25 March 2013

Newman & Bakhtin on Poetic Knowledge & the Human Sciences

I have been thinking again recently of the notion of ‘poetic knowledge’ (see this post), having received an extraordinarily kind and gracious e-mail from James Taylor—who literally wrote the book on poetic knowledge—thanking me for correcting an ‘incorrect citation’ of Maritain in my post on the subject. More specifically, I have been looking more deeply into what John Henry Newman has to say about the poetic mode in the apparently obscure essay, ‘The Mission of St Benedict’. [1] I have already quoted this essay several times on this blog, though I’ve never considered it in itself. Here, and again here, I quote a passage cited by Christopher Dawson on the Benedictines’ role in the preservation of agriculture and civilisation. In this post, having at last purchased a book that includes the essay, I excerpted a passage on the Benedictines’ literary endeavours. Finally, in a post on Tolkien’s elves, leisure, and monaticism (here), I quoted a brief passage wherein Newman emphasises the ‘poetic’ nature of the monastic life.

It is to this last theme that I return now. But whereas I originally took up the essay again for the light it would shed on poetic knowledge per se, as I reread the portion I shall excerpt below, I ended by going in an unexpected direction with it, of which more soon. First, here is Newman’s lengthy explanation of what precisely he means by ‘poetic’:

Poetry, then, I conceive, whatever be its metaphysical essence, or however various may be its kinds, whether it more properly belongs to action or to suffering, nay, whether it is more at home with society or with nature, whether its spirit is seen to best advantage in homer or in Virgil, at any rate, is always the antagonist to science. As science makes progress in any subject-matter, poetry recedes from it. The two cannot stand together; they belong respectively to two modes of viewing things, which are contradictory of each other. Reason investigates, analyzes, numbers, weighs, measures, ascertains, locates, the objects of its contemplation, and thus gains a scientific knowledge of them. Science results in system, which is complex unity; poetry delights in the indefinite and various as contrasted with unity, and in the simple as contrasted with system. The aim of science is to get a hold of things, to grasp them, to handle them, to comprehend them; that is (to use the familiar term), to master them, or to be superior to them. Its success lies in being able to draw a line round them, and to tell where each of them is to be found within that circumference, and how each lies relatively to all the rest. Its mission is to destroy ignorance, doubt, surmise, suspense, illusions, fears, deceits, according to the ‘Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas’ of the Poet, whose whole passage, by the way, may be taken as drawing out the contrast between the poetical and the scientific. [2] But, as to the poetical, very different is the frame of mind which is necessary for its perception. It demands, as its primary condition, that we should not put ourselves above the objects in which it resides, but at their feet; that we should feel them to be above and beyond us, that we should look up to them, and that, instead of fancying that we can comprehend them, we should take for granted that  we are surrounded and comprehended by them ourselves. It implies that we understand them to be vast, immeasurable, impenetrable, inscrutable, mysterious; so that at best we are only forming conjectures about them, not conclusions, for the phenomena which they present admit of many explanations, and we cannot know the true one. Poetry does not address the reason, but the imagination and affections; it leads to admiration, enthusiasm, devotion, love. The vague, the uncertain, the irregular, the sudden, are among its attributes or sources. Hence it is that a child’s mind is so full of poetry, because he knows so little; and an old man of the world so devoid of poetry, because his experience of facts is so wide. Hence it is that nature is commonly more poetical than art, in spite of Lord Byron, because it is less comprehensible and less patient of definitions, history more poetical than philosophy; the savage than the citizen; the knight-errant than the brigadier-general; the winding bridle-path than the straight railroad; the sailing vessel than the steamer; the ruin than the spruce suburban box; the Turkish robe or Spanish doublet than the French dress coat. [3]
As I copied the above passage from Newman’s essay, the reference to science recalled to my mind another common opposition—science and the humanities. This is an issue that, I believe, first came to my attention in college as I excitedly studied the work of Russian philologist and philosopher of language, Mikhail Bakhtin (on whom I have posted here and here). It was particularly emphasised by Tzvetan Todorov’s invaluable study, Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle, the entire second chapter of which is entitled, ‘Epistemology of the Human Sciences’. [4] Todorov introduces the distinction between the two fields of study with a passage from the important essay, written in the 30s, ‘Discourse in the Novel’. I shall give the full passage, including those portions represented by ellipses in Todorov’s text:

Mathematical and natural sciences do not acknowledge discourse as a subject in its own right. In scientific activity one must, of course, deal with another’s discourse—the words of predecessors, the judgments of critics, majority opinion and so forth; one must deal with various forms for transmitting and interpreting another’s word—struggle with an authoritative discourse, overcoming influences, polemics, references, quotations and so forth—but all this remains a mere operational necessity and does not affect the subject matter itself of the sscience, into whose composition the speaker and his discourse do not, of course, enter. The entire methodological apparatus of the mathematical and natural sciences is directed toward mastery over mute objects, brute things, that do not reveal themselves in words, that do not comment on themselves. Acquiring knowledge here is not connected with receiving and interpreting words or signs from the object itself under consideration.
In the humanities—as distinct from the natural and mathematical sciences—there arises the specific task of establishing, transmitting and interpreting the words of others (for example, the problem of sources in the methodology of the historical disciplines). And of course in the philological disciplines, the speaking person and his discourse is the fundamental object of investigation. [5]

Elsewhere, in Bakhtin’s very late notes ‘Toward a Methodology for the Human Sciences’, he is even more explicit about the difference between the objects of the two disciplines:

The exact sciences constitute a monological form of knowledge: the intellect contemplates a thing and expounds upon it. There is only one subject here—cognizing (contemplating) and speaking (expounding). In opposition to the subject there is only a voiceless thing. Any object of knowledge (including man) can be perceived and cognized as a thing. But a subject as such cannot, while remaining a subject, become voiceless, and, consequently, cognition of it can only be dialogic. [6]

I hope this is enough to suggest where I am going. Bakhtin has much to say about this question, and perhaps one day I could do a whole post on the epistemology of the human sciences per se, but today I only want to suggest a connection with Newman’s distinction between between poetic and scientific knowledge. Surely, if one rereads Newman’s description of ‘scientific knowledge’, one sees that what he is talking about is precisely this orientation towards an object, a ‘voiceless thing’.

But what about poetic knowledge? Is there a connection between the poetic mode and this conception of the ‘object’ of the human sciences as being, in fact, a subject? I believe there is. It may be worth quoting once more a few of Newman’s words on the poetic mode:

But, as to the poetical,…[i]t demands, as its primary condition, that we should not put ourselves above the objects in which it resides, but at their feet;…and that, instead of fancying that we can comprehend them, we should take for granted that  we are surrounded and comprehended by them ourselves. It implies that we understand them to be vast, immeasurable, impenetrable, inscrutable, mysterious; so that at best we are only forming conjectures about them, not conclusions, for the phenomena which they present admit of many explanations, and we cannot know the true one. [7]

Is this not precisely the traditional—as opposed to the so-called ‘historical-critical’—approach to the subject in the human sciences? This necessity of not putting ‘ourselves above the objects’ we wish to know, the recognition that they are mysterious and we cannot form conclusions about them: surely this is what Bakhtin recognises when he speaks of ‘that internally unfinalizable something in man’. As he insists in his study of Dostoevsky: ‘In a human being there is always something that only he himself can reveal, in a free act of self-consciousness and discourse, something that does not submit to an externalizing secondhand definition.’ [8]

This is also, of course, the theological understanding of man, that understanding of him that is grounded in the knowledge of God. Compare Bakhtin’s notion of ‘unfinalizability’ with the following passage from St Gregory of Nyssa’s treatise ‘On the Making of Man’:

3. But I find the solution of these difficulties by recourse to the very utterance of God; for He says, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’ The image is properly an image so long as it fails in none of those attributes which we perceive in the archetype; but where it falls from its resemblance to the prototype it ceases in that respect to be an image; therefore, since one of the attributes we contemplate in the Divine nature is incomprehensibility of essence, it is clearly necessary that in this point the image should be able to show its imitation of the archetype.
4. For it, while the archetype transcends comprehension, the nature of the image were comprehended, the contrary character of the attributes we behold in them would prove the defect of the image; but since the nature of our mind, which is the likeness of the Creator evades our knowledge, it has an accurate resemblance to the superior nature, figuring by its own unknowableness the incomprehensible nature. [9]

Recall that Newman holds that nature, for instance, is ‘more poetical than art,because it is less comprehensible and less patient of definitions’. Compare Bakhtin’s comment that there is something in man which ‘does not submit to an externalizing secondhand definition’, and St Gregory’s linking of human nature to the ‘incomprehensible nature’ of God. Elder Sophrony of Essex draws these two authors together when he writes, ‘As hypostasis, image of the Hypostatic God, [the human being] is beyond definition’. [10]

There are a number of directions in which this could go. In my mind, Fr Andrew Louth and Alan Jacobs (and possibly Hans-Georg Gadamer) need to be brought in on the implications of the connection between poetic knowledge and the epistemology of the human sciences. But for now I’d like to consider one thing. It strikes me that the notion of man’s unfinalizability and incomprehensibility seems remarkably commensurate with the understanding of man as a megalocosmos as noted in this post. Recall the passage I quoted from Oration 38 by St Gregory the Theologian:

The human being is a kind of second world, great in smallness, placed on the earth, another angel, a composite worshiper, a beholder of the visible creation, an initiate into the intelligible, king of things on earth, subject to what is above, earthly and heavenly, transitory and immortal, visible and intelligible, a mean between greatness and lowliness. [11]

Is it strange that such a being might not be classifiable among reified objects, or that an epistemology which does justice to him must be of the poetic mode? Newman’s words apply beyond any doubt to man as the Fathers see him: ‘vast, immeasurable, impenetrable, inscrutable, mysterious’.

[1] This essay deserves an affordable paperback reprint, as the only edition I have seen in print is in the pricey hardcover third volume of Birmingham Oratory Millennium Edition of Newman’s works.

[2] The line Newman quotes is from Book II of Virgil’s Georgics. I plan to do a follow-up post on this reference. Addendum: See the follow-up post on Virgil here.

[3] John Henry Newman, Rise & Progress of Universities and Benedictine Essays, Vol. 3 of The Works of Cardinal John Henry Newman, Birmingham Oratory, Millennium Edition (Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame, 2001), pp. 386-8.

[4] Tzvetan Todorov, Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle, tr. Wlad Godzich (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1994), pp. 14-28.

[5] Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, tr. Caryl Emerson & Michael Holquist (Austin, TX: U of Texas, 1998), p. 351; qtd. in Todorov, p. 15.

[6] Mikhail Bakhtin, Speech Genres & Other Late Essays, tr. Vern W. McGee, ed. Caryl Emerson & Michael Holquist (Austin, TX: U of Texas, 1994), p. 161.

[7] Newman, p. 387.

[8] Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, ed. & tr. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1994), p. 58.

[9] From Chapter 11, 'That the nature of mind is invisible', here.

[10] Elder Sophrony, We Shall See Him as He Is, tr. Rosemary Edmonds (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2006), p. 102. Compare also Vladimir Lossky: ‘Finally, we admit that what is most dear to us in someone, what makes him himself, remains indefinable, for there is nothing in nature which properly pertains to the person, which is always unique and incomparable’ (The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, tr. The Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius [Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 1998], p. 121).

[11] St Gregory the Theologian, Festal Orations, tr. Sr Nonna Verna Harrison (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2008), p. 68.


Anonymous said...

Eclectic essay. You might weave in chapter one of Berdyadev's Meaning if the Creative Act, specifically his commentary on science, philosophy and poetry.

Aaron Taylor said...

Thank you for the suggestion! Unfortunately, I haven't read much of Berdyaev apart from pieces of Destiny of Man and his book on Dostoevsky, and I don't have a copy of Creative Act. I'll remember to check it out some time.