This promising, frustrating book has two chief problems: the strong implication, despite the author's repeated protests to the contrary, that the truth of one’s beliefs is less important than their practical efficacy, and an indiscriminate, unhappy mixture of prose styles.

My teachers in philosophy have taught me to mistrust arguments that avoid, diminish, or obscure the question of truth. Esther Meek's Little Manual for Knowing does not argue either for or against a certain truth claim, for it offers no argument, at all. Instead it is a "how to" book on the topic of knowing. Nevertheless, Meek's way of posing the central question implies that truth is less important than pragmatic considerations.

The manual begins with a criticism of modern epistemology. When we embark on a "knowing venture" (a college education, a startup business, a course of private reading, the founding of a new ministry or charity, an artistic project), we can either retain the culturally dominant "knowledge-as-information" approach to truth, or adopt Meek's "love-in-order-to-know" approach. How should we choose one over the other? Sentences scattered across the book's eight chapters and clustered together in the final chapter gesture at criteria other than effectiveness; throughout the book Meek contrasts the Baconian goal of "power" with her own stated goal of "peace," in the sense of shalom or human flourishing. But the main thrust of the book is power, practicality, results, effectiveness -- perhaps because, although she is a Christian, Dr Meek has aimed the book at a diverse audience, Christians and others, college students and businesspeople, athletes and artists. The difficulty of appealing to such a varied group may account for the conflict between the book's explicit and implicit values.

Refraining from argument leads to another problem. Meek asserts some rather wild and undefended propositions. I do not understand what she means by calling reality "personal." I am a Christian too, and Dr Meek and I agree that three Persons created the reality of our everyday experience and all non-divine reality. We also agree that the uncreated Trinity is more real than creation. But she insists that all objects of knowledge are personal in themselves, and specifically denies that she is referring to their tripersonal origin. In a brief passage (the entire book is composed of brief passages with subheadings), she asserts that the thingness of things -- "a certain 'what-it-is-to-be-this-thing'" -- reveals norms, and that normativity implies gift or law, and that gift and law imply a context of interpersonal relations. But this to retreat to theism or pantheism. I have no problem with such a "retreat"; the problem lies in denying the retreat and calling it advance. Again, she does so with reference to effectiveness:

Whether or not you think you believe in God, attending to these normative dimensions of reality, and to reality as interpersoned gift, will make you more effective at your knowing ventures. (Chapter 1)

The proposition that reality and existence is not just the gift of three Persons, but personal in itself, leads to a number of very odd assertions.

If we can see knowing as a relationship between knower and known, we can see that reality makes the first overture. We can associate this call with our sense of wonder. Any geologist can probably name the day she or he first noticed and was taken in wonder by a rock. Every different discipline would involve something similar. (Chapter 1)

If Meek were saying the cultivation of wonder is essential for a good education, everyone but Mr Gradgrind would agree. But she is saying that things are persons, or that they are so "personlike" that we can justify our treatment of them as persons as we try to know them; and after all, she says, doing so works. It is not unusual to see culture as personal and social in origin, but how can Economics as a discipline be personal? How can we speak to Economics? How can we listen to Economics and receive it on its own terms? How can we enter into personal relationship with the law of supply and demand? We can do so only in metaphor, but Meek's argument exceeds metaphor: she thinks love is literally "at the core of all things" (Chapter 1). And all means all, for Meek's assertions extend beyond culture to nature: the objects of empirical science, from chemicals to raccoons, are personal. How exactly are we to understand rock formation as persons? How can we trust reality (as distinct from the Author of reality) to be "relationally responsive and generous" (Chapter 2)? How can geologists dance (Chapter 7) and commune (Chapter 8) with a rock formation? These assertions are not well-served by illustrations from Star Trek (Chapter 1).

In Chapter 4, the author briefly but explicitly turns to the truth of her ideas. Referring to a concept from Michael Polanyi, she writes, "SFI [subsidiary-focal integration] will demonstrate why the knowledge-as-information epistemology is both false and damaging." Unfortunately the chapter contains no such demonstration, just a rehearsal of Polanyi's very interesting idea.

Along with Chapter 3 (on "the four dimensions of humanness"), Chapter 4 is the high points of the book, though there are a number of stimulating ideas throughout. Consider her remarks on the personal commitment necessary for good learning.

What is it that we pledge? We pledge to give ourselves to the yet-to-be-known, and to consent to its being. We pledge to take the risk to follow something that may prove not to be there, something that may prove to be way different from what we imagine. We accept the prospect that others might think us foolish— that we might prove to be foolish" (Chapter 2).

It is one thing to consent to the existence of another thing, and quite another to consent to its personhood.

As for style, the author is sometimes clear, sometimes misty, and sometimes distractingly absurd (witness this illustration). Occasional sentences ring with intelligibility: "What starts the venture is notice and wonder. Something about reality catches our attention." Others all but roll your eyes for you: "To start to know is actually first a response to a dimly heard beckoning of the wonder-full real." Sometimes she starts well but ends a mess: "Every knowing venture involves scrabbling to indwell certain things, known and unknown, subsidiarily as clues, guided by the distant star of something we long to know, to unlock a transformative pattern that resoundingly makes sense of our half-blind efforts" (Chapter 3). This third sentence is a specimen of what Thomas and Turner would call "practical style," which aims at clarity for the sake of helping the reader solve a problem. Once you know what the author means by "indwell" and "subsidiary" -- words straightforwardly explained in the book -- the idea of the sentence is perfectly clear.*

Unfortunately the practical style is not maintained. Many sentences, neither practical nor classic, require too much work from the reader: "Submitting to relying on clues subsidiarily invites the real." How many readers (especially among college freshmen) will have the patience for this? While not impenetrable, it is a formidable sentence: the stacked verbals, the ambiguously placed adverb, the slight technical tinge of "real" as a noun. A similar tic is the author's tendency to refashion nouns into verbs and adjectives: "we only capitalize on knowing together when we covenant together in mutual trust." "This graced process is key to every knowing venture." I suspect only the inattentive and the dedicated will finish this short book.

Which, again, is a shame. The Little Manual's affirmation of goodness and important role of the body of the knower, and of the necessary steps of hope, pledge, trust and love for good knowing might have been a wonderful antidote to the contemporary overemphasis on critical thinking. But agreement with an author's affirmations is not sufficient reason to recommend a book. Full disclosure: I did not complete the exercises at the end of each chapter, and I did not follow the author's recommendation to read with a group.


It is not what Thomas and Turner call "classic style," because it does not seem inevitable. The "image-schema" of the expression does not match the image-schema of the thought. The first half of the sentence uses two familiar patterns or schemas of local movement: through darkness toward light, and over a rocky terrain toward shelter. The second half ruins the picture by adding the notion of unlocking and transforming. There are no doors on remote mountains, and one doesn't unlock doors in the dark. Still, in this sentence Meek communicates a genuine idea, unlike the hazier account of personal reality.

AuthorSeth Holler