our bodies think and know in ways that precede cognition

In Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane gives a gripping account of knowing with our bodies (in comparing the writings of French philosopher Merleau-Ponty and Scottish writer Nan Shepherd).

[Merleau-Ponty] argued that knowledge is ‘felt’: that our bodies think and know in ways that precede cognition. Consciousness, the human body and the phenomenal world are therefore inextricably intertwined. The body ‘incarnates’ our subjectivity and we are thus, Merleau-Ponty proposed, ‘embedded’ in the ‘flesh’ of the world. He described this embodied experience as ‘knowledge in the hands’; our body ‘grips’ the world for us and is ‘our general medium for having a world.’ And the material world itself is therefore not the unchanging object presented by the natural sciences, but instead endlessly relational. We are co-natural with the world and it with us–but we only ever see it partially.

…‘Place and mind may interpenetrate until the nature of both are altered. I cannot tell what this movement is except by recounting it.’ ‘The body is not … negligible, but paramount,’ she elsewhere declares, in a passage that could have come straight from Phenomenology of Perception. ‘Flesh is not annihilated but fulfilled. One is not bodiless, but essential body.’

…‘This is the innocence we have lost,’ she says, ‘living in one sense at a time to live all the way through.’ Her book is a hymn to ‘living all the way through’: to touching, tasting, smelling and hearing the world. If you manage this, then you might walk ‘out of the body and into the mountain’, such that you become, briefly, ‘a stone … the soil of the earth’. And at that point then, well, then ‘one has been in’. ‘That is all,’ writes Shepherd, and that ‘all’ should be heard not diminutively, apologetically, but expansively, vastly.

a king who knows his ken

We no longer respect the idea that some things are “beyond our ken.” We don’t treat knowledge as a serious responsibility, to be given and received slowly and with clear purpose. We no longer think of education as a cultivation of our desires or our capacity for wonder. Instead, education is the amassing of information or the mastery of skills that have no immediate connection to our personal responsibilities or our actual life experiences.

To be healthy, knowledge should always be directly connected to our actual relationships, abilities, and responsibilities. Knowledge in isolation (or for its own sake), leads to apathy, arrogance, and abuses of power. “Stand alone” knowledge is corrosive to the soul. Knowledge is power, and we must have real responsibilities and learn true respect before we wield this power.

It is no coincidence that these English words all share the same Anglo Saxon roots: can, kin, king, ken, and know. If we do not make sure that these words all stay closely related within our own lives, we just end up with young adults who think that they “ken” everything but who “can” do almost nothing of true value for their “kin.” In this condition, we don’t truly “know” anything or enjoy the blessed protection of any wise “kings.” But these days, who wants a king who knows his ken? Yet we are each called to be such a king, following the one who makes us his kin and who taught us to pray “not my will but yours be done.”

it is hard to remember what really matters

I’m trying to tell you things I might never have told you if I had brought you up myself, father and son, in the usual companionable way. When things are taking their ordinary course, it is hard to remember what really matters. There are so many things you would never think to tell anyone. And I believe they may be the things that mean the most to you, and that even your own child would have to know in order to know you well at all.

From Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (102).