What is Poetic Knowledge?

Editor’s note: Since so many people have responded favorably to the Civilized Reader column with requests for more information about John Senior and his educational vision, it seemed appropriate to republish this review of James Taylor’s Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education by (State University of New York Press, 1998).  Taylor and Kramer were both educated in the program created by John Senior and his friends Denis Quinn and Frank Nelick.

O Lord, our Lord, how admirable is thy name in all the earth!

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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My heart leaps up when I behold A rainbow in the sky.

Twinkle, twinkle little star, How I wonder what you are.

Awe. Admiration. Amazement. Marvel. Delight. The Psalmist, Wordsworth, the child who looks up at the night sky and lisps the nursery rhyme, all speak of that passion of wonder which Aristotle taught is the beginning of philosophy.

The immediate, direct apprehension of reality that inspires wonder and awe is called by St. Thomas Aquinas poetica scientia, “poetic knowledge.” It is the first of the four kinds of knowledge that St. Thomas distinguishes. It is this neglected, even distrusted way of knowing that is the subject of an important book recently published by the State University of New York Press.

The author, Dr. James Taylor, explains that poetic knowledge is not merely a knowledge of poetry, “but rather a poetic experience of reality.”

Poetic experience indicates an encounter with reality that is nonanalytical, something that is perceived as beautiful, awful (awe-full), spontaneous, mysterious… Poetic knowledge is a spontaneous act of the external and internal senses with the intellect, integrated and whole, rather than an act associated with the powers of analytic reasoning… It is, we might say, knowledge from the inside out, radically different from a knowledge about things. In other words, it is the opposite of scientific knowledge.

Poetic knowledge

If this passage seems like heavy going, it must be said straight away that it is. This book is a work of philosophy worthy of a Gilson or a Maritain or a Francis Kovach or one of the other great thinkers of the scholastic revival. The author’s elucidation of the distinction between subjectivism and subjectivity is brilliant (and incidentally of great value, at least to this reviewer, for understanding the philosophical personalism of Pope John Paul). Dr. Taylor has made an exhaustive study both of what poetic knowledge is, using the methods and vocabulary of scholastic philosophy, and of its history from ancient Greece, through the Middle Ages, down to its deformation since the time of Descartes in the seventeenth century.

As Dr. Taylor says in defining poetic knowledge, “it is the opposite of scientific knowledge.” The scientific knowledge he speaks of is not science in the ancient and Thomistic sense of metaphysics, but knowledge which is empirical, quantifiable, and dialectical. It is the kind of knowledge demanded by Thomas Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times:

Now what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.

The technocratic leaders of the modern West (perhaps more than the East), and those “leaders” in modern education especially, are faithful disciples of Gradgrind in believing that “Facts” are the only thing of any importance.

Poetry and experience

A chief interest of this book lies in its discussion of the role of poetic knowledge and experience in education. Having laid the philosophical and historical groundwork, the final chapters discuss concrete, practical ways in which a school inspired by the poetic mode of learning will teach and function. They also relate the story of two attempts in the twentieth century to take seriously Aristotle’s dictum that philosophy begins in wonder, and that unless a man’s education awakens his heart to this disposition of wonder, he can never fruitfully study anything.

One of these was a boarding school for boys at a village in France called Maslacq, which closed in 1950. Dom Gerard Calvet, Abbot of the French Benedictine monastery of Le Barroux, was a student at Maslacq.

Nearly twenty years later, in the midst of the student unrest of the late 1960s, the second was established at the University of Kansas. It was called Pearson College, or the Integrated Humanities Program (IHP).

Dr Taylor writes:

The professors of the IHP clearly recognized the steady falling off of students’ abilities to read, speak, and write on a general level taken for granted only a generation ago. But the goal was never to improve test scores. They would say that the tests themselves and the entire system built up around such Cartesian measurement instruments were an indication of the problem in modern education.

Hearts Full of Wonder

The professors in the IHP did more, however, than bemoan the problem. They set out to solve it by stirring up wonder in the hearts of their students.


The core of the IHP was a four-semester sequence of humanities courses in which the students read and considered the great books of Western civilization: in the first semester, Homer and other Greek writers, in the second, Virgil and the Romans, in the third, the Bible and St. Augustine and other writers of the Middle Ages, and finally Shakespeare and other modern writers. So far the curriculum appears identical to Great Books programs at a score of other colleges. But there the similarity ends.

The three professors of the IHP spent classes conversing together about the assigned books. The students were not allowed to take notes, but rather were asked to listen. The aim of these conversations was not to use the books to impart moral instruction, much less to pile up facts about them and their authors and their historical setting. Rather the professors sought to help the students to experience the purpose of all stories and songs and poems: delight.

In place of Cliffs Notes and all the suffocating apparatus of modern critical scholarship, the conversations of the professors revealed the beauty of these books and made the hearts of their students leap up in delight. Outside of this core class, the students met in smaller groups to memorize poetry, not by reading it from a book, but by hearing it recited by upperclassmen and then repeating it. The students also learned calligraphy, the art of beautiful writing. An attempt was made early in the program to teach horseback riding, a poetic way of teaching young men chivalry (a word which means a man upon a horse) far more effective than mere didactic instruction.

In Dr Taylor’s words, “Night-time outings were organized for star-gazing with the unaided eye where students learned to recognize the constellations and their main stars and the Greek stories that accompanied them.” (How important for wonder is that verb to gaze!) “In addition to the weekly lectures, the IHP also offered Latin, taught in the beginning entirely by the oral method, that is, without the use of a textbook or formal grammar.” Each semester the students learned several traditional songs, and often the class would begin with the students singing a favorite by Stephen Foster. Each winter the older students in the IHP began teaching the younger ones to waltz, and together they hired an orchestra and organized a formal spring waltz—poetry incarnate.

The last chapter of the book, “The Future of the Poetic Mode of Knowledge in Education,” begins with some other lines from Wordsworth:

I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.

Dr Taylor, both as a student and as a teacher, has harkened to the music and the Muse of poetic knowledge. In the final chapter, he makes a passionate call for the restoration of the poetic mode to education. Or if that is too much to ask, then the establishment of at least one school grounded in this way of knowing and the tradition that grew out of it in pagan antiquity and the Christian West. Let his eloquence have the last word:

To found a school (of this kind) requires only the listening heart of perhaps just one courageous, poetic soul who has come to see—intuitively and positively in an awful delight of wonder, as well as from the heights of reason and deliberate serious thought — that our land, our homes, the heavens and the earth, and those dear and those distant from us are important not only in their nature, but have meaning and purpose far beyond the reach of the current means of analysis and measurement… Science sees knowledge as power; poetic knowledge is admiration—love.


A version of this review was first published in Oriens: The Journal of the Ecclesia Dei Society of Australia, under the title “Poetry on the range” in the Winter of 1999.


  • Kirk Kramer

    Kirk Kramer, a sometime gandy dancer for the Frisco Railroad, writes from Cottage City, Maryland.

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