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    Book Club: Poetic Knowledge {Chapter 3, Part 1}

    April 26, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    Chapter Three is called Connatural, Intentional, and Intuitive Knowledge and there is a lot packed into this space. I’m going to go on a few related rabbit trails, perhaps, by the end of this post, but what I wanted to do today is focus on some of the definitions of ideas presented in the chapter. The first time I read through this book, it was a huge struggle. Not only was it full of ideas I’d never heard of, but Taylor also uses a different vocabulary. For me, tackling the vocabulary was the first step to beginning to understand the book.

    Taylor tells us that

    intuition means the nondiscursive act of the intellect that grasps first principles without the aid of proof by demonstration.

    Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of EducationThe word nondiscursive is key here, for discursive acts are rambling, they proceed by the use of deliberate logic and argumentation, and it takes a bit of time to get there. Intuition, then, is a flash of lightning, the proverbial light bulb clicking on over our heads. Once, we knew not, and now we know, and though what we know may be right and true and have good reasons for it which can be traced and discussed, we know because it came to us, all of a sudden.

    It is not surprising to us, I think, that small children learn this way. All of their learning appears intuitive to an onlooker. I remember thinking that my firstborn woke up from his nap wiser than when he went to sleep, he progressed in such jumps and leaps. What is astounding, perhaps, is that we can still anticipate this type of learning from an older child, if we don’t get in the way of it.

    Taylor later adds to his initial definition by saying that

    intuition is the spontaneous awareness of reality, that something is there, outside the mind but that the mind cannot help but know.

    It is most interesting to note that Aristotle said that

    “no other kind of thought except intuition is more accurate than scientific knowledge,”…and, as a result, “intuition will be the originative source of scientific knowledge.”

     This makes a lot of sense to me. I feel like a lot of things in my life I first grasped intuitively, and later backfilled with logic and reason–the intuitive experience came first.

    Taylor confirms this when he says,

    [H]ow well this squares with common experience and conventional wisdom can be recalled in numerous stories throughout history and in our daily lives where the answer to some problem that has puzzled us is revealed exactly when we cease to address it directly.

    I used to try to leverage this in college by reading difficult passages and then {deliberately} falling asleep. When I awoke, I often understood it all better than prior to sleep. {I’m not saying I’d suggest this as a study habit!}

    I’d like to read a whole book on the gymnastic mode. This is the only book I’ve read that really mentions it, though I do think Charlotte Mason talks about it without using this word. Taylor writes:

    [W]e can think of the gymnastic mode first of all as direct experience with reality, for example a life lived more out of doors; the difference, say, between a child walking to school in all kinds of weather an being driven in a climate-controlled automobile or bus. The direct confrontation with the most simple realities of nature, the gymnastic, participates in the poetic mode. But the gymnastic can also be seen in more refined circumstances: the difference, for example between listening to a Strauss waltz and actually dancing, in full evening dress, to a live orchestra playing the Blue Danube.

    If you recall, Charlotte Mason, in her first volume especially, suggested children under nine be outside four, five, even six hours per day. She wished their mothers or governesses would take them to the country, daily if possible. She encouraged mothers to allow their children to take walks in inclement weather {while offering a proper change of clothes promptly upon their return, of course}, that they might grasp rain and sleet and storm more directly. If this is not an emphasis on the gymnastic mode, I don’t know what is.

    It seems to me that the gymnastic mode is informing the poetic. The poetic mode intuitively draws conclusions about what has been taken in through the senses via the gymnastic mode.

    Or at least I think that’s how it works.

    Remember, please, that Taylor is using three words {connatural, intentional, and intuitive} to better explain the nature of poetic knowledge to us. In regard to this next word, then, Taylor writes:

    The intentional order of knowledge is prelogical knowledge in the poetic mode because it knows reality by inclination toward the object in a sympathetic manner, like seeking like, still based in the senses, though higher than intuition, but still far from rational or analytical activity.

    I don’t know about you, but my first response to that sentence was, “What??

    Taylor tries to help us when he breaks down the word intend for us:

    The “intentional union,” this intentional knowledge, are the terms used to distinguish that part of man that “becomes” the thing. Clearly, it is not the man in the order of nature that achieves union with objects, but rather the tendency toward (in + tendere, to stretch forth) the mind as it receives the immaterial representations of objects, that is to say, their forms. {see forms below}

    Taylor says this as a way of fleshing out Aquinas’ idea that knowledge forges a union {and he uses the phrase intentional union} between the knower and what is being known. So intentional knowledge involves a stretching forth toward the form of the thing being known.

    The concept of forms is an Aristotelian idea–it tells us that everything has a spiritual aspect, which is its form. So when I come to know a rose, and I walk away without picking it, I still possess the form of the thing–the memory of it, yes, but to call it a memory is not saying enough about it. I have the form of the rose inside of my soul and I possess it for as long as I remember it. This is not a scientific sort of knowledge, but is rather based upon my intimate experience with the rose. There is a sense in which the rose has become a part of me, a part of who I am.

    This is, by the way, why I think Charlotte Mason can say that education is making more of men. As they learn, the things they learn become a part of them, and their soul literally expands. This is what John Hodges was referring to when he said that reading Thomas Hardy will not save you, but there will be more of you to save.

    This is something so very childlike that I sometimes think I have lost much of this capacity:

    To be connatural with a thing is to participate in some way with its nature, as distinct from its intentional form, to share a likeness of nature.

    We see this in children, when they try to become the thing they are thinking about. Children act out their lessons–sometimes in large ways, sometimes in small–and the result is that they internalize what they have learned. They begin to “share a likeness of nature” with the thing.

    Charlotte Mason was trying to harness this when she had her students narrate every single thing they read. By saying it back in their own words, the words became their own–she encouraged that connaturality {is that a word?} with the ideas.

    Taylor says:

    It is the habit of noticing what is happening here and now and reflecting with the natural powers upon that experience that cultivates the connatural degree of knowledge.

    That “habit of noticing” could also be called attention, though not strictly so {I think there is more to it than mere attention}. A side benefit of narration is that it trains the student to notice–to attend to–everything they read. Because they are accountable for the information in the form of a narration of some kind, they are more careful to attend to the lesson in the first place. Many of Charlotte Mason’s outdoor games {found in Volume 1} played upon this same habit. Children were sent, for instance, off to look at a place, only to return and tell Mother all about it. Or in artist study, children were to look at a picture, internalize it, and then try to describe it from memory. All of this was an attempt to build that “habit of noticing.”

    In fact, Taylor is virtually quoting Mason, too, when he paraphrases Aquinas {or perhaps Mason and Taylor were both quoting Aquinas?}:

    given a familiarity with a thing, a habit of its being, the rigors of reason are bypassed and one “judges a kind of connaturality.”

    To some extent, we are our habits. If we have habits of lying, we are liars, for example. This is why Charlotte Mason was so deliberate in habit training–because we become the thing over time.

    Mason never used the word connatural, at least not if I am recollecting properly, but I see her encouraging this nonetheless, she just uses different words to discuss the subject.

    Poetic Knowledge
    I know we’ve been talking about this phrase off and on for weeks now, but I thought I’d add in a few quotes because I think Taylor is continuing to fill out our mental picture of the idea. In this section, he specifically contrasts poetic knowledge with “trendy” mystical experiences prevalent in the 1960s. So, for instance, mystics think of the surface of a thing as something to be gotten past, something to try and see through. Taylor calls this

    radical neo-Platonism where all that really exists are Forms: and, with Coleridge, where poetic truth is hallucination, drug induced, or the druglike effect of a distorted reality.

    Poetic knowledge is, thanks be to God, quite a bit more simple that this.

    [T]here is the habit of poetry practiced by poets and those who see by the light of poetic experience, whose gaze catches the “ordinary” and sees that the surface presence, rather than to be repudiated as mere matter that veils its airy form, is quite significant just as it is. Here, where the ordinary becomes illuminated, is when the habit of poetry sees something marvelous in the thing itself…[snip]…Poetic knowledge does not describe essences; that is the world of advanced philosophy. Poetic knowledge is the wonder of the thing itself–not the essences of trees but the stately presence of the hawthorn in summer is the stuff of poetic experience.

    In other words:

    it always deals with the really real.

    Why Are We Even Talking About This?
    I actually think this is a really interesting question, and Taylor answers it concisely:

    Even though both St. Augustine and St. Thomas wrote treatises on education, both titled De Magistro {and there are indeed numerous articles on teaching and education throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance}, still, there is no specific and detailed treatment of the poetic mode of knowledge, no self-conscious attention given it, simply because {presumably from some point before Homer} the credibility of intuitive knowledge was a kind of given in the power of the knower. The deliberate treatment of poetic knowledge by Maritain and others becomes necessary only after the seventeenth century and the ascendancy of science as the preeminent method of learning. {emphasis mine}

    As we have allowed science to rule the classroom, we have {ala Pieper} translated learning into the world of work. We say that learning requires hard work, that, therefore, children need to be forced to work to learn, or motivated by grades and prizes, awards and class ranking, the promise of a good college and scholarships and a good job, and so on. In other words, we deny in practice that children can {or even that they will} come to know all on their own. Around a century ago, Charlotte Mason said of this:

    It so happens that the last desire we have to consider, the desire of knowledge, is commonly deprived of its proper function in our schools by the predominance of other springs of action, especially of emulation, the desire of place, and avarice, the desire of wealth, tangible profit…[S]o besotted is our education thought that we believe children regard knowledge rather as repulsive medicine than as inviting food. Hence our dependence on marks and prizes, athletics, alluring presentation, any jam we can devise to disguise the power.


    The work of education is greatly simplified when we realize that children, apparently all children, want to know all human knowledge; they have an appetite for what is put before them, and, knowing this, our teaching becomes buoyant with the courage of our convictions.

    Mason was addressing the tendency of everyone–from parents to headmasters to teachers–to try and manipulate children into learning. The poetic mode had faded from view, learning was no longer viewed as natural to humanity, and so the world debated on about how best to motivate children. What she found was that as students were motivated by something other than love of and appetite for knowledge, their character was corroded. When we appeal to lesser motivations, we appeal to their sensual appetites and besetting sins, and the result is, in the end, the death of learning.

    And so again I am reminded that the best thing we can do is to stay out of the way and not kill the natural appetite, the natural inclination to know. We feed that love of knowledge, our friend Charlotte said, by

    placing books in the hands of children and only those which are more or less literary in character that is, which have the terseness and vividness proper to literary work. The natural desire for knowledge does the rest and the children feed and grow.

    Because children can make their own relations, after all.

    Poetically, it seems.

    Read More:
    -book club entries linked at Mystie’s blog
    buy the book and read it yourself

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  • Reply Shari April 28, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    It took me awhile to digest your very thoughtful post, Brandy. I have six kids and the older three are out in the world. What I gave them in homeschooling without realizing it at the time was time itself. I was not a great student and dropped out of college my first semester.I had no lofty goals in homeschooling.I had hated shcool myself. I forced very little. Math was the only non-negotiable so they could go to college if they chose to. And they did. When the time came for college they threw themselves at it full tilt and I watched in awe as they consistantly made the dean’s list and graudated with honors. I write this very humbly. I frequently get compliments on the great job I must have done homeschooling. Nothing could be further from the truth. What I did was make their early learning “poetic”,by accident really, and they learned inspite of my misteps. I am really enjoying this book discussion. I just love homeschooling moms!

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts April 27, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    Mystie, I love that: “My brain just told me.” Incredible! I have some thoughts:

    1. Yes, I think backfilling is imperative. I think here of the NT command to “be ready to give a defense or an reason for the faith” that we have. Those reasons or defenses–the apologetics–really are not the reason most of us have faith. But that doesn’t mean that our faith is unreasonable, and as we learn the reasons, we gain a certain depth. I think the rest of life is also like this.
    2. I think the poetic must come first, and that is the danger we are in culturally–that we are skipping this step to our peril. We cannot backfill a place which is not there, to keep up with the analogy.
    3. The hardest part for me to accept is that we really can’t force or manipulate these intuitive flashes. We can only give opportunity–the generous meal, as Mason puts it. At the end of the day, these things are a grace of God. I have realized more and more the importance of begging God to grant us grace and mercy each day in the form of learning new things. I pray that He will allow them (and me!) to really see.

    I like what you said about the power of logic and discourse to persuade–I have had the exact same experience!

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts April 27, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    Willa, The question is: how to we retrain ourselves from this habit? I keep thinking that a lot of it for me is an internal sense of rush and busyness {even though I don’t consider myself very busy}. Learning to take a deep breath every morning and deliberately quiet my soul seems to be imperative. There was a point in my life where I thought poetry very boring. I later realized that my ability to read it is actually a good guage of whether or not I am at peace internally. When I am frayed on the inside, I cannot calm down enough to read it. I think that is connected to my inability to be content with looking at the thing at hand, rather than rushing to the end conclusion or point. What about you?

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts April 27, 2011 at 4:40 pm

    Kelly, Interesting thing, bringing up paying for grades. My reading group last night was discussing Chapters 4 and 5 of CM’s sixth volume. Chapter 5 is really all about motivation. She doesn’t mention paying for grades, but she does discuss working for grades or scholarships, to be better than one’s peers, etc. What the ladies and I talked about last night was that Charlotte at least hinted in her chapter that not all of these appetites were necessarily bad, but when we make them the focus of the learning process, we drown the natural desire for knowledge. She believed that children really would come to know because they loved knowledge for its own self, and that when they enter school, we pollute them with lesser motivations which play upon their besetting sins. But what I noticed was that instead of trying to eradicate ambition, for instance, she said that a good teacher should change the student’s focus from being power hungry and trying to dominate his peers, to encouraging him to master a subject or a lesson. Essentially: direct his ambition in the way it ought to go.

    I think that paying a child for grades is actually quite different than paying him for a job. If we pay a child for his grades, especially when parents use it at the beginning of the year, to motivate the child to get good grades throughout the year, we are perverting the learning process. We communicate that knowledge is not worth pursuing solely for the love of it–that perhaps it is not worthy of passionate and interested love–, which seems to directly contradict the commands in Proverbs to teach our children to love and pursue it–Wisdom tells us that those who love her find life, and if we try and make them know things by leveraging their love of money, we corrupt them.

    However, comma.

    We all know that Scripture says that a laborer ought to be paid his wage, that if a man does not work, he shall not eat, and so on. There is a definite connection between putting in good work, and being rewarded for it in the form of either money or other sustenance. So I’m not sure we are corrupting if we, for instance, post a bunch of jobs for hire upon the family fridge.

    Not that I think families are obligated to pay for jobs. We only pay for special jobs, and that only once in a while. Regular chores are expected contribution to the family. I agree that this is a family’s decision. Even paying for grades is a family decision, though I think the argument against is very compelling to a Christian.

    Just thinking about it here…hope you don’t mind.

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts April 27, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    Silvia, I, too, think that homeschoolers are likely the new poetic force, and some of that is even on accident. It tends to be a slower lifestyle and becomes more comfortable with slower learning, pursuing rabbit trails, etc. Not all homeschoolers, but a lot of them, I think, at least in my experience.

  • Reply Mystie April 27, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    When I ask him how he knew something, my firstborn will often say, “I don’t know, my brain just told me.”

    I understand him perfectly, because my own brain has always “just told me things.” But after 28 years I have also learned that just because something comes to me, or just because it makes sense to me, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true and right. So we do need that “back fill” of logic and rational thought, I think.

    Still, it makes me wonder if that intuitive flash *is* what we need *first* before that back fill of logic and rational discourse even *can* persuade us. I know I have encountered logical arguments that don’t touch me, but then — even years — later, usually through little grains of ideas building up, I get that flash, and then suddenly those logical arguments *do* touch me.

    I wonder how this line of thinking comes to bear not only on teaching but also even in persuasive conversations with peers.

  • Reply Mystie April 27, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    I need to get patio furniture so we can do school out of doors. 🙂

  • Reply Willa April 27, 2011 at 3:39 am

    I have the same habit that you mention of trying to immediately get PAST the particularity of a thing. And sometimes I’ve been guilty of trying to hurry the kids towards the conclusion or the sum or answer before they even have the opportunity to fully grasp the particularity of the thing in front of them. No wonder they sometimes don’t seem to be in a hurry to “do school”. I agree that there are many overlaps between Charlotte Mason’s thinking and James Taylor’s! Reading his work gives me a more rounded perspective on some of CM’s advice.

  • Reply Kelly April 27, 2011 at 2:03 am

    When I was in junior high several of my started being paid by their parents for grades — $1 for eac C, $3 for each B, and $5 for each A. When I approached my parents with the idea they turned me down and I was more than a little miffed.

    By the time I got to high school though, I’d decided that being paid for grades was vulgar and I maintained that attitude up until fairly recently when I was scolded for my attitude (I extended it to chores as well) by well-meaning people on a disucssion board — it’s a matter of family discretion.

    Then somewhere I read someone who quoted Aristotle and said essentially the same thing — paying children for anything like that debases the child’s character, and here you’re saying the same thing.

    I guess it is a matter of family discretion — it’s not breaking any of the Commandments, is it? — but still, I think it’s a bad idea.

  • Reply Silvia April 27, 2011 at 1:55 am

    Science, in education, life, everywhere, may be he new mysticism. And many non experts (“granola moms”, middle class dads, ha ha ha, and I’m sure others in different fields), are the new poetic force… well, at least we are trying to raise up a true one!

  • Reply Silvia April 27, 2011 at 1:51 am

    Brandy, I also agree with your thought that gymnastics inform the poetic.
    Reading Berman and his explanation of why in the Middle Ages though monks transmitted and kept the classics, he says that the monks and the rest of the population, forgot how to think. They read and copied, but they lost their reasoning. I believe they lost the fuel that leads to any other reasoning or debating, they fell into the mysticism. At the same toke, my thought is that by loosing poetic knowledge and the trust in the knowing agent as you say, we loose touch with reality, and fill the gap with superstition.

    Forward to our times. After centuries based on the scientific approach to knowledge without rooting it in the poetic, we come to an educational system based on distrust (of teachers and students), and we also come to a point in time when anything based on the intuition is disposed of. May it be that having lost our ability for poetic knowledge we suspect of anything based on the subject and we call it subjective as in postmodernism, where anything is valid and everything is for the same reason invalid?

    I’m just ambitiously (or unintelligently?) combining million thoughts that are coming to me since I have put down the book for a week! (Good trick, you are a Descartes, girl!) For those who don’t know, he deliberately went to sleep to dream about things that inspired him to write and that gave him solutions, questions, theories, etc.

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