A Little Manual for Knowing by E.L. Meek
How do you know?
How do you know that you know?
How do you know that you know that you know?
The bemusing yet essential questions of epistemology have been around for thousands of years. In her book, A Little Manual for Knowing, Esther Lightcap Meek addresses those questions gently and accessibly. Meant to be a guidebook for those embarking on “knowing ventures”, each short chapter culminates in a series of introspective questions to assist thought and application.
What does it mean to gain knowledge? For most of us in this age of information, knowledge is simply an accumulation of facts, but Meek spends the 100 pages of A Little Manual debunking this assumption. Although she agrees that knowledge often involves amassing information, she goes deeper into the reality of human knowing with the intention of convincing us that there is more to knowledge than data. Ultimately, she claims that knowing requires love, commitment, and creaturely gratitude in order to come full circle and bear fruit. While information-driven knowledge is about control, love-driven knowledge invites and receives reality as it is. “We must be willing to have it change us,” she urges. Unless there is an element of trust and commitment to the yet-to-be-known, we’ll miss the reality of the thing– gaining a mere cursory idea of it or projecting our own expectations onto it. We’ll be the proper hearers of T.S. Eliot’s question: “Where is the life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
Meek borrows heavily from the philosophy of 20th century polymath Michael Polanyi, especially his theory of tacit knowing. Like Polanyi, she claims that much of our focal concentration is rooted in subsidiary awareness. Subsidiary-focal integration, or SFI, encompasses the core of a knowing endeavor. Skills like playing the piano exemplify SFI: you can’t play well if you focus entirely on your finger movements, for instance. Your fingers are part of your subsidiary awareness. When you begin to learn piano, your fingers are at the forefront of your concentration, but as you learn to control them, they take on the habit of correct posture and movement and allow you to shift your focus to the music. Similarly, as we learn in other ways, we integrate the focal and the subsidiary in a way that drives us closer to the heart of a subject. What begins as focal knowledge passes to subsidiary, where we can “indwell” it like our own bodies. Once-foreign concepts become presuppositions. “Coming to know proves to be a process of moving from looking at to looking from, in order to look beyond,” writes Meek.
She’s currently a successful writer, professor of philosophy in Pennsylvania, and Visiting Professor of Apologetics at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, but Meek remembers being in middle school and wondering how we can know when we’ve achieved knowledge. It’s a question that has plagued epistemologists for centuries, and maybe those epistemologists all started out as confused middle-schoolers. Meek’s explanation of how we know when we’re in contact with reality involves a complex term: Independent Future Manifestations; which just means a sense of unfolding possibility. “When you learn to ride a bike,” she told Ken Myers in an interview for the Mars Hill Audio Journal, “the world opens up to you in bikish ways.” When reality points you to more reality, that’s how you know it’s real. That moment of epiphany is empowering. Meek goes beyond that first connection, though. She encourages knowers to retain the wonder of epiphany throughout life as we continue to pursue understanding.
The necessity of retaining wonder requires us to see knowing as an exercise of love and invitation of the yet-to-be-known instead of a harvest of empirical facts. The first method is a pursuit of peace and living along-side; the latter is about power. And when we’re seekers of power, we are unwilling to allow our contact with reality to transform us. We take but do not give. Meek compares healthy learning to a dance: a give-and-take relationship between knower and known. We cannot strive for dominance or we’ll never achieve virtuosity. As creatures, we live inside a reality that has much to teach us, and often our most useful tool is acknowledgement of our own ignorance. 1 Corinthians 8:2-3 points this out: “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.” The proper focus is always on being known, rather than knowing; on approach rather than arrival. Meek speaks of reality in these terms when she says, “Rather than fitting into our sense of what makes sense, it fits us into its sense of what makes sense.”
A Little Manual for Knowing delves deep without drowning the reader. Only a centimeter thick, it’s essentially the layman’s version of Meek’s opus, Loving to Know. In that substantial work, the concepts of A Little Manual are detailed more thoroughly. But for those who don’t have time or fortitude for over 500 pages of epistemic philosophy, this thin manual delivers the core ideas. It is passionate and enthusiastic: highly unusual qualities in this field! Sometimes Meek waxes too eloquent and becomes gushy, and there are too few citations even for laymen, but I enjoyed Meek’s crash course in loving epistemology and I recommend it or Loving to Know for anyone interested in expanding his understanding of understanding.
For further reading on wisdom, tacit knowledge, and Michael Polanyi, try this post.