Epistemology of Elfland
May 2, 2022

We're delighted to announce that Esther Meek will speak about feasting at the Theopolis Feast on the evening of July 19, 2022 (register here). In anticipation, I'm re-posting a review of one of her books.

At the heart of Esther Lightcap Meek’s splendid ​Little Manual for Knowing is a concept she picked up from Michael Polanyi, “subsidiary-focal integration.” The concept begins from the insight that all our knowing,  all our experience, is double. We focus on something, but we are capable of “indwelling” that focal point only because we are anchored in subsidiary knowledge.

Drawing from John Frame’s tri-perspectivalism, Meek argues that subsidiarities arise from felt bodily senses, from “normative guides or frameworks,” and from the situation itself where we begin our “puzzled inquiry” (54).

I can write only if I don’t keep thinking about where my fingers belong on the keyboard. I can play the piano (sort of) so long as I don’t think too much about the mechanics of playing the piano. I can’t focus without the subsidiary knowledge; but I can’t focus on the subsidiary without losing the whole: We attend from  subsidiary knowledge, not (normally) to it (49). 

At times, we must focus on subsidiaries to improve our skill and knowledge. Pianists work on fingering. But subsidiaries are no longer subsidiaries when we focus on them: “A hammer examined and a hammer swung might as well be two different things” (56).

This focus on subsidiaries is “unnatural” and can feel unnatural. Thinking about balance while riding a bike, watching where your feet go when you dance – this is sure to spoil the ride and the dance. Modern epistemology, where knowledge is information, is mistaken because it makes renders “subsidiaries permanently focal” (56).

We need both focal and subsidiary, and the two need to be integrated. The relationship is “not linear” or merely additive. You can’t deduce the focus from the subsidiary. Rather, the relationship between “subsidiary clues and focal pattern is one of integration – an imaginative synthesizing of a transforming, three-dimensional pattern” (51).

Integration is passive: We “submit to the pattern” of clues. Yet it is has a creative dimension: “The knower riskily, creatively scrabbles to indwell clues to achieve a focal pattern,” a scrabbling that “takes love and commitment,” a “pledge to the real” (52).

It is creative, but it is no mere fabrication. In the moment of integrating subsidiary clues with a focal pattern we have contact with reality. Insight surprises, shatters, shocks us with the strange combination of familiarity and novelty that Chesterton captured with his story of the adventurer who finds he has discovered England. Meek’s is the epistemology of elfland.

We know we encounter reality “because of unspecifiable retrospective and prospective richness, because of profound transformation of our venture, because of IMFs [indeterminate future manifestations],” because integration not only organizes the clues we already have but is “fraught with promise,” opening a horizon for further exploration (68). This is exhilarating rather than disheartening: “It feels like a never-ending joyous adventure” (68).

I run the risk of quoting the entire book, so let me close with a few responses.

Meek’s book is the best thing I’ve come across at describing the actual experience of the “venture of knowledge.” We puzzle over particulars, straining in anguish until a pattern manifests itself. The experience of coming to know is just what Meek says: It is the experience of receiving a gift; insight is by grace, coming from elsewhere and opening a new world.

When I was younger, I thought something was wrong with me because I didn’t arrive at conclusions methodologically, linearly, having examined all relevant facts and assessed all possible options. Meek shows that my sense of inferiority was rooted in a faulty epistemology. 

A Little Manual for Knowing has implications in every direction, but for me the implications that are most relevant are those having to do with pastoral care and liturgy. Good pastoral care is precisely a developed skill at integrating focal knowledge with subsidiary clues. Pastoral care depends on mature insight into the pattern in the particulars. Good liturgical leadership depends on the same integration.

Meeks points out that schooling is “temporary attentiveness to what is meant to be subsidiary” (55), and this applies to liturgical training. When learning to lead worship, future pastors need to think about how they hold their hands when praying and benedicting, how to walk and stand, what tone of voice to adopt when reading.

But the liturgy isn’t school.  Novices at liturgy often turn subsidiaries into focal points. Instead of indwelling the liturgy anchored by habit-formed subsidiary knowledge and skills, they focus on clues and train their people to do the same. 

Over-explaining, speaking rubrics during the liturgy, reading the liturgy rather than speaking to the people make it difficult for either leader or people to indwell the liturgy. It inhibits the development of liturgical skills and good liturgical habits.

When subsidiaries become permanent focal points, the liturgy becomes as clumsy as a dancer watching his feet, as ill-tuned as a pianist paying close attention to his fingering.

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