A Little Manual for Knowing

Written by Esther Lightcap Meek Reviewed By Ryan McIlhenny

Over the last few years, Esther Meek has joined a great cloud of fellow philosophers who have come to challenge the notion that knowledge is prepackaged information that passively exists in an upper realm waiting to be plucked by some mildly inquisitive individual—static, impersonal, cold. Helping to correct our defective epistemic setting by appropriating scientist-philosopher Michael Polanyi’s “subsidiary-focal integration” model, Meek makes the case that knowing is the process of working through subsidiaries—what in Longing to Know (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2003), her first major work, Meek refers to as clues—to draw together an integral pattern, which then opens up and further enriches reality. The master pianist, for instance, indwells the keys to his or her instrument subsidiarily to the focal point of the musical piece, producing a deeply rich knowing experience.

Meek’s latest work, A Little Manual for Knowing, can be considered a succinct introduction to the current state of her unique philosophy. Knowing—more importantly, the process of coming to know—is both a pilgrimage and a gift whereby the knower commits or pledges in faith to what is yet to be known. This journey begins with wonder, with an adumbrated love—a love of the journey itself—not yet fully articulated. “The knowing venture,” Meek writes, “calls us to trust ourselves to something we seek to know, to trust ourselves to its developments, to trust ourselves to a reality that is relationally responsive and generous, to trust ourselves to relationship, to trust ourselves to carefully chosen guides and to companions on the journey, to trust ourselves in the knowing venture” (p. 29). Meek calls this “covenant epistemology,” an idea introduced and defined in her second book, Loving to Know: Covenant Epistemology (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011).

The idea that knowledge requires moving beyond the individual, who must submit to another, further suggests that knowledge is communal in nature. Knowledge requires a community, a dynamic community itself in formation. In Little Manual, Meek links this covenant epistemology to the formation of being. Community is not only necessary for knowing, it is also necessary for human identity. Coming to know something through community is the process of self-becoming. The master musician not only submits to an authoritative guide, but also to a community of artists. Such artists in community mutually constitute one another, strengthening, thereby, the community.

An interesting part of Little Manual is the central place of both “the Void” and “the Holy” in the knowing process and in human becoming. The Void—“the deep realization that we might not exist, that we need something, someone, beyond ourselves”—is our “coping with our situation,” opening up ourselves to where the situation might take us. Those familiar with Loving to Know should be reminded of Meek’s encouragement to open ourselves up to the “contingency of being,” to invite the real. Our momentary (or often not-so momentary) communion with the Void precedes our epiphanic surprises, our “Aha!” moments—moments of clear insight. Another important function of the Void not articulated by Meek in Little Manual but intimated in Longing to Know is how it helps us avoid the temptation of being, as Arthur Schopenhauer once said, “shut-up in our own solipsistic blockhouse.” It forces us to reject a pure subjectivism, the philosophically unsophisticated idea that we can create our own reality. To cast in a more positive light, our acceptance of the Void is, in fact, a manifestation of our faith in the real.

The mind is shaped by the reality that meets our faithful invitation and indwelling of it. In fact, there is no mind apart from external reality. This relates to the second attribute of our humanness, the Holy. The Holy, the “gracious possibility of new being,” according to Meek, immediately follows the “Aha!” moment. We are transformed when we embrace reality and when reality embraces us. Think again of the musician whose physicality is changed by his communing with a musical piece as well as the musical instrument. The music saturates his blood, changes habits, and moves him or her to see the world in a new, more enriching way.

This speaks to Meek’s notion that knowledge is not only a pilgrimage, it is also a gift. What follows encountering reality and being transformed by it in the sequence of knowing is a kind of dance, a continual loving relationship with the known world. “We move,” she writes, “to and fro in conversations, in growing understanding, in growing solidarity and mutual trust” (p. 81). The dance is a continual opening up of reality, a “continuously dynamic, ever-new gift” (p. 88). This dance—this submissive and mutual reciprocity (whereby our inviting and indwelling SFI [subsidiary-focal integration], our faithful covenantal pledge that transforms us)—brings a sense of relief, a quiet peace. Ignorance is unsettling. The Void is something that we contend with in order to reach the “Aha!” moment. Students struggle through difficult ideas and arguments. They feel a sense of relief when they solve a complex problem. This is part of the journey. Augustine admitted this sense of shalom when he finally submitted himself to the highest knowledge. When he found God, his restless heart also found rest.

If general readers were to locate Meek’s covenant epistemology within a philosophical tradition it would be that of American pragmatism. For pragmatists from William James to Richard Rorty, ideas are provisional and only “become” true when removed from the individual. The pragmatist submits his or her ideas to an authoritative community. As Charles Pierce said in the late-nineteenth century, “the opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real.” The notion that our provisional ideas are critically examined by an authoritative community was revived by neo-Pragmatist Richard Rorty in the twentieth-century: “Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with.” The Pragmatist’s goal is not to discuss the nature of ideas but rather to reorient our attitude toward them. Modern thought since Descartes has attempted to play the role of God, neglecting the fallibility of human ideas—ideas that need to be examined by others. And it’s from this community that an idea or argument is sharpened and quite often transformed, along with the person who makes the original argument. Such an orientation is hostile to the stiff-necked Cartesian hubris that has created our defective epistemic paradigm. What Descartes offered was not “the triumph of the prideful individual subject freed from scholastic shackles so much as the triumph of the quest for certainty over the quest for wisdom,” according to Rorty. The Christian perspective would echo the pragmatist emphasis on the humbling limitations of human thought. For the Christian reader, Meek’s philosophy—highlighting the critical role of inviting and submitting to the yet-unknown—offers one of the best, though subtle, presentations of biblical wisdom. Indeed, modern philosophy has in many ways lost sight of its first love—the love of wisdom. Godly wisdom rests on submission—submission to God and to others (parents, spouses, neighbors, friends, etc.) that cultivates humility and openness. Wisdom is covenantal knowledge.

A few critical observations of this introduction to Meek’s philosophy may be offered. A discussion of the epistemological impact of the fall is conspicuously absent. The dance metaphor can easily be changed to one of war. What role does the antithesis play in the knowing journey, especially when scripture often uses militant language about “taking captive” every thought? Readers may also wonder about the historical conditions that have led to modern philosophy’s epistemic illness. The historical process is also part of the journey of knowing. Finally, is there a way to create an epistemological environment that could jumpstart or offer a preliminary shape to a knower’s love? These criticisms notwithstanding, Meek’s easily digestible but no less profound prescriptions in Little Manual will go some ways in seeking to heal the ills of contemporary epistemology.

Ryan McIlhenny

Ryan McIlhenny
Providence Christian College
Pasadena, California, USA

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