Two Views of Knowing

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

In Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998) James S. Taylor presents two ways of knowing which may be called poetic knowledge and scientific knowledge. Taylor’s object is to define and argue for the former, which has been largely forgotten in modern society, so his presentation is not unbaised. I found the contrast between the two quite helpful, however, so I would like to present both here for your consideration.


It is important to understand before we begin that while these are different models of knowing, they are not mutually exclusive. Taylor argues for a return to poetic knowledge but he acknowledges a place for other kinds of knowing as well, including scientific knowledge.

Ultimately, my goal is to present a biblical epistemology (theory of knowing). My purpose today is to present these two views so that we can begin to define the questions we need to ask in constructing our epistemology. I am not advocating for one or the other nor do I think either is the ideal.

Two Approaches to Knowing

Taylor traces the kind of knowing which he calls poetic knowledge back to the ancient Greeks (and indeed finds it in ancient China as well; p. 17) and through the Middle Ages. The beginning of the end for this theory of knowing is the age of the Renaissance and Reformation. Scientific knowledge, on the other hand, is a feature of the modern age, so much so that it has become the only acceptable way of knowing in our day and age. It is a method which we apply to every area of knowledge, whether it is well-suited to that area or not.

For Taylor, poetic knowledge is foundational. It is used by young children and must always come first. While scientific knowledge is rational and analytical, poetic knowledge is pre-rational (p. 26) and non-analytical (p. 5).

A poetic theory of knowing says that we can know about things which are outside of us through our senses and emotions. In this statement alone there are a couple of assumptions which we may take for granted but which are worth highlighting: Poetic knowledge assumes there is something outside us to know and it assumes that we can accurately know about those things through the medium of our senses and emotions.

Poetic knowledge is emotional in two senses. On one hand, it says that we can know a thing through our emotions. On the other, it requires a degree of intimacy with the thing that is known. Taylor alludes frequently to an incident from Charles Dickens’ book Hard Times in which the young girl who has grown up with horses is chastised by her teacher for not knowing the taxonomic facts about them (see pp. 7ff). Her classmate can recite these facts but it is the girl who truly knows horses. It is a knowledge which started perhaps with one horse but through intimacy with that creature, she has built a knowledge which is intuitive. The boy who knows the facts need not ever have seen a horse. His knowledge is all in his head but he has no feeling for the horse.

If the object of our knowing is not so close at hand, we may still have a sympathetic knowledge of it. Taylor also uses the word connatural for this (p. 64). It is a knowing which takes us inside a thing (p. 9). Because poetic knowledge always begins with an interest, it is enjoyable, passive and leisurely (p. 10) and never laborious.

Poetic knowledge is natural to the child. His play shows a kind of poetic knowing in which he enters into a thing, whether it be a cowboy or a princess. This kind of learning through imitation which the the child does naturally produces poetic knowledges which may also be said to be a playful kind of knowing (pp. 15, 41). Poetic knowledge is thus imaginative. It is driven by images (p. 53) and not by words (p. 134). Even at higher levels, books are few (p. 178).

Unity is a major theme in the theory of poetic knowledge. The thing known is unified rather than being broken down into its parts. All aspects of the man are involved; he uses not just his mind but his senses which correspond to his physical body, his emotions, and his will (pp. 41, 166). And there is a uniting of the two, the knower and the known, as one enters into the object of his knowledge (p. 63). For Thomas Aquinas to know something is to have possession of it; for Augustine to know a thing is to love it (p. 62).

The goal of poetic knowledge may be expressed in various ways. Thomas Aquinas spoke of “disinterested pleasure” by which be meant that the end is enjoyment of the thing known for its own sake without utilitarian ends (pp. 40-41). For Aristotle and Socrates, the goal of education was virtue or good character which came from the love of beauty and goodness itself (pp. 19, 21). For Augustine the end is to see the greater beauty and perfection that the object of our knowing points to and ultimately the contemplation of God (p. 28). The common ground here is perhaps that beauty and goodness when known in one area awaken and teach so that they are recognized in other areas as well (pp. 38, 106). Henri Charlier, a French writer whose main emphasis is on education through craftsmanship, “sees, in the craft of, say, carpentry, a self-perfecting of the student” (p. 127). Robert Carlson, onetime profesor at the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas (the subject of chapter 6), speaks of the goal as humanizing the student through the development of the powers within him: his senses, memory, and imagination (p. 145).  Taylor himself speaks frequently of love as the goal and of friendship between the teacher and student (p. 180).

Scientific knowledge is knowledge about things (p. 6). It does not take us inside the thing. Its tendency is to take the thing apart. It deconstructs and dissects. It is not leisurely but involves work (pp. 14, 72). It is active (p. 20). Poetic knowledge discovers but scientific knowledge proves (p. 64). Indeed, what it means to know is a major issue for scientific knowledge which demands an absolute certainty. It begins from a place of doubt which questions everything (p. 72). An interest in the subject matter is at best an unnecessary add-on and is certainly not essential to the process.

The scientific approach traces its roots to Descartes and his questioning of all that came before. He assumes nothing which is not proven to a mathematical certainty. One’s emotions and even one’s senses are left aside. Deduction and reason are the only tools to be used (p. 89). Proof is demanded for everything, whether it needs proof or not (p. 96).

Whereas the poetic approach assumed a world outside ourselves which can be known, the scientific approach does not even assume this. Descartes famously assumed only his own mind (“I think therefore I am”; pp. 92, 94).

John Dewey, who followed in Descartes’ intellectual footsteps, has been the major influence on American education since 1900. Dewey sees all reality as being in a state of flux, of constant change. Everything is subject to its environment and all learning is through experimentation (p. 98). Dewey takes what was for Descartes a method and turns it into a process, a process which is used in all areas of learning (p. 102). In Taylor’s words:

“What links Descartes and Dewey is their trust in scientific methods of thought, shortcuts really, and that they both, in different ways, either call into question where thought begins (for Descartes, in the mind alone), or that the objects of thought are constructed by the mind only as a result of inquiry, as with Dewey.” (p. 101)

The goal of education in the scientific system is harder to discern. Descartes sets out to prove what can be proved, while assuming nothing. For Dewey the end seems to be to serve the ever-changing process and to fit the child to his evolving environment. I use the world “evolving” very deliberately here as there is clearly a mindset shaped by Darwin’s theory of evolution. The ends are not clear, for in truth there is no end point to be reached, but a loosely-defined “progress” is the goal.

The Analysis

Taylor does a lot of the work of critiquing the scientific mode for us, and many of the charges are easy to make — It reduces man to an intellect and discounts his emotional and physical nature. It assumes nothing outside of itself. It demands proof of things which are inherently unprovable. Its foundation is doubt.  It tends to break down what is known and provides no big picture for understanding the world. It deconstructs the known and disintegrates the knower. It dehumanizes. It has no absolute good and no definitive goal.

But inspite of all this we must recognize that the scientific approach to knowing arose out of some very real critiques of what came before. The modern scientific approach, like the Reformation, was a reaction to the medieval world. It questioned what it was told and it said that man, even an individual layman, was able to use his intellect to arrive at truth, to experiment and to know the world outside himself. Clearly Descartes and those after him went too far, denying any absolute truth outside themselves. But the instinct to experiment was a good, even a Christian one, built upon the assumption that our world is rational and knowable. Taylor is dismissive of the scientific means, but as any child who takes apart a clock knows, sometimes looking inside a thing and seeing how it works gives us a greater appreciation of it and increases our sense of wonder.

If the scientific assumes too little, the poetic tends to accept too much. Poetic knowledge breeds subjectivity. Though Taylor says grand things about the whole person the truth is that poetic knowledge is, as he admits, pre-rational. One’s intellect is at best subsidiary in the process. Poetic knowledge assumes a fixed reality outside of us, but that reality is known through very subjective and fallible means — our senses and emotions. If my poetic knowledge tells me one thing and yours tells you the opposite, there is no way to adjudicate between them.

Taylor does address the charge of subjectivity. He does this primarily by defining subjectivity — Truth is subjective if it has meaning to its observer (the subject).  Objective truth is objective because it is the same for everyone, or indeed the same whether it is observed or not. Quoting Andrew Louth, he says that objective truth has no meaning because there is no engagement with it and no one would lay down his life for it. (pp. 72-73). This to my mind does not answer the issue which Taylor himself raises when he says that “at this level of [poetic] knowledge we could be mistaken about the goodness or badness of the thing known” (p. 68). There is no way to say poetic knowledge is right or wrong “whether the knower be a bright poet or a small child, the scholar or the learning disabled person” (p. 68).

From a Christian viewpoint, we would say that Taylor’s poetic knowledge does not take into account the fallenness of man. It assumes that what we get through our senses and emotions is true and good (p. 49). On the flip side, the scientific approach does the same thing with our rational abilities — it assumes they will always lead us to truth.

The emphasis on images over words also adds to the subjectivity. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but the fact is that words are able to convey meaning a lot more precisely than pictures are. When God chose to reveal Himself to men, He very deliberately did not use an image and His enduring message to us is His written Word.

While I do not know Taylor’s religious beliefs, he clearly does not come from a reformed tradition but seems rather to be anti-reformed. He says that the “narrow and harsh aspects of Calvinism” (and a Calvinism-like movement within Catholicism known as Jansenism) led to a suspicion of “the transcendentals of beauty and goodness” and a “denial of  the human being’s powers to naturally, freely know and love God” (p. 108). The latter part of this sentence I think is fairly accurate — I will say as a Calvinist that I do disbelieve man’s natural ability to know and love God on his own apart from saving grace. But I think Taylor misunderstands and misrepresents Calvin if he sees in him a denial of transcendant truth and beauty. [1]

If we accept that there is a world outside of ourselves to be known, we must ask how we are to relate to that world. For Taylor, the answer is: passively. He sees the world as a things to be known but not manipulated by us. Scientific knowledge, he charges, seeks to dominate but poetic knowledge only to enjoy.  Poetry (quoting John Henry Newman) “‘demands, as its primary condition, that we should not put ourselves above the objects in which it resides, but at their feet . . . ‘” (p. 36). Reality for Taylor is a companion and it is arrogance to seek to dominate it (p. 105; cf. p. 169). I need not tell you that this is not the biblical view of man’s relationship to and responsibility for Creation. To have mastery over the created world is not at odds with loving it or the Creation mandate of Genesis 1:26-30 would make no sense to us as Christians.

To believe in a truth outside of ourselves is ultimately a religious position. We must account in some way for what it out there. Poetic knowledge assumes that there is not just something out there but that that something has positive qualities like goodness and beauty (p. 57). It goes beyond that even and assumes that there is meaning and power and a kind of unity to the good and the beautiful. Taylor speaks often of transcendence (p. 13). For some, like Augustine, these beliefs are put within a system which believes in God and points to God and there is a coherence to them (pp. 28ff). But without some sort of overarching religious belief, there are a lot of loose ends here. There is nothing that defines goodness. Goodness is assumed but there is no mention of its opposite — If good is out there, is evil there too? And if so, how do we discern between them? How do we know that what we know is the good? Are there things that are evil and shouldn’t be known? And above all, where does the meaning to it all come from? Why is there transcendence? I do think one could hold to a kind of Christian poetic knowledge (as Augustine does) but the view presented here by Taylor is not given a specific religious basis and this leaves it adrift. There are no answers to the big questions.

The Questions

I hope that it has been helpful to look at these two ideas of knowing to see what issues they address and how they do so. My goal is not for us to adopt one or the other of these but to go back to the Scriptures and to develop a biblical epistemology.   I’d like to close today by listing some of the questions which any theory of knowing must answer:

  • Where does truth reside? Is there something outside of us which is knowable or do we begin inside and work outward?
  • Is there absolute objective truth apart from the subjective knower? Is there one truth for all people?
  • How do we know what we know? What parts of us are involved in that process — our senses, emotions, intellect? Can we trust the evidence these give us? How do the various aspects of our nature relate to one another?  If they come into conflict, how do we decide what to believe? Can they be wrong? From a Christian perspective, what is the impact of man’s fallenness on his ability to know?
  • How does knowledge come to us? Do we trust the knowledge of previous generations? Can we learn from other people? Does knowledge require direct and/or intimate contact with the thing known? Is it hands-on? What is the value of words versus images? Are there better and worse modes of knowing?
  • What does it mean to know something? Is knowledge absolute certainty? Is it just a preponderance of the evidence? Can we know something “intuitively”?
  • Is knowledge knowing about or is it more than that? Does knowledge require intimacy, relationship, love?
  • What is the purpose of knowledge? Do we have utilitarian ends? Relational ends? Is knowledge in and of itself valuable?
  • Are there things we shouldn’t know?


[1] Later, disparaging Puritans and Jansenists, Taylor also presents a skewed view of what biblical love is that shows he does not understand the Christian message (p. 173).


5 responses to this post.

  1. […] of two books I have reviewed recently (and will mention below) shows this: both David Hicks and James S. Taylor look back to classical Greek education to find a model for their own proposals. Both extensively […]


  2. […] on the Trivium. As far as I can tell (and I have read both their books) neither David Hicks nor James S. Taylor (author of Poetic Knowledge) makes uses of the […]


  3. […] age (though specific ages are not given) the learning is all “musical.” It is what James Taylor termed “Poetic Knowledge” in his book of that name. The focus at this stage is very much on the imagination and on wonder (p. 33). Clark and Jain call […]


  4. […] contrast, many of the other authors I have looked at (who would term themselves classical) — Taylor, Hicks, Wilson, and Clark and Jain — would probably match all but a few of these […]


  5. […] must always be preceded by the romance stage, that which captures the imagination (this is akin to the poetic knowledge of which James K. Taylor speaks). The final stage, generalisation, is that of fruition or synthesis (p. 19). In the end one aims not […]


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