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    Book Club: Poetic Knowledge {Chapter 6, Part 2}

    June 8, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    Mystie says we ought to have done this chapter in one week rather than two. I’m inclined to agree with her, though I also like the chance to mull over a chapter for longer. I rather specialize in mulling.


    This latter portion of chapter 6 is actually a transcript of a conversation between the two of the three IHP professors {Dennis Quinn and John Senior} in 1990.

    I just want to point out a couple things I’m thinking about this time around.

    Connatural Knowledge and Learning in Sympathy
    Senior says that poetic knowledge is coming to know something in the same way that someone else knows it. He gives the example of a hot stove:

    Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education[Y]our touch a hot stove, and you say, ouch. Then you say to somebody: you think stoves are hot? How do you know that? And, you say, touch it for yourself. You can repeat this kind of experience, but it is very dangerous.

    If it is dangerous at worst, and completely inefficient and unrealistic at best, to teach everything by direct experience, what is the substitute? Senior tells us that sympathy is the midwife of poetic experience. Sympathy is able to bring forth that which we thought only experience could bear.

    So the question becomes, how do we foster sympathy in our students? I’d like to refer us all back a couple pages, where Taylor explains to us:

    [In] the case of the IHP…literature was the great vehicle of vicarious experience.

    I recall the DHM once saying that she used Jane Austen’s books to instruct her children in manners and social etiquette. It is rude to leave church and talk about people from church, and so on. But to read a chapter, and see the various bad behaviors, and to talk about those? This is not gossip, but a rather a great opportunity.

    The IHP takes this a step further. It says, for instance, that we can tell our children that heroism is a form of greatness, and they ought to love it. But can they feel its triumph without putting themselves in harm’s way? And ought a six-year-old boy be put in harm’s way? But if literature is a “great vehicle of vicarious experience” as Taylor said, then suddenly a world of opportunity opens up to us.

    I think of The Hobbit, because I’m reading it to my children at lunchtime lately. So far I have seen them experience fear, relief, bravery, defeat, grief, hardship, etc. They are, to some extent, living Bilbo’s life with the dwarves. In their minds, they are fleeing goblins, they are fearing Mirkwood and the dragon beyond. But they are also warmed by friendship along the way–from Gandalf, from Elrond and his elves, from Beorn.

    A journey such as that in The Hobbit is a man’s journey. A child should not have to bear such burdens. And yet I see preparation for noble manhood and womanhood as they live through their books. Again and again, I see this, whether it be Renee of Ferrara or Robin Hood. They are learning what it means to be brave, bold, daring, wise, sly, or what have you…vicariously, and in the safety of their own home.

    And as they get older, I see they begin to act it out in their play, experiencing their stories and poems all over again.

    This is poetic knowledge in action, and it cannot be measured, though we can see it if we wisely observe. I am so grateful to have been taught this before I frittered my children’s lives away on facts without context, without life. I was so tempted as a younger mother to do this.

    I am rebuked by John Senior:

    You must never make the mistake in thinking that the only kind of knowledge is intellectual knowledge.

    It was refreshing to see Albert Wolters referring to this in his book Creation Regained {which Si and I are reading together}. He doesn’t mention Descartes, but he makes it clear that what he calls a Reformed worldview is necessarily pre-Cartesian. It must believe that the creation order is knowable. He goes on to say that we must believe that we can know the world in many ways–not just in the case of the natural sciences, but also in the social sciences and in the humanities. And then he says:

    The same applies to the everyday knowing that precedes science.

    It seems that Wolters believes that poetic knowledge is real knowledge. Fabulous!

    Thomas Aquinas and Understanding
    I got a little fuzzy on the details concerning Aquinas, and I’m hoping that Willa will hold my hand through this. Senior tells us:

    St. Thomas Aquinas says that…the higher and higher you go in abstraction, the clearer and clearer your understanding gets, that is, your intellectus; but the less your knowledge gets.

    I have seen this with experts in their field. The more they seem to know and understand about their field, the less they seem to really “get it.” The fail to see how the parts fit in with the whole. I think this might be what Aquinas is getting at.

    Aquinas’ solution is what baffles me:

    [Y]ou must always…advert, that’s the word he uses, you must always in abstract knowledge advert to the singular, about which there is no science.

    He gives an example:

    [T]he concept of God is not God. It’s a way, a sign, an instrument by which the mind can come to know God–but God Himself is not the concept. We have a concept of God, but concepts are not the thing.

    I follow him in the example, but I still don’t understand what it would look like to “advert to the singular” in practice. I have a feeling this might be helpful to know as my children get older and begin to venture into greater abstraction, but I just can’t wrap my mind around what that would look like, even though I completely understand that my children need to know God rather than merely knowing of Him.

    Almost The End
    I’m looking forward to chapter 7 next week. It is a truly grand finale!

    Read More:
    -More book club posts linked at Mystie’s blog

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  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts June 13, 2011 at 11:12 pm

    Okay, so I’m just now getting to these comments, as well as getting to read the other posts…

    WILLA: Thank you so much! I am reading your comment over and over today, trying to really get it into my brain. Do you have an example of what this would look like in a lesson with a child under 18? Any personal experience? The more examples, the less my head aches… 🙂

    Shari and Silvia, I see no posts this week. I hope you finish up with it as I have *loved* reading your entries!

  • Reply Shari June 13, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    I enjoyed your post, Brandy! Last week was “crazy” week here, bookended by a baptism and a wedding so I needed a week off from the discussion but I was reminded by your post how my older girls and I used to “gossip” about the characters in Jane Austen. I’m not sure it will work with the boys though…worth a try!

  • Reply Silvia June 11, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    I remember Ruth Beechick writing about how story is more memorable than simple instruction and I remembered that often as my children seem to be influenced more by story and example than just by direct teaching! Plus, the things I remember best from my childhood religious education were the Bible stories and the beautiful (and sensory-oriented) poetry like the Psalms.

    Willa, I’m taking this. Thanks for it. As I saw friends ordering from a particular publishing company books and things that do ‘direct teaching’, I thought it wasn’t the right way to go about this, it’s always worked better with us too when we could derive this learning from our readings or seeing how ‘it looks’ in a family or person who is an example of whatever character trait or ‘knowledge’ we want to achieve or improve, or shape.

    I enjoyed your post and your long comment, Willa

  • Reply Willa June 10, 2011 at 5:08 am

    One of my son’s tutors at TAC (I think it was Mr Berquist, actually) would remind the students during discussions to revert to the particular. When my son told me that, I took it to mean that it’s easy for humans to start using words about words, as Charlier mentioned a couple of chapters ago in PK, and get into verbal absurdities like “I think, therefore I am”. You notice when you’re discussing some intellectual topic and you start wandering far afield, it seems to ground the conversation to bring it back to the particulars.

    As for Aquinas — I really have trouble understanding “essence” or “quiddity” and I think that is what it is about. Aristotle says that everything has a primary substance that is particular to that thing. So I am a primary substance. I am a particular person, unique. Speaking generically, I am a “man”, and that is my secondary substance. So everything that is said of “man” can be said of me. But not vice versa, of course. I am a singular — I’m not just one version of a universal.

    Categories reside only in a particular. So for example there is no “redness” apart from red things, no quantity exists in isolation apart from a quantity of things. You can conceptualize “redness” but it does not exist in reality apart from belonging to some thing.

    So universal things reside in the particular and does not exist separately from it (contrary to what Plato thought about Forms existing purely, apart from imperfect material things).

    (I think “reality” as a word derives from “res”, thing.)

    Plus, Aristotle says that when we perceive something with our senses, it causes a memory in us, and repeated memory causes experience. Through repeated memory, experience, we are able to generalize or abstract universals from singular things, which is the starting point of science. This is reasoning, but reasoning rests on something that precedes it.

    So it seems to me that if Aquinas says you must advert to the singular about which there is no science, it is because perceiving the particular involves the senses, since we can’t perceive things without the use of the senses (even understanding immaterial truths seems to depend upon *hearing* revelation by transmission, or from analogy from sensory experience to immaterial truths).

    Perceiving particulars is an act of the senses, but abstracting and generalizing and analyzing start from this original, pre-scientific cognitive act. We share this ability to perceive, remember, and form experience with the higher animals — which is why dogs are trainable, or pick up bad habits of rummaging with their noses in the trash, because repeated experience caused a kind of knowledge. With us it reaches far higher, since dogs don’t abstract universals, but it has to start there.

    This is how I understand it, but I’m sure there is much more to be said! Sorry, it’s long!

    About literature —

    I remember Ruth Beechick writing about how story is more memorable than simple instruction and I remembered that often as my children seem to be influenced more by story and example than just by direct teaching! Plus, the things I remember best from my childhood religious education were the Bible stories and the beautiful (and sensory-oriented) poetry like the Psalms.

    My son wrote his senior thesis on the topic of story as a kind of imaginative experience!

  • Reply Mystie June 8, 2011 at 11:44 pm

    oops, I want to subscribe, too. 🙂

  • Reply Mystie June 8, 2011 at 11:44 pm

    I can’t help with the Aquinas, but I love your tangent about literature. I remember that post by DHM. Good stuff. 🙂

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