Seeking Integration in a Fragmented World: Covenant Epistemology: The Integrative Regard of the Other


Fragmentation characterizes our era. Bits, bytes, chips, data points. Ourselves as reducible to the meaningless. We can feel dehumanized and lost. We seek wholeness, integration. We rightly believe that integration brings meaningfulness, somehow doing better credit to ourselves as humans and to the world. More than that, integration somehow aligns with the very goal and longing of our lives. How may we move toward integration, experience integration, live integratively, become integrated persons? In these conversations with you I am exploring integration as I find it in a handful of thinkers I personally am engaging in my own attending to integration. Here I want to tell how my own proposals about knowing, which I call covenant epistemology, developed out of integration, and what covenant epistemology adds to the rich notion of integration, and to our living integratively. I want to speak of the integrating regard of another person. The noticing regard of an other integrates as we know ourselves in their gaze. This, I believe, suggests how it is that integration may be what we long for: we long for communion with and in the presence of the other. The real that we seek in our knowing, is that other.

In earlier posts, I have claimed that integration reasonably requires an integrative epistemology, and I have offered Michael Polanyi’s account of knowing as subsidiary focal integration as that integrative epistemology. It is, by contrast, an account of knowledge as exhaustively explicit, focal, analytical and reductivist—the account that has engendered and characterized modern Western culture—which, while it has issued in power and control, has fostered human disintegration as well as the denuding and discrediting of the real.

The act of coming to know is a creative leap to insight, a Gestalt-like pattern that makes transformative, meaning-filling, sense of the clues. That event also makes integrative sense of ourselves, the knowers. I also showed subsidiary focal integration creatively melds subsidiaries which in themselves might conflict. Understood this way, all knowing, from the simplest perception to the most exalted discovery, and from cooking to knowing God, is integrative and in some way integrates the knower in the process.

The integrative act of insight, additionally, yields the conviction that we have made contact with reality, as Polanyi expressed it. “The act of tacit knowing thus implies the claim that its result is an aspect of reality which, as such, may yet reveal its truth in an inexhaustible range of unknown and perhaps still unthinkable ways.”1 When Copernicus considered the thought that the planets, including Earth, revolved around the sun, rather than epicycling around the earth, although any data collection would have yielded exactly the same results, he was convinced that this vision was real. It was not a matter of convenient summary of data, or pragmatic usefulness; and it certainly wasn’t articulable at the moment of discovery. He sensed, as Polanyi repeatedly emphasizes, that this new way of looking at things was pregnant with unspecifiably profound possibilities, an inexhaustible range of prospects, ways it would manifest itself in the future. And it displayed this signature feature because the insight had made contact with reality.

But it isn’t just great discoveries that display this telltale feature of indeterminate future possibilities. So does any insight, even the most ordinary: finding a place to live, or a person to befriend; discovering a great cleaning agent, a new kind of larkspur, or a solution to a problem. Learning how to ride a bike opens a world of delightful but unspecifiable bike possibilities.

I have to tell you that this repeated claim of Polanyi’s about contact with reality has been personally transformative. It may have been the critical realization of my life! Although raised a Bible-believing Christian and never departing from that, and quite apart from any philosophy classes, I was a child skeptic, a baby Cartesian, it seems. As an early teen, I was throttled by two urgent, obviously epistemic, questions: How do I know that God exists? And how do I know that there is a world beyond my mind? I thought that it was obvious that I was certain, and only certain, or thoughts inside my mind. But just for that reason these blocked me from reality beyond me. I had no proof that it was there. I desperately felt that I needed proof. It was only in later years that I learned that I was intuiting modernist epistemology with its inherent contradictions and damaging fall-out. Not to trust the world outside your head is disintegration indeed. (And of course it is the height of arrogance to presume you are certain of the ideas inside your head!). You can see, by the way, that my avenue of inquiry has always been first of all epistemological—as it is in this series on integration.

So when I found this claim of Polanyi’s, I felt that it was the first and only real response to my “egocentric predicament,” as it is popularly called. It was like a stream in the desert—the desert of modernity. I went on to write a dissertation on Polanyi’s notion of contact with reality—effectively, on my 8th-grade question.2 Then in later years I felt that this ontological aspect of subsidiary focal integration suggested an augmented form—covenant epistemology. This is what I want to tell you about here.

As I continued to ponder subsidiary focal integration, and contact with reality with its signature sense of indeterminate future manifestations, I came to feel that the moment of insight was like a personal encounter.3 For in the aha moment, you feel as if you have been led, drawn by something. You are the one who has been pursued. The breakthrough of insight comes from beyond you; it’s not a linear result of your efforts, but rather a gracious gift from beyond you. It changes you, exploding your questions more than answering them. It surprises you, beyond what you had anticipated. You sense this signature range of unspecifiable future possibilities. In the moment of insight, you feel that you are for that moment looking straight into the eyes of reality, deep into inexhaustible depths, in deep communion.4 There is something far more dynamic about the knowing venture than simplistic information collection. Coming to know proves to be coming to be known.5

It seemed to me that the sense of indeterminate future manifestations, the transformative nature of integration, along with other things,6 suggested that there is something personlike about reality, and interpersonlike about the act of coming to know. I went on to pose the thesis that we should take, as our paradigm of knowing, the interpersonal, covenantally constituted, relationship—best typified, actually, in the redemptive encounter. My book, Loving to Know, is my extended development and defense of this claim.

Along the way in developing my argument, I came across the work of John Macmurray, Persons in Relation.7 I found in his work for the first time what I have since found also in others’: extended epistemic reflection on the mother’s smile as first apprehended by the infant. This is encounter that all of us who are able to makes sense of this text will all have undergone. For that gaze, to which the infant freely responds with an answering smile, shapes the infant, her reality, and her knowing. Knowing, from the get-go, is encounter and communion. Our whole lives may reasonably be seen as seeking the face of the other. And covenant epistemology is the claim that this is the shaping core of our knowing.

The loving gaze, the seeing of us, the smile of welcome, the noticing regard of an other, critically forms us as persons, but also readies and shapes us as knowers.8 I propose here that the noticing regard of an other composes and integrates us. The gaze of the other integrates us in a self knowing. There is an essential dimension of this in all our acts of coming to know and engaging the real. When reality breaks in, it puts us together. And it does so in a personlike way, as does the noticing regard of the other. It’s the way the Lord is present in every moment of insight. And this is why the redemptive encounter is paradigmatic for all epistemic communion with the real.

There is a sense in which a person aspiring to know is like the man of the Gadarenes, wildly out of contact with reality. Jesus arrives, administering gracious, powerful delivery, after which the man is found sitting at Jesus’ feet, composed—clothed and in his right mind. That is the integrative noticing regard of the other. The good life is integrative communion with the real. It issues in peace for knower and known.9

What is the take-away here? Seek to commune with reality. Invite the real. Especially pay attention to the dimensions of reality that speak to you personally—cooking food, fixing cars, caring for dogs, researching and writing, seeking the Lord. See that the real graciously responds in self-disclosure (revelation). See that it regards you, consenting to communion which integrates you, making you wholer than you were.

Esther L. Meek, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at Geneva College, as well as a Fujimura Institute Fellow Scholar. Her books include Contact With Reality:​Michael Polanyi’s Realism and Why It Matters; A Little Manual for KnowingLoving to Know: Introducing Covenant Epistemology, and Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People.

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References   [ + ]

1. Michael Polanyi, Knowing and Being: Essays by Michael Polanyi (edited by Marjorie Grene. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 141. This is only one of a host of ways he expressed this claim throughout his work. See Esther Lightcap Meek, Contact With Reality: Michael Polanyi’s Realism and Why It Matters (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017).
2. Meek, Contact With Reality, “Introduction.”
3. Meek, Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003), chs. 16, 22, 25; Loving to Know: Introducing Covenant Epistemology (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), pt. 4; A Little Manual for Knowing (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), ch. 5.
4. Special thanks to my former student Ryan Thompson for recording these features which I listed orally in class this last semester.
5. You may be familiar with Martin Buber’s notion of I-Thou encounter with things. While I don’t believe that there is an exact match between what he propounds and Polanyian epistemology, that idea of encounter accords deeply with what I am describing here. Buber, I and Thou (Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970); Meek, Loving to Know, ch. 9.
6. These other things include that it is covenantal behavior invites reality to come. Longing to Know, ch. 22; Loving to Know, ch. 2.
7. John Macmurray, Persons in Relation (Introduction by Frank G. Kirkpatrick. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1991); Meek, Loving to Know, chs. 8, 10.
8. Meek, Little Manual for Knowing, ch. 3.
9. Meek, Little Manual for Knowing, ch. 8.