Introducing a Fluid Epistemology

Hello readers, I hope this finds you in good health.

I am pleased to report that my discipline group presentation on Wednesday went quite well, with my slideshow being well received (lots of pictures are the key) and the comments received from the audience of scholars from our History department being helpful and positive  It seems a little grim to make a PhD student outline their topic six months in, but in hindsight, I think that it was a very constructive process.

I just bought a usb 3G dongle, so i’ve been sitting in my favourite coffee shop near my house drinking an enormous cappucino and doing some work on my thesis. Since I promised myself that I would use this blog to make myself write something every week, I have included my notes on my first chapter:

Ideas for Chapter 1 – “Introducing a Fluid Epistemology” : 22/10/09

Step by Step:

What are the questions asked by a medieval epistemology?

  • This section will address the primary delineations, rules, values, fears and traits of medieval, faith-based epistemology.

  • Once it has build up the history of this system of knowledge (classical past, transmission of ideas, preservation into MA) – it will begin to talk about water. Water also has a series of core symbolic characteristics. A speculation on why these symbols intersect. How can an understanding of one inform our understanding of the other?

  • Eg. What does water do? How is it involved in the functioning of this epistemology? What does it represent? – In this section, it will be necessary to tie the symbolism of water into the Christian salvation narrative, and the universal history imagined by the middle ages. The notion of history promoted by medieval thought ties elements within the world to fundamental concepts of human nature, knowledge, destiny etc.

How is the symbolism of water tied into the questions associated with this epistemology? How does it participate in answering them? How does it frame them? How is it part of them? The link needs to be established early on.

  • Explain how a study of one set of symbolism can inform an understanding of a wider series of symbols, and teach us something about broad, transferable concepts.

  • How does the structure of an element within the physical space of the landscape and the ‘spiritual space’ of the salvation narrative inform an understanding of these narratives?

  • The role of allegory etc in making complex, often obtuse philosophical and moral concepts comprehensible. How much of water’s role in Medieval Epistemology. Is pedagogical/didactic?

  • What is water doing in medieval symbolism? What does it represent? What core principles does it represent? What different types of principles does it represent? In what existential/moral/epistemological debates does it participate?

If medieval epistemology and water are linked, then how can a study of the two in conjunction benefit our own understanding of medieval thought?

  • Understanding a system of thought remote from our own is inherently problematic – there is a risk that we will transfer our assumptions into the past, and make anachronistic judgments. By using a well known and powerful set of symbols such as those given to water, it will become easier to comprehend the obscure and often complex mechanics of medieval thought.

  • Tying an eternal and intuitively understood symbolism (water) with ideas that are separated from our understanding by space, time and culture (medieval thought). The Epistemological enabler.

  • A case study: Thinking of this thesis as ‘a study’ in medieval thought. The topic (water) could be another of the influential ingredients of medieval thought (it is NOT the goal of this thesis to claim in any way that water is the most important tool of medieval epistemology). However, the powerful, subconscious and evocative nature of water symbolism (and its ability to capture the imagination) is a kind of back door into medieval thought.

What aspects of knowledge best illustrate this link?

  • Discuss the ways in which the language of knowledge is framed within repeated allegories involving water. The source of knowledge (God, based on the Neoplatonism concept of the One) becomes a fountainhead, and all of creation a plain into which allegorising ‘water’ flows.

  • Why this link? Because water shares many traits with knowledge. It is flowing, changeable, nutritive, potentially problematic, enigmatic and liminal.

  • Water also shares Epistemological Traits with knowledge. The representation of knowledge is almost inescapably aqueous. e.g. The fountainhead of ‘The One’ in the Enneads – the emanation of knowledge downwards. Both knowledge and water have a form of vertical logic, starting at the top and percolating down. Also, the dissemination of knowledge (successfully or unsuccessfully) follows water allegories. Eg the multiple streams of the Trivium and Quadrivium, the multiple beds of digressive knowledge etc.

A study of medieval philosophy, theology etc (theoretical writers) to understand previously discussed ideas.

  • Show the rhetorical, metaphysical, didactic/pedagogical and theological use of water. How does it enrich Christian intellectual culture?

  • How do the precepts and doctrinal concepts upon which the negotiation of a Christian epistemological framework make use of water symbolism?

  • What factors (e.g. scripture, culture, mythology, the classical past, paganism) influence this theology? How does water come to be attached to it? To what extent is the symbolism Christian, and to what extent is it a syncretic addition from the pre-Christian era. This is an important point: how much of the symbolism is Christian, and how much is received or absorbed symbolism from a time prior to the Christian era?

A study of poetry, literature etc in order to show how theory meets practise – how epistemology and art combine.

  • This section should demonstrate the important distinction between theory and practice in medieval thought. It should be strongly asserted within the chapter that medieval epistemology was not simply a philosophical tool for the intellectual elite, but a popular cultural tropology understood (albeit with varied degrees of sophistication and for different purposes) by more of the population that one might suppose.

  • The element of cultural and linguistic difference should be accounted for and contextualised here. Despite the emergence of vernacular languages, the variety of regional and cultural ideas within the literature of medieval Christendom, some ideas (esp. mine) constantly reoccur. Allegories are repeated, morals re-told and narrative devices endlessly re-combined. There are in effect two layers to this text – a layer of difference (that is, the ways in which these texts differ based on language, culture and location) and a layer of similarity (an underlying core symbolism formed by the Latin culture of medieval intellectual elites, the immense popularity of certain texts across all of Europe etc).

Any ideas that anyone floating out there reading this post might have about these notes would be much appreciated. I’m in the brainstorming stage, so feedback would be much appreciated from anyone who cares to comment.

Good day to you all,



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