Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Poetic Knowledge -- More on Modes of Knowledge

Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea;   reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion,.. To accept everything is an exercise,  to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head.  And it is his head that splits.  --GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy
The Poetic Knowledge Book Study continues!   Higher up and further in!   We are beginning Chapter 3 which concerns Connatural, Intentional, and Intuitive Knowledge (pages 59-75).    This is not easy stuff.  I can usually read and technically understand what I'm reading, but it is a stretch.   I think when I read these middle chapters before I would just sort of skim hoping to get a few thoughts out of them.  For more discussion of the book, go to A Healer's Geste:  Poetic Knowledge Book Club.

Throughout the book Taylor has been making the point that the poetic mode of knowledge precedes the scientific mode; that it is in one way incomplete insofar as it does not (considered in itself) use our human ability for "discursive reason" or logic -- while at the same time it is more reliable, more "certain"  in  some respects because it is upon the poetic and other more primary modes that the more elaborate systematic reasoning is based .
A science, according to Aristotle, can be set out as an axiomatic system in which necessary first principles lead by inexorable deductive inferences to all of the truths about the subject matter of the science...Scientific knowledge is..demonstrative; what we know scientifically is what we can derive, directly or indirectly, from first principles that do not themselves require proof.  -- Introduction to Aristotle

Poetic experience leading to poetic knowledge, on the other hand, is concerned with
“.. bringing men into engagement with what is true.   What is important is engagement with reality, not simply the discerning of reality.” 
This perhaps rings strangely to our modern ears because we are used to thinking of "scientific certainty" as more objective and real, somehow, than poetic knowledge.  But poetic knowledge deals with things directly as they are, while scientific knowledge takes these things and our understanding of them and tries to derive conclusions.  Everyone can think of examples of science being spectacularly wrong, but no one can think of an example where poetic knowledge per se is "wrong", because it does not propose.... it inclines or approaches.  When you read a science textbook about how "pre-scientific" people were wrong you get the impression that they were wrong because they were unscientific, that they were operating poetically.  But that is not quite true.   They were being scientific but using wrong methods or interpreting evidence wrongly.  

God's ideas are not like our concepts, that is, representative signs drawn from things, intended to introduce into a created mind the immensity of that which is, and to render this mind consonant with existents (actual or possible) independent of it. God's ideas precede things, they create them. This is why theologians, in order to find some analogy to them here below, compare them to the artist's ideas. Thomist theology thereupon considers the artist's idea in its proper nature and deepens the notion of it.Jacques Maritain, Frontiers of Poetry
This chapter talks about some different forms of pre-rational knowledge.  Notice that we are talking about pre-rational, not non-rational or irrational    Since we are rational beings, all of our experience participates in our rational nature.   All "rational" knowledge, knowledge that comes from drawing conclusions from premises, is based on the premises, which are in turn either "first principles" or else derived from them --- that is, conclusions in themselves, even though they are taken as premises for the sake of the further argument.  You see why Aquinas said that science was liable to err, and metaphysical science, which deals with the highest and most certain truths (the science of first principles, upon which all other sciences are based) is the most liable to error because it is easiest to go wrong.   A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and discursive reason is a chain. 

For example, a very small child can reason in a rudimentary way, inductively, after dropping a toy X amount of times, that dropped toys fall to the lowest place they can go before being stopped by something.    This SEEMS quite certain to us because of the world we live in where experience is consistent.   But in fact our empirical certainty rests on the way things were set up to operate and in turn on such things as "things can't be and not be in the same time and in the same way" (which Taylor mentions as one of the primary, pre-rational certainties that we base our reasoning upon.).

Also, this certainty that the dropped object will fall is a sort of contingent certainty.  It depends on certain circumstances and in fact, if we get into theoretical physics I believe we find "a dropped object falls to rest" isn't even an accurate statement, any more than "the sun rises in the east and sets in the west".   So the conclusion may not be strictly accurate, but our observations, our gymnastic participation in the act of dropping the toy repeatedly, is still completely true   And it is the kind of thing upon which all the further understanding, for human beings, is based.

At the outer reaches of physics are things that are so complex that very few men understand them.   We all share the same experiential grounding (more or less) but very few get to the theoretical outer reaches (or need to -- which is why traditionally education was "general" and "liberal" before it became specified and narrowed into expertise, so that the human being was educated as a human per se before he was educated as an engineer or theoretical physicist or philosopher). 

So here are the pre-rational modes of knowledge that Taylor discusses:

"Intuition" which is defined in the book as
"the non-discursive act of the intellect that grasps first principles without the aid of proof by demonstration"    
 Example previously mentioned:  Things can't be and not be at the same time and in the same way.  Intuition is defined as the spontaneous awareness of reality, the sense that something is there, outside the mind but that the minds knows.   This is an immaterial act because it implies a kind of awareness of the essence of things.

Gymnastic -- not just doing somersaults in a preschool class, but all the things where you participate through the movement of your body -- things like dancing a waltz or being out in nature (it's interesting here that Charlotte Mason made a distinction between the gymnastic mode of some new-age types of education, that tried to "draw out" what was within the student, whereas she thought more classically of gymnastics as training the person to physically interact with outside reality, which seems to be more the way Taylor sees it).

Intentional -- I didn't totally understand this but it seems to be a form of knowledge by inclination towards something.   It is almost like "love" as attraction towards something by a form of sympathy -- like seeking like, Taylor says.  

“The knowledge of objects comes about intuitively, unassisted by rational discourse, and as in a twinkling of an eye, proceeds from one act of the exterior senses, to the interior senses, leading to the appetites, intellect and will.  But each aspec of these powers is operating naturally; the appetite of natural desire; the passive intellect that receives; and the nonvolitional will that inclines effortlessly to being as such.  “
Connatural -- a knowledge by sympathy or likeness.  For example, a virtuous person will understand some point of virtue that is dark to a very educated bad man, because of a certain analogy or closeness of his way of being to the virtue.   Jesus seems to talk about things being open to a child because of its nature.   You see that the saints can be very wise about everything that matters even though illiterate or simple. 

mystical experience is concerned with interior silence and an  ineffable union with God, whereas, poetic experience soon becomes  animated with the connections of created things.   Although, it must be  said, honoring the above distinctions, the best of poetry, like the  best of music, touches on this interior silence; silence being the basis  of all sound and music.
I wanted to quote that bit because I've been thinking about sacred silence and I was noticing that poetic experience like prayer often seems to come from an interior silence, listening, receptivity -- you don't have poetic experience when your to-do list is clamoring inside your head, for example!

Taylor makes the point that while these different "modes" of knowledge are distinguished for the sake of the discussion, they are in fact integrated in actual operation in an individual person.   So the gymnastic mode is a way of experiencing things in a sensory/emotional way that influences and overlaps with the poetic mode. ... and so on.   In fact, this would be a primary reason why someone like Charlotte Mason would as much as possible try to give children access to "whole" living things -- so they could draw from them in a whole way, not in fragments which are always by definition somewhat reductive.    I think that is probably why she resisted targeting education to the child's "faculties" -- because she saw it as being reductive, like processed foods where the natural wholesomeness is taken out and a few artificial vitamins added. 

The chapter goes on:
Poetry, and poetic knowledge, discovers the invisible principles in real things without destroying the thing itself, which is, by the way, exactly how intentional knowledge operates and thus its poetic character. Abstractions, concepts, analysis, by themselves, isolate us from the real. Certainly, this mode of knowledge has a myserious deimension to it, because, unlike science, which cannot enter into these depths, it is quite at home in these intuitive connects with reality that become connatural.
However, though Taylor for the purposes of his discussion does often sharply distinguish between rational/ scientific mode and the other modes, even to the point of using terms like "isolate us from the real" I think it's important to notice that he isn't rejecting scientific modes of knowledge.     He warmly considers Michael Faraday's contemplative and delighted study of a candle, or Fabre's close observation of insect ways, as examples of scientific mode building upon, rather than attempting to cast aside or ignore, the preliminary modes.   And he talks about the science of philosophy as being built on the philosophical trait of wonder -- going in a way past wonder to knowledge, but not casting away wonder in doing so 

I think rather that he's pointing out that no one does, or can, operate without this pre-rational foundation.  Discursive reason does not operate in a vacuum.    It builds upon what is true.   If you go far enough backwards in "what is true" you end up with things that by definition can't be shown through the logical process.  You have to start somewhere.

And no one actually starts with merely "first principles" because again, that's not how experience presents itself to us.   As humans, we sort and filter through the barrage of  "incoming" -- a multiplicity of sensations and perceptions.   We make judgments.   We watch, listen, react, respond.    We build up a vast bank of perceptions long before we ever think "What is the meaning of life?" "What is the nature of being?"    God made us immersed in the particular but at the same time able to grasp the universality, to be aware of mystery and what is still left unknown.   

I was just reading about some startling case studies about people who had their amygdala damaged or removed (the amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for storing emotional reactions) .   These people would retain all their intelligence and other function, but their lives would fall apart -- they stopped being able to make good decisions, so they often got taken in by con men, and their daily lives became a mess because their rational brains were unable to make good judgment calls.  They would remain indecisive or choose the wrong thing because their "gut instinct" (which is apparently actually located in the amygdala) wouldn't tell them what they needed.

That reminds me of Chesterton again:
Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

To conclude this endless post, and I didn't even get to talk about subjectivism! I think the take-away point is not to throw out science but to build it carefully upon its prerequisites and use it well when it is required (as it often is -- Aristotle divided Science (epistemai, or knowledge) into practical, productive and theoretical, and into those categories fall not only the natural and physical sciences but also such crucial things as ethics, politics, theology, philosophy, agriculture and technology, not to mention theology).  I have to quote Chesterton once again -- he is using the term "logic" but it applies to all scientific method, since empirical induction is a mode of logic:
Logic and truth, as a matter of fact, have very little to do with each other. Logic is concerned merely with the fidelity and accuracy with which a certain process is performed, a process which can be performed with any materials, with any assumption. You can be as logical about griffins and basilisks as about sheep and pigs. ... The relations of logic to truth depend, then, not upon its perfection as logic, but upon certain pre-logical faculties and certain pre-logical discoveries, upon the possession of those faculties, upon the power of making those discoveries.....you can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it.
I wonder if some of our society's problems are due to getting the cart before the horse -- trying to deny the sensory/emotional mode, or else starve it by feeding it poor pseudo-educational twaddle,    It seems to me that even poor disciplinary methods -- punitive treatment, keeping children too inactive, inconsistency, or what Charlotte Mason calls "laissez-aller" (letting them go their own way) -- might in a way distort the "gymnastic mode" of learning things through the body.   And filling time with too many activities or cluttering the environment with distractions can interfere with the silence and space you need to hear and see things properly.  On the other hand, too little things to see and do and hear leave a sort of vacuum.   So a few things for me to think about as I plan our homeschooling for next year.


  1. Willa, this time you all have so meaty posts, and so good to read.

    I do love the Chesterton quotes. It makes all the sense, as well as your conclusions.

    This made me think again about severely autistic people, his thoughts about the madman, in the sense that it is said of these people that one part of the brain operates in absence of others, thus they do not "waste" time with emotions, etc, so they can OBSERVE much detail but can't have a "whole" or holistic picture, plus they miss the emotional connections that knowledge comes with, those intuition, those pre-rational truths!

    And I second your last paragraph. If you stop seeing all this in an individual, and have a narrow minded vision of children, your methods are pseudo scientific, based on a working model as Brandy said, they "sell" you results, or offer you "guaranties" as when you buy a vacuum cleaner...

    I do love your thought about interrupting the silence.

    I'm starting to feel as I do when I read Mason, a bit inadequate. Will I be up to this task of not interrupting, but propitiating poetic knowledge in my daughters, if that can be propitiated, and will I not be guilty of too much rigidity or to much laissez-aller.

    Good thoughts!

  2. Thank you Silvia, I think it is really interesting how all of our posts dovetail in certain points and diverge in others according to what "rabbit trails" we are on! I think it's so helpful to getting a better understanding, to read the different contributions!

  3. Another very thoughtful post, Willa! I know I thought I understood this book when I first read it but this time I sometimes feel that my head is splitting this time. More time for attention, I suppose. Great opening Chesterton quote!

  4. The ever-quotable Chesterton. :) You pulled some good ones!

    I have to admit that the discussions so far on poetic knowledge are making me see that perhaps unschoolers have a point. :)

  5. I am so behind in my Poetic Knowledge reading! But wow, this was incredibly helpful. I am having a tough time seeing the big picture here. I understand individual sentences (somewhat; have to reread frequently) but I can't seem to organize the whole in my mind. So thank you for translating for me!

    Great, great post!

  6. I am so behind on reading these posts, having been sick last week. But I'm starting with you, Willa, because you're number one (literally--on the list :). A lot of what you said reminded me of a lecture I've been listening to by Martin Cothran on whether or not science and religion are mutually exclusive. I think he actually quoted some of the same excerpts from Chesterton. I also remember that he said that logic is *not* necessarily concerned with truth. Its objective is internal consistency, which is not the same thing.

    Great summary.

    Mystie, Since you brought up unschooling, I just found this old post from Gregg Harris that I think clears a lot up in regard to secular v. Christian unschooling. When you mix this post in with Taylor and give it a good shake, it works well, I think. :)

    ps. Faith: I felt the same way the first time I read the book. I almost put it down, but I didn't. Instead, I struggled through it. This time it is much easier. I can promise you it is worth the struggle in the end, even if it takes a couple years to begin to see the whole.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!