use the reasoning brain (rider) to guide our decisions. Upon being woken in the morning, getting up is the very last thing we wish to do. This is the emotional (elephant) part of the brain using emotion to guide our choices. Emotion often overpowers reason, but intelligent behavior is only possible when reason and emotion work together.

Haidt uses these terms below to describe explicit and tacit knowledge:

"Knowledge comes in two major forms: explicit and tacit. Explicit knowledge is all the facts you know and can consciously report, independent of context. Wherever I am, I know that the capital of Bulgaria is Sofia. Explicit knowledge is taught directly in schools. The rider gathers it up and files it away, ready for use in later reasoning. But wisdom is based—according to Robert Sternberg, a leading wisdom researcher—on 'tacit knowledge.'

"Tacit knowledge is procedural (it’s ‘knowing how’ rather than “knowing that”), it is acquired without direct help from others, and it is related to goals that a person values. Tacit knowledge resides in the elephant. It’s the skills that the elephant acquires, gradually, from life experience. It depends on context: There is no universal set of best practices for ending a romantic relationship, consoling a friend, or resolving a moral disagreement.

"Wisdom, says Sternberg, is the tacit knowledge that lets a person balance two sets of things. First, wise people are able to balance their own needs, the needs of others, and the needs of people or things beyond the immediate interaction (e.g., institutions, the environment, or people who may be adversely affected later on). Ignorant people see everything in black and white—they rely heavily on the myth of pure evil—and they are strongly influenced by their own self-interest. The wise are able to see things from others’ points of view, appreciate shades of gray, and then choose or advise a course of action that works out best for everyone in the long run.

"Second, wise people are able to balance three responses to situations: adaptation (changing the self to fit the environment), shaping (changing the environment), and selection (choosing to move to a new environment). This second balance corresponds roughly to the famous 'serenity prayer': 'God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.' If you already know this prayer, your rider knows it (explicitly). If you live this prayer, your elephant knows it, too (tacitly), and you are wise."

II. The three categories of desire

"Epicurus saw human needs as divisible into three categories, and Schopenhauer clarifies Epicurus’s classifications: Natural and necessary needs – which cause pain if not satisfied. Essentially food and clothing, which are easy to satisfy. Natural but unnecessary needs – such as sexual satisfaction – which are more difficult to satisfy. Neither natural nor necessary needs – such as the latest gadget, other luxuries and personal fame – which are without end and difficult to satisfy. In other words, the more necessary a desired thing is – such as food and shelter – the more readily we will usually find it is available and the more easily we will be satisfied. On the other hand, the entirely superfluous things we desire, whether they be gadgets, fame or wealth, are much more difficult to secure and very rarely satisfy us. There is always more or better to be had.

"Unnecessary desires are ‘without end’ because that disparity will always push us forwards to desiring more and therefore towards further dissatisfaction, and they are ‘difficult to satisfy’ because they either come at a great cost or because of their never-ending and self-perpetuating nature. This is why people who live in simple circumstances often surprise us with how happy they are."

From Happy by Derren Brown

Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca (fond of quoting Epicurus) also distinguished between natural and unnatural desires. In a letter to his friend, Lucilius, Seneca echoes Epicurus's sentiment that unnatural desires have no end:

"Natural desires are limited; but those which spring from false opinion can have no stopping-point. The false has no limits. When you are travelling on a road, there must be an end; but when astray, your wanderings are limitless. Recall your steps, therefore, from idle things, and when you would know whether that which you seek is based upon a natural or upon a misleading desire, consider whether it can stop at any definite point. If you find, after having travelled far, that there is a more distant goal always in view, you may be sure that this condition is contrary to nature." — From The Tao of Seneca (Volume 1) by Seneca The Younger (View my highlights)

To paraphrase Arthur Schopenhauer, desire is like seawater; the more we drink, the thirstier we become.

Quotes to Ponder

I. Marcel Proust on the journey to acquire wisdom:

"We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world."

II. Benjamin Franklin on tempering passion with reason:

“If passion drives, let reason hold the reins.”

Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere

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