A Filosopher Reflects on Philing

Owen Barfield was an inkling to whose daughter, Lucy, CS Lewis dedicated The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.

He was a first class scholar in his own right who was comfortable with Latin, Greek, German, French, and who knows what other languages. I would love to read his book called History in English Words, which he described as a “general and superficial survey of semantic development.” How can that not make your heart melt?

The following quotation comes from another of his books called Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning.

… the rational principle must be strongly developed in the great poet. Is it necessary to add to this that the scientist, if he has ‘discovered’ anything, must also have discovered it by the right interaction of the rational and poetic principles? Really, there is no distinction between Poetry and Science, as kinds of knowledge, at all. There is only a distinction between bad poetry and bad science.

As a great believer in different kinds of knowledge, I have to pause here and draw a rather technical distinction that you’ll want to skip over to get to the bold text below.

He is looking at the words Poetry and Science as they are used now. He’s describing a very metaphysical mode of knowing that was developed and explained by Coleridge and Shelley in the early 19th century.

What he’s getting at, I think, is that Descartes and Bacon, with their pretensions for the scientific mode of knowing, were off base. The highest forms of knowledge discovered by the poet and the scientist are the same.

These words can and have been used differently, and that can create confusion. These uses pre-date Bacon and Descartes, so they arise from a quest for true knowledge as opposed to Pragmatic utility.

I am referring to the distinctions Dr. James Taylor makes in his masterful opus, Poetic Knowledge, which you need to read if you want to teach knowingly.

He describes four kinds of knowledge as identified in the classical tradition and developed by Thomas Aquinas and others: the poetic (pre-rational, rooted in the senses), the rhetorical (persuasion by evidence), the dialectic (one of two options – beyond a reasonable doubt), and the scientific (absolute certitude – notice that this is not what modern “Science” means).

So in the Classical Christian tradition, there is a distinction between poetic and scientific knowledge, but neither term refers to what the terms poetry and science refer to today.

End of metaphysical digression

Barfield is arguing against the false claims of the scientist (from now on, I’m using the terms in the modern sense) to have some sort of knowledge the poet can’t have. This arises from and relates symbiotically to hubris:

That the two or three experimental sciences, and the two or three hundred specialized lines of inquiry which ape their methods, should have developed the rational out of all proportion to the poetic is indeed an historical fact–and a fact of great importance to a consideration of the last four hundred years of European history. 

A disordering has taken place, he suggests, in European culture and in the European soul.

But to imagine that this tells us anything about the nature of knowledge; to speak of method as though it were a way of knowing instead of a way of testing, this is–instead of looking dispassionately at the historical fact–to wear it like a pair of blinkers.

Modern science, that following on the work of Bacon and Descartes, provides a method for testing theories. It is dialectical and rhetorical, in Taylor’s sense above, but it is not (oh the irony) scientific.

Now, Barfield has a great deal more to say. Poetic Diction is one of those rare books with something jarringly insightful on every page. I am in the process of reading it through quickly, sans reflection, to get something of the gestalt in my head.

But I was prompted to write the foregoing because of a practical matter I am dealing with. Order.

More to the point, filing.

I conclude from my efforts that in a pragmatic world the philosopher will be out of place – unsuited.

The pragmatist orders things for their utility. The question is, “What will I use this for? Then file it accordingly.”

The philosopher, humbling himself before everything he encounters, orders things according to their nature, whether or not he can make use of them.

Happily, sometimes, even frequently, utility and nature overlap. Of course, as a would-be philosopher, I cling to the hope that in the end they overlap perfectly. What creates the disruption is false perceptions of utility, which lead to false perceptions of reality. But sometimes they overlap even in the immediate.

For example, businesses are, by nature, Pragmatic concerns. Their purpose is to produce results. They measure those results with a rather reductionist but quite powerful proxy called “cash.”

So the business, living in a realm dominated by conventions, don’t have to worry much about contradicting nature. They can ignore it almost completely. It’s natural for them to do so. (oh the irony)

Thus busines files can be ordered by utility pretty completely.

But schools are different. They are not Pragmatic institutions measured by an abstraction. They are, by nature, philosophical institutions of the highest order, requiring more wisdom than any other institution except the family. That is probably why most of them become not-for-profits.

A business model may help a school succeed as a business, but it runs the risk of destroying it as a school.   

However, since the late 19th century, schools have been trying to operate pragmatically. For example, much of the practice of the modern school arises from scientific management and factories.

The bell, for example, at the beginning and end of 50 minute sessions. Who would do that to a child? Who would believe that a child could learn best in that setting? What an unnatural way to order things!

It didn’t matter. Schools had become institutions for utility, not for education. Please note the distinction, as it cuts to the heart of our failure as a nation to educate our children.

Another clear example of Pragmatics overthrowing truth in schools jumps out with the curriculum and the way it is ordered.

The arrangement of classes simply doesn’t lead to discoveries of truth. I say that not based on some party conviction, but on the constant statements of high school and college students that I talk to, like:

  • “You say that because you are X”
  • “We have to agree to disagree”
  • “That’s your opinion”
  • “That’s true for you”

What all of these and so many more statements share in common is that they confess one thing: You can’t know the truth.

These deeply felt convictions arise, not from philosophical persuasion, but from being formed by a structure that doesn’t lead to truth (and also from a resistance to submitting to truth).

When students are assessed, the assessors don’t ask whether they can see truth better or whether they are more free than they were at the beginning of the lesson. All too frequently, they ask where they perform in an abstract exercise against an abstract group of people so they can, at best, determine whether to move them along the assembly line.

I saw a commercial for one of those nationwide colleges like University of Phoenix or LaSalle or something like that. The graduate talked about how much she valued it because it gave her a certification from an accredited institution.

Abstractions like certification and accreditation have replaced practical, concrete virtues like wisdom.

This is a cancer that eats at our cultural soul. What kind of adult student would freely subject herself to a process whose highest virtue is that it “certifies” her. What kind of a school would make that what they advertise? What kind of a society would value it so disproportionately and uncritically?

Answer: a Pragmatic society; which is a synonym for a soulless society.

So I’m trying to file my papers without eliminating my soul. I guess I just don’t fit.


Suggested resources:

Poetic Knowledge, Dr. James Taylor
Poetic Diction, Owen Barfield
File… Don’t Pile, Pat Dorff


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