Knowing Facts and Knowing Persons


The universe is finite. The events and objects that it encompasses are not limitless in number. Nevertheless, the sum of facts in the universe is so immense as to be incalculable. It is so vast that no finite mind could ever comprehend the whole. Indeed, a human mind is not capable of registering all of the events and objects presented to it at any moment.

The universe is a universe because each fact is related to each other fact in a seamless order. This order includes all of the facts in their connection to all other facts. Because of these connections, each fact points to other facts with varying degrees of directness. To affirm that the universe is ordered is also to affirm that it is significant and that each fact has its own proper meaning.

In addition to the material order of facts, the universe also encompasses a moral order. Within the order of the universe, moral realities such as courage and justice find a place. Virtue is possible, and so is vice—and neither of them is a mere illusion.

Even if we had to deal only with material realities and their connections, our finite human minds would be overwhelmed by the complexity of the universe. The existence of moral reality poses additional difficulties. If we wish to grasp the order of the universe, we shall discover that our task is exponentially complicated by having to account for moral nature.

Indeed, the material order of the universe is penetrated by and connected to the moral order. Material nature is infused with moral nature. To know a thing, one must know its use. Otherwise, we do not know whether we should do the things that we can do.

Because of these complexities, knowledge of the universe requires more than an acquaintance with facts. A mind that could comprehend all facts (all events and objects), and that could grasp all of their material connections, but that was incapable of perceiving moral realities, could not truly know the universe, for the most important features of reality would remain outside of its purview. Right knowledge belongs, not merely to the best fact-gatherers, but to those who are most capable of perceiving the moral dimension of the things that they see. Facts without values are—without value.

In sum, right knowledge of the universe requires cognizance of two related matters: the system of facts (nature), and the system of values (moral nature). It also requires cognizance of a third matter, however. This third matter is the presence of persons within the universe.

Persons are not mere facts. Personhood cannot be reduced to a complex arrangement of events and objects. While their material nature can be subjected to the same inspection as other facts, persons are always more than objects. Any inquirer after the nature of reality must recognize the presence of other persons, not simply as objects, but as other subjects.

Knowing other persons as persons is always a highly subjective task. One can, if one wishes, attempt to study other persons as mere objects. A young man could try to get to know a young woman by gaining access to her medical records, her academic transcripts, and her bank statements. He could compile lists of the places she goes and the people she sees. When she hears from his friends that he claims to know her, however, and she discovers the personal details that he has amassed, she is not likely to feel flattered. She is more likely to feel violated, and she would have every right to say, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” She might even take legal action to prevent his stalking.

For his part, however many facts the young man collects, he still does not know her. His investigations simply reduce her to an object. To the extent that he treats her as an object, he also diminishes his capacity to know her as a subject.

If the young man wishes to know the young woman, he must approach her as a subject. Subjects are known, not by inspection, but by revelation or disclosure. The young man must begin with his own subjectivity, disclosing some small aspect of his personhood to the young woman (small because thoughtful subjects do not seek to overwhelm other subjects). If she is interested in a relationship, she will both welcome his disclosure and respond with some disclosure of her own.

A more likely scenario is that both will have been thrown together under circumstances favorable to some level of personal disclosure, perhaps through shared labor or participation in some other mutual interest. Under these circumstances, revelation occurs in a natural way, without contrivance or artifice. A friendship is formed through their joint attraction to a shared interest.

In any event, as each discloses more subjectivity to the other, and as each welcomes such disclosures from the other, an element of trust is established. Increased degrees of revelation, received in enlarged increments of trust, result in a growing intimacy. This intimacy, gained through the mutual exchange and acceptance of subjectivity, is what constitutes real knowledge of persons as persons.

Of course, each kind of relationship has its own degree and quality of appropriate intimacy. One neither knows nor is known by all other persons in just the same way. Certain kinds of disclosure are appropriate only in certain kinds of relationships. The attempt to secure disclosure beyond those boundaries is invariably an act of predation.

How do persons reveal themselves? Obviously, disclosure occurs at the propositional level, whether spoken or written. Disclosure also occurs, however, through postures, gestures, intonations, and facial expressions. In other words, one discloses one’s subjectivity not only by what one says but by how one says it.

One also reveals one’s self in what one does and, especially, in what one makes. The way one cooks a meal or drives a car constitutes a self-disclosure. The objects one discards or collects, the interests one pursues, and the people with whom one chooses to associate all work to reveal one’s subjectivity.

These modes of self-disclosure are all highly subjective, for they have their being in the exchange between two or more subjects. That does not make them unreal. They are genuine revelations of the subject, and the subject that they disclose is also real. In other words, within the universe are not only objective realities (facts) and moral realities (values) but also subjective realities (persons and their acts).

Certain activities have been invented specifically as venues for the disclosure of personhood. These activities are called arts. What the arts do is to amplify and focus the capacity for personal revelation that is implicit in all making and doing. Poets reveal themselves through their verses. Painters reveal themselves through their canvasses. Composers reveal themselves through their scores.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that a significant part of the personhood of the artist is evident in the art. As one ponders The Tiger, one gets to know Blake. As one experiences the Eroica symphony, one meets Beethoven. So it is with all good art. Such things are subjective, to be sure, but they are nevertheless quite real.

The universe is ordered. The universe is moral. And the universe is inhabited by other persons whose subjectivity exists alongside our own. How could we ever hope to gain true knowledge in the face of such amazing complexity? There is a way.

The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended
John Ellerton (1826-1893)

The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended,
The darkness falls at Thy behest;
To Thee our morning hymns ascended,
Thy praise shall hallow now our rest.

We thank Thee that Thy church, unsleeping,
While earth rolls onward into light,
Through all the world her watch is keeping,
And rests not now by day or night.

As o’er each continent and island
The dawn leads on another day,
The voice of prayer is never silent,
Nor dies the strain of praise away.

The sun that bids us rest is waking
Our brethren ‘neath the western sky,
And hour by hour fresh lips are making
Thy wondrous doings heard on high.

So be it, Lord; Thy throne shall never,
Like earth’s proud empires, pass away:
Thy kingdom stands, and grows forever,
Till all Thy creatures own Thy sway.

[node:bio/kevin-t-bauder body]

417 reads

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.