Modes of Knowing

© 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

By way of backstory here, I am going to have to beg your indulgence while I engage in meandering through a little bit of that old solipsistic sand again. Believe me, this brief digression is necessary toward an understanding of at least the motivation for the essay that follows.

Back in my teen years I realized that my family life was not ordinary and especially did not come anywhere near the ideal as portrayed on that old TV show “Father Knows Best”. My two older brothers were mostly absent, although occasionally showing up at the house which I shared with my mother. My father often enough appeared on one of the weekend days; but, since his visits were usually marred by temper tantrums, I was satisfied with the infrequency. This situation I contrasted with the family scenes at some of my friends’ homes, and the contrast was depressing.

I went to church by myself. There, too, the atmosphere was more reflective of a well-adjusted family, although a disparate one. Since I could not ask to be adopted into one of my friends’ families, I believe I subconsciously claimed the institutional church family as my own. In fact, for decades afterwards—church, air force stint, a lengthy university period—I relied on institutions to provide sustenance, organization, and meaning in my life. However, during all those years I saw evidences that the institutional homes had some problems, too. Everything devised by humans could never be perfectly whole; there were bound to be leaking cracks in the structure.

In those early years I found it excruciatingly painful searching for my “niche”—particularly my career niche—in the world’s wobbly organization. While sitting in the pew at church services, I observed the preacher and his honorable position in life. I liked the man so much I practically made a father-figure out of him, although I never told him so. After maybe a year, I met with him in his study and informed him that I wanted to dedicate my life to the ministry. He was obviously very glad to hear my declaration and made a point from that moment frequently to encourage me toward a pastoral career. On one memorable day, as we were in his car heading toward a regional church conference, he said, “Once God calls you, he will never let you go.”

I never followed through as far as pastoral training is concerned, although I eventually came to view my work as a newspaper editor a valid type of ministry in the sense of seeking to serve the people for their benefit. However, even while doing some good in my career as a journalist, I sometimes recalled that preacher’s promise…or warning…: ‟He will never let you go.” Sometimes, while bending over the composing table to paste up pages, I perceived an extraneous thought, “You are the man for the job.” Every time I felt that remark, I asked nobody in particular, under my breath, “What job?”

A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to be a philosopher—a professional philosopher even though not a remunerated, academic one. However, I soon discovered that I suffered from one major handicap: lack of mathematical aptitude. Much, if not most, of modern philosophy is conducted through logical theorems and proofs, not in Socratic-style dialogues or Nietzschean aphorisms or in Humean essays. And alphabet letters combined with their attendant peculiar symbols and equations were always too opaque for me: I am not an abstract thinker.

My only recourse, I finally resolved, was to proceed as an outdated literary philosopher. Perhaps a truer denotation would be “an old-timey, cracker-barrel philosopher”. After all, is not every other profession being overturned by some new method of dealing with its material, even that of the symbolic logicians: they will probably find themselves to be fossils someday soon.

Now, besides the various methods of philosophy, there are also the several areas of philosophy—metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and aesthetics being the major fields. I have already published a few posts specifically concerning aesthetics and epistemology. I have also presented less definite offerings related, at least tangentially, to ethics and metaphysics. Today, I would like to present for your consideration a fuller meditation (as I like to call my philosophical essays) on the question of how we know, or come to know, some things: epistemology. While reading the following, keep in mind my anecdote of the composing table incident mentioned above.

When I began to seriously cogitate on the state of knowingness I was amusedly surprised to realize that there are several means of becoming aware of something. In fact, although I intend to discuss here the several that I pondered, I cannot honestly declare that there are not more.

Let me at first name and briefly define, in my own terms, the types of knowing that I have thought of:

(1) Basic:  Immediately at hand, e.g., our own names, although in some conditions, such as amnesia, the knowledge may not be presently available.
(2) Learned, often by Rote:  Memorized ad nauseam, each part except the first and last calls up another part via juxtaposition.
(3) “Tip-of-the-tongue”: We know the word or name, but it hides from us temporarily.
(4) Experiential: We know it’s difficult to fill a black or brown cup with coffee because we’ve done it.
(5) Déjà vu: Nearly everybody recognizes this term, and most acknowledge experiencing it: it is the French phrase for “already seen” and involves those odd moments when we seem to remember elements in a present situation that are very similar to elements of a previous experience, but we cannot remember the exact former situation.
6) Surmise: Given enough ancillary information, we deduce the only probable answer or outcome.
7) Mystical (Prescience): Internal, non-verbal, unsought, fleeting, ineffable knowledge.

Such is the list I have come up with. As I acknowledged above, more types of knowing might exist; I am not trying here to be all-inclusive. I just meant to emphasize that several types exist. Most of the modes above are certainly recognizable by everyone, so I will not dwell on numbers 1, 2, 4 and 6.

I will, however, briefly comment on numbers 3 and 5, both of which I find engrossingly fun to ponder.

Tip-of-the-tongue:   Imagine a very deep cellar with piles and piles of junk scattered on the floor. At the main floor (where you are) there are several stairways leading down to the cellar. You try them all but can’t reach the cellar (where whatever you want to retrieve is located), so you give up and decide to go to lunch down yet another stairway, at the other end of the long hallway; and, lo and behold, you bump into whatever it is you were looking for; it is coming up the stairs, looking for you.

Déjà vu: I don’t know if there are any scientific theories explaining it, but I have long had my own theory; viz., there is a whole aggregation of sensations and experiences jumbled together in our subconscious; sometimes we experience something which contains elements almost exactly reflective (or duplicative) of a previous experience, and thus we feel very fleetingly that we must have experienced the whole event before.

But the mode of knowing I want to concentrate on here (although it is very difficult to concentrate on) is number 7, the mystical or prescient.

Back in 1976, the late Julian Jaynes, at that time a psychology professor at Princeton University, published a book with a title almost as long as the book itself: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. In it, he posited that until around 3,000 years ago people could not reason as we do today; when confronted with novel or stressful situations, they were dependent upon audio hallucinations within the right side of the brain to tell them what to do. This manner of coping persisted until, eventually, people were forced by catastrophe or cataclysm into the necessity of thinking consciously. Jaynes claimed that Homer’s first epic, The Iliad, was composed by a person who was one of the pre-conscious group; while The Odyssey was composed by someone who was more “modern”. Prophecy, poetry and schizophrenia all owe their origins to the “bicameral mind”, according to Jaynes. So, we still have some people today who are of that sort. One of my former psychiatrists intimated, by suggesting that I read Jaynes’ book, that I am one of the pre-conscious folks. After reading a testimony I had written about my mystical experiences, he diagnosed me as schizo-affective.

Observations during recent years have led me to believe that he was probably right. On two occasions in the past decade, I have asked two young waitresses why they said to me, days prior, odd remarks. One had said, as I recalled, “You act like you own this place (the restaurant)”, and the other had said, “I’ve heard bad things about you”. Both later denied they had said any such things. On yet another occasion, while standing in line to pay for my breakfast at a café, I was informed by the man ahead of me, whom I knew but not well, “You think too much”. No conversation had passed between us before that comment; it just came “out of the blue”. Perhaps what I thought I had heard those persons say was what I actually heard them think.

In the recent past, I have happened upon more intriguing incidents of unconscious “knowing”. Unfortunately, I guess, both were episodes in fictional works: Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Joss Whedon’s TV series “Buffy the Vampire-Slayer”.

In Chapter 27 of Dracula, while Abraham Van Helsing and Mina Harker are proceeding through the wintry harshness of the Borgo Pass on their way to Dracula’s castle, where they intend to “kill” Dracula and his “brides”, Mina (who has already been bitten once by Dracula), points to a side road and says to Van Helsing, ‘This is the way.’

‘How know you it?’ asks Van Helsing.

‘Of course I know it,’ Mina answers, and then, pausing until she comes up with a plausible reason, utters, ‘Have not my Jonathan travelled it and wrote of his travel?’

Some other similar incidents, these involving Van Helsing as well as Mina, occur here and there in the novel. In Van Helsing’s case, we can suppose his knowledge derives from his broad and deep reading in books on the supernatural. However, the way he emphasizes it makes me believe his knowingness has a more sub-cranial basis. In Mina’s case, we sense that her knowledge comes from the developing infection caused by Dracula’s bite: She is being transformed slowly into a vampire.

In “Buffy the Vampire-Slayer”, the mystical knowledge comes to Buffy’s mother, Joyce Summers, in Season 5, Episode 9, when a brain-cancer, or the operation to remove it, affects her knowing capability. It causes her to realize that Dawn, whom she has mysteriously accepted as her daughter, is not in fact her daughter. She can’t explain how she knows it; she just does.

And in a manner similar to Van Helsing’s fount of supernatural knowledge, Buffy, in Season 5, Episode 21, realizes that “Glory the hell-god” will win in the contest between them. Says she to one of her friends: ‘I didn’t just know it; I felt it.’

I apologize for resorting to fictional works for my “evidence” here, but, except for my own personal experiences, that is pretty much all I can go by. However, does not the use of such elements by creative writers cause us to suspect that there is at least an ounce of truth in such phenomena? Is it related, perhaps, to Extra-Sensory Perception? Or even—to go the whole way—due to paranormal ability? Are not we all, on at least a few occasions, almost shocked by our own prescience?


NOTE TO NON-BLOGGER READERS: WordPress has its program set up where only WP bloggers can register “likes” and “comments” on this page. However, if you are a non-blogger, I would be glad to read any comments or helpful criticisms you might wish to share and, therefore, have left my email address in the “About” page above the title of this post. Please, no “snarky” comments, or I will have to delete it.
Thank you for reading.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jack McNamara on January 18, 2015 at 9:08 am

    Well, you got the mind-body-literature-Odyssey right,sort of. Does that really mean you have read Ulysses? Which would bring you up to 1904 and nibbling at WWI, where literature stopped of course (it then became politics). I am trying to recover from the shock…must I revise my opinion of the educational quality of SMU and Dallas?

  2. As usual, Jack, you have expressed yourself too ambiguously for my little “pea-brain” to wrap around.
    Yes, I read Joyce’s “Ulysses”, but it was long, long ago and far, far away (like on Okinawa), and all I really remember about it was that one chapter could be comprehended readily enough, but the preceding and the following chapters were soaked in obscurantism–an alternating cycle.
    As for SMU (which was fortunate to have me a student, again long, long ago), are you saying that your opinion of that school has risen since reading this post or that it has declined?

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