This summer a young boy from a parish in my town suffered a brain aneurism, and after a good and beautiful fight, he passed away. I was struck by the measures taken by the parish to help his friends and classmates with this tragedy. The youth minister sent out a few power points on helping children process and grieve a loss and counselors and faculty made themselves available on a specific night. There was continuous encouragement for the kids to process the event. I was struck by the parish’s concern for how this young boy’s friends and classmates would see this event. It seems that how we perceive and process one event can give us knowledge that modifies our encounters with the rest of life’s circumstances. How these children were to process this event would modify their perception of daily living. Because of this, the technical, philosophical ideas of acquiring knowledge and knowledge subsisting superactually become interesting to us. Why can’t we just let the events of life flow over us without giving them a second thought? Why do we seek truth?
There is important distinctions between acquiring knowledge and possessing knowledge explains Dietrich von Hildebrand in What is Philosophy? Acquiring knowledge is a dynamic appropriation of a fact or idea in a certain moment in time. For example, a child may be acquiring the knowledge of being loved. Then we come to possess this knowledge at least to a certain intensity. This knowledge is static and subsists beyond a certain moment. For example, when a husband comes home tired from work and is able to ask his wife what she needs to get the kids ready for dinner. His decision, filled with love and sacrifice, can only be made freely with a subsisting knowledge that he is loved which he acquired through many prior moments.
The second distinction is between knowledge subsisting potentially and knowledge subsisting superactually. Both are types of knowledge which we have acquired and now possess. Knowledge subsisting potentially, used for technical purposes, does not modify our mind in our daily encounters(29). For example, the man acquires knowledge of house building, it is potentially accessible to him in his memory, and when he needs it he can access it. His knowledge of housebuilding doesn’t modify his decision to say a kind word when wanting to criticize his wife, or whether he should sign the kids up for soccer this season. Knowledge subsisting potentially is held in our memory like a reservoir and taken out when it is needed.
The second form of knowledge, relating to the core of who we are as persons, penetrates all of our decisions. This is superactual knowledge. For superactual knowledge to exist “the fact or object must be of decisive metaphysical importance” (30). For example, a small child cries out when she’s hungry and her mother comes to her. The baby is actualizing the knowledge that she is dependent on another and worthy of being cared for. The baby is learning a deep and fundamental truth of who she is every time her mother responds to her cry and brings her to her breast. The woman who is confident in caring for the needs of people has acquired the superactual knowledge that people are worthy of this tender and sacrificial care. This knowledge does modify her decision to say a kind word to her husband when wanting to criticize him, and even whether she should sign the kids up for soccer this season.
Superactual Knowledge is held within the conserving power of man’s intellect. It is charaterized by a relationship between man and the object he has knowledge of. For example, man aquires knowledge of death through experience, his faith or lackthereof, and study. A relationship is built between himself and death. Because death is of metaphysical importance; because it touches us so fundamentally, the our knowledge of it impacts us like an important relationship with another. It is held within our conserving power of our intellect and impacts our life and freedom.
Knowing that people are worthy of tender and sacrificial care radically affects life. This is a characteristic of superactual knowledge. This is what the parish foresaw in the events preceding the young boy’s death. His friends and classmates were acquiring knowledge of death, but through experience, not through a book. How they viewed death, their own life, and even God would be radically affected by this event. We have experienced the bitterness, unforgiveness, or depression that people are bound in from acquiring false knowledge from an event. Man is made to be free, but often needs another to have subsisting superactual knowledge rooted in truth. With this in mind, the parish sought to speak truth into the knowledge the children were acquiring through their experience.
This is relevant for all of us. We have experiences, and through them we acquire knowledge about who we are. It is from this knowledge that we live, and move and have our being. With an understanding of the superactual knowledge subsisting within us, let us move forward in search of truth. This may look as simple as saying to ourselves in our next meeting with a friend, “What does this friend teach me about who I am?” Maybe that I am worthy of being cared for, or that I am made for another, or that I am weak and in need of mercy. Even from small events we can acquire true superactual knowledge which can set us free.