Poetic and Scientific Knowledge

Aug 16, 2007
I'm working on a pre-school curriculum with one of my clients, and perhaps the biggest challenge for me is explaining the concept of poetic knowledge in layman's terms. The trouble is that it's like explaining water to a fish. When a three year old gets a puppy, he has almost no "analytical" knowledge of the puppy. He doesn't know how many teeth it has, probably doesn't know what it likes to eat in its natural habitat, doesn't realize it's a mammal, and probably only notices that it has four legs and sharp teeth incidentally. But one week later, he knows that puppy. His knowledge BEGINS with affection and delight. He wants to share in the same experience with the dog, not study it from the outside. He wants to play with it, to call it by the name he gave it, to encounter it personally. But he doesn't reflect on any of these things. He just does them. Later on, something might go wrong. The dog might eat something it shouldn't, or hurt its leg, or (God forbid) get pregnant. Then the personal, direct, experiential, poetic knowledge would have to mature. It would have to make way for an objective, impersonal, detached knowledge that would enable the specific issue to be treated objectively, impersonally, and detached. A doctor goes to the office and applies scientific knowledge. He comes home to his wife and experiences poetic knowledge. So what is poetic knowledge? Give me a sentence that a layman can easily understand but that doesn't fall short of what it actually is. Genus: knowledge. Differentia: pre-rational, non-analytical, personal, alive, relational (is that the essence?) etc. Is this helping? Can it even be explained categorically?
Andrew  Kern

Andrew Kern

Andrew Kern is the founder and president of The CiRCE Institute and the co-author of the book, Classical Education: the Movement Sweeping America

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You present an interesting puzzle. Evidently the layman to whom you want this articulated is a pre-schooler? And you want this is one sentence? While not familiar with ‘poetic knowledge' as a technical term, I get a sense of your intuition in your post. It seems related to the wakening of moral knowledge.
I might tell Billy that "poetic knowledge is the feeling you get with your mother, or your friend, your dog, or sometimes with other things that are alive that somehow together you're just one thing."
Should Billy ask more, which a kid is likely to do, I would try to expand, "Suppose it's your dog - what's his name - Blacky? Ok, well, you don't usually think much about it, but suppose Blacky got hurt while you're playing, and you know it's your fault. Bet you can see it in Blacky's eyes, that he loves you, and doesn't understand how you could do what you did, or why you didn't know not to do it. Then you hurt because Blacky is hurt. And you hurt even more because you sort of see how you look in Blacky's eyes. You're still part of the same thing, or you couldn't feel it when Blacky hurts - and you really do, don't you? But now you see that you are different, too, not really the same thing as Blacky. That's the kind of thing that happens when you're with someone or something you love - you're just having fun doing stuff together. But sometimes things happen that make you see how you're different. Most of the time that makes it even more fun. But when Blacky get's hurt and you see yourself in his eyes – then you have to start thinking about how you're different, and you have to be a little bit careful for Blacky when you play."

Well, this is an attempt at distinguishing spiritual from empirical knowledge. I think it's consistent with your intuition, though I didn't quite succeed with the ‘detached' element. It might be more fun to have this talk the first time Billy falls in love. Bet you're one of those rascals who's really asking a rhetorical question for our benefit.


Thanks for the response! No, I'm not asking a rhetorical question, believe it or not. It's a very practical question. I'm trying to figure out how to express poetic knowledge in a document for families who might consider putting their children in this pre-school or for potential sponsors.

I like your discussion with a child, and I think you do get what I'm talking about. Now we need to wrestle it into a sentence or two for adults. Words are so slippery at this point. Spiritual vs. empirical isn't bad, but I'm not sure it's quite what I'm talking about.

But if we can bounce this around, maybe we can get somewhere.

Thanks again.

Got the specs wrong, did I? And I did so want to talk about awakening moral consciousness - that seems the balance point between poetic and scientific knowledge.
Hmm. Well, after sleeping on it (wink) I would offer that poetic knowledge is an unselfconscious, dreamlike state in which one feels the connections of himself with all the things around him as palpable but unarticulated meaningfulness. I think this definition includes phrases to please both those who see psychology as a science and those who see it as an art. What it means, of course, would be the subject of a thesis.
I'd like to hear what you finally come up with - I presume my email address accompanies this comment.

Poetic knowledge = being connected to your superconsciousness?

Good posting!


Barely and Kristina,

Thanks for your input. I think poetic knowledge includes an unselfconscious dreamlike state etc. and I love the "palbable but unarticulated meaningnfulness." I also think it includes your superconsciousness, though I'm not altogether sure what you mean by that. So I'm trying to raise these ideas up to a general category that will include them all but isn't a repetition of the words "poetic knowledge."

I think what it is may be this: "a personal, living experience (direct or vicarious) internalized." Now to make that marketable.

Perhaps poetic knowledge is so difficult to express is that we have systematicized it out of our souls as adults. Maybe this quote from C.S. Lewis helps:

But perhaps the most mysterious thing he ever said about it was this. I was questioning him on the subject…and had in-cautiously said, "of course, I realize it's all rather too vague for you to put into words," when he took me up rather sharply by saying, "On the contrary, it is words that are vague. The reason why the thing can't be expressed is that it's too definite for language."
-C.S. Lewis

Has poetic knowledge become vague to us when in reality it is something definite?