To recognize one’s other as a self is to know a person as a person. Such knowledge goes infinitely further than tolerance or political equality. This post explores how ethical knowledge informs an experience of personhood. Personhood is ultimately a grander and more encompassing pursuit than that of tolerance or human rights alone.
For Thomas Aquinas, there are two primary modes of knowledge: the theoretical and the practical. Theoretical knowledge is arrived at through study; practical knowledge is arrived at through action. Both modes of knowledge significantly inform who we are and how we live. Ultimately, both modes of knowledge facilitate an encounter with personhood. Such an encounter follows in the pattern of the cross.
Theoretical knowledge of ethics provides normative boundaries for behavior. A child can learn the theory that it is wrong to hit her brother. She can be taught acceptable behavior, and can also learn why hitting is wrong. Without the theoretical, she is at a loss: Why is my brother mad at me? How am I supposed to act?
Theory also performs a crucial role beyond providing guidelines. It helps construct a common field of human interaction. Theoretical knowledge recognizes and helps maintain a shared means of association. It can do this because it considers things according to that which is universal (or shared). Such knowledge is general (universal) and generally applicable.
In some sense, this is the very meaning of knowledge. To know that it is raining is something akin to an awareness, but to know what rain is or why it is raining is truly to know. Notice that neither the awareness (the particular) nor the knowledge (the universal) are utterly independent.
The universal (the theory) allows us, in a manner, to transcend and thus to interpret experience. Theory teaches us not only to say that ‘it is raining’, but what ‘raining’ means. The moment we grasp the meaning of rain, we gain the ability to speak about it and to understand one another. It is through shared meaning that community is possible.
Without common ground, without theoretical knowledge, we remain isolated and tied down to particular individuals and events. Theory creates the possibility of the human community by being largely independent of particulars. Through theory, we cease to be utterly private individuals and become social beings who recognize and communicate with the other. We empathize, anticipate, and communicate by means of such knowledge.
There is less to say about the practical; after all, practical knowledge is not about saying, but doing. It is less concerned with being able to describe or understand than it is with know-how and performance. Practical or experimental knowledge gives flesh to the universal. To Say, “I would parachute” is very different from looking out the open door of a jet and jumping. To think “I am going to be kind to my Aunt” is very different from listening respectfully and thoughtfully to her.
The meaning of practical knowledge is largely discovered in practice. It is in the experiment of active living that we learn the value of intuition, receive correction, and get clarification from particular people and situations. It is there we get to experience what theory speaks about. To some extent, theory is itself derived from and shaped through practice.
Finally, and most importantly, it is in practice that we meet people. In practice, we learn not about the ‘rules’ or the ‘ought’s’, but about the reality of the other and ourselves. In action, we can discover the human person and the human heart. Only in the experimental practice of ethics (love) do we truly encounter people and have the opportunity to love them. It is this mode of knowledge which brings us face to face with one another. But this can only happen if practice is contextualized in theory and vice versa.
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