Accounting for the Form Knowledge Takes: or, What Do We Mean by “Meaning?”

Ken Myers shows that form and content cannot be separated in the consideration of how we come to know.
Reading Time: 9 minutes

In recent years, Christian educators have become more aware of the fundamental role of the body and of the imagination in the acquisition of knowledge. Teachers and administrators are increasingly recognizing the mistake — embedded and celebrated in modern culture — that ideas can be reduced to abstract information. Because human beings are not “brains in vats,” but created to know the world as embodied, intuitive, imaginative beings, knowledge is not simply data. Teaching and learning are thus more like a dance than a data transfer protocol.

We are none of us simple blank slates. We each receive knowledge into the context of what we already know and what we imagine to be the case. The rhetorician and intellectual historian Richard Weaver used the term “metaphysical dream of the world” to describe the “intuitive feeling about the immanent nature of reality” that informs all human thought.1 Weaver’s use
of the term “dream” suggests that what we commonly call “worldview” should be recognized as more than a simple checklist of doctrines and their consequences. The perception of reality and the wise apprehension of what is true about reality has a character that is more like a story than a formula, equation, or algorithm. Acquiring knowledge is the act of amending the story about reality that we carry with us — a story that orders our assumptions about what is and what might be — with new details: characters, settings, events, expectations, patterns of resonance.

But a memorable story, a story that haunts our imagination and shapes our dreams, is more than a collection of such details. It is in the form of the telling, not just the content of what is told, that stories sustain coherence. Good storytellers, good journalists, even good comedians, know that the timing and texture of the story — pauses, inflection, repetition of certain details, the careful selection of le mot juste — is essential to the story’s success. In stories, form is the fount of meaning. But not just in stories.

While some will insist that anything that can’t be set down in words can’t be knowledge, the testimony of the Psalms clearly refutes such a claim. As in all poetry, the Psalms present meaning in the concreteness of metaphor, whereby some aspect of the physical world — the world known to us immediately by the senses — is likened to some reality that is more than matter.

Consider the opening verses of Psalm 91:

1 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.

2 I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”

3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence.

4 He will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.

5 You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day,

6 nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.

The meaning of the text is in the metaphors and their unstated, connotative, associative power, a power which is ignited as we imagine ourselves in the embodied settings the metaphors describe. And beyond the meaning in the metaphors lies a meaning in the poetic structure, especially the confident rhythm of those couplets. In verses 5 and 6, we experience night and
day, night and day, threatened by arrows and pestilence and wasting destruction at all hours. Would God have communicated with us more efficiently if he hadn’t relied on so many metaphors? Is our acquisition of knowledge and understanding hampered because the form this revelation takes is so vividly tied to concrete experience, rather than the safe, lawyerly language of theological abstraction? There are those who seem to believe so, and since the Enlightenment — that cultural movement intent on securing knowledge that could liberate us from all shackles — their number has been thicker on the ground, so to speak. Consider this counsel from John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

[I]n Discourses, where we seek rather Pleasure and Delight than Information and Improvement, such Ornaments [as metaphors, similes and the like] . . . can scarce pass for Faults. But yet, if we would speak of Things as they are, we must allow, that all the Art of Rhetorick, besides Order and Clearness, all the artificial and figurative application of Words Eloquence hath invented, are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong Ideas, move the Passions, and thereby mislead the Judgment; and so indeed are perfect cheat: And therefore, however laudable or allowable Oratory may render them in Harangues and popular Addresses, they are certainly, in all Discourses that pretend to inform or instruct, wholly to be avoided; and where Truth and Knowledge are concerned cannot but be thought a great fault, either of the Language or the Person that makes use of them.2

If I read this correctly, “Things as they are” are best understood without figurative language. By contrast, the Psalmist (in Psalm 19) seems to be asserting that the biggest “Thing as it is” can be known in the wordless speech of Creation received through all the senses:

  1. 1  The heavens declare the glory of God,
    and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.

  2. 2  Day to day pours out speech,
    and night to night reveals knowledge.

  3. 3  There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard.

  4. 4  Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

Derek Kidner suggests that the sense of the paradox of wordless speech described here might be better conveyed if we insert the word “Yet” at the beginning of verse 4. There is no speech, no words, no voice, yet their cry, their utterance, their knowledge, is universally disseminated.
Poet Joseph Addison (1672-1719) captures the paradox of wordless speech in the third stanza of “The Spacious Firmament on High,” when he marvels:

What though in solemn silence all move round the dark terrestrial ball? What though no real voice nor sound amid their radiant orbs be found? In reason’s ear they all rejoice, and utter forth a glorious voice; for ever singing as they shine, “The hand that made us is divine.”

The sensory experience we enjoy of Creation conveys real knowledge about the Creator. Creation, without words or propositional speech, is meaningful. As with stories, the form of Creation — especially, in this case, the experience of what we call “radiance” — is the fount of its meaning.

Unfortunately, contemporary Christians, like most post-Enlightenment people, tend to assume that form and content are easily and conveniently separable, and that the form with which content is expressed is not itself meaningful. According to conventional wisdom, forms serve the same role as wrapping paper, a decorative garnish, or a spoonful of sugar in dispensing medication. The form of expression may make the content more attractive or desirable, but it does not convey any meaning in and of itself.

Pastor Rick Warren typifies this assumption when he counsels church leaders: “Music is nothing more than an arrangement of notes and rhythms; it’s the words that make a song spiritual.”3 Any music with words that present Christian ideas or sentiments (or even vaguely pious words capable of being interpreted in accordance with Christian teaching) is automatically Christian music, and thus apparently liturgically appropriate. Words are the only vehicle of meaning that Christians need to worry about. Anything worthy of the label “knowledge” is conveyed in words and only in words.

D. C. Schindler has characterized such assaults on the meaningfulness of poetic expression as an expression of an “iconoclasm of the intellect,” a formative feature of early modernity whose consequences are still much with us. The images torn down and smashed in this crusade are the experiences of the senses, which even in the Platonic conception, Schindler argues, were assumed to be “intelligible content, in a spatial and temporal mode.“ While modernity assumes that the physical world is meaningless matter — and the life of the senses thus has no intrinsic connection with Truth — the Platonic and subsequent Christian assumption was that the physical world was “nothing but meaning made tangible” (or, the case of art and music, meaning made visible and audible). Whether received immediately by the senses or echoed in metaphoric speech, the perception of reality through the body by what would later be called the imagination was the source of meaning. Schindler insists that a recovery of a Christian understanding and implementation of imagination is essential to the recovery of a Christian understanding of truth:

The imagination is, if not the center of the human being, then nevertheless that without which there can be no center, for it marks the point of convergence at which the soul and body meet; it is the place where faith in the incarnate God becomes itself incarnate and therefore truly becomes faith; it is — pace Hegel — where reason becomes concrete, and the bodily life of the senses rises to meet the spirit. It lies more deeply than the sphere of our discrete thoughts and choices because it is the ordered space within which we in fact think and choose. Far more than a mere faculty, the Christian imagination is a way of life, and this is because we might say it represents the point of intersection between Christianity and the world.4

Discipleship (that enterprise of which education is a subset) can be seen as the forming of a Christian imagination, the training of the believer’s facility and agility in imagining the world rightly, thus to seek to resonate sympathetically with the order of Creation. Whether we use the vocabulary of loves and affections, imagination, or of taste, the effect is the same. Discipleship involves
the training of intuitive and subjective responses. C. S. Lewis captured this understanding near the beginning of his great treatise on education, The Abolition of Man, when he explained that, in classical and premodern Christian thought it was assumed that “The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likable, disgusting, and hateful.”5

In many Christian circles, discussion of the meaningfulness of form is all too rare. Forms are discussed in terms of popularity, as meaningless vehicles or containers for the content of conceptual knowledge. Or they are regarded only as motivational devices — usually carrots rather than sticks — employed to stimulate enthusiasm about certain truth claims or certain moral commitments.

But to say that the only kind of knowledge Christians should be concerned with is abstract, analytic, conceptual knowledge is to treat human beings more like angels or computers. Brains with no bodies, no loves, no qualities.

Meaning (and hence knowledge) is much bigger than verbal content. Flowers left by a bedside in a hospital are meaningful, as is a cross burned in someone’s front yard. A child running to greet her father returning home will mean something different from a child sitting coolly on a porch-step until he arrives. Eye contact or the lack of it can be meaningful. The presence of a friend means something different from a text message, and a gift carefully wrapped and hand-delivered means something different from a gift card left anonymously on a desk.

Words rationally perceived are necessary for stating and defending truth, and Christians do care about truth. But we care for more than truth. We care about realities that can only be partially described by words: about joy and sorrow, hope and frustration, fidelity and fear, love and justice. All of these abstractions are known by us as embodied creatures, living in space and time. Sorrow or fear or hope are not abstractions when you experience them.

The meaning of the realities with which Christians are concerned — which is pretty much all of human experience in its relationship with God and with Creation — cannot be adequately described through coldly analytical declarations, definitions, and argument. God knows this better than we do, which is why when God reveals himself to us, reveals who He is and what He is doing in the world, He does so in the concrete realities of Creation — the Heavens and the mountains and the seas and ants and trees and marriage — as well as in inspired stories and poetry, metaphors and imagery, parables and hymns, letters and visions. The Bible does not arrive as systematic theology and isn’t given to us just to create jobs for systematic theologians who, once they complete their work, can get rid of all of the imagery and messiness and fuzziness of the Bible. The Bible is given in forms that are to form our own lives, and it does that by capturing our imagination as well as engaging our analytic reason. In fact our imagination has to be involved before our reason can do its work.

Forms are meaningful in part because we live our lives in the form of our bodies. When we are burdened, we bend; when we express deference we lower our heads and our eyes; when we are excited our hearts race at a faster rhythm. When we strive to be attentive, or when we are pensive, we slow down, sometimes to stillness.

Not only do our bodies form our experience; our inner lives also have a form. Philosopher Susanne Langer (1895-1985) developed a theory of art that challenged the radical dualism between content and form, and thus between objective and subjective. In her anthology Problems of Art Langer argued that “subjective existence has a structure; it . . . can be conceptually known, reflected on, imagined and symbolically expressed in detail and to a great depth. Only it is not our usual medium, discourse — communication by language — that serves to express what we know of the life of feeling. . . . [W]hat language does not readily do — present the nature and patterns of sensitive and emotional life — is done by works of art. Such works are expressive forms, and what they express is the nature of human feeling.”

As Langer describes the formal depiction of inner life, she quotes a psychologist who has been trained in music who said, “‘Music sounds as feelings feel.’ And likewise in good painting, sculpture, or building, balanced shapes and colors, lines and masses, look as emotions, vital tensions and their resolutions feel.” This does not mean that we need to translate a painting or a sonata into words, into discursive concepts in order for the work of art to do its work. “A work of art is an expressive form, and therefore a symbol, but not a symbol which points beyond itself so that one’s thought passes on to the concept symbolized. The idea remains bound up in the form that makes it conceivable.”

This binding together of form and content is not unique to works of art. All transmission of knowledge — by the Heavens, by storytellers, even by humble teachers — relies on the situatedness of embodied knowers. We and our students are not “brains in vats”, not computers, not disembodied spirits. Our lives have meaningful form, and thus the form we give to the knowledge we share will take some form. The challenge to thoughtful teachers is to appropriate the form that is most fitting.