What are the sources for the idea that those who don't know, who know less, have a certain, valuable, wisdom?

In French, there is this idiom "the popular wisdom" (la sagesse populaire) which conveys this idea.

Maybe the critic of the formal academic education in Emile, or On Education (1762), by Rousseau.

There also maybe the popular image of the boorish, but nice, humble and valiant guy, as embodied for instance in the mythical knight Godefroy de Bouillon.

  • creativity should involve a kind of knowledge/expertise in the domain, beyond just a sense of domain relevance. i'd have thought that terms like homespun, lowbrow, naive, primitive, etc., all fit the bill. good question +1 for anyone who can answer it
    – user70707
    Jan 5 at 12:54

3 Answers 3


One of the older, best-known, and influential formulations of the concept is Socrates' famous dictum "I know only that I know nothing," which is generally held to mean that true wisdom consists in knowing the limits of your knowledge. There are echoes of that still alive in what you're talking about. The idea is that an excess of learning can lead to intellectual arrogance, and that much of what we think of as knowledge serves, in effect, as a distraction away from true wisdom. The simpler, less educated person can sometimes surprise or impress us with their superior wisdom.

There's a similar message, also of ancient origin, in Ecclesiastes, for instance in 1:17, "In much wisdom is much grief. And he that increases knowledge increases sorrow." (Thanks to Rushi for this cite.)

It's worth being aware, however, that there's often also a whiff of patronization in this attitude--part of a general romanticizing of the "have-nots" by the "haves."

  • Ecclesiastes 1:17 is my favorite in this regard: In much wisdom is much grief. And he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow
    – Rushi
    Jan 5 at 16:14
  • 1
    @Rushi - I like that one better too! I'm stealing it for my post :D Jan 5 at 16:20

I can't cite any sources, but I'm pretty sure that this kind of wisdom refers to one's capacity to deal with (or even thrive in) uncertainty -- also known as intuition. Overreliance on rational knowledge can be problematic. It can lead a person to cling on rationality, so to speak, to overthinking, to decision paralysis -- all out of fear of embracing one's intuition.

Ideally, a person strives to be good at using both tools -- rationality and intuition -- and to use the one that is most appropriate for the task at hand.

I hope this helps!

P.S. "Athens & Jerusalem" by Lev Shestov explores the limitations of rational knowledge and it is one book I would recommend.

  • "intuition" is also a big thing in this line of thinking, I agree.
    – Starckman
    Jan 7 at 4:32

This idea may have been elevated and added a lot of credit by the Enlightenment thinkers, with the myth of the noble savage.

In particular:

The truly egregious part of their analysis, however, goes beyond simply the repetition of commonplaces and an exaggerated emphasis on one part of the story. Graeber and Wengrow don’t just attribute Enlightenment thought on equality to the “indigenous critique” in general, but to one “indigenous intellectual” in particular. The figure in question was named Kandiaronk, a leading figure in the Native American nation known variously as the Huron, Wendat and Wyandot. After the destruction of their homeland by the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) in the seventeenth century, many of them ended up in French Canada. Kandiaronk impressed many French observers with his eloquence and brilliance, frequently met with the royal governor, Count Louis de Buade de Frontenac, and may himself have traveled to France. In the 1680s, he also almost certainly met a young French soldier with the elaborately aristocratic name of Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce, Baron Lahontan, who traveled extensively in North America and learned Native American languages. Lahontan returned to Europe in the early 1690s, and ten years later published a series of works about North America, including one known under the title Dialogues with a Savage. It purported to be an accurate recreation of debates between himself and a Huron he called “Adario,” in which the Huron brilliantly refutes Lahontan’s arguments about the truth and superiority of Christianity, and more generally criticizes European customs. This character was probably based at least in part on Kandiaronk.

Lahontan’s Dialogues fit into a long European tradition of what Anthony Pagden calls the “savage critic.” It extends back at least as far as an anticlerical Spanish work of 1519 that featured a Native American chieftain who exposed the delusions of European Christian society. Although often informed by encounters with indigenous people, and with works like the Jesuit Relations, these works were still fundamentally fictional. Critics have almost always assumed the same thing about Lahontan’s Dialogues. The work owes an obvious stylistic debt to the ancient Greek satirist Lucian. Adario’s exposition of Huron religion sounds suspiciously like contemporary European deism. His critique of European marriage customs echoes many European works of the period, including those of the proto-feminist philosopher François Poulain de la Barre. In short, the Dialogues are a classic early Enlightenment work that blend observations of non-European societies with arguments drawn from European intellectual traditions to produce new and radical thought about society, politics and religion, all given extra spice by the figure of the wise “savage” who deliciously exposes one European custom after another as harmful and absurd. It was also just one of many works that used similar devices, including Montesquieu’s vastly more popular Persian Letters of 1721, and Françoise de Graffigny’s Letters of a Peruvian Woman of 1747. Lahontan certainly influenced Rousseau, but so did many others.

Bell, D. (2021) A flawed history of humanity. Persuasion. https://www.persuasion.community/p/a-flawed-history-of-humanity


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