A Review of James Taylor’s “Poetic Knowledge”

A Review of James Taylor’s “Poetic Knowledge”

In 1998, James Taylor unveiled his book entitled Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education. In his book, Taylor explicitly identifies his vision of education as classical; one reason his book has aroused interest is because it claims that a substantial portion of classical education should taught in the “poetic mode.” Since the time of the book’s publication, many thinkers engaged in various educational “recovery” projects have grappled with Taylor’s thesis. One such thinker is Mary Daly. Daly herself is an author who describes her many projects as follows:

I have also undertaken to submit my small part towards cultural renewal, first by writing books about sentence diagrams so people can think more clearly, and then by writing the science texts I always wanted while I was teaching my own children. I have several other books in various stages of completion, and have also published some of the writings of my immediate family, on poetry and science both.

Daly explicitly self-identifies with the classical education recovery movement. For example, she writes:

One of the most exciting things in the literate world is the renewed interest in classical education. Catholics, Protestants, the unchurched, and even unbelievers are demanding that education turn away from immediate career preparation and back to matters of substance, human substance that is, to the matter of serious mental formation.

In 2001, three years after the publication of Poetic Knowledge, Daly wrote and released her review of Taylor’s book. Daly’s review is insightful, and she penetrates to the heart of several key issues in the book. Since 2001, interest in the book has grown within the classical education community and has extended to the Charlotte Mason education community. Given the broad circulation of the book, Daly’s review is perhaps more relevant today than it was when she wrote it more than fifteen years ago.

I recently asked Daly for her permission to reprint her article on CharlotteMasonPoetry.org. My goal is to bring Daly’s evaluation to the attention of the Charlotte Mason community. Daly kindly agreed, indicating that the issues she addresses are still important. So, with the express permission of the author, I share the entirety of her 2001 book review:

Poetic Knowledge

Author(s): James S. Taylor

Copyright: 1998

Publisher: SUNY Press

Binding: Sewn Hardcover

Subject(s):Methods: Classical Education, Teaching methods


Poetic Knowledge, by James Taylor, is a difficult read. He wishes to present, from both history and philosophy, a solid argument for an education that is more intuitive and interior than what we find in the schools today. His background and bibliography are impressive, including a period of study with John Senior in the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas, famous as an early ferment in the revival of classical education.

However, Taylor’s argument is flawed both as a whole and in several of its parts. He resists making clear definitions, he is very negative about science and technology, his historical perspective is distorted, and his writing is problematic.

Resistance to clear definitions is a serious problem. From the start, Taylor speaks of poetic knowledge both as a “degree” of knowledge and as a “mode” of knowledge. By confusing these definitions (and others) Taylor undercuts his central argument with equivocation. As a “degree of knowledge,” poetic knowledge is immediate to the knowing person, and may be likened to the lowest rungs of a ladder, the first rungs we climb and the ones we use to climb higher. Understood as a degree of knowledge, poetic knowledge makes a constant contribution to all other forms of knowledge, including scientific knowledge.

As a “mode of knowledge”, the poetic is the spontaneous knowledge of an interior view, rather than the measured and outward knowledge of rationality. The poetic as a “mode” of knowledge is the opposite of the “scientific mode”. Of course, just as one would be impoverished by looking only east and never west, one would be impoverished if one were to employ only one of two possible modes of knowledge. But they remain opposites.

There are good philosophical reasons and good historical precedents (many of which Taylor produces) for either definition of the term “poetic knowledge,” – and even for using both definitions in various ways. But the definitions cannot be interchanged during an argument, and this is what takes place in Taylor’s essay. Simply put, his argument is that poetic knowledge (definition 1) is a form of knowledge essential to humanity. But poetic knowledge (definition 2) is the opposite – and the antagonist – of scientific knowledge. By equivocation, poetic knowledge is essential to all knowledge and a powerful human good in opposition to science.

While Taylor does not actually call science an evil, he spares no opportunity to disparage both science and technology. This negativity about science would be comic if it were not encased in an erudite argument for the poetic approach to knowledge in education. Unfortunately, the intuitive and poetic approaches to knowledge are naturally open to romanticism and gnosticism unless they are properly balanced with rationality. Taylor has no balance in this matter. His negativity about rationality overflows even onto sentence diagramming and phonics. He quotes with approval the assertion that “authors teach children to read,” and that reading is “imitative”. If he merely pointed out that phonics is not enough; you need to have authors that children will enjoy, I would agree. But to scorn phonics? The depth of Taylor’s impracticality is simply breathtaking.

A note on history is also in order, for Taylor makes repeated reference to the time of the Reformation and Renaissance, before which the poetic was accepted in Western thought. The correct association for the negative attitude towards intuitive knowledge is the seventeenth century, starting with Descartes, 1596-1650. This is the “Enlightenment” or the “Age of Reason”, two names for the time that followed the Renaissance and the Reformation. (Taylor does refer to Descartes as the culprit, but never clarifies his place in history.)

First of all, the Renaissance long preceded the Reformation. It was not a single event, of course, but the starting date sometimes given is 1250, sometimes earlier. Certainly the architectural triumphs of the cathedrals belong to the Renaissance, as do, for example, Dante (1265-1321), Buridan (1300’s), Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), and Copernicus (1473-1543). The early Renaissance is the time of the birth of modern science. It predates by hundreds of years the problem that Taylor speaks of. This fact alone should make clear that the rise of science is not the culprit in the loss of respect for poetic knowledge. Something else happened. This is not the place to say what, but only to urge in the strongest terms that no implication against science be received from Taylor’s references to the Renaissance.

It may be that Taylor has confused the Renaissance with the Enlightenment. This would explain why he constantly pairs Reformation and Renaissance in the opposite of their historical order, which was Renaissance first, and then later on, the Reformation.

Finally, though it may seem trivial to close on a grammatical note, I shall complain about Taylor’s sentence structure. The topic is difficult enough without the distraction of errors of grammar and construction which appear throughout his book. Usually, when a reader is confused about the structure of a sentence, it is his clue that he has not properly followed the author’s argument. But in Taylor, it is just a reminder that this author regards analysis as an inferior mode of thought, and wants his argument accepted intuitively.

Because I love science and feed my wonder on the delights of a well-crafted physical argument as much as on violets and poetry, and because I strongly desire that science and faith be understood harmoniously, I cannot recommend this book as a resource for the classical revival in education.

Perspective: Catholic

Review Date: 4-23-01

Reviewed by: Mary Daly

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