K is for Knowing

I talked about Epistemology, the discussion of How We Know Things, previously in this blog. This is a twist on that discussion provoked by some recent reading.

The recent reading provocation came from a book called Planet Narnia by Michael Ward. In this book Ward convincingly argues that C.S. Lewis wrote each of the seven Chronicles of Narnia to represent or embody the character associated with the seven planets of the Ptolemic astronomical system followed in the Middle Ages. Lewis describes this system in The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Ward argues that the Narnia books then embody the images of the planets, so that, for example, the Jovian character is embodied by The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. When we read The Discarded Image we contemplate the medieval world system; when we read Narnia we enjoy it.

Lewis distinguished between knowing a thing by contemplating it, and knowing a thing by enjoying it. In what has become a famous example, Lewis talked about a light beam seen in a dark toolshed: the beam can be seen and contemplated from outside itself, or can be enjoyed by standing within the beam and seeing other things by its light. Light is difficult to describe when one is enjoying it. Everything else is illuminated by it – it pervades our understanding of everything around it. We contemplate something from outside; we enjoy it from inside.

I found an example of the difference between knowing about something and experiencing it in 1 Kings the other day. The Queen of Sheba visited Solomon, and after she had been given the royal tour and conversed with the king, she said “It’s all true! Your reputation for accomplishment and wisdom that reached all the way to my country is confirmed. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself; they didn’t exaggerate! Such wisdom and elegance—far more than I could ever have imagined.” She’d heard reports, but these reports were nothing compared to the experience of being in Solomon’s courts and conversing with him.

Then I got to wondering if one’s worldview (often cultural) is an example of things we enjoy first, and contemplate later. We are immersed in our view of the world. It pervades the way we understand everything. It includes attitudes toward others that are often described by –isms: ageism, racism, sexism. We see from the outside other worldviews or cultures, and contemplate them. It is fairly easy to poke holes in the things seen from a distance, from outside. It is much harder to see the faults in things we enjoy from the inside. It is also difficult to listen to others criticize our worldview or culture, the lights we see by. I wonder if we need both to learn to step outside and contemplate our own thought-system, and also figure out how to get inside and enjoy another. Lewis thought one way of doing this was reading literature. I think he may have been onto something there.

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