Four Modes of Knowledge and the Representation of Text[1]

Mark Unno

"You don't live to get the right theory.
You make use of limited theories to live the right life."



In the classroom we as teachers spend much of our time explaining, analyzing, and debating the factual accuracy, rational coherence, and overall sense of the texts we present, read, and examine. In a seminar teacher and students are seated in chairs separated by the span of the table; in lectures we stand before a seated audience uniformly facing us. Preparing for class, both teacher and student have been sitting at desks and bringing our minds to bear on the readings that will be lectured upon, discussed, and for which papers will be written. All of this is designed to maximize the sense of equidistance among the students and the sense of distanced objectivity; it also subordinates personal contact and engagement to intellectual demands.

Exams and papers likewise tend to emphasize the importance of consistency and analytical clarity. Although there is increasing flexibility in style and genre, assigned paper topics generally place a premium on theoretical mastery and the careful analysis of textual evidence.
Thus, within the framework of our institutional practices-in lectures, discussions, reading texts, and evaluating written work-our primary mode of engaging undergraduate students is intellectual, and students naturally strive first and foremost to grasp textual ideas in terms of their logical relationships and coherence.

The texts that we examine in religious studies, however, often contain knowledge that was not appropriated in a primarily or exclusively intellectual mode. Texts conveying knowledge of ritual, visions, dreams, personal encounters, and the like may appeal to intuition, emotion, and bodily or somatic awareness as much as to intellectual understanding. Different genres emphasize different modes of knowledge. Journals, essays about personal experiences, and fiction often appeal equally to a differentiated sense of affect as to intellect. Poetry and works of devotion frequently represent a blend of intuition and affect. Manuals on ritual and meditation speak of somatic appropriation. All texts are subject to intellectual analysis, but the full range of their contents may not be accessible to the rational intellect alone.

The representation of texts in religious studies occurs at the historical intersection of complex practices. On the one hand, the secular, liberal, democratic university based largely on the ideal of public, equal access to objective bodies of knowledge could not have been created without the distance and universality thought to be afforded by the rational intellect. On the other, the content of texts in religious studies indicate that other modes may be involved. The intellect has tended to be regarded as objective, while intuition, affect, and somatic understanding have been relegated to the problematic sphere of the subjective or even the irrational. Yet these other modes of knowledge suggest a logic each unto its own, highly differentiated and consistent within its own sphere.

Of course, it would be an exaggeration to say that these other modes are completely excluded from undergraduate education. In fact, it would be impossible to engage students meaningfully in their subject matter without some appeal to the intuitive sense and emotional impact of textual ideas. This is especially true in religious studies. Thus, we intersperse our explanations with analogies, illustrations, and stories to evoke interest, wonder, empathetic understanding, appreciation, disgust, and humor in our students. But there are limits to the extent to which we can ask students to become engaged. One might explain William James' conception of prayer in the Varieties of Religious Experience and convey some intuitive sense of the world of meaning that it constitutes for him. However, it would be going too far to insist that students identify with James' sense that prayer is "the very movement itself of the soul . . . [in] contact with the mysterious power."[2] Similarly, one might explain the logic and sense of a Zen Buddhist meditation manual, but it would be inappropriate to require that students engage in formal training in meditation techniques.

The religious studies curriculum of the contemporary American university provides access to a wider range of texts in religious studies than ever before, but we are far from having worked out the problem of how and to what extent knowledge of these texts can be conveyed. This essay represents a preliminary attempt to consider three questions related to this problem: What is the relationship between different modes of knowledge in the pedagogy of religious studies? Whence does the teacher derive her or his knowledge of texts in religious studies? And how does one bring different texts into conversation with one another?


The Relationship between Different Modes

Thus far the intellectual, intuitive, affective, and somatic modes of appropriating knowledge have been mentioned. There may be many others, but I have found it a useful point of departure to begin with these four. In terms of working with students towards an understanding of texts, I have also identified a general sequence of progression between these modes, although exceptions are frequent enough. In actual practice there is a shifting back and forth between modes rather than a smooth linear development, and more than one mode is usually operating simultaneously. I have nevertheless found the following schematization helpful.

The first mode of engagement is intellectual, since students usually seek to work out the conceptual relationships between ideas before they can fully enter the world of the text.

Once a general framework has been established at this level, the students can start to explore individual ideas and themes within the larger context. That is to say, they begin to internalize a map of meaning by means of which they can intuit the sense and meaning of individual pieces in light of the whole. A map, however, can be no more than a crude approximation of the actual landscape.

In order to see what it might be like to actually traverse and live in the world represented by the text, students need to become responsive to the shades of emotion found therein; this is probably the most difficult area to facilitate on the part of the instructor. In order to engage students and to present a sophisticated rendering of the text, the teacher must open the possibility to affective engagement but not coerce students into emotional identification.[3] It is difficult, for example, to appreciate the passion with which Simone Weil pursues her philosophical endeavors without having some inkling of the suffering undergone by the factory workers with whom she toiled; at the same time, it would be sermonizing to tell students that they must confront the class conflicts at work in their own lives. As mentioned earlier, one means of providing the opportunity for affective engagement without forcing students is to give illustrations and analogies as indirect channels of access.

While somatic modes of acquiring knowledge are integral to athletics, performing arts, and the like, we rarely attempt to engage students at this level in religious studies. At the same time, many students become highly intrigued by the possibility of engagement at the somatic level, such as what it might mean to do meditation. On the one hand, it is enticing precisely because somatic engagement is excluded, and students feel that their overburdened minds are cutoff from their bodies; on the other, somatic knowledge seems to some to provide a more intimate, deeper knowledge of the ideas represented in the texts they study.

It should be noted here that somatic engagement does not entail an exclusively or even predominantly sympathetic attitude towards the object of study. The practices associated with virtually any idea can have both positive and negative effects, and one can often gain the deepest and most critical understanding of these effects at the somatic level of engagement. The violinist who is competing for a chair in a major professional orchestra knows intimately both the beauty of playing Stravinsky's The Firebird and the almost cruel demands of practice and competition that pervade the professional world of concert performance. Similarly, some of the harshest and most incisive critics of religious traditions have come from adherents and former adherents of these traditions. All of this is further complicated by the fact that the ideological practices that have produced texts used in religious studies not infrequently mask the darker side of the ideas they propound. Peter Berger has suggested that the true adherent must also be the harshest critic, one who obeys "the heretical imperative."[4] This is one reason why the application of external perspectives and theories to critique ideas represented in a text plays an important role.[5]

My pedagogical strategy in negotiating the four modes has been to bring the intellectual and intuitive modes of engagement fully into the classroom, to open possibilities for affective engagement through lecture and discussion, and to provide opportunities for deeper affective and somatic engagement at the individual level when queried. If a student comes in during office hours expressing interest in doing Zen meditation, then I will provide information about nearby meditation centers. If she or he would like to meet a Buddhist monk, then I can similarly provide information about public talks and other situations to fulfill their needs. I also offer advice about things to look out for and further texts they might read to acquire a broader base of knowledge, but at this point I usually restrain my avuncular instincts and keep this to a minimum. As individuals on their own life-journeys, students need to find out things for themselves.


The Teacher's Appropriation of Knowledge

The issue of how to convey knowledge of texts on various levels implies a second question, that of whence and how the teacher derives the knowledge she or he communicates. Graduate training today involves both research and pedagogy, and while the two are closely related, they are not always complementary. In graduate research there is a high degree of specialization, the audience or readership is usually small and learned, and students learn to qualify their statements extensively in both papers and at conferences. In undergraduate pedagogy, especially in lectures, material is presented at the introductory or intermediate levels, the audience is often large and highly diverse, and the ability to evoke interest and start with useful generalizations is important.

In a word, graduate research is significantly devoted to professional training, while in undergraduate education students are in a much more exploratory, search mode. For this and other reasons described by Mark Berkson in his essay, "Reflection on/through Comparison," effective undergraduate pedagogy depends upon the teacher's skill in enabling students to enter imaginatively into an unfamiliar world of textual ideas. In order to do this, we go beyond the boundaries of our research to draw upon analogies and examples from daily life with which students can identify. Furthermore, many of us are required to teach texts outside of our research specializations.

As we blend the knowledge gained through research with our own reservoir of experience in order to create an effective pedagogy, we have to ask ourselves, how accurate is the representation of the text that we communicate to the students? Unlike some, I do not believe that there is a single, exclusively correct reading of a text. At the same time, I think that there are better and worse renderings, as indicated by Andrew Flescher in his essay, "Teacher as Authority and Mediator," and just as one can say that there are better and worse interpretations of a Mozart piano concerto. Like a Mozart concerto, our knowledge of texts involves the intellectual, intuitive, affective, and somatic levels, and we can examine our knowledge by asking ourselves, "On what levels have I appropriated knowledge of this text, and on what levels can I speak competently?" It is not that difficult to give a convincing representation of a text to an audience completely unfamiliar with that text, but it is another question altogether of whether a particular representation is fair and faithful.

By continually reexamining our own knowledge at various levels or modalities, we can gain a greater degree of internal consistency at the same time that we develop a more effective outward presentation. In talking about Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mother's Gardens, I might draw on my own experiences of encountering prejudice; I can set the appropriate sense of distance by explaining differences in degree and kind. In examining Confucius' understanding of ritual (li) in the Analects, I might draw parallels with an orchestral performance,[6] but I am careful to explain that this is a metaphor that makes intuitive sense but is not meant to be an illustration of the Confucian implementation of li, which is historically and culturally delimited.

By simply being clear about what I do and do not understand and at what levels, misinformation is avoided, students receive a more effective presentation, and they themselves may become more aware of the limits and possibilities of their own discourse.[7]


Comparison and Conversation

One of the hallmarks of the liberal arts education found in the contemporary American university is its multicultural character. Not very often in past history have such a diverse curriculum and student body been brought together in a single institution. As I look out onto the audience before me, I cannot help but see that the encounter between different cultures, traditions, and ideas is very real, not merely notional, to use Bernard Williams' terms.[8] As I am about to begin lecturing for my course on Eastern and Western conceptions of the self, I realize that the authors, practices, and ideas that we will be examining comparatively are already intermingled in conversation as students talk to one another.[9]

In the past, comparison frequently meant that one of two thinkers, traditions, or texts being compared would serve as the standard by which the other would be measured, or that some predetermined paradigm would be used as the norm for classifying and evaluating the elements of comparison.[10] It seems that we are now moving towards a more complex approach wherein the objects of comparison are used to illuminate one another, to identify differences in similarities and similarities in differences.[11] In a sense, rather than comparing static entities presumed to exist unchanged in abstraction, a more conversational approach is coming to the fore.[12] However, if it were merely a friendly conversation, then it would not be possible for each to call the other into question and to engage in critical evaluation. If it were solely a question of objective comparison, it would be easy to overlook the fact that the person undertaking the comparison helps to shape the nature of the inquiry and has a normative stake in doing so.

In my teaching experiences I have found that students are more interested and willing to engage deeper levels of knowledge when the format of a course involves this blend of comparison and conversation, partly because they seem to feel that no single voice or paradigm will dominate the discussion and partly because they begin to see their own identities as being informed by the multitude of voices found in their world, both at the macroscopic level of an increasingly global society and the microscopic world of their classroom. The conversational tone invites them to see the other-in-self and the self-in-other, and the comparative thrust enables them to evaluate and move towards a more integrated self-understanding.


In Conclusion

Although undergraduate education is largely restricted to the intellectual and intuitive modalities, the teacher can articulate her or his understanding of texts more fully and skillfully at these levels if thought has been given to one's knowledge at the affective and somatic levels. When appropriate, the door can then be opened to deeper levels of engagement. Even if a student gains only a glimpse of other possibilities, the manner in which we as teachers articulate ourselves may very well lead students to reflect later on in life about what it means to read, think, discuss and enlarge one's world of knowledge in a variety of ways. I can report that students have already taught me much and enriched my life immeasurably by contributing to my knowledge at various levels of engagement.

[1] Originally published in Counterpoints-Issues in Teaching Religious Studies, edited by Mark Hadley and Mark Unno (Providence: Department of Religious Studies, Brown University, 1995), 75-82. Other articles referred to in this paper for which bibliographic information is not otherwise provided can also be found in this volume.
[2] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), 464.
[3] Cinthia Gannett examines how the use of journals in composition courses can contribute to engagement at the affective level: Gender and Journal-Diaries and Academic Discourse (Albany: State University of New York, 1992). Although I have never used journals in teaching, I have found that when I offer paper topics allowing for first-person narrative, students with an affinity for the affective mode often pursue these topics to great effect. For example, I have asked students how they might continue a diary kept by someone had they lived longer. One such diary I have used as a text is Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind, by Maura Soshin O'Halloran (Boston: Tuttle, 1994).
[4] Peter Berger, The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation (Garden City, N.Y. : Anchor Press, 1980)
[5] S. Nomanul Haq in his essay, "Some Reflections on the Pedagogical Challenges of Introductory Courses on Islam," suggests several ways to use scholarly sources that are internal and external to a particular text's religious and cultural traditions.
I return to the problem of applying external perspectives in the section entitled "Comparison and Conversation."
[6] This orchestral metaphor was given by P.J. Ivanhoe while I was a Teaching Assistant for his course, RS55 Introduction to Chinese Thought, Department of Religious Studies, Stanford University, Winter 1992-93. Musical performance itself is an important example of li, but of course this is different from an orchestral performance given by the Chicago Symphony.
[7] David Fryer's essay on "The Politics of Experience and the Experience of Politics" provides multiple perspectives on the relationship between the subject matter of a course and the voice of personal experiences. A consideration of the various modes of appropriating knowledge may provide a means to further differentiate this relationship.
[8] Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), 160-161.
[9] The Darker Side of Human Existence-Conceptions of the Self, East and West, Department of Religious Studies, Brown University, Fall 1995-96.
[10] On this point see Sumner B. Twiss' discussion of the contrast between the postmodern phase of religious studies in contrast to earlier phases in his essay, "Shaping the Curriculum: The Emergence of Religious Studies." See also Twiss, "Curricular Perspectives in Comparative Religious Ethics-A Critical Examination of Four Paradigms," Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics (1993).
[11] See, for example, Lee H. Yearley, Mencius and Aquinas-Theories of Virtue and Conceptions of Courage (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990).
[12] Anne Klein, in her most recent book, Meeting the Great Bliss Queen-Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), explicitly casts her ideas in a conversational framework.