dialogue knowledge

To Dialogue with Being

6:00:00 AMChase J. Cloutier

When was the last time you were deeply intrigued by something? Maybe a friend was telling you a fascinating story from his past. Perhaps you were reading the next novel in your favorite series. It might be that you love crossword puzzles and word scrambles. In each of these endeavors there may be a moment when you become very excited and yet perplexed at the same time. You eagerly desire to hear the next part of the story, to read the next chapter, or to discover the hidden word in a given riddle.

At the very core of philosophy there is something akin to this experience. First some aspect of truth is revealed to you in reality or through your imagination. For a teacher it could be realizing some fundamental truth of how children learn. For instance, the way images, movies, and music can enhance a curriculum and bring students in. The painter, in reflecting on his future work of art, might find for the first time a new depth of beauty he never knew before. When one goes through this experience, an aspiration to know more is stirred up. One begins to question, searching for the truth. What is it about music that helps children to learn? How does music impact and reinforce our education? Or, what is it about artists that allows them a clearer vision of the beautiful? Why is it that we can always find something more beautiful in this world?

Wonder at all things is awakened in the soul. One goes chasing after what is real, what is right, what is good. The light of truth dawns in the mind of the wayfarer. At first it is but a small ray piercing the thick darkness of a musty room. The sight of this blessed light, seen perhaps for the first time, enchants man and draws him forward. He desires to know more and more. He yearns to see another world, fully illuminated.

In his book What is Philosophy?, Dietrich von Hildebrand seeks to outline the foundations of philosophical inquiry. Following Plato and Aristotle, he affirms that wonder lies at the root of philosophy. More than just endless questioning about things while plagued by doubt and confusion, the philosopher strives for knowledge of the truth about all things. Philosophy, philosophia in the Greek, literally means the love of wisdom. The philosopher hunts for wisdom, fully expecting that there is an answer to his question, that there is an end to his quest. Though he may never completely comprehend the answers, he knows that the search for wisdom is not in vain.

One dimension of von HIldebrand’s conception of philosophy which provides a framework for all of his other thought is the dialogue between subject and object in knowledge. The pursuit of knowledge is fundamentally a receptive endeavor. You turn to the object with a focused and open mind, allowing the object to impress itself upon you, so to speak. The object speaks to the observer, and it discloses its nature to the subject. In a way the object communicates with the person, revealing itself to the subject. Additionally, there is an active dimension to knowledge, but it is appropriate to call this an active receptivity.

Now the object of knowledge could be some exterior, concrete thing like a rock, a tree, or a dog. But it could also be the nature of interpersonal interaction. Moreover, it might be some mathematical equation or even a moral truth. Each of these dimensions of reality is inherently ordered and has a proper logos -- a “word,” so to speak, an inner structure and meaning. That is not to say that each of these things is ordered to the same extent or in the same way. However, each of these spheres has an intrinsic intelligibility--an inner light by which they can be known by the subject. This intelligibility of things can be expressed as a readiness of the world to be disclosed to an attentive subject: “the object discloses itself and unfolds before our spiritual eye.” (1)

In this dialogue the subject too plays his part. Firstly, it is clear that in order for knowledge to take place a personal subject is necessary. (2) An inanimate object or a necessary truth cannot know another object or truth. Knowledge is an essentially personal activity. While animals can have a certain kind of “knowledge,” it is distinct from the specifically personal kind of knowledge. Secondly, the person actively contributes to this dialogue of being. Among all the objects which man encounters, he gives to each of them their proper response. Some are due veneration, others esteem or enthusiasm, and some deserve nothing less than love. (3)

When one encounters a painting of surpassing beauty, a kind of admiration is due. The painting speaks to the observer on a deep level, and the observer responds with a sigh and a look of reverent longing. The answer, the response is like “an inner ‘word’ spoken to the object, a word meaningfully based upon the value of the object.” (4)

So too when one encounters another human being, utterly unique and unspeakably beautiful, the only proper response is love. It may take an opening of one’s heart to recognize it, but every human person has an unrepeatable beauty. This dialogue between the knower and the known comes to a new profundity with the relationship between the lover and the beloved. In general, to ignore what is due to the object is to refuse to enter this exchange. But to accept the invitation is to enter in upon an elegant dialogue: the dialogue with being.


1. Dietrich von Hildebrand, What Is Philosophy? (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1973) 16.
2. Ibid., 14: “Knowledge is a wholly unique contact in which one being touches another and possesses the other in an immaterial manner. ...it essentially presupposes that one being is a personal subject, a conscious being.”
3. Ibid., 19: “As we see in the case of veneration, esteem, enthusiasm, or love, the person directs himself with a specific content to an object, which represents an answer to the value of the object.”
4. Ibid., 19.

Image 1: The Look Out, Henry Scott Tuke (1858-1929), 1886. Falmouth Arts Centre. (source)

Image 2: The School of Athens (detail of Heraclitus/Michaelangelo), Raphael (1483-1520), 1509. Stanza della Segnatura, The Papal Palaces, Vatican. (source)
Image 3: In the birch forest., Vladimir Makovsky (1846-1920), 1905. National Museum in Warsaw. (source)

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