Why We Fall for the Fallacy of Intellectual Knowledge

There’s a common fallacy going around among us human beings, and we have all fallen for it at one time or another (or constantly). It’s the fallacy of “intellectual knowledge.” 

(A fallacy, of course, is a mistaken belief.)

  • If you think that being able to think about something means you know it, you may be falling for the fallacy of intellectual knowledge.

  • If you think that being able to describe an activity means you know the activity, you may be falling for the fallacy of intellectual knowledge.

  • If you think that being able to explain a theory or diagnosis means you know something, you may be falling for the fallacy of intellectual knowledge.

But what IS the fallacy of intellectual knowledge? 

Sometimes, when teaching or with my clients, I’ve explained the difference between “intellectual knowledge” and “real knowledge” by comparing intellectual knowledge to words on an audio player in your head. 

Unlike a recording, real knowledge informs your constructive action. Real knowledge is alive. Real knowledge motivates informed constructive action. It empowers you to interrupt your habitual patterns and make positive changes.

With intellectual knowledge, you’re just listening to a recording –– a memory of something you heard or read. You may be able to repeat that recorded message and even explain it, but you don’t actually KNOW it unless you can DO it. 

For example:

  • You may be able to describe how to drive a car after reading about it in a racecar manual. But that doesn’t mean you can safely drive a racecar.

  • You may even be able to describe the steps of a complicated brain surgery, if you read neurosurgery journals and have an excellent memory, but that doesn’t mean you should attempt to perform that brain surgery.

  • Out of a mild curiosity, you may read about meditation one day and think, “Now I know what meditation is, so I don’t have to do it.” A college friend of mine –– a genius by all the measurements of the time –– actually said this to me. But of course, he was wrong. You can’t get the benefits of meditation by reading about it, anymore than you can drive a racecar or perform brain surgery by reading about those activities.

Why do we persist in the fallacy of intellectual knowledge?

When people persist in this fallacy, believing intellectual knowledge = real knowledge, it’s often the case that they have a smart brain. 🙂  For these folks, the life of the mind is more comfortable when it doesn’t involve the physical body and emotions too much. But they often discover, often through talk therapy, that accumulating intellectual knowledge about their problems falls short of helping to solve them. 

I often hear clients refer to what they’ve learned in talk therapy, by saying, “I know that, I know all about that, but it doesn’t do any good.”

They have discovered that intellectual knowledge, however thoroughly it may describe our habitual patterns, has no power to change those habitual patterns.

When we settle for “knowing something intellectually,” we are lounging in the habitual patterns. When we think intellectual knowledge is all we need, we are satisfied with  going nowhere. We can just sit on the couch and read self-help books without ever helping ourselves. 

When we discover that intellectual knowledge alone isn’t getting us anywhere, that is the beginning of real knowledge.

Real knowledge, in contrast, naturally guides your actions in ways that truly enhance your life. If at some point you don’t know what to do, try to avoid saying, “I know that intellectually but . . .” 

Instead, courageously declare, “I don’t know what to do, BUT I am staying focused on finding the real knowledge that will make clear what I need to do to accomplish my goal.” 

When we have the courage to say “I don’t know,” it keeps us motivated to learn what we need to do next. But when we say, “I know that intellectually, but it doesn’t do any good,” we’re accepting defeat before we even take the first step!

Accepting defeat and going nowhere is the (ultimately) frustrating result of accepting the Fallacy of Intellectual knowledge.

When we don’t know, we can just say, “I don’t know” with full self-respect and self-encouragement.

We can say “I don’t know” with a smile on our face because we realize that ‘not knowing’ equals ‘soon to learn something new.” We can keep paying attention to the challenge before us and stay open to learning what we need to do next –– as long as we don’t settle for the fallacy of intellectual knowledge.