Book Review

"A Little Manual for Knowing" by Esther Lightcap Meek

Ryan McIlhenny
Esther Lightcap Meek
Monday, August 31st 2015
Sep/Oct 2015

Over the past few years, Esther Meek, a professor of philosophy at Geneva College in Pennsylvania, has joined a great fellowship of intellectuals who have come to challenge the notion that knowledge is prepackaged information that passively exists in an upper realm waiting to be plucked by a mildly inquisitive individual’static, impersonal, cold. Helping to correct our defective epistemic setting by appropriating scientist-philosopher Michael Polyani’s ‘subsidiary-focal integration’ model, Meek makes the case that knowing is the process of working through subsidiaries’what in Longing to Know, her first major work, Meek refers to as clues’to draw together an integral pattern, which then opens up and further enriches reality. The master pianist, for instance, indwells the keys to his or her instrument subsidiarily to the focal point of the musical piece, producing a deeply rich knowing experience.

Esther Meek’s latest work, A Little Manual for Knowing, can be considered a succinct introduction to her unique philosophy. Knowing’more importantly, the process of coming to know’is both a pilgrimage and a gift, whereby the knower commits or pledges in faith to what is yet to be known. This journey begins with wonder, with an adumbrated love’a love of the journey itself’not yet fully articulated. She writes:

The knowing venture calls us to trust ourselves to something we seek to know, to trust ourselves to its developments, to trust ourselves to a reality that is relationally responsive and generous, to trust ourselves to relationship, to trust ourselves to carefully chosen guides and to companions on the journey, to trust ourselves in the knowing venture. (29)

Meek calls this ‘covenant epistemology,’ an idea introduced and defined in her second book, Loving to Know.

With A Little Manual for Knowing, Meek joins a chorus of philosophers working in a field of study called epistemology, or views about how human beings come to know and understand the world’in other words, a theory of knowledge. Appropriating the work of scientist-philosopher Michael Polyani, Meeks teases out the idea that knowledge requires moving beyond the individual, in mutual submission to another, which means that knowledge is communal in nature. Knowledge requires other people, a dynamic community itself in formation. In Little Manual, Meek links this covenant epistemology to the formation of being. Community is not only necessary for knowing, but it is also necessary for human identity. Coming to know something through community is the process of self-becoming. The master musician submits not only to an authoritative guide but to a community of artists as well. Such artists in community mutually constitute one another, thereby strengthening the community.

An interesting part of Little Manual is the central place of both ‘the Void’ and ‘the Holy’ in the knowing process and in human-becoming. The Void”the deep realization that we might not exist, that we need something, someone, beyond ourselves’’is our ‘coping with our situation,’ opening up ourselves to where the situation might take us. Experience and communion with the Void typically precedes many of life’s ‘Aha!’ moments’that is, moments of clear insight.

The second attribute of our humanness, the Holy, is the ‘gracious possibility of new being.’ According to Meek, experience of the Holy immediately follows the ‘Aha!’ moment when we are transformed to embrace reality and when reality embraces us. Think again of the musician whose physicality is changed by communing with a musical piece as well as the musical instrument. The music saturates life, changes habits, and moves the musician to see the world in a new, more enriched way. This speaks to Meek’s notion that knowledge is not only a gift but also a pilgrimage that she likens to a dance: ‘We move to and fro in conversations, in growing understanding, in growing solidarity and mutual trust’ (81). There are unsettling moments to be sure; the Void is something that we contend with in order to reach the ‘Aha!’ moment. For example, students struggle through difficult ideas and arguments, and they feel a sense of relief when they solve a complex problem. This is part of the journey. Augustine admitted this sense of shalom when he finally submitted himself to the highest knowledge. When he found God, his restless heart also found rest.

A few critical observations of this introduction to Esther Meek’s philosophy may be offered. A discussion of the fall of humanity into sin and the impact that must have on human knowing and understanding is conspicuously absent, which is puzzling from a Christian philosopher. Some avenues of exploration are not pursued, such as changing the dance metaphor to one of war. Scripture often uses militant language about ‘taking captive’ every thought, for example, which suggests alternative metaphors. Readers may also wonder about the historical conditions that have led to the quagmire that is modern philosophy. These criticisms notwithstanding, Meek’s A Little Manual for Knowing is easily digestible, and motivated readers will learn of a Christian alternative to much of modern epistemology.

Photo of Ryan McIlhenny
Ryan McIlhenny
Ryan C. McIlhenny, PhD, is the author of To Preach Deliverance to the Captives: Freedom and Slavery in the Protestant Mind of George Bourne, 1780-1845 (2020), part of the Antislavery, Abolition, and Atlantic World series of Louisiana State University Press.
Monday, August 31st 2015

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