The Problem of Humanist Knowing

We can begin to understand how differently from ourselves Renaissance

humanists thought about "knowing" by asking first about our own late

twentieth-century sense of it. What is it about knowing that makes it

hard? That is not an easy question, but certainly a likely answer would

begin with our sense of the immensity, the unboundedness, of the task.

No modern would ever think that s/he could know all there is in the world

to know, or that anyone could ever even know enough to get along by

themselves. This is reflected in our divisions of the knowable. In

college one majors not in everything, but only in a particular subject,

and even then, although we do try to know that one thing well, still we

divide up even our major disciplines, and then re-divide even those divisions.

In English you can be an expert on either modern or

Renaissance literature, or even an expert just on early Renaissance

literature, or perhaps just on the drama. And all without loss of

reputation for not being well-informed about Nineteenth Century

literature, let alone electron microscopy.

So our sense of the problem of knowing, and of its solution, depends

upon what we take to be a demonstrated infiniteness of possible things to

know, and on how we choose to cut that infiniteness down to a manageable

size. Then consider not just how we subdivide the knowable, but also the

ways in which we hierarchialize the kinds of things we know about our

various subjects. At the very top of the kinds of knowing we value, most

of us would place "facts": facts about society, about people, about

nature. And certainly we also value highly as a kind of knowledge

"knowing how." We want children to know how to swim, to know how to use


Yet there are other matters no less important to us in terms of how

we run our lives (indeed, some would argue more important) that we often

don't even think of as knowledge at all, or at best take to be less

valuable as things to know. Primary among these are moral issues. I think

it is fair to say that as a society we take morals to be a commonplace

matter, and perhaps not even worth serious study. Though we have

courses--indeed whole majors--on forestry, rocks, chemistry, writing, we

don't have any courses named "How to Live a Better and more Ethical Life."

To be sure, there are ethics courses in many philosophy departments, but

they are more concerned with theory than they are with helping you decide

how to make better decisions about your life. Moreover, what is studied

in ethics courses are not particular codes of ethics, but rather the more

general problem of what are ethics, how can one be said to know, or act,

ethically. It is true that other college courses indirectly take up the

subject of "How People Live Their Lives" (usually literature courses of

one kind or another), but even there the subject of Life-Living is

mediated by the texts one reads. We don't read and think about How to

Establish a Sense of One's Own Identity, but about how Dickens (say)

writes about the way Pip establishes his identity.

Further, we also have certain assumptions about the way we know

things. We privilege (generally) factual knowledge above moral or ethical

knowledge at least in part because of how it is known, as well as (perhaps

as much as) because of its essential nature. Factual knowledge owes

itself to description, to measurement, to exactnesses of one sort or

another. That sort of knowing seems to us concrete and reliable. Much of

our ethical thought, by contrast, is analogical and narrative. Situation

A is like situation B, and therefore we should do such and such. But in

general the twentieth century has held analogical reasoning in low esteem,

thinking it less valid, less "real" than "scientific" reasoning.

Further, we also find ourselves uncomfortable with moral rules and

commonplaces. We live in an age of relatively and diversity, and the idea

that one could make a list of rules for good behavior that all human

beings would agree on seems incredibly naive. (We could probably get MOST

to agree to a restriction on indiscriminate killing, but more than that

would be difficult to negotiate.)

Yet like it or not, moral knowledge cannot help but be a matter of

precepts, of experience, of an eye cocked, guesses made which try to bring

the force of experience and commonplace to bear upon a particular action.

By its nature it is a matter of "judgment," and more often than not we

guide ourselves by analogies, by metaphors--and by the narratives which

underlie or are implied by them--whether we want to or not. But even if

that is what we actually do, the open-endedness of ethical questions, the

difficulties about being exact (or even reliably right) on such matters

seem to have made us question the status of such knowing, as well as the

analogical reasoning upon which it is based. Though we make ethical

decisions every day, and while we may think hard about them, we are rarely

very systematic about them. We tend (again, speaking generally) not to

think of the process by which those decisions are made as something which

could itself be a discipline, something subject to analytic and discursive


Thus in planning our educations, many of us work from the assumption

that a subject like chemistry or business administration is in some way

more "practical" than literature, that literature (and other "pure"

humanities) are good enough for relaxation, or variety, or "breadth," but

that for the real living of life they are like the background music we

hear while shopping at a grocery store. Nor is this entirely wrong, since

in terms of getting jobs, "fact knowledge" and "how-to knowledge" often

seem, and often are, more useful. But the result of this is that knowing

what something "is" seems more important than knowing what something "is

like." Or rather, we value knowing something scientifically (as we know

"facts") over knowing things metaphorically or analogically (as we know

ethical issues). Given the nature of moral thought, it's something of an

ironic paradox that when engaged in argument most people think that

because analogy depends for its force only on similarity, and not on

identity, it's a valid challenge to their opponent's case to observe that

he or she is arguing "by analogy."

I summarize these commonplaces not to argue with them, but only to

establish some sort of ground against which to contrast the Renaissance

problem of knowing. For it was different in several important ways.

First, for most "educated" Renaissance men and women the knowledge which

mattered most was not "scientific" in our sense at all. Rather, it was

quite straightforwardly moral: those things which when known could

provide insight on choices for action. That didn't necessarily exclude

the study of nature, but when one looked to nature, it was often as a book

in which to read the universal order which governed all of creation,

including the world of human affairs. Thus nature, in general, was very

often not so much a subject of study as it was a means of study.

Further, knowledge in the Renaissance was in an important sense

"bounded." Early in the sixteenth century Erasmus wrote that virtually

all "knowledge" could be found in the books of the Greeks and Romans. By

this, of course, he didn't mean that everything we moderns--or even he,

the Renaissance philosopher--would call "knowledge" could be found there.

That, even in a world that thought differently than we do about knowing,

would have been absurd. But Erasmus' concept of knowledge differed from

ours by focusing (after the Bible) first on the litterae humanae, the

books of literature, history, theology, and moral philosophy. Thus when

Erasmus locates all knowledge in the ancients, he only means that

everything which seemed to him truly to matter was there. Other factual

knowing such as the best way to mine silver, or how to market wool in the

low countries, would not have entered his consideration as the kind of

knowledge an education would be aiming toward. Sapientia, in fact (for it

was in Latin that this conversation would be carried out anyway), was the

thing to be known: "Wisdom." In a spirit which matches that of his friend

Erasmus, Sir Thomas More in his Utopia describes the far-reaching change

in Utopian culture caused by the arrival on their shores of a library of

classical texts. Those very quickly become Utopia's basis for education

as the Utopians enthusiastically embrace Greek and Latin letters. But

that can happen only because everything the Utopians read in the classics

only demonstrates that good farming, good living and good government are

all matters whose principles had already been fully established in the

ancient world, and which can now, for the first time, be understood fully

by means of the artful discourses they find in the books handed down from

ancient Greece and Rome. It was precisely in that rather abstract sense

of a complete and bounded set of first principles that all wisdom could be

said to be available through the books of ancient classical world. To the

humanists, for a while, that seemed plenty knowledge enough.

Of course, there were other knowledges about, and as the century

develops, "natural" knowledge more and more becomes both available and

respectable. But even as the century ends, knowing nature is not for the

most part the sort of knowing with which the educational establishment was

much concerned. This is at least part of the point of Sir Francis Bacon's

late-century attack on the humanist educational system. In contrast to

what seems to him to be humanism's old- fashioned educational practice, he

makes the radically innovative case for an education based on knowing

nature, and knowing it on its own terms. Yet even Bacon, a man as

convinced as any late sixteenth- century man that older modes of defining

knowledge would have to change, had no real sense of how daunting was the

task. For imagined that the study and assimilation of the knowledge of

nature could be accomplished in something like just sixty years. 400

years later, with science still madly researching thousands of mysteries,

Bacon's original estimate seems incredibly naive.

But returning to the sixteenth century generally, I've suggested that

the knowledge which matters to humanists is ethical and bounded--literally

by the corpus of classical texts. To these characteristics we can add

three more. First, because the knowledge which matters to Renaissance

humanists is that of the Bible and of the classics, it is also verbal, and

especially, "textual." It is stored in written words, in books, and is

therefore available only to those who are trained such as to be able to

recover them. It is not by accident that this is an age of education.

The setting up of schools is a necessary consequence of the notion that

the things people must know are available only through texts.

Second, knowledge is timeless. Adjustments of particulars are

obviously necessary, since Rome is not London, but very often the humanist

claim is that in all crucial ways, though admittedly with the not minor

exception of the addition of Christian truths to those of the pagan

classics (and in some cases the replacement of ancient truths with those

Christian truths), the process of learning is largely to be one of the

recovery of what was once already known.

And third, it matters greatly that knowledge is in an important sense

inherently analogical. This is an age (like that before it) which found

it easy to move from the natural fact that there were seven known metals

and seven known planets to the observation that a lot of things came in

sevens (like the seven days of the week), and that this number thus seemed

to be a principle of cosmic--and therefore moral--ordering. Of course,

other things came in other numbers, but again, the correspondence of

different kinds of things in the numbers in which they occurred seemed a

sign of an underlying structural likeness--indeed, a sign of God's divine

wisdom. The fact of likeness itself (either of characteristic, as the

sun's brightness to Gold's brightness, or of number, as with the seven

metals and the seven planets) thus becomes both a structural principle of

the noetic economy, and a means by which relationships between different

points in that economy are to be sought out and evaluated. If you know

there are seven metals and seven planets and seven days, you can either

look for other series of sevens to posit as correlate, or you can look for

series of sixes or eights and try to reconceptualize them into sevens.

Even more important, it becomes quite easy to see a cosmic relation

between these (seemingly God-given) natural sevens on the one hand, and

ethical sevens like the Seven Virtues, or the Seven Deadly Sins on the


Summing up these commonplaces about knowing, it is for Renaissance

Humanists essentially:


1)bounded, static, timeless, universal




If we now ask what follows from this for understanding Renaissance

literature, it is clear that if analogy is a central feature of "knowing,"

then literature--and indeed, any and all analogical discourse--finds

itself precisely at the center of the knowledge enterprise. That's very

different from our own culture's point of view. For as this century ends

those of us who've committed ourselves to the study of books seem quaintly

useless ("So just what exactly are you going to DO with that English

degree of yours?"). But it has not always been so. Renaissance poets and

scholars found it much easier than do their modern counterparts to imagine

that the work they did was central to the culture, and to expect that

centrality to be properly recognized and attended to. People have often

wondered why the sixteenth century in England--a little island nation

whose population then was only about two-thirds that of Washington State

now--saw such a vigorous outpouring of "great literature." At least in

part that productivity must have started from their much greater sense of

confidence that the knowledge they worked with in their writings might

truly be taken seriously by those who had the power to rule the world.