C. S. Lewis on Knowing

I had wanted to take a look at C. S. Lewis’ thoughts on how we know and/or experience things after a post I wrote a while ago regarding the re-cognition and personal appropriation of truth. That particular project fell by the way-side, but as my last few posts have been about Lewis’ perspectives on various aspects of the spiritual life, I thought that now would be a good time to examine his theory of knowledge and wrap up my accidental series of Lewis-themed posts as well!

The theory in question seems to have been key to how Lewis interpreted his  own (particularly spiritual) experiences, and is given its clearest exposition in both his essay Meditation in a Toolshed and his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy. The former provides a more technical assessment, and also supplies an answer to some possible criticisms – I shall supply the related passage from the essay towards the end of this post. Surprised by Joy deals with the theory from more experiential grounds, and is thus perhaps a better entry point for understanding how Lewis came to see its worth.

Lewis first encountered the idea in a work by the philosopher Samuel Alexander – Space, Time and Deity (1924) – and from then on seemed to have used it to interpret his own experiences and as a tool in literary criticism. Michael Ward, in his excellent (and very thorough) book Planet Narnia (2008), gives this element of Lewis’ thought a good treatment, and sees it as being central to understanding how Lewis constructed his Chronicles (by imbuing each one with a particular quality or mood based on the seven medieval planets). The crux of the theory is this: that each particular experience can be seen from within (and so ‘enjoyed’) or without (and ‘contemplated’), and that we cannot do both at the same time – as soon as one starts to say ‘I am thinking a thought’ you are no longer in that thought; you are ‘contemplating’ it, not ‘enjoying’ it:

When you see a table you “enjoy” the act of seeing and “contemplate” the table. Later, if you took up Optics and thought about Seeing itself, you would be contemplating the seeing and enjoying the thought. In bereavement you contemplate the beloved and the beloved’s death and, in Alexander’s sense “enjoy” the loneliness and grief; but as a psychologist, if he were considering you as a case of melancholia, would be contemplating your grief and enjoying your psychology. We do not “think a thought” in the same sense in which we “think that Herodotus is unreliable.” When we think a thought, “thought” is a cognate accusative (like “blow” in “strike a blow”). We enjoy the thought (that Herodotus is unreliable) and, in so doing, contemplate the unreliability of Herodotus…

…the enjoyment and the contemplation of our inner activities are incompatible. You cannot hope and also think about hoping at the same moment; for in hope we look to hope’s object and we interrupt this by (so to speak) turning round to look at the hope itself.

from Surprised by Joy (1977), p.174, Fount Paperbacks.

            So for instance, this way of seeing things would provide a way of understanding how one is drawn back to a particular book even though it has been read several times before, and it is known what will happen – it is the particular atmosphere of the book that is ‘enjoyed’ whilst reading that draws us back to it. The same book can be contemplated from outside as well – consideration of plot construction, character development, etc – and all these things will help to enhance an understanding of the book, but it is only by enjoying the book in the act of reading it, that one can truly know it in its essence. This appreciation of the validity of the ‘inner’ experience of course lends itself very well to interpreting spiritual experience, and was indeed central to Lewis’ concept of ‘Joy’ – something he considered to be at the heart of the spiritual life. In Surprised by Joy he recounts a particularly vivid instance of this:

…there arose the memory of a place and time at which I had tasted the lost Joy with unusual fullness. It had been a particular hill-walk on a morning of white mist. The other volumes of the Ring (The Rheingold and The Valkyrie) had just arrived as a Christmas present from my father, and the thought of all the reading before me, mixed with the coldness and loneliness of the hillside, the drops of moisture on every branch, and the distant murmur of the concealed town, had produced a longing (yet it was also fruition) which had flowed over from the mind and seemed to involve the whole body. That walk I now remembered. It seemed to me that I had tasted heaven then. If only such a moment could return! But what I never realised was that it had returned – that the remembering of that walk was itself a new experience of just the same kind. True, it was desire, not possession. But then what I had felt on the walk had also been desire, and only possession in so far as that kind of desire is itself desirable, is the fullest possession we can know on earth; or rather, because the very nature of Joy makes nonsense of our common distinction between having and wanting. There, to have is to want, and to want is to have.

Ibid, p.135.

            These moments of transcendence amidst the everyday were, Lewis believed, foretastes of heaven itself – times when we are so taken up into an experience of the senses, emotion, intellect, etc that we become completely self-forgetting. In these moments, we lose the self-preoccupation that is at the root of all our dysfunction and unhappiness (and which draws us away from God), and are turned completely outwards to something beautiful, good and true. The connection with the topic at hand is that these experiences, when subjected to an ‘objective’ analysis (or ‘contemplation’) disappear into smoke – in grasping at them, they slip away. So again, we have an example of how, aside from all the objective arguments that may bring us to faith, it is experience of a highly subjective kind that often provides the greatest ‘proof’ of something beyond the mundane. Lewis discusses this highly subjective but deeply authentic and convincing type of experience again in The Problem of Pain:

Even in your hobbies, has there not always been some secret attraction which the others are curiously ignorant of – something, not to be identified with , but always on the verge of breaking through, the smell of cut wood in the workshop or the clap-clap of water against the boat’s side? Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for…

…It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work. While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all.

from The Problem of Pain (1980), p.134-35, Fount Paperbacks.

These experiences are utterly basic to life, and we can either embrace them or deny them – accept them as intuitions of something real and fundamental to human existence, pointing to a ‘bigger picture’ beyond us and this earthly life, or reject them as being just feelings, ‘the weather’ or any other number of excuses we may invoke. Of course, whether we do one or the other will depend upon our predisposition, our initial worldview (though I do not discount the possibility of such experiences’ potential to change someone’s views – it is not uncommon for this to happen, after all) and so objective factors must be brought into play at some point as well. Lewis’ main point in Meditation in a Toolshed however, is that it is characteristic of the modern period to only see the act of contemplation  as useful in establishing the true nature of experience; the act of ‘enjoyment’ is written off as subjective and therefore not worthy of consideration. He then offers a critique of this attitude:

Having been so often been deceived by looking along, are we not well advised to trust only to looking at? In fact to discount all these inside experiences?

Well, no. There are two fatal objections to discounting them all. And the first is this. You discount them in order to think more accurately. But you can’t think at all – and therefore, of course, can’t think accurately – if you have nothing to

think about… it is perfectly easy to go on all your life giving explanations of religion, love, morality, honour, and the like, without having been inside any of them. And if you do that, you are simply playing with counters. You go on explaining a thing without knowing what it is. That is why a great deal of contemporary thought is, strictly speaking, thought about nothing – all the apparatus of thought busily working in a vacuum.

The other objection is this…I could allow a scientist to tell me that what seemed to be a beam of light in a shed was “really only an agitation of my own optic nerves”. And that would be just as good (or as bad) a bit of debunking as the previous one. The picture of the beam in the toolshed would now have to be discounted just as the previous picture of the trees and the sun had been discounted. And then, where are you? In other words, you can step outside one experience only by stepping inside another. Therefore, if all inside experiences are misleading, we are always misled…

…The answer is that we must never allow the rot to begin. We must, on pain of idiocy, deny from the very outset the idea that looking at is, by its own nature, intrinsically truer or better than looking along. One must look both along and at everything.

from Meditation in a Toolshed, originally published in The Coventry Evening Telegraph (July 17, 1945); reprinted and available in God in the Dock.

            In other words, experience ‘from the inside’ is an unavoidable and indispensable part of life – if we write it off, we will be denying an enormous (the greater part, in fact) of reality. Since Lewis’ day, this idea that only information that is testable, only the assured results of experiment and analysis are of use in understanding our experience as human beings, has unfortunately become more widespread. We now make decisions on what the human race is according to sociological studies instead of actually asking humans; and when we do try to step inside particular human experiences (e.g.; ethnology) the results are then interpreted through the lens of relativism – we live, alas, in a world of extremes.

However, just as many an atheist will claim that love is only a series of chemical reactions and yet continue to be devoted to his wife, or that morality is just a cultural construct, yet act as if certain moral precepts were non-negotiable and obligatory in practice, so may we hope that this particular modern trend cannot conceivably last for much longer – we surely cannot continue to deny the reality of our most basic experiences without inducing a collective delusion. At any rate, Lewis’ theory of knowledge provides a highly persuasive account of the validity of personal experience, and places it in its proper context of a comprehensive and integrated balance with objective study; we cannot have one alone – both are needed. In a world of extremes, the sane voice of Lewis calling us to regain an intellectual harmony in these matters needs to be heard.


One thought on “C. S. Lewis on Knowing

  1. Pingback: Benedict XVI and C. S. Lewis: The novelty of modern Agnosticism (and a possible response) | Journey Towards Easter

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