What does ‘knowledge is power’ mean?

We explain what the phrase “knowledge is power” means, its origin and the authors who studied the relationship between power and knowledge.

What does ‘knowledge is power’ mean?

On many occasions we will have heard that knowledge is power, without knowing that this phrase is an aphorism attributed to Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the English thinker and philosopher who originally formulated it as Scientia potentia est (in Latin). However, Bacon developed more broadly the notion of ipsa scientia potentias est (“Science itself is power”).

Thus the phrase “Knowledge is power” in truth was used the first time in the 1668 version of the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). This English philosopher served as secretary to Bacon during his youth.

Whatever the origin of the phrase, from which it is possible to find numerous variants, the important thing is the way in which it is traditionally interpreted: as an affirmation that in education and the accumulation of knowledge, the true possibility is found of the human being to be influential , to change, to grow and even to have professional success.

Relationship between knowledge and power

From the interpretation that we explain above, it is possible to understand the link established in human society between knowledge, that is, the accumulation of knowledge, and power .

In fact, this thesis is at the center of formal education in our societies, in which we value the ability of individuals to learn: it is not the same to know how things are done, than to follow the orders of those who know . For that reason, knowledge is appreciated and guarded in more or less formal social circuits, such as academies.

The specialists in each area are in charge of imparting knowledge to their students, verifying knowledge , questioning and organizing it, allowing entry to know only those initiated. For example, that is what churches did with respect to their dynastic orders and in a similar way universities work today.

Therefore, the aphorism can also be interpreted as those who have the knowledge can also hold the power. Therefore, knowledge should not be given away, but it deserves strategic management , at the convenience, between the different competitors. This is what happens, for example, when two companies compete to find the formula for developing a new product.

Francis Bacon

The first Baron Verulam and first Viscount of Saint Albans, the Englishman Francis Bacon, was an important philosopher who with his work laid the foundations for the emergence of the modern idea of science , among other similar contributions.

He is especially recognized for having formulated an empirical theory of knowledge. In addition, he postulated the rules of the experimental scientific method , thus discarding Aristotelian science.

While he is not the true author of the aphorism “knowledge is power,” he wrote in his Meditationes Sacrae (1597) that Scientia potestas est , which he would translate as “knowledge is his power.” In this case he was referring to God, since at that time religious thought had not yet been completely separated from philosophical and scientific .

Thomas Hobbes

knowledge is power thomas hobbes
Thomas Hobbes pointed out that the goal of obtaining knowledge is power.

This English philosopher, considered the founder of modern political philosophy , revolutionized the way we think of ourselves. In his thinking the first forms of liberalism and materialism appeared .

In his work De Corpore (1655) already appears the thought that then crystallized in the aphorism “knowledge is power”: the idea that the goal of knowledge is power , to the same extent that the objective of speculation (scientific ) is the triggering of some action or some change.

Michel Foucault

The French post-Marxist historian and philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was one of the most renowned intellectuals at the end of the 20th century. It stands out for its important theorizations about, among other things, the relationship between knowledge and power.

For Foucault, power is exercised around the ability to define “right” and “wrong” ideas as a certain belief system is imposed as hegemonic or central, taking the place of “truth.” Consequently, this system ends up defining the way in which we conceive reality and normalizing our way of life.

Ali Ibn Abi Talib

The first in world history to point out the relationship in power and knowledge was the Imam Ali (599-661), cousin and son-in-law of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, the first man to convert to Islam and the first Imam for the Shiites.

In the book Nahj Al-Balagha of the 10th century, the saying is attributed that “ Knowledge is power and can elicit obedience . A man of knowledge can make his whole life follow and obey others, and venerate him after his death.


Aristotle (384-322 BC) in his work Nicomachus Ethics defines his theory of knowledge based on the sensible knowledge that derives from sensation, being an immediate and fleeting knowledge typical of lower animals.

The second level of knowledge is practical knowledge, which is the ability to rationally order our behavior, both public and private.

The third level of knowledge is called contemplative knowledge or theoretical knowledge where there is apparently no special interest. This knowledge takes us to the highest level of knowledge where the activity of the understanding lies, which seeks the why and the cause of things. It is where wisdom resides .

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