“Other ways of knowing”: Out of Africa

I’ve been in long-term “discussions” (a euphemism for “arguments”) with some people who claim that the humanities—in particular art, music, and literature—constitute “ways of knowing” that tell us facts about the universe either unattainable by science, unverifiable by science, or truths first revealed by literature and later verifiable by science. Often these arguments are made by theists whose ultimate goal is to show that religion is a “way of knowing.”

Over the several years of these discussions, I haven’t been convinced that humanities are indeed “ways of knowing” distinct from science. History and archaeology are ways of knowing, but only insofar as they adopt the scientific practices of verification, replication, and as they withstand doubt and alternative hypotheses. That is, I consider disciplines that use the practices of science to establish facts as “science broadly construed.” People like Massimo Pigliucci object vehemently to that term, but it’s just a semantic issue, so I’ll not pursue it here. All I can say is that I haven’t seen a truth set forth in literature that could stand as a truth without independent empirical verification.

As I’ve always said, I don’t say this to disparage the humanities—I’m a big fan of the arts and literature—but only to say that there’s really only one way of establishing truth, and that is to adopt the practices of science. I see music, art, and literature as ways of feeling, not ways of knowing. That is, they give us emotional experiences inaccessible to us in other ways. Literature enables us to see what it might feel like to be in somebody else’s shoes, activating emotions that we didn’t know we had.

I say “might” because when you read, say, The Sun Also Rises, you don’t know what you’d feel like if you were in Jake’s shoes. What you read about is what Jake feels like, a man in love but unable to consummate it. You may empathize with him or you may not. But, more likely than not, your emotions will turn one way or another: you’ll feel something you wouldn’t have felt otherwise.

I thought about this when I was pondering one of my favorite books, Out of Africa by Isak Dinisen (a pseudonym for Karen Blixen). As a portrait of colonialist Africa and a specimen of wonderful prose, it’s incomparable. After her coffee farm in Kenya fails, and her lover Denys Finch Hatton dies in a plane crash, she takes her sad farewell from Africa. The following clip from the end of the movie gives us three emotional scenes:

  1. She is bought a drink by her fellow Brits at the club; this was previously forbidden because the bar had a “no women allowed” policy, which they violated to honor her presence as she leaves. It is a sign that she was respected, but accepted only at the end.
  2. She says goodbye to her beloved head servant Farah at the train station, giving him the compass that Denys Finch Hatton had given her. She then asks him to say her name. This is of a piece with her famous soliloquy, “If I know a song of Africa. . .does Africa know a song of me?” In other words, she doesn’t want her presence as a person in that vast uncaring continent, a place that meant so much to her, to have gone unnoticed.
  3. She recounts a story of lions resting on Finch Hatton’s grave (she always inserts an incorrect apostrophe in his name), a story told her by a friend via a local official. This part, unfinished in the clip below, evokes strong emotions in me, always making me tear up. The combination of her love for the man, his death, and his association with the lions is an incomparable image and ineffably sad.

Here’s the clip. By the way, Meryl Streep has sometimes been denigrated as an actress for only being “good with an accent”, but I think you’ll see from this short video that her acting abilities, evinced in the slightest changes of facial expression, are superb. I’m a big fan.

The lion-on-grave clip ends prematurely above, but you can see whole bit here.

And here’s the relevant passage from Out of Africa.  The whole thing is wonderful, but it’s made immortal by that last sentence:

After I had left Africa, Gustav Mohr wrote to me of a strange thing that had happened by Denys’ grave, the like of which I have never heard. “The Masai,” he wrote, “have reported to the District Commissioner at Ngong, that many times, at sunrise and sunset, they have seen lions on Finch-Hatton’s grave in the Hills. A lion and a lioness have come there, and stood, or lain, on the grave for a long time. Some of the Indians who have passed the place in their lorries on the way to Kajado have also seen them. After you went away, the ground round the grave was levelled out, into a sort of big terrace, I suppose that the level place makes a good site for the lions, from there they can have a view over the plain, and the cattle and game on it.”

It was fit and decorous that the lions should come to Denys’s grave and make him an African monument. “And renowned be thy grave.” Lord Nelson himself, I have reflected, in Trafalgar Square, has his lions made only out of stone.

Remember that Blixen was Danish and wrote the book in her second language, which makes it even more remarkable.

Now, what “way of knowing” do we have here? What we learn is the events of Blixen’s life, and how she told us she felt about them. This is a sort of history, although to ensure that what she says is true you’d need more empirical verification. After all, lots of people embroider their autobiographies.

But the facts of her life are not what’s important in the film and in the book. What is important is how she reacts to them, and how we react to her reaction. If you’re sufficiently empathic (and it doesn’t take much), you’ll feel her carefully concealed joy at being bought a drink by people who used to exclude her; you’ll feel her gratitude as she hears Farah say her name for the first time, knowing he’ll remember her; and, especially, you’ll feel the stir of her soul as the lions on Finch Hatton’s grave bring his memory back to her.

To me, this is all a way of feeling, an activation of emotions in situations we’d never experience. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “There is no Frigate like a book. . .” What have we learned from the passage? Not much, really, and what we did learn needs verification if we’re to take it as true. But that’s all beside the point. What stays with us is the image of Finch Hatton, loved and now gone, whose memorial is made of flesh and fur rather than marble.


Karen Blixen (1885-1962)


  1. Barry Lyons
    Posted January 25, 2016 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Yes, ways of feeling. Excellent. This discussion reminds me of something Susan Sontag said (the following is pulled from “The Writer’s Chapbook,” edited by George Plimpton):

    “Well, literature does educate us about life. I wouldn’t be the person I am, I wouldn’t understand what I understand, were it not for certain books. I’m thinking of the great question of nineteenth-century Russian literature: how should one live? A novel worth reading is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.”

  2. Richard S
    Posted January 25, 2016 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Lovely essay. “Ways of feeling” sums it up perfectly.

    • Curt Nelson
      Posted January 25, 2016 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      THAT should be what Krista Tippett’s show is about and named.

      • Posted January 25, 2016 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

        She grabs even bigger now: Her show is called “On Being”. The hubris …

  3. Posted January 25, 2016 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    I see music, art, and literature as ways of feeling, not ways of knowing.

    A similar thing to say would be that the humanities are ways of communicating, not of knowing.

    Any knowledge is imparted by the author and/or the reader; but that knowledge arises from “science broadly construed”.

    • Cliff Melick
      Posted January 25, 2016 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      Art, music, and literature—constitute “ways of EXPRESSING FEELING”.

  4. Heather Hastie
    Posted January 25, 2016 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    I couldn’t watch the clip – I was already crying from your descriptions/my memories of the scenes.

    Emotional responses aren’t less than factual knowledge, they’re just different. Both are important, but again in different ways.

    And in many ways that’s the problem with religion – it wants to be something it isn’t. It’s an emotional response that its followers want to pass off as factual knowledge.

    • Randy Schenck
      Posted January 25, 2016 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      That is the heart of the matter. The emotional feeling the religious get is somehow perceived to be fact. This gets worse because they insist on shoving these “facts” off on the rest of us.

      That was a fine movie…

    • Sastra
      Posted January 25, 2016 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      Agree. Given that God is supposed to be very much like an emotion (Love) and we communicate with it through our emotions (love) it makes sense that believers would want to pass emotion and emotional responses as factual beings and factual knowledge.

    • Posted January 25, 2016 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

      Heather, me too. Just thinking about the breathtaking beauty of the cinematography of that film brings tears to my eyes.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted January 26, 2016 at 5:23 am | Permalink


  5. Kevin
    Posted January 25, 2016 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Art, music, literature hijack the senses. Anticipation in music, extrapolation in art, and social and ethical reminders in literature.

    How can there be anything but what we are, physical bodies made of atoms and interacting with electromagnetic and gravitational forces?

    Is art real? Of course. It is as real as consciousness. Is consciousness a manifestation of the physical universe? Of course.

    If any part of art, music, or literature provides knowledge that science cannot, then souls, angels, and heaven must also be real. There is no evidence for other ways of knowing.

  6. Ursula Goodenough
    Posted January 25, 2016 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    When I get into such “discussions,” it turns out that the weak link invariably resides in the verb “know.” So I can say that “I know I love my children” and “I know Evolution is true,” where the evidence is “internal” vs. “external”. If there were some infallible love measuring device that could be applied to my brain, it might document the truth of my love for my children, or it might document that I in fact don’t like them at all and am just fooling myself. But even that false sense could arguably be called knowledge: knowledge of my self-deceptive feelings.

    All that said, I try in these discussions to make the point that facts trump feelings. A person who prefers a fact-challenged version of life-on-earth history to a fact-robust version because the latter feels better is, of course, free to hold such views/feelings, but that doesn’t translate into a license to give their version equal time in the science classroom.

    • Ursula Goodenough
      Posted January 25, 2016 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

      Duh — I meant because the FORMER feels better

  7. Posted January 25, 2016 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    I agree that empirical truth cannot be determined by the arts, especially if the domain for measuring certain facts are limited to the absolute physical and mathematical realm.

    I also agree that art, literature and the like have value. Even from a non-theistic perspective, if indeed evolution by natural selection (ENS) is how we got here and there is no God, then the arts are at least a by-product of ENS and the value is relative to whatever value is assigned by those who experience them.

    As a theist, I also don’t place any kind of empirical value in the arts. Aesthetics and the like are as unique to the individual as a persons favorite flavor of ice cream! Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, yet there is something about our species that embraces and embellishes the arts beyond a simple preference, which I’m sure some animals have. As a theist, I of course see that “something” as intrinsically tied to the Imago Dei.

    Your thoughts?

    • Posted January 25, 2016 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      Jerry isn’t claiming the arts have no value.

      And you have to be careful with words like “preference”. I prefer not to be horribly murdered.

      • Posted January 25, 2016 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

        Well, it looks as though I need to work on my own reading comprehension. I see that you’re not accusing Jerry of claiming the arts have no value.

        And my other comment seems a bit cryptic. What I mean is that I think you’re trying to smuggle in an assumption that “preferences” are necessarily things of little import. Part of the way you try to do this is the use of the modifier “simple”. “Preference” does not indicate the level of objective value something should be assigned. Yes, my preference of pie over cake is not important, but my preference not to be horribly murdered should be taken as seriously as anything can be taken.

    • Kevin
      Posted January 25, 2016 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      One can establish a connection between aesthetics and any image of a deity. In fact, people can go out of their way to hurt others who make art (like comics) that they consider blasphemous.

      Art can always be special regardless of the supernatural. It’s just that some images of God preferentially and justifiably (to those who believe) make some prejudice and irrational decisions about how special that art is.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 25, 2016 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

      Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, yet there is something about our species that embraces and embellishes the arts beyond a simple preference, which I’m sure some animals have. As a theist, I of course see that “something” as intrinsically tied to the Imago Dei.

      I’m not sure I understand the question. I think that you’re pointing out that human beings are unique in the way we almost all create and respond to art and this in turn points away from our “just being another animal.” But we’re still talking about a matter of degree — not something completely new and unheard of among living beings.

      And the image of God seems more likely to be intrinsically tied to a previous capacity for art and invention, than the other way around. If you were to directly encounter and experience “God” and found it disappointing and disheartening, is it more likely that you would see something wrong with yourself — or something wrong with God (including the denial that this COULD be “God?”) Which way does the arrow seem to flow?

      • Posted January 25, 2016 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

        My primary point is about art, not the existence of God. Clearly I am a theist on an atheist blog, but really don’t want to pick a fight, just trying to learn others perspective while attempting to be honest about mine.

        • Sastra
          Posted January 25, 2016 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

          Ok, np.

    • Robert bray
      Posted January 25, 2016 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      ‘Aesthetics and the like are as unique to the individual as a persons favorite flavor of ice cream!’

      I’m not sure of the meaning of ‘aesthetics and the like,’ but if you mean ‘it’s all a matter of taste,’ then I think you are wrong. First of all, members of Homo sapiens, by virtue of both nature and nurture, MUST respond to artistic stimuli (as with any other perception)in at least a generic way. Vanilla is vanilla the world around, no matter what we call it in our variegated languages. Second, our emotional responses to such stimuli are generally different in degree rather than kind. The ‘something’ you speak of is likely the relatively rare phenomenon of being overwhelmed by a poem, or a painting, or a drama, or in the case of ‘Out of Africa,’ a memoir. The art that moves one most deeply will vary (within limits) from person to person. But the experience is not the ‘Imago Dei’ or the ‘Logos’ or indeed any sort of Platonic transcendence; rather it is the distilled power of human self-recognition.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted January 25, 2016 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

        Human brains are more the same than they are different. While we have our own preferences, we share more than we like to admit.

  8. Posted January 25, 2016 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been reading (more apt to say climbing my way through) Martin Meisel’s “Chaos Imagined” recently published by Columbia University Press. I’m still early in the book, but my response to the story Meisel weaves thus far is that the humanities are as necessary to science as water is to life. Without the literary, artistic, and poetic metaphors artists have always created in the face of what we don’t yet know, scientists could neither intuit a model or paradigm nor communicate it sensibly to others. As science has illuminated more and more of what started as imaginative superstitions, artists have responded with new ideas and possibilities.

    Of course, much of what is imagined never becomes “knowledge” and remains fictional artifacts. However, much of what is known began as a fiction.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 25, 2016 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

      But where do the artists, writers, and poets get their metaphors, if not from experiences of life and the environment? This is all shared and lines here seem blurry. Scientists who use a poetic image to visualize a possibility (like benzine and the snake swallowing its tail)may be pulling ideas from art, but it all comes from the same source.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 25, 2016 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

      I think I’d say the Humanities are necessary for humans if they want to have an enjoyable life beyond mere survival.

      Perhaps the Humanities, in the distilled form of communication, is important to an advanced civilization filled with scientists communicating ideas and asking for funding, lawyers defending the accused, and politicians articulating ideas. Literacy, in such a civilization, requires fluency in both the arts and the sciences (IMHO).

  9. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted January 25, 2016 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Let’s then say that the arts are ways of making well-honed guesses about human psychology that often require further verification.

    Humanity often has to proceed some of the time by well-honed guesses and other times needs to proceed by fully verified proof. (I believe this is a thesis of Wittgenstein.)

    Now whether artistically-induced intuitions about other people’s feelings do or do not constitute “knowledge” is perhaps a tad semantic.

    Hmmm! Could it be “knowledge broadly construed”!?!? (And is Einstein’s rarified sense of how he is religious “religion broadly construed”??)

    I will give my own quote from Sean Carroll here (emphasis added by me)
    “But they are not merely different methods of getting at the truth, they are ways of getting at different kinds of truth. What makes science (broadly construed as empirical investigation) special is that it is the unique way of learning about the contingent truths that separate our actual world from all the other worlds we might have imagined.”


    I’ve often liked Pigliucci, but I just don’t see what his objection to “science broadly construed” really is. Heck, there’s a German word for it “Wissenshaft”.

    It has an honorable place in American discourse. It is heavily championed in the 1997 book “The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies” by Vincent Ostrom and the 2002 book “The Cognitive Basis of Science” by Peter Carruthers.

    • Posted January 25, 2016 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      I’ve often liked Pigliucci, but I just don’t see what his objection to “science broadly construed” really is.

      His main objection seems to be semantic: he thinks that philosophy preceded science. If it were called “natural philosophy, broadly construed”, much of his objection would be overcome.

  10. Geoffrey Howe
    Posted January 25, 2016 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if there might be a failure to communicate here. You’re mentioning of “Science, construed broadly” reminded me that we can use words in broad ways that can sound silly to other people. It’s possible these “Other ways of knowing” proponents mean the same thing.

    If a plumber checking pipes to see what’s wrong is doing “Science, Broadly Construed” perhaps these people mean that literature gives us “Knowledge, Broadly Construed”.

    It seems absurd that they would claim that literature in and of itself gives us facts, so perhaps this is what they’re saying. Of course, if I’m right, it would be odd that proponents of literature as a way to help understand each other aren’t very good at communicating the concept.

    Of course, it could just be that they’re communicating just fine, and we’re being thick-headed about it 😀

  11. gluonspring
    Posted January 25, 2016 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    I see music, art, and literature as ways of feeling, not ways of knowing.

    Also ways of imagining. These works have often planted ideas in my mind that I might not have had otherwise. Of course, a good author can make a wrong idea, even an absurd idea, seem believable. So such ideas are not knowledge. Perhaps they could be thought of as hypothesis, or thought experiments. Since the space of wrong ideas is much larger than the space of correct ideas, however, it’s not clear that simply churning out hypothesis/though experiments will do as much good as harm. I’ve known many people who embraced a suspect view of how the world works because of the vivid depictions in a novel (or even stale depictions… c.f. Atlas Shrugged, or The Bible), so the net good is hard to evaluate.

    Still, while I’ve gained only a very small amount of knowledge from having sex or eating a good meal, I don’t consider that to be in the slightest a mark against these activities (and novels, and paintings, and moody candle lighting, and spooky stories told around a campfire, etc.)

    There is an old sci-fi trope of meal-in-a-pill that one used to see cropping up. Ages ago, seeing this trop in some movie, my wife said, “That will NEVER happen”. I thought she meant the idea that you could make such pills. No, she said, people would NEVER go for it. People love eating way too much! And so it is. I sometimes think that people who make accusations of scientism imagine us scientists in lab coats trying to usher in such a joyless food-pill era. But scientists are people and love all of the products of life and humanities as much as anyone.

    It is surprising to me that anyone would want the humanities to be in that business of producing knowledge. Such a feeling, it seems to me, puts science, and the production of knowledge, on too high a pedestal. It ironically makes the humanities into something like what they fear, into something that revers science (the production of knowledge) to the detriment of their own endeavor. It worships knowledge creation to the exclusions of other values in exactly the way that the scientism charge implies.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 25, 2016 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      I sometimes think that people who make accusations of scientism imagine us scientists in lab coats trying to usher in such a joyless food-pill era.

      Good image — and I think you’re right.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted January 26, 2016 at 5:39 am | Permalink

      People love eating way too much!

      I’m sure she’ll get no disagreement from our esteemed host 🙂

  12. Larry Moran
    Posted January 25, 2016 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    My wife and I are big fans of “Out of Africa” and “Babette’s Feast.” A few years ago we visited Karen Blixen’s farm (Rungstedlund) and her grave. It’s just a short drive from Copenhagen.

    There’s a museum on the estate. Very emotional.

    • Posted January 25, 2016 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      Yes, Babbette’s Feast is wonderful! We watch it with subtitles. 🙂

      • tomh
        Posted January 25, 2016 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

        Babette’s Feast! Haven’t thought of that in years – quite possibly the best food movie ever.

        My favorite Isak Dinesen quote is,
        “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.”

  13. guest
    Posted January 25, 2016 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Another book I will have to add to the pile of ‘books I must read at some point’.

    I think what some people might mean when they say literature is another way of knowing is that reading a book allows you to experience things you might not have experienced otherwise. Psychologists have said that the brain doesn’t really distingush between real experiences and imaginary ones. In some sense, if I read a book about Africa, I experience being in Africa. depending on how good the book is, my experience may or may not be accurate. In the same way, if you see a picture of a boat or a T-rex, they activate some of the same circuits in your cortex that would activate if you were looking at a real boat (can’t test it with a T-rex).
    Now of course some books are better at giving experiences to people than other books, and some pictures of boats look more like boats than other pictures of boats. If you want to know about boats, you could read a book of facts about boats, but looking at a picture of a boat will give you a lot of information intuitively that a list of facts won’t give you.
    They even tested bee’s appreciation of art and found they responded to Van Gogh’s sunflowers, which suggests he captured some true essence of sunflowers in his painting.
    Bees: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4150200.stm

  14. Posted January 25, 2016 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Out of Africa the movie is one of my all-time favorites. Directed by Sidney Pollack (1934-2008, also a good actor, see: Michael Clayton) it’s a masterpiece.

    I just recently, finally read Out of Africa the book. While I agree with Jerry’s assessment that it’s wonderful, I was a bit disappointed. This is because she barely even hints at the interpersonal relations that are the main point of the movie.

    The movie credits state that the movie is based on Blixen’s book and also on two biographies.

    I just read that rotten tomatoes gives it (the movie) only a 53% rating. A testament to the dominance of short attention spans these days.

    • Posted January 26, 2016 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      Thank you for posting this intriguing remark; you’ve inspired me to again see the movie and then compare it with the book I’ve not yet read. Now, I’m off to Goodreads and to find the movie for this week…

  15. nickswearsky
    Posted January 25, 2016 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    The two scenes you mention/describe are exactly the two that stand out to me in the book/film. What that says about anything, I don’t know.

  16. Nancy
    Posted January 25, 2016 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    One of my favorite books (and movies). I have the audio version on my kindle and listen to it often at night. I just choose a different section of the book each time (since I fall asleep w/in 10 minutes). The language lulls me to sleep (as does Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast”).

  17. Robert bray
    Posted January 25, 2016 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Here’s what ‘cultural studies’ would tell you you ‘ought’ to ‘know’ about ‘Out of Africa:’

    Karen Blixen was an expropriative colonialist whose coffee PLANTATION deserved to fail.

    No one would mourn her lover’s death–silly twit flying airplanes low and scaring the villagers and wildlife. Good thing he crashed, long as he didn’t kill anything but himself.

    England OUT OF AFRICA!

  18. Dean Booth
    Posted January 25, 2016 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Is knowing how to dance a way of knowing?

  19. peepuk
    Posted January 25, 2016 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    I think we shouldn’t expect too much from the humanities. The methods used in natural sciences seem not to work so well when studying culture.

    They may not generate much predictive power but they can be hugely valuable on an emotional level. For me that’s enough.

  20. chris moffatt
    Posted January 25, 2016 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    The humanities, arts, performing arts, literature, etc are not other ways of knowing for the simple reason that there is no requirement for them to be TRUE and they frequently are not. End of argument.

  21. chris moffatt
    Posted January 25, 2016 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    BTW a couple of very minor side notes:

    Karen Blixen was not a brit. And when Dennis Finch-Hatton (it should be hyphenated you know) crashed he was on his way to meet Beryl Markham another amazing woman and author of “West with the Night” that even Hemingway thought was a superb piece of writing. Check it out.

  22. Diana MacPherson
    Posted January 25, 2016 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    Do you think people with low empathy cannot enjoy literature? I’ve known several text book narcissist in my time and none of them have enjoyed fiction of any kind (books, movies, etc.). I wonder if empathy is a big component to enjoying fiction.

    • Daniel bertini
      Posted January 25, 2016 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

      I think it has been shown that people who read literature are more empathetic.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted January 25, 2016 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

      When it comes to literature and empathy, I believe the cause-and-effect runs in both directions.

      There are many characters from literature who occupy a place in my mental landscape equivalent to flesh-and-blood human beings.

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted January 26, 2016 at 5:43 am | Permalink


  23. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted January 25, 2016 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    I see music, art, and literature as ways of feeling, not ways of knowing.

    There are some people who would have problems with the implication that feeling and knowing are, or indeed can be, different things. At least, I’ve often enough encountered people who seem to think that “I feel that it is true that X” is equivalent to “I know that it is true that X” (with an implication of evidence and/ or argument to demonstrate why it is true).
    There are even people who think that “I feel there is a god” is an argument.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted January 25, 2016 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

      Have to remember to watch that film if I see it coming. I know that it has a good reputation, but I’ve never seen it. Oddly, I know the name “Karen Blixen” from somewhere though … Ah, Danish bank notes!

  24. Posted January 25, 2016 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    I’m simply moved, almost to the point of tears, by the clarity of thought here.

    Ways of feeling. I will think of this again and again. I’m certain.

    The imagery makes the point.

    Her facial expressions. The emotions and then the “memorial is made of flesh and fur” and not of stone . . .

    And the writing, the choice of words, like “embroider their autobiographies” is stunning.

  25. Vaal
    Posted January 25, 2016 at 9:26 pm | Permalink


    I generally agree with you on this subject.
    And the people who usually make the claim to “other ways of knowing” almost invariably give little or very poor support for the claim.

    But in this one case I don’t think I’m on board with your distinction about “feeling” vs “knowing.” (Though, I may be misinterpreting your post).

    I think it’s valid to say that subject reports convey knowledge, not simply feelings. My son recently played in a tournament and I didn’t know how he was feeling about it so I had to ask him whether he was nervous. He reported that he wasn’t feeling nervous, he felt excited. That conveyed knowledge to me about an otherwise inaccessible inner state. Same as asking whether he is leaning more toward going to one university than the other choice.
    I don’t need to necessarily “feel” as my son does to gain knowledge from his reporting about his inner state of mind.

    Similarly, if someone writes a book about her experiences growing up, or experiencing an adventure, whether I am made to feel as she does or not it still imparts knowledge about what she was thinking and feeling.
    If the report gets me to feel similar to how she did at that moment, perhaps that is a deeper sense of knowledge, but it’s not necessary.

    And it seems to me someone writing fiction can also impart knowledge this way – knowledge of “what it’s like, the thoughts and feelings” for people to go through a situation.

    The problem of getting too demanding about it “not being knowledge until we empirically investigate the claim” is that can be a slippery slope, because MUCH of what we will normally accept as knowledge – of being informed – comes from fairy casual acquaintance with the facts, from people telling us, not from our own empirical inquiry.

    How do I “know” my neighbor bought a new car? Because I saw him in a different car and he said he’d just bought it. Did I keep demanding ever more evidence? Receipts, etc? No. We don’t normally require this to believe such a thing. It seems to me I’m now informed, I know, my neighbor has a new car (even if he’d just told me verbally). How far are we supposed to go for everything about which we are informed? This gets to the “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” heuristic, where it’s entirely rational to accept information about relatively common things based on a lower standard of evidence.

    Anyway, my point being I think subjective reports can constitute being informed, and hence convey knowledge, and that art can be a vehicle for conveying subjective knowledge (as well as other facts).

    That doesn’t get to the question of whether this is knowledge beyond the gambit of science. I get much more skeptical about that. But it seems to me this particular post of yours was not even trying to get that far, but denying first off that subjective reports or descriptions convey knowledge – recasting it only as invoking feeling. I don’t think I quite agree.

    • Posted January 25, 2016 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

      But those “subject reports” are only *conveying* the knowledge, as you wrote. They are not generating the knowledge. Whatever knowledge that might be conveyed by some tome was first acquired by the author via some empirical means. Science broadly construed.

      • Vaal
        Posted January 26, 2016 at 12:40 am | Permalink

        musical beef,

        But knowledge that has been conveyed is still new knowledge to you. It’s something you didn’t know…and then you acquired the knowledge.

        After all, we accept that students coming out of a history class in which the teacher conveys knowledge, have acquired knowledge.
        Even though in most cases they didn’t go investigating the claims themselves.

        With reports of subjective states in particular, we normally accept we “know” whether we are pleased about something and we normally accept people’s reports about how they feel, without deeper empirical investigation (if that were even possible).

        Remember, I’m not on the side claiming those things are “outside the purview of science.”
        We can be very clever and industrious in studying almost anything the happens empirically.

        I’m being skeptical about the more modest claim of Jerry’s that art, including literature, doesn’t convey knowledge but only “feeling.”

        Art and literature especially often take the form of subjective reports. And we often accept subjective reports without thinking they demand more rigorous empirical investigation before accepting them.

        If my wife tells me she dreamed of a trip we had last year…it’s not irrational to think I’ve been informed. If she tells me she was nervous about something at work today, again, there’s nothing irresponsible about accepting that as information about her inner state, that I’ve acquired knowledge, not just “feeling.” (And I’m not sure how my accepting my wife’s subjective reports would be “doing science”…even broadly construed).

        The same would go for someone writing about their experiences. Or even writing a fiction that nonetheless conveys some broader truth about being human. Knowledge, it seems to me, can be conveyed this way.

        Knowledge as confident as one can acquire via a more rigorous scientific approach? Probably not. But…in the everyday sense we convey many facts to one another…it’s “knowledge.”

        • Posted January 26, 2016 at 8:46 am | Permalink

          I think we may be at cross-purposes. I agree with everything you’v e written except this:

          “I’m being skeptical about the more modest claim of Jerry’s that art, including literature, doesn’t convey knowledge but only ‘feeling.'”

          I realize it’s extremely presumptuous of me, but I’d bet a significant sum that this is not actually the argument Jerry wants to make. I think he’d agree with you that people can acquire knowledge by reading books. Why else would he have written WEIT? I think his knowing/feeling dichotomy may be inaccurate, and that the argument he wants to have is really about whether anything other than science can generate knowledge. Whenever people point to an example of knowledge coming from the arts, you don’t usually have to dig very deep before discovering that some form of science was done in order to produce that knowledge.

          • Vaal
            Posted January 26, 2016 at 11:07 am | Permalink

            Yes, MB, I agree. My qualm with Jerry’s post gets into blurry areas that aren’t addressed in the post, so it’s hard to know Jerry’s stance at the moment.

            When he writes: “there’s really only one way of establishing truth, and that is to adopt the practices of science. I see music, art, and literature as ways of feeling, not ways of knowing.”

            It raises the type of questions I’m asking.
            On it’s face, it would seem to rule out otherwise uncontroversial methods by which we receive information – methods that do not involve “the scientific practices of verification, replication,”

            Again, if my wife says she had a certain dream last night, it’s not normally incumbent upon me to reject this unless I can somehow “verify” (how…beyond her telling me?) she had it, or replicate it. Certainly this is a looser method of acquiring knowledge, but it is one not only accepted but it would seem necessary (it would be impractical to become so rigorous about every piece of information we receive).
            It seems rational to accept I’ve gained knowledge of what she experienced last night, without having put it to further empirical testing. (Of course, her claim is plausible, based on our shared intersubjective reports of having dreams).

            As to the question “whether anything other than science can generate knowledge.”

            It seems to me the answer would be “yes.”
            Based on the concept that “knowledge” spans a spectrum of confidence, some of which can be rationally accepted when casually conveyed, other forms which warrant more rigorous empirical scrutiny. In other words, knowledge can be conveyed without science, but that isn’t to say that science couldn’t investigate that same knowledge with greater rigor. This is where I believe I agree with Jerry – it’s hard to come up with knowledge claims that are truly cut off, outside the purview of scientific investigation. Science, even broadly construed, is a method of being more careful, more justified about a claim.
            But, that doesn’t entail that knowledge is ONLY gained via scientific rigor. And it seems to me art can convey knowledge, within this scheme.

            • Posted January 26, 2016 at 11:46 am | Permalink

              I suppose it comes down to an argument about whether it’s more evident to broaden the definition of knowledge or broaden the definition of science.

              I would advocate for the latter. Yes, it’s perfectly rational for you to take your wife’s word concerning her dream, but that’s only because nothing very important hinges on that formation being accurate.

              On the other hand, I think it would be greatly beneficial if the average person could grok the fact that we all do science all the time. It’s not something that only happens in la-bore-atories while wearing rubber gloves and a lab coat. If I’m writing a piece of music and I try a few different arrangements of notes to see which works best, I’ve done science!

              • Posted January 26, 2016 at 11:47 am | Permalink

                more evident = more prudent

              • Posted January 26, 2016 at 11:55 am | Permalink

                Also, to forestall the objection I now see is probably coming, what I mean is that I would try different arrangements of notes to see which lines up best with my preferences, rather than simply guessing or relying on my possibly fallible mind’s ear. Not to determine which is objectively best, which I suppose you can’t do.

              • Vaal
                Posted January 26, 2016 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

                Totally agree!

  26. Ken Kukec
    Posted January 25, 2016 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    Meryl Streep has sometimes been denigrated as an actress for only being “good with an accent” …

    Not in my presence, she hasn’t. Only fools and knaves cannot see beyond her unsurpassed aptitude for accents to her great acting talent. She is, a very strong case can be made (and has been made by many of her peers), the finest American actor of her generation.

    The arts and humanities are not “ways of knowing” empirical verities about the universe, and do not purport to be. They do, nonetheless, provide a crucial education — in that most important of subjects: what it means to be human.

    • Vaal
      Posted January 26, 2016 at 12:54 am | Permalink

      Agreed. I am amazed by Streep…whatever she is in.

  27. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted January 26, 2016 at 4:31 am | Permalink

    I entirely agree with Jerry there. When I hear the phrase “ways of knowing” my immediate reaction is to ask “ways of knowing *what*?” All too often the phrase is used as a cover for mysticism. Druids, ‘native peoples’, and so on.

    So far as I can tell, ‘ways of knowing’ is applied less often to the arts, but it’s still incorrect. To me, ‘ways of knowing’ should produce facts, about which one could ask ‘is it true?’ or ‘is it verifiable?’ ‘Knowing’ implies accurate knowledge of something.

    Grieg’s piano concerto is a beautiful piece of music and gives rise to strong feelings (in me at least), but to ask “Is it true?” would be nonsensical.

    Similarly with stories (i.e. literature, movies and TV). A story (‘Out of Africa’, say) can be profoundly moving, but its factual accuracy – whether it was an accurate documentary or complete fiction – has no relevance at all to its literary merit or the feelings evoked. It’s all about the art.

    And the same goes for visual arts (paintings). Would a Canaletto be any less impressive if the city he painted had been entirely imaginary (i.e. false) rather than Venice?

    One could deduce rules of harmony from Grieg, of structure from Out of Africa, of perspective from the Canaletto, but those are really meta-facts, internal features of the work itself, not any fact about the outside world.

    I think ‘ways of feeling’ is an excellent phrase.


  28. Diane G.
    Posted January 26, 2016 at 4:44 am | Permalink


  29. Mike
    Posted January 26, 2016 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    I think Meryl Streep is one of Americas finest Actresses.

  30. Posted January 26, 2016 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    I enjoyed this examination, and have been inspired to both re-watch this movie as well as read the book, which I haven’t done. My position is that humanities lead to “knowing” (a perception), a wobbly stance except in a few circumstances. While art is more subjective, music (with words and inflection) and literature distinctly extend “knowledge” of certain events and social perceptions of experience through time.

  31. Christopher Bonds
    Posted January 26, 2016 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this beautiful piece.

  32. AdamK
    Posted January 26, 2016 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    The arts are not ways of knowing (but artists are animals who know) nor are they ways of feeling (though artists are animals who feel.) They are ways of playing, that produce artefacts that record or result from the sophisticated playing. Those artefacts are of value in that other humans (the audience) can use them to participate in the play, and through that, in the inner life–the thinking, feeling, inner life–of the artist. The associated ideas, feelings, and beauty are all secondary to that participatory communion between humans.

  33. Christopher Bonds
    Posted January 26, 2016 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    I see music, art, and literature as ways of feeling, not ways of knowing. That is, they give us emotional experiences inaccessible to us in other ways. Literature enables us to see what it might feel like to be in somebody else’s shoes, activating emotions that we didn’t know we had.

    I conceptualize it this way (speaking as a musician): Feelings are always caused by something, whether it is external or internal, such as a thought or memory. Music provides an experience of emotions, and it also could be said that it embodies emotions. By that I don’t mean that feelings are somehow contained in the sounds themselves, of course, but in our experience of the sounds. The music doesn’t cause the feelings so much as it gives structure (or form) to them. It makes them tangible, accessible, by giving them an object.

  34. Posted January 28, 2016 at 1:12 am | Permalink

    I agree that reading stories is not a way of knowing, but isn’t it more than just a way of feeling? Isn’t it also a good way to generate ideas about likely consequences of personal decisions? Isn’t it also a stimulus for providing new ways of looking at how we live and how we might try to live to improve our own lives or the lives of others?

  35. Posted February 1, 2016 at 4:31 am | Permalink

    Spot on post. The humanities as ways of feeling rather than ways of knowing are views that I (a scientist) and my sister (an actress) have agreed on for a long while. I decided to watch the film clip as I haven’t seen it for years. The film had an incredible impact on me, not least because of my situation at the time when I first saw it. Damn! It made me cry (again), much to the amusement of my wife.

    • Posted February 1, 2016 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

      Kenyan novelist and critic Ngugi wa Thiongo sees Blixen as a racist author who tries to “define the colonized world for the European colonizer.” In his essay “Literature and Society.” He writes–” Blixen holds a very strict hiearchy of life in which Africans have no place: Her cosoms is hierachically ordered with God at the top followed by the white aristocrac, ordniary whites,domestic animals, wild animals who are in ‘direct contact’with God.” Africans, he goes on to say, fit into this cosmic pictutre only as “parts of wood and stones…occasionally they exhibit impulses towards the animals.”

      Story teller she may be but it’s up to African readers and writers to decide whether or not she’s a writer in a white racist tradition or not.

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