Tuesday, April 19, 2011

How Poetic Knowledge Works

Visit A Healer's Geste for more discussion on Chapter 2, part 2 of Poetic Knowledge.

"In what has been explained so far, from Socrates to Augustine, concerning poetic knowledge ... it has also been far from clear how this "works" even though the role of the sense and emotions has been described. "

So can we use the scientific mode to describe the poetic?  I have been wondering this throughout the book.  But the answer appears to be "yes". 

"It is Aristotle, and St Thomas's commentaries on the Greek philosopher's several works in this area, that reveal this integration of the powers of knowledge.  ... it becomes appropriate to use the language of reason to explain that which is prior to reason."
So now we can turn to how the poetic mode "works" -- we can break into parts, analyze, synthesize, and categorize.

For this post I am going to try to go through the diagram on page 44.

First there are the senses.  Aquinas followed Aristotle in holding that knowledge begins in sense and is completed in the intellect.  Both parts of these are important.   To deny that knowledge begins in sense leads to the extremes of Idealism.   Angels have no bodies, and can understand without sensation, but humans are not angels.

Conversely, to hold that Knowledge IS sensation adds up to materialism, and is what Charlotte Mason describes in the following way as a problem of some modern forms of education:
We come dangerously near to what Plato condemns as "that lie of the soul," that corruption of the highest truth, of which Protagoras is guilty in the saying that, "Knowledge is sensation."
The glory of man is that he is integrated, body and soul.

"If we do not understand that man is made out of matter and form (soul) we have no frame of reference for what he does....we have no clue to the inner meanings of his operations.... It is not the eye that sees or the ear that hears or the mind that thinks.   It is man who does these things with the aid of the eye and ear and mind."
The "exterior senses" are sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste.  .. the five that we learn about in grade school.

The "interior senses" are:

Common sense -- not conventional wisdom, but the way we unite all our exterior senses to form a big picture.  You can see a baby forming a "common sense" perception of an object when he turns it around to inspect it from all views, handles it, puts it in his mouth, and shakes it or pounds it on something to see what kind of noise it makes.    Obviously if a person is blind or deaf, he will not know the visual or auditory qualities of the thing, but his mind can take what it CAN sense and make some sort of "common sense" perception of it.  

Imaginative -- a mental picture of something that is not there.    You see this developing in a slightly older baby who looks for something under a blanket or still later, asks for something that he doesn't see in front of him.

Taylor says that "..though the imagination remains a sense faculty, confined by time and space,... it is these material images that help us build up our immaterial ideas.. The special significance and excellence of imagination lies in the fact that it can form images of things that are not here and now .... all it needs to bring forth its fruits is that we shall have had some previous experience of these matters."

(Charlotte Mason discusses this in one of her books where she says that a child who has seen a stream can picture a river, but a child who has only learned facts about rivers, say in a geography textbook, will have no living idea of the thing).  

Memorative -- recalling past images or experiences (or words).  Memory is the power of "reliving of the past."   "It tends, of its own accord, to link together experiences that are alike"

Taylor makes the point that imagination and memory are thought of as similar, but they have a difference in time.   When you imagine a glass of wine, you picture it in your mind, but when you are asked to think about a time when you saw a glass of wine, you remember it located at a particular place and time.  

"Imagination is the stuff of all stories; memory is the story itself, and likewise in all the areas of education in the poetic mode, there is the story of history, science, mathematics.  But it all begins in the lively cultivation of the senses, especially imagination in confrontation with reality and the arts..."

Estimative -- judging the good or evil of something.   Animals have this inner sense.  Aquinas points out that a sheep shows estimative sense when it runs away from a wolf -- it is not afraid because the wolf looks or smells ugly, but because it understands that the wolf is evil (subjectively for the sheep).  It is the

"apprehension of the inwardness of a thing together with its external appearance."

It apprehends intentions, not just appearance, and Taylor says it is the foundation of Prudence.  You can see it in the characteristics of the wily, crafty and tricky Odysseus, who was admired by the Greeks for his canniness and practical judgment.     This kind of sense is also shown, and in a way taught, in Aesop's fables and in all the many proverbs and  folk sayings that come down to us from tradition.

One thing I think is very important to mention here is that we as humans aren't "divided" into bodily senses and emotions on one hand, and reason and spirit on the other hand.    I think Taylor brings this up in more detailed way later on, but the dualistic view of man as a "soul in a machine" ocame much later in history and is a thinking error.    So is the view of man as a sort of complex beast.

The truth is that we as humans are "rational animals" but the immaterial part of us, our rational nature, works downwards, infusing our physical nature and making it an entirely different thing than it is in mere animals. And this is not a process but a simple fact.  So people who act like animals are actually far more degraded than any animal because they are acting against what they are.   CS Lewis talks about this infusing downwards but I don't remember where.  ( He also talks about when we become Christians and by virtue of that participate in God's life, our nature is again infused and transformed from above, so that our ordinary physical and even rational processes are different by nature of that new participation in God's grace.)

So our senses, interior and exterior, we have by virtue of our physical biological nature, but that doesn't mean it's the "animal" or "prerational" part of us, as if we could be separated into compartments.  We are "integrated" which means that our five senses and our interior use of the raw material is integrally wrapped up with our rational and spiritual nature.

I think I have gone on for a long time and not gotten to the emotions (what Aquinas called the "passions" because they are "passive" which to the ancients and medievals did not mean being a couch potato but rather, an "undergoing" or "receptiveness" -- think of Jesus's "Passion" on the cross, meaning that he let it be done or underwent it).    Our emotions are passions insofar as we experience them and "motors" (emotions) insofar as we react to them by movement towards or away from their object.   For example, the sheep that sees a wolf experiences or undergoes FEAR which hopefully propels it to flee.

Thomists make a distinction between "concupiscible" and "irascible" emotions.   Concupiscible passions are the ones that you experience as attraction, love or or joy in the good, true, and beautiful.   Irascible passions are the "useful " ones that motivate you towards a good thing or away from a bad thing. 

"the irascible passions defend the concupiscible"
This is where the will kicks in.   Taylor makes a distinction between "loving will" and "deliberative will".   I hate rushing through this part because it seems so important!   He says that "loving will" is our natural desire for the universal good.     As Augustine said "Our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee."  It is contemplative and poetic, beholding things as they are.
"The loving will follows the wondering intellect which is open to the mystery of being." (Conrad Baars)
Our "deliberative will" chooses between available goods and is "concerned with particulars and means".   IT is "where the activity of choice resides" -- it is identified with our free will.  So it is important, but in this context, secondarily so.   It operates to choose the means AFTER the end has been discerned.

  • Love, the loving will, draws us to things more than discursive systems of thought
  • Love is not just "feelings" but in a way sensation (which includes emotion) allows love to "breathe".
"Now the soul is drawn to a thing by the appetitive power rather than by the apprehensive power, because the soul has, through its appetitive power, an order to things as they are in themselves...." (Aquinas)
Our modern society gets it backwards.  It considers the means, before the ends have been understood or desired.  It tries to use a diluted sense of desire to provide a motor power for the means, as when schools try to teach through silly entertainment, or push kids to succeed by the promise of a good job and lots of spending power.  It's not that a rewarding job is a bad thing so much as that what "good" means is often materialistically or shallowly defined or not defined at all.

A couple of footnotes:

Some of the chapter talked about St Benedict and Newman's discussion of his "poetic" way of life.  I didn't get to talk about that part but here is the discussion in its entirety.  Mission of St Benedict   It's very interesting!  A related blog post called Newman on St Benedict and the Poetical. 

Read more discussion at A Healer's Geste!


  1. Thank you! As I read that section on the will, I *knew* there was a quote by an important person on how all men are, deep down, drawn to God. They must "suppress the truth in unrighteousness." It was the restless quote by Augustine that I couldn't pull out! :)

  2. I am still having a little difficulty, too, grasping the meaning and the significance behind the fact that we are bodies and souls in composite, not souls trapped in irrelevant or dirty physicality (gnosticism) and not mere brutish bodies with intellect (materialism). I was alerted years ago to watch out for creeping gnosticism, but it's only been recently that I've realized materialism is far more prevalent in modern society. I can identify gnosticism and materialism, but the truth I am still very hazy on. I just know it's important. :)

    And, the application I usually see when I think about the two elements, is that it then really does matter to our *souls* in what state our homes are in and to my soul what the state of my physical body is. The two parts are integral and connected, not separated and divided and unrelated. One affects the other.

    So....is there a change my soul can make that will make it easier to keep the house clean and lose my extra weight? :) Ah....rabbit trails, indeed. :)

    I never understood that there was a difference between saying passions (in older writings, of course) and emotions. I always just counted them as synonymous. Your explanation of receptive v. motor makes sense!

  3. I really like the way you put this, "So people who act like animals are actually far more degraded than any animal because they are acting against what they are."
    Did CS Lewis talk about this in the Abolition of Man? About men without chests?

  4. Very thoughtful post, Willa, I agree with your conclusion about modern society and think this is the reason so many homeschool moms are working through this dense treatise on education. Poetic knowledge resonates with the human soul and we want that anchor for ourselves and our children.

  5. Rebekah, I think you are right that it was in Abolition of Man. Perhaps in other writings of his as well.

  6. "...think of Jesus's "Passion" on the cross, meaning that he let it be done or underwent it."

    Thanks for that -- I always wondered, because he seemed pretty calm about the whole thing to me. ;-)

    I found the part about the estimative power most enlightening and helpful -- the fact that, when your senses have been trained well, you really can, in a sense, "follow your heart" or "listen to your feelings." Not indiscriminately, not when they move you against the Word of God, but Reason is not the only legitimate way of knowing and deciding.

  7. Okay, so it is nighttime on Good Friday and I finally have time to read this (because my Easter bread is in the oven right now). Ahem.

    I really appreciate you re-walking us through the chart. I think your words helped elucidate Taylor's for me.

    Obviously, I have to buy the Rule of Benedict or whatever the precise title is...The Common Room has been blogging its application to homeschooling lately, and now I feel like I'm crossing paths with it everywhere...


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!