Religious Sensibility and Knowledge (still more)


3. Let me dwell longer on the Cartesian (and nowadays nearly universal) presumption that in serious thinking and writing, epistemology is singularly paramount. Apart from a few mavericks like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, or Thoreau, it’s taken as beneath mention that our most trusted connections with the world are – and ought to be — knowledge connections. We may seek to connect with others through virtues of character, but these seem secondary to managing the world through attaining and increasing objective knowledge. If instead of virtue we seek power, it too must be fed by knowledge; if we seek common pleasures, we gather knowledge about attaining them, and about which are permissible and which bypass dissolution, death, or jail. Educated elites value knowledge as power, rooted in epistemological premises rather than in weak-kneed premises of sympathy, wonder, or love. Thoreau marches to a different drummer. Not Knowledge, but sympathy and rapport give access to the realities that count.

Knowledge, of course, is multiplex. There is knowing that rain is essential to crops, and knowing how to plow, to harvest, to price and deliver to markets. Yet as we walk with the rhythm and feel of meadow, sunlight, and rain, we can resonate with so much more than is delivered by “knowing that” or “knowing how.” The world is more bounteous than knowledge delivers. We can enjoy visceral, exuberant, even ecstatic kinship with things and their surround. As Thoreau puts it in his Journal, we find facts that are “warm, moist, incarnated.” And he adds, “A man has not seen a thing who has not felt it.”[1] This is a third sub-division of knowing — knowledge as immediate familiarity or recognition, as when we know the feel of sand or the taste of blue cheese. And here is a fourth sub-division: knowledge as reciprocal participation. I know my violin in playing it, participating in its reality, and by the same token, it comes to know me as it plays for me and triggers a response in return.

As knower, you gain from the creature known a property you could not have had without the known’s being what it is which is not merely your delightedly reflexive intimacy with it, but also your awareness of yourself as delightedly intimate in just that way. Your knowledge of any creature is therefore a kind of participation in it, as its being known by you a participation of it in you. [2]

This fruitfully expands our vision of what knowing can be. There is more than knowing-how, knowing-that and knowing-as-familiarity. Knowledge-as-reciprocal-participation is a pre-modern ideal, not easily revived in a world dominated by science and technical know-how, but there’s a more important point to make here. Even if this ideal could be revived, participative-knowledge is still knowledge. No matter how valued and welcome a guest on Thoreau walks it might be, it is not his soul mate or inner light.

In that crucial passage from “Walking,” Thoreau trumpets Knowledge – note the flourish of “caps.” This mode of being and proceeding in life wears an unmistakable badge of honor. But however awkwardly named, easily overlooked, and never singled out for an extended, well-focused amplifying speech of praise, Thoreau’s true soul mate is “Sympathy with Intelligence.”  It plays a role in his life parallel to the role Socrates accords to his daemon, the uncanny inner voice that is always with him, ready to tell him what not to do. But that’s the difference: Thoreau’s inner voice is affirmative, not negative. It silently but surely guides, not with a “No!” but a “Yes!”

Sympathy with Intelligence is his portal to the world and is his trusted companion in it. It is neither knowledge-seeking nor knowledge-providing but purely and simply life-instilling. Sympathy-with-intelligence is a mode of mutual address and embrace. It’s helpful to show its difference from knowledge-as-participation. In the compact sketch just drawn above, we’re told, “As knower, you gain from the creature known a property you could not have had [otherwise].” There are two places Thoreau would pause and demur, not to derogate knowledge wholesale but to bare a deeper allegiance.

First, Thoreau would not have us participate via sympathy with “a creature known” but with an uncanny mesmerizing center of radiance, the divine intelligences of the Vedas, only mentioned in passing, but crucial to Thoreau’s rough-hewn metaphysical sensibility. Put another way, “intelligence” is not mental cleverness or insight but a cluster term that encompasses sites of radiance, plenitude, presence, sound, mood – sites that address us and to which we deeply respond. My violin and the songbird that addresses me at sunrise are not “objects-known” but sites of plenitude and inspiration.

Second, what I receive from a radiant site of plenitude – say sunrise birdsong or marvelous slanting light– is not “a property [I] could not have had [otherwise].” A thing’s presence — its lilt or slant or delight, its uplift or foreboding — is not a property of something. If the world is a precious place, full of wonder, it is more than a place of simple objects-with-properties. Indeed, in the best of encounters I will have a “delightedly reflexive intimacy with [the world],” and have a wonderful “awareness of [myself] as delightedly intimate” with the very things of the world. But Thoreau would say that none of this is primarily a function of knowing something. Thoreau would have us resonate with things that leave us richer in awe, and not in any obvious way, richer in knowledge. Knowledge is high on his ladder but not at the top. It’s not unimportant and not to be abandoned but it’s not everything by any means.

It’s a faulty philosophical presumption of the modern era that a serious thinker must have an epistemology, and that this will be a clue to his (or her) thought and perhaps justify her claims. All this rests on disposable Cartesian presumptions. Thoreau is not obsessed with the problem of knowledge, or the nature of scientific method, or whether values can be objectively known, or whether God can be shown to exist (or is like this or that in his divine attributes). To the chagrin of many, Thoreau is not obsessed with justifying his claims.   “Befitting reveries,” like dreams or theater productions, carry a strange aura of “take it or leave it.” That doesn’t make them philosophically without merit any more than Pharaoh’s dreams are without merit.

Thoreau wants a path to redemption and that path is illuminated by the blessings of what he calls the “Intelligences” that awaken him. He practices good “scientific method,” and so he honors something that others might label “epistemology.” But the considerable honor he accords to knowledge, as we’ve seen, is overshadowed by what I’ve pictured as devotion to a “soul mate” — to an “inner light” that guides him faithfully toward redemptive communion with the world, and a deep gratitude for its daily blessings.

[1] Journal, February 23, 1860

[2] Paul J. Griffiths, Intellectual Appetite (Catholic University of America Press, 2009) 131.


6 comments on “Religious Sensibility and Knowledge (still more)

  1. Edward: this is quite thought-provoking. First of all, the notion of knowledge-as-reciprocal-participation strikes me as very rich. However, I’m not sure how to take two of the ways you contrast it with Sympathy with Intelligence. (Please forgive my ignorance of Thoreau as I pose some questions about this contrast below.)

    First of all, I’m not sure what it is you have in mind when you talk about a way something can be present other than as a ‘thing with properties’. I’ve felt the same puzzlement when encountering the same locution in Heidegger. Is the idea that there’s a way in which I can be aware of something other than as a thing with properties? If so, how to characterize the way in which I’m aware of it?

    Second, it sounds like you presuppose that when we suppose some relation to a thing to be a knowledge relation, then we must needs account for our justification for or entitlement to that knowledge; or, more strongly, that we must account for the nature of that knowledge in terms of our justification for or entitlement to it. And I wonder if *this* isn’t really the issue that bothers you. If so, this is perhaps a complaint that could extend even over to ‘knowledge that’ and ‘knowledge how’. Let me put the point in this way. If epistemology is the philosophical inquiry into the nature of knowledge, there’s a real set of questions that remains overlooked when we presuppose that epistemology just *is* justification/entitlement theory (as many philosophers do – call it the Cartesian conception of epistemology). And I wonder if by conceding to philosophers that when we leave behind an account of the nature of some relation to the world in terms of our justification/entitlement to bearing that relation, we thereby leave behind the notion that it’s a *knowledge* relation, you concede too much to the Cartesian conception.

    Part of the reason I’m pressing these issues is that I have, for a while, been trying to make sense of the underlying picture behind Spinoza’s idea of the intellectual love of God. In this ideal, Spinoza tries to re-interpret the Christian notion that the best kind of life is grounded in the love of God in the context of his claim that God is Nature. According to him, there’s a kind of knowledge we can have of Nature – specifically, of our utter dependence on it – that amounts to a form of *love* for it. For a long time, I’ve thought that Spinoza is tapping into notions of knowledge and understanding we find in love for a person. I know or understand the beloved in ways that involve much more than just having true, justified etc. beliefs about her. My knowledge and understanding of her is a kind of *rapport* with her. It would be better, in fact, to say that *we* ‘have an understanding’ – to use an idiomatic locution that I think evokes the sense that something much more must be said about the nature of this understanding than what can be accomplished in justification/entitlement theory. There’s much more to say here, of course, but it will suffice to say here simply that I don’t think I have to give up the notion that in my understanding of her, she shows up to me as something with properties; nor do I think I am forced to embrace the Cartesian conception of this understanding.

    • efmooney says:

      Hi Mandel,
      Let me amplify a bit.

      Asked for an object’s properties, we might mention size, color, location, and so forth. Maybe even “tastes acrid.” But if grasses lilt or warn, lilting or warning aren’t members of a list of properties: they inhere as a mood or address. The address of the mountain peak is not one of its properties, nor is it an action or an event. To call it a presence sounds vague and imprecise but that’s just the ballpark we’re in. If you walk into your living room having been away for two months and it feels strange or weird, there’s not necessarily anything like an objective property that you can name as the cause (nothing’s out of place, there’s not extra dust on the floor). Yet the presence of unfamiliarity or strangeness can be unmistakable and haunting.

      How do I characterize the way in which I’m aware of it? – well, I just try to say again that I AM getting strangeness from the room – and perhaps that won’t work to someone suspicious of my reaction — perhaps nothing will work. Neuroscience won’t help. If I have a lot of these experiences of the presence of things, and my sister doesn’t, we become alienated.

      Yes, the matter of quick digressions into explanation and justification can become a worry. I can get so caught up in explanation that I forget what it was — the RICHNESS of what it was — that struck me as needing explanation or justification. I stray from immediate experience in a situation where I shouldn’t. I get caught up in explaining my action (or inaction) rather than refining what it is that captures my attention. I get caught up in explaining the beauty of the sunset rather than enjoying it. But that’s only part of my worry.

      Sometimes getting another to be struck by the presence of composure or intensity in an actor on stage asks only for a reviewing of this scene and that — pointing, exclaiming THERE it is. And those activities [of reviewing, pointing, exclaiming] aren’t either justifications or explanations. They’re something else, close to the sort of thing a jazz man might do when you look perplexed at what he has just played. He just plays it again. You have to experience it, not have it explained. If you don’t hear the whisper of the trees, or see the lilt of the grass, you may just need to listen or see once more.

      As for the case of Spinoza, yes, he has a biblical notion of knowledge that taps into intimacy and love – far from holding something at arms length as data and then asking for justification. I guess I DO concede a lot to the Cartesian conception, because in these non-biblical times it just sounds strange to say that my love of my wife is an epistemological matter (rather than a matter of taking immediate delight in her wonderful presence). In our day and age, it seems easier to say that Spinoza harkens back to a biblical idiom and perception that is not (not quite?) what we feel comfortable calling an epistemological relation (absent a lot of explanatory preparation).
      And I wonder if by conceding to philosophers that when we leave behind an account of the nature of some relation to the world in terms of our justification/entitlement to bearing that relation, we thereby leave behind the notion that it’s a *knowledge* relation, you concede too much to the Cartesian conception.

      Hope this helps, and thanks for your good questions.

  2. Thanks! I suppose I’m still troubled. First, I tend to think of a property just as something that something does, and so when grasses lilt or warn, these are properties they have. And isn’t it important that in the experiences you’re discussing that the ‘ways of the world’ come into view, that we open ourselves to them? The concession to the Cartesian conception worries me also because I think perhaps we get even the Cartesian’s paradigm examples (mathematics and scientific explanation) wrong when we understand them solely through the lens of justification/entitlement theory. Is the religious sensibility left behind when we engage in these activities? Is it doomed to be swept into a corner, segregated away from these activities in ways that can leave the Cartesian or Kantian assured that their favorite domains are untouched – perhaps as a way of appeasing them into allowing us a region that lies, for them, in the unimportant fringes of human experience? Are we left to understand science and mathematics only through the quasi-juridical metaphors that Descartes hinted at and then Kant ran with? Even in science and mathematics, it seems wrong to me to think that we are merely subjects of obligation, right, justification, and so on.

    I’m not sure if these rough descriptions at the gestalt level communicate the flavor of my worries…

  3. Correction: “I tend to think of a property just as something that something is or does.”

    • efmooney says:

      A property (in my view) is something you can peel of any particular thing it inheres in and study independently of its inhere in in this or that. Thus red, or 20 lbs can be peeled off an apple or a loaded pack and treated as something separate. But “lilting” can’t be peeled off “grasses that way, because what it is is barely discussable apart from its inhering right now in grass — it doesn’t help our understanding lilting grass to study lilting folk music or lilting poetic lines or lilting southeren drawls. The “unhomelikeness” of my family life is not exactly the same as the unhomelikeness of by relation to myself or the uncanny strangeness of my home when I reenter it after two months away and find it just as I left it — but strange. Such ‘intangibles’ — including more tangible ones like lilting — resist classical epistemology.

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