Vague Ideas and Tedious Descriptions

Hello All,

Once again, I am putting up a section of my draft chapter for you to take a look at. Fairly dry stuff, but it is an attempt to foreground the argument of the chapter, and therefore necessary. It isn’t very long (nor is it about water), but I hope you’ll indulge me for the moment.

I do, however, have a post planned for later this week that I think you will like. I have been pondering the idea of creating a chapter within my thesis entirely dedicated to visual representations of water symbolism as an epistemological entity. To this end, I am thinking of putting up a series of images (with some commentary) to show everyone the kind of thing I am talking about. These images will be a collection of medieval art, maps and cosmological diagrams that I have accumulated over the last few months, and should be quite interesting. In other words, wooo! it has pictures in it!

My writing has been chugging along slowly and steadily this week, and I have also been discussing another academic interest of mine with a friend/peer, which is starting to become very exciting. You may hear something about said idea in the future if we decide to get serious about it, so i’m very excited! I decided that it might be fun to collaborate with a group of postgraduates on a shared thematic topic, and hopefully to root about like a truffle pig for some funding and vainglory should it gain enough momentum. At the moment it is, as the saying goes, a twinkle in my eye, so I won’t tell you too much just yet.

For now, here is an extract from my introductory chapter.




Introductory Discussion to Chapter 1

The problem of knowledge challenged, vexed and inspired generations of Christian theologians, philosophers and poets. The establishment of a relationship with knowledge was crucial, for it facilitated religious self-awareness and contemplation. The intellectual apparatus of Latin Christian thought, in keeping with the sophisticated philosophical traditions of its Roman and Greek antecedents, sought to expose that which was hidden from humanity with all of the philosophical and theological arts at its disposal. The fundamental need to understand the place of the individual, the group and the human race as a whole within the broader narrative of a Christian cosmos motivated a quest for spiritual knowledge. This chapter is, in part, a definition of terms: it exists to ensure that any subsequent discussion of medieval ‘ways of knowing’ is undertaken with a clear understanding of the epistemological grounding within medieval thought. It also begins the discussion by explaining the notion of ‘fluid epistemology’, a concept that, once explained, will form a central component of the later sections of this thesis.
At the beginning of the Blackwell Guide to Epistemology, John Greco identifies three key questions that must be asked within any theory of knowledge. First, one must ask an initial and fundamental question: what is knowledge? Before any enquiry into knowledge can commence, it is necessary to agree upon a series of traits that define what one wishes to know. Second, one must ask what it is possible to know: what are the natural limits of knowledge, what is available and what is out of reach? Is knowledge possible, impossible, or somewhere in between? If the answer to the latter question is that it is possible to know something of meaning, then one must ask a third question: how do we know what we know?1 The nature, possibility and providence of knowledge define the terms of its pursuit, and exist at the heart of any theory pertaining to knowledge.

Nicholas Wolterstorff writes that a religious epistemology resolves such questions by “allowing certain metaphors and images to shape one’s actions and perception of reality”.2 This characterisation is certainly an apt one for the Middle Ages, an age in which the rich imagery and symbolism of Christian thought thoroughly permeated one’s understanding of the forces governing one’s world, and the path that one must take through life to reach the goal of self-fulfilment. To quote Marie-Dominique Chenu, “The symbol was the means by which one could approach mystery; it was homogeneous with mystery and not a simple epistemological sign more or less conventional in character.”3 Thus, the symbol was not merely a convenience for the apprehension of knowledge, but a fundamental causative working of Christian thought. Through symbolism, metaphysical concepts that would otherwise be inherently unknowable or incomprehensible could be explained through visual or literary imagery.

Before it is possible for this chapter to explain the profound bond between the symbolism of water and the thought of the Middle Ages, it is first necessary to discuss the epistemological nature of medieval thought. It is, after all, a world-view separated from our own by time and culture, relying on implicit assumptions of the providence, nature and direction of human existence. It is most fitting to claim that the reader must be separated from their assumptions regarding the nature of knowledge and brought into an understanding of that imagined in the Middle Ages so that they may learn to think as a medieval individual might, to share their intellectual milieu. By doing so, the complex web of medieval thought may be rendered more comprehensible (if only on a tiny subset of a much wider intellectual world) for the express purpose of reading this thesis. Within this goal lies something of a broader goal attached to the writing of this manuscript: through the interpretation of medieval thought, it is hoped that the reader will be left with an enhanced understanding of key medieval ideas and symbols.


One thought on “Vague Ideas and Tedious Descriptions

  1. Although a little dry, this post has already been useful to me. Reading through it again has given me some ideas about how to alter this section of writing. I often find that placing writing within a new context (such as turning it into a pdf or putting it on my blog) allows me to see things that blur into the background within the endless sea of text that is the word processor.

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