virus: To Know as We are Known

Thu, 01 Apr 1999 20:18:16 -0800

TOTD subscribers will recognize the name Palmer J. Parker. Here's a fairly lengthy excerpt from his book "To Know as We are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey."

To be honest, I don't know exactly what point I hope to advance by posting this excerpt. It just seems to me that Parker's thinking in the following passages has bearing on the ongoing discussion/debate over the value of faith, phaith, and phaith-inducing experiences.

(As an aside, I'd like to say that for me, what goes on here on the CoV list more feels more like a discussion than a debate because I am articulating portions of my own position for the first time as a result of the discussion. I am not marshaling a set of arguments for a position which I have already articulated and presented.)

Perhaps what makes this section of Parker's book seem so relevant to the current state of the discussion (aside from the fact that I read it for the first time just yesterday) is the way the author frames religious, intuitive, and holistic thought as a mode of knowing that was dominant in our human past while rationality and analytic modes of thought and perception are more recent developments. Anyway, I would genuinely appreciate any feedback or responses to the following:

The several courses in epistemology that I took as a student seemed interminable and utterly irrelevant.

But now I understand that the patterns of epistemology can help us decipher the patterns of our lives. Its images of the knower, the known, and their relationship are formative in the way an educated person not only thinks but acts. The shape of our knowledge becomes the shape of our living; the relation of the knower to the known becomes the relation of the living self to the larger world. And how could it be otherwise? We have no self apart from our knowledge of the self, no world apart from our knowledge of the world. The way we interact with the world in knowing it becomes the way we interact with the world as we live in it.

To put it in somewhat different terms, our epistemology is quietly transformed into our ethic. The images of self and world that are found at the heart of our knowledge will also be found in the values by which we live our lives.

I want to uncover some of the epistemological and ethical images by inspecting the key words we use to describe the kind of knowledge we vale and trust--words like "fact" and "theory" and "objective." Hidden inside our words, buried at their very roots, are ancient word-pictures which often tell us more than contemporary usage reveals. By digging to those roots and uncovering the images I hope to shed light on the epistemology that forms the educated self and its relation to the world.

The word "fact" is vital to us. Without it we would be virtually speechless if asked to describe the kind of knowledge we prize. Our commitment to "find the facts" marks the turn from primitive superstition to modern science, from subjective knowledge based on feeling, intuition, and faith to objective knowledge that can be tested by our senses.

"Fact" comes from the Latin facere, "to make." The image "making" suggests that a fact is something crafted by the human hand--a meaning most clearly seen in our words "manufacture" and "artifact." Here is something central to our sense of ourselves as knowers: we are busily engaged in trying to construct a livable world with our facts.

It is no accident that our confidence in facts has grown as our religious faith has declined--the faith, I mean, that world has been crafted for us. We no longer see ourselves as recipients of the world as gift; we no longer regard knowing as a way of receiving and celebrating and using that gift. The knower now stands like a master builder in the midst of chaos, trying to fashion a world fit for human habitation. Now we alone are the creators; with our facts we make reality; the only reality we have is one made of those facts. We build a world by the sweat of what lies behind our brows, a task we pursue with pride in our power and success. But now it is pride and trembling, for in the midst of our labors we have sensed the precariousness of this mind-made world: when reality is what we make it, we can unmake it at any time.

Another key world is "theory." Our facts do not arrange themselves automatically into structures we can inhabit. So we spin theories, webs of connective logic, to order and integrate our facts. Theory is the thread that weaves our factual world together.

"Theory" comes from the Greek theoros, or "spectator," one of a complex of Greek words having to do with the sort of viewing and observing that characterize a theater audience. This image suggests another feature of modern knowing: we regard what we know as "out there," on stage, and we relate to as if from a distance. Our knowledge does not draw us into relationship with the known, into participation in the drama. Instead, it holds us at arm's length as detached analysts, commentators, evaluators of each other and the world. Like theater-goers we are free to watch, applaud, hiss and boo, but we do not understand ourselves as an integral part of the action.

I realize that the Greeks regarded drama as integral to life, not a spectator sport but a soul-making force. But we, unlike the Greeks, make a rigid distinction between the observer and the observed for the sake of objectivity. Where Greek audiences were able to put themselves at the center of the play--literally allowing it to "play" upon them--we hold ourselves apart for fear of distorting the objective facts with our subjective needs.

"Objective" is another world central to our way of knowing. It is the ever present adjective, continually used to modify the key nouns so there will be no mistaking what we are talking about: objective facts, objective theories, objective reality. If a claim is not objective, it is not knowledge but merely some species of passion or prejudice.

The Latin root of "objective" means "to put against, to oppose." In german its literal translation is "standing-over-againstness." This image uncovers another quality of modern knowledge: it puts us in an adversary relationship with each other and our world. We seek knowledge in order to resist chaos, to rearrange reality, or to alter the constructions others have made. We value knowledge that enables us to coerce the world into meeting our needs--no matter how much violence we must do. Thus our knowledge of the atom has brought us into opposition to the ecology of Earth, to the welfare of society, to the survival of the human species itself. Objective knowledge has unwittingly fulfilled its root meaning: it has made us adversaries of ourselves.

Finally, the word "reality." Here is the standard by which we test all pretenders to the throne of knowledge. By modern standards myths and stories and poems, however entertaining they may be, have nothing to contribute to our knowledge since they are not about the "real" world. Neither does religion, of course, nor any other form of conviction or devotion. These are neither valid kinds of knowledge nor valid ways of knowing since they deal with something other than reality.

The root of "reality" is the Latin res, meaning a property, a possession, a thing--a meaning most clearly seen in our term "real estate." This image suggests another quality of modern knowledge: we seek to know reality in order to lay claim to things, to own and control them. No wonder poetry and religion are beyond the pale. Unlike physical and behavioral science, they do not give us title to any real estate. Perhaps we should rewrite the popular maxim "Knowledge is power" in language more to the point: "Real estate is power." Power comes from what we own and control, so the knowledge we value is that which gives us mastery over property. (Do we not speak of studying a subject in order to "master the field"?)

Of course, ownership and control are possible only in relation to objects or things. One cannot own a living being until, by a twist of mind, one turns it into a piece of property, a slave, thus gaining the dominance modern knowing strives for. Knowledge that gives us real estate must turn all its subjects--including nature and human beings--into objective things.

>From Objectivism to Truth

In the midst of this critique of modern knowing, it is important to recall how and why we came to value knowledge of this kind. The untrained mind of premodern times did not rely on factual observations and logical analysis but on the subjective faculties--emotion, intuition, faith. These modes of knowing do not manufacture a world to be held at arm's length, manipulated and owned. Instead, they receive the world as a given, an organic whole, and they make the knower an integral part of it. Such knowledge does not reduce the world to lifeless "things" but fills all things with vital, pulsing life. In such a world the very rocks have souls; flowers and trees have spirit-selves; the events of daily life are filled with symbols and signs. The whole of experience is pregnant with portent and meaning, and the knower is interwoven with it all.

This is the stuff of which fantasy is made--which doubtless explains why fantasy literature is so popular in our factual times. But the premodern

mentality, however attractive it may be to imaginations starved by
scientism, has a sizable dark side. The frequent companions of emotion,
intuition, and faith are superstition, crude ideology, and gross
psychological projection. The teeming life of the earlier world was often little more than a reflection of the passions and prejudices of those who claimed to know.

We have no warrant to romanticize a time when witches were burned, heretics drawn and quartered, and farms and villages scorched to satisfy the psyches of princes, priests, and a frenzied populace. The commitment to objectivity has helped untangle some very twisted strands of the human soul, distortions we must stand "over against." Indeed, the commitment to objectivity has good spiritual grounding. It can be a hedge against the sin of self-centeredness which affects everything we do, including knowing, and has since Adam and Eve.

There is much about modern knowing we must honor. Its benefits are incontestable, not only in applied science but in the realm of culture as well. Our daily lives are lightened by the achievements of technology; the insights of social science have eliminated some of the cruelties of our common life; our spirits are freed to soar on the wings of literature and the arts. In this book I use the tools of modern knowing to criticize that knowing itself! Doing so is not an unconscious contradiction or a comic irony; it shows that modern knowing has the capacity to turn upon itself and open itself to correction, a capacity premodern knowledge did not possess. For all the dangers of modern knowing, we cannot go back.

I have only read a few more paragraphs past where I ended this excerpt, so I don't know what kind of synthesis Parker suggests, or how he thinks it can be achieved.