Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Poetic Knowledge: The Philosophical Foundations

There is so much richness in this chapter.  I first read this book almost a decade ago and rereading it now, I realize how deeply it influenced me and how little I still understand it.

Taylor suggests that perhaps my lack of comprehension is not fatal -- it is the starting point of "wonder".  He quotes Dennis Quinn. 

"It is frequently forgotten that wonder arises not from ignorance but from consciousness of ignorance.... wonder intensifies .. pleasure.  because wonder increases desire and therefore the joy of discovery... It is true that wonder arises from something that is unpleasant, consciousness of ignorance, and that until one knows, one remains in this condition.  But the only way that one can profitably flee from ignorance is by desiring and attempting to know, and these are pleasant activities."

So perhaps it is OK that I have read this chapter dozens of times and only catch glimpses of understanding, as if a curtain pulled aside for the barest second and then closed again.  

Taylor points out that this form of "fear" is not fear of the thing itself, nor is it the emotional over-stimulation that sometimes attends movies, video games or documentaries on the History Channel.  It is not even the curiosity and intellectual drive that makes us want to master a math puzzle or research a topic or take a college class for fun.  

The traditional idea of wonder expressed by Aristotle operates within the ordinary, simply "things as they are."

Besides operating within the ordinary, "things as they are", wonder operates in relation to the particular:

The universal embedded within the particular
We know things poetically in the particular and singular.  Scientific knowledge abstracts and generalizes and analyzes.   Poetic knowledge is more like seeing, or hearing, or being part of something; it is receptive and responsive.  I can remember moments from childhood that still seem to be going on somewhere in eternity.  And I suppose this is why, as a bookworm, I usually hate the "study guide" type questions in the typical literature curriculum for school-age kids.    No doubt, there are things to be learned from analysis.  But don't let the abstraction and generalization replace the experience of the particular story or poem.   Something is lost there more precious than what is gained.  

The other aspect of the sense of wonder is that the person in a state of wonder is integrated -- his senses, emotions and intelligence are all united.   In a way, he is participating in -- moving towards and into -- the object of his wonder. 

I can't help thinking about my newborns and how after the sturm und drang of the birthing process, after they were swaddled and quieted at the breast, they would look around with eyes of wonder.  All their faculties would become still and attentive.

Taylor says that though we may go beyond this wonder, perhaps, to "wisdom" -- we do not leave it behind us like casting off an outgrown skin, like a reptile.  Rather, we build on it, like the outer rings of a tree build on the early ones. 

He quotes Cornelius Verhoeven, who says:

The whole history of philosophy lies in a broad circle about the loose space of wonder, even when this wonder is regarded as a starting point... Philosophy is not knowledge; as a form of desire (love) it is more a pathos, a state, than an actual knowing.   Plato gives this pathos a name: wonder... An introduction to philosophy is an introduction to the wonder that makes philosophy move."
So as we do not leave behind these earlier ways of knowing as we learn to use our discursive reasoning abilities -- in a similar way, it seems, philosophy historically has circled around wonder and does not leave it behind even as it develops.

Wonder is essentially non-utilitarian --  like love, it does not count costs or do something for a hidden motive.  Like love, it tries to move towards what it contemplates, but not in order to assimilate or master it.  Rather its movement is to participate -- as one does not try to use or assimilate the beloved.  

In this way it is somewhat similar to play. 

Taylor quotes Umberto Eco on Thomas Aquinas:

"The activities of play," writes Aquinas, "are not aimed at some extrinsic end, but aim rather at the well-being of the player."....disinterested contemplation is similar to play, because it is an end in itself.  It also resembles play in that it is not a response to some compulsion rooted in the exigencies of life, but is rather a higher activity appropriate to a spiritual creature.

I think some of this sounds strange to our ears -- I know it did for me -- because we are used to thinking "work before play" and "make yourself useful" and things like that.    But we have to keep our focus on what things are for.    We are called to labor, yes, and labor is vital to our survival, but labor is not our whole existence.  Nor is leisure a matter of putting our feet up and grabbing the remote control and a beer.   Taylor points out in passing that our concept of work is distorted so our concept of leisure is distorted too.   Our "leisure" is either frenetic or idle, or we avoid it altogether and become workaholics.  

The poetic experience is essentially concerned, as leisure is, with the transcendent.   Transcendent is a word that signifies "climbing over or beyond".     Taylor quotes Homer's Odyssey as an example

I myself feel that there is nothing more delightful than when the festive mood reigns in a whole people’s hearts and the banqueters listen to a minstrel from their seats in the hall, while the tables before them are laden with bread and meat, and a steward carries round the wine he has drawn from the bowl and fills their cups. This to my way of thinking, is something very much like perfection.
Perfection traditionally meant "completed", "nothing lacking".

To try to pull all this together, I am trying to characterize wonder as:

  • Concerned with the ordinary, things as they are, the particular.
  • Perceiving beyond the things as they appear -- contemplating, in a way, or "reading" or moving towards the reality beyond or within the appearance.  "the universal embedded in the particular"
  • Involving and integrating the whole person, not just the imagination or will or emotions or mind, but all pulled together.
  • Analogous to love
Perhaps these last parts about integration and love could use a bit more clarification.  Taylor cites Conrad Baars, a Dutch Thomistic physician, who wrote :

"The basic activity of the will is love.  Love is the passion of the intellect... Just as the activity of the intellect comes to its perfection in a judgment about what really and objectively is, so the will comes to its perfection in accepting and approving what is insofar as it is. ... Love allows the being to be, and it enjoys its being. The loving will follows the wondering intellect which is open to the mystery of being."
It goes without saying, probably, that the ordinary things opening up to mystery, and the attitude of wonder in regarding the mystery and drawing closer to it lovingly, essentially finds its resting place in God.    I would imagine that this is the problem that our modern currents of thought have with poetic knowledge.   They don't want things to open up into mystery and loving awe; they want to resolve them into knowledge of the Bitzer sort... that puffs up the knower and allows him to manipulate the things around him.     If wonder is necessary (the mechanical forms of behaviorism didn't work on real kids) they want it to be sentimental and accessible, like Pretty Ponies, or entertainment-oriented, like dancing bunnies teaching a math lesson. 

I think it is hard for us as parents to avoid falling into the Scylla/Charybdis traps -- either of settling for mere concrete dry knowledge or utilitarian skills, or falling into a tolerance of idleness and dilettantism.   But that's for later in the book.   Right now I am just thinking Go Outdoors, and Slow Down, and Read Good Books, and Listen, and Let Them Play.

Outline of the chapter, and links to other posts discussing the book, at A Healer's Geste.


  1. The reason I began with the plan to do year-round schooling with six weeks on and one week off was that I thought it would facilitate smoother planning and would keep me from getting bored and burnt out.

    Now, the reason I am going to continue the six weeks on and one week off, and the four-day school week, is because I see that it allows us the time to live. My oldest then has the time every six weeks to finish a book a day, my second will spend an hour drawing, both of them will have mornings they can romp outside. It gives us all that leisurely down time to let things assimilate and marinate and let us pursue the project ideas that have been tugging at us.

    "Love allows the being to be, and it enjoys its being. " -- This is an excellent quote. I think it applies most obviously and necessarily to loving people. If we love them (our children included) we enjoy their being who they are, we don't see them as raw material to shape into our own image. This has been a shift of focus for me gradually over the years. Applying it to other fields and beings is even more of a stretch for me.

  2. I really enjoyed your post--a lot of the bits you quoted are the same ones that spoke to me.

  3. Yes, Willa, I agree with Mystie and Karen in that you crafted a great post. Your concluding paragraph
    I think it is hard for us as parents to avoid falling into the Scylla/Charybdis traps -- either of settling for mere concrete dry knowledge or utilitarian skills, or falling into a tolerance of idleness and dilettantism. But that's for later in the book. Right now I am just thinking Go Outdoors, and Slow Down, and Read Good Books, and Listen, and Let Them Play.
    says it all.
    Mystie... this is amazing. It is being the same for me, the letting go of the idea of "shaping" them, even that subtle thought of comparing them to what we were that we value, or what we think they should be that we value, but loving them as they are. It is easier to say we do than to really, truly, deep down there, LOVE THEM FOR WHO THEY ARE.

    Good point too about why our modern time is not crazy about this, because all this chapter to me pointed to God and they are trying to kick Him out of our life and everywhere they can see traces of Him.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!