Sunday, October 31, 2010

On Dipping into Keats' Letters 4

Keats' Epistemology or Theory of Knowledge:

(a) We Learn from our Sicknesses

In the last post I quoted from one of the Keats' letters where he contended that we understand very little until we become sick.  There is not a little wisdom in that contention.  Most, if not all people, who have experienced one sickness or another and who have come through, strengthened as it were, begin to appreciate life anew.  In short, they begin to understand their lives from a new and deeper perspective.  In Keats'own words: "... until we are sick, we understand not; - in fine, as Byron says, "Knowledge is Sorrow"; and I go on to say the "Sorrow is Wisdom" - and further for aught we can know for certainty! "Wisdom is folly."  (Gittings, OUP., p.93)

It is quite interesting to see that Keats values knowledge because the whole sweep of all knowledge is to heal the soul, though, of course, here I am putting words into the poet's mouth.  However, having read his letters and his poems I believe he would agree that knowledge and wisdom which is a learning through experience, when coupled together help human beings make a safer and easier passage through the "vale of life." 

(b) Knowledge and Enjoyment

In a letter to John Taylor, 24th April, 1818, Keats links the passion for knowledge with enjoyment:

I find that I can have no enjoyment in the World but continual drinking of Knowledge.  I find that there is no worthy pursuit but the idea opf doing some good for the world - some do it with their society - some with their wit - some with their benevolence - some with a sort of power of confering pleasure and good humour on all they meet and in a thousand ways all equally dutiful to the command of Great nature - there is but one way for me - the road lies t[h]rough application study and thought. (Gittings, OUP., p.88)
(c) The Unity of Knowledge:

Glass spheres representing the States of Europe, Malahide Castle
It is quite impressive to read Keats' insights into epistemology, especially when one realises that this young man (genius indeed) died at the age of 25 and had no formal university education though he was apprenticed to a medical Doctor and was a qualified apothecary.  He must surely have read widely in philosophy.  His idea of the unity of knowledge prefigures much of what the great John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) was to write in The Idea of a University many years later.  Let us listen to Keats' words in a letter to J.H. Reynolds, May 3, 1818:

Every department of knowledge we see excellent and calculated towards a great whole.  I am so convinced of this that I am glad of not having given away my medical Books, which I shall again look over to keep alive the little I know thitherwards; and intend moreover through you and Rice to become a sort of Pip-Civilian [= An amateur lawyer].  An extensive knowledge is needful to thinking people - it takes away the heat and fever; and helps by widening speculation, to ease the Burden of the Mystery... it is impossible to know how far knowledge will comfort us for the death of a friend and the ill "the flesh is heir to" ....  (Gittings, OUP., p.92)
(d) The Importance of our own Experience:

While conceptual and speculative knowledge are of  importance in the life of a cultured human, they count for little in the scheme of things unless they are "proved upon the pulses." (3rd May, 1818, letter to J.H. Reynolds, Gittings, p. 93)  I found this a wonderful phrase since first I read in March 1994, the date I first read or began to read John Keats' letters.  When we reflect upon our experiences we grow in knowledge and wisdom.  When we speculate we must test out our speculations in our lived experiences.  Both actions are needed.  This is what Keats means when he says that the axioms of philosophy must be "proved upon the pulses."


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