Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Trust, and the Knowledge of the Heart

"Trust your children."" Trust your instincts." I have heard this said often in the unschooling community. I have written about trust myself quite a bit. For example, here:

Another insight that unschooling offers to me is that learning is largely about relationship. Trust is the bottom-line of an effective relationship. Not blind, naive trust but committed, optimistic trust. Most "systems" of education think of relationship as a peripheral benefit. But to me it seems central, fundamental. No one can teach anything or learn anything if there is not trust to start with.

Still, I have always had a bit of reservation about what, exactly, "trust" meant; especially in the formulation "trust your instincts." It has always seemed reasonable to me to look at my instincts with a bit of wariness. Here is the dictionary definition for instinct:
  1. An inborn pattern of behavior that is characteristic of a species and is often a response to specific environmental stimuli
  2. A powerful motivation or impulse.
  3. An innate capability or aptitude
The third one sounds the most promising, but all of them sound like they could lead me wrong. So if they could lead me wrong, why should I trust my childrens' instincts? I do trust the kids themselves, but in the same measured, cautious way I trust myself. In Catholic terminology it is called the charitable assumption. St Ignatius puts it this way:

...Let it be presupposed that every good Christian is to be more ready to save his neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it. If he cannot save it, let him inquire how he means it; and if he means it badly, let him correct him with charity. If that is not enough, let him seek all the suitable means to bring him to mean it well, and save himself.
This works as a parenting principle for me, as well as a general one.

This is where the question has been in my mind up till recently. Then recently, I read in John Newman's Grammar of Assent, something that crystallized my vague misgivings.

It seems to me unphilosophical to speak of trusting ourselves. We are what we are, and we use, not trust our faculties. ...Our consciousness of self is prior to all questions of trust or assent. We act according to our nature, by means of ourselves, when we remember or reason. We are as little able to accept or reject our mental constitution, as our being. We have not the option; we can but misuse or mar its functions.
Now, you are wondering if I am going to say that I have had a sea-change about unschooling, or decided that "trust" is contradictory to Catholic realism. But almost the reverse is true. Rather, Newman's precise formulation actually clarified the issue for me, and I realized that the talk of "trust" might be imprecise, but was not necessarily out of bounds.

I hope you can bear with this! I know it's a lot of quoting, but I have some more, and then perhaps it will be clear where I am going!

There is a very good article online called Heart Speaks to Mind about John Newman's thought. In the course of this article, the author defines what philosophers call "connatural knowledge."

Connatural knowledge appears occasionally in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, usually in describing how something may be known without having a very precise concept of it. A chaste person who is uneducated may not know much about chastity as an idea, but that person knows it very well through experience or participation in the virtue. Likewise, a mystic may not know God theologically, but may know Him experientially very well. This kind of knowledge through experience or participation knows by way of a similarity of nature -- thus connatural. Sometimes the similarity is innate; thus we know, through a similarity of natures, how the cat feels when it is hungry. At other times it learns through experience how a thing is, or feels, or is desirable, fearful, et cetera.
Here is another definition of connatural knowledge, from the Radical Academy:

"connatural knowledge," a knowledge which:
  • follows on the "lived experience" of the truth;
  • is the living contact of the intellect with reality itself;
  • is not always given expression in concepts;
  • may be obscure to the knower;
  • is overlaid with elements from the affective or feeling side of man's nature.
Connatural knowledge is also called Poetic Knowledge by some philosophers, and there is a book by James Taylor (not the singer) that bears that title and is very interesting reading.

Newman says that truth has integrity -- it is one::

"I lay it down that all knowledge forms one whole, because its subject-matter is one; for the universe in its length and breadth is so intimately knit together, that we cannot separate off portion from portion, and operation from operation, except by mental abstraction..."
So it seems to follow that truths arrived at by this type of "natural" knowledge are truths, no less so from being arrived at in an inarticulate, heart-felt, living way. In fact, systems of logic are based on this basic poetic knowledge, and rely on connatural understanding as reality checks. If you have ever observed that highly trained intellectuals can sometimes (not always) be the most silly, misguided people in their lives and thinking, while some simple folk can be profoundly wise and sensible, then you are seeing mere logic and human reasoning pitted against sound connatural knowledge.

Chesterton writes:

Logic and truth, as a matter of fact, have very little to do with each other. Logic is concerned merely with the fidelity and accuracy with which a certain process is performed, a process which can be performed with any materials, with any assumption.....Logic, then, is not necessarily an instrument for finding truth; on the contrary, truth is necessarily an instrument for using logic—for using it, that is, for the discovery of further truth and for the profit of humanity. Briefly, you can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it.
I hope you can see that I have come full circle here. My thought is that unschoolers are often using "trust your instincts" as a simple synonym for the more specialized concept of connatural knowledge. Their very sense of what's real -- what's good and true and beautiful -- teaches them to look through their inner eye, and rely on that when something is in question.

It's not that it's bad to reason analytically- -it's a unique human quality-- but if your reasoning ,or more likely, someone else's reasoning, is going against your deepest instincts -- there, I used the word! -- you might want to doublecheck. Maybe the reasoning is wrong; maybe the premises are false. It happens. In some ways, you could say that connatural knowledge informed by grace actually is a beacon for logical reasoning, a destination light, as well as a foundation and starting point.

Now, this inner knowledge is not infallible, of course, because of fallen human nature. Think of Woody Allen saying "the heart wants what the heart wants" wants as a justification for involvement in an irresponsible relationship. What his heart wanted was natural, but wrong and damaging. I agree with Newman. We can use or misuse our faculties, so it is important to keep a balance. "Know thyself" might apply here. How to improve the integrity of our "heart knowledge"? I have to wrap this one up because it is getting long, but I would say, for a start: through reliance on grace, through improving habits of virtue, and through "thinking upon these things" --- that is, whatever is true, pure, wholesome, beautiful and of good report. In other words, through something like Charlotte Mason's Atmosphere, Discipline, and Life.

Now that I've gone through all that, here is my friend Cindy's thoughtful post on Trusting Myself (and God and the dc) . Also, here are some links that I collected that talked about connatural knowledge, just in case anyone wants to read even MORE (as if!)


Wendy in VA said...

**In some ways, you could say that connatural knowledge informed by grace actually is a beacon for logical reasoning, a destination light, as well as a foundation and starting point.**

As in, "grace perfects nature"?

I'm printing this one out to ponder today. Thanks, Willa!

Anonymous said...


This really has me thinking this afternoon. You articulated beautifully something I have often asked myself as well.

Yet, despite my questions, I have always felt a strong reliance on my "instincts." I also work hard to trust my children's "instincts."

I have noticed that although my and my children's "instincts" may be off at times, we still have a way of knowing what we can handle. The "wrong" decision often leads to great growth and therefore may have been "right" after all (in the big picture).

I would like to hear more about your thoughts on improving the integrity of "heart knowledge" and, if possible, how we help our children improve this as well.

I have noticed something in our society that raises concerns for me when people trust themselves. This concern is based on something I have seen time and again- the ability humans have to filter reality through their own set of "truths."

Of course, we all filter to some degree, but how do we filter through the ultimate truths and not our own selfishly constructed ones?

Tracey (Connections)

Chari said...

how DO you DO this??? :)

Laura A said...

Willa, I've been meaning to comment here for some time now that I have often thought that what unschoolers mean by "trust your instincts" is similar to co-natural knowledge. At least, I think that's what unschooling is like at its best. How we achieve that "best" is more a matter of faith and humility.

I am still reading your blog whenever I can. Sometimes I print things out and take them with me. My attention is a little pulled apart lately by some logistical matters, so I'm not always able to read carefully enough to comment. But keep up the good work!