Can Knowledge be Gained Through Feelings?

“Ours is not to know but to understand.”
Elie Wiesel

What are the limits of knowledge and how do we transcend those limits? Can knowledge be gained through feelings? Can we trust that knowledge?

For years, I’ve stirred a bit over the rather classic supposition by Nobel Prize–winning physicist Richard Feynman that science enhances our knowledge and, thus, our appreciation of it. Feynman refutes aesthetic knowledge as the only way to process beauty. This is certainly fine. It’s the lengths to which he takes that supposition that stirs me.1

I have a friend who’s an artist and he sometimes takes a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say, ‘Look how beautiful it is,’ and I’ll agree, I think. And he says, ‘You see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist, oh, take all this apart and it becomes a dull thing.’ And I think that he’s kind of nutty…. At the same time, I see so much more of the flower than he sees.

I see so much more of the flower than he sees.

Does that mean without the scientific knowledge our understanding of something is sorely limited? Does that mean any knowledge without science is valueless?

I’d like to make a case for emotional knowledge in its own right.

Canterbury Cathedral. The oldest, most exquisite cathedrals of Europe are monumental expressions of the power of emotions. The size, the use of light and shade, the boundless stretches of seemingly impossible architecture, they bore into our hearts. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

“Science isn’t the only avenue to arrive at knowledge,” wrote physicist Alan Lightman in his own search for certainty within the unknown of the universe. But what knowledge is outside science? Can we trust that knowledge?

Feynman championed science in the appreciation of a flower. He argued that one need be a mathematician to appreciate the universe and its contents. Stars for example…

And yet, there is Emerson. Glorious Emerson.

“If one be alone, he has only look to the stars,” wrote Emerson in his early work, Nature. “The rays that come from these heavenly worlds will separate between him and what he touches.”

Emerson believed the stars provided some level of knowledge. What Emerson alluded to was an interconnectedness of humans—what I feel when I see stars is similar to what you might feel. What all humans feel.

This kind of intelligence has a modern name. With his 1995 publication of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ, science journalist Daniel Goleman changed how we think about intelligence. Goleman argued for a harmony between our rational and emotional minds and coined the term emotional intelligence.

These two fundamentally different ways of knowing interact to construct our mental life. One, the rational mind, is the mode of comprehension we are typically conscious of: more prominent in awareness, thoughtful, able to ponder and reflect. But alongside that there is another system of knowing impulsive and powerful, if sometimes illogical—the emotional mind.

Like Lightman, Goleman argues there is more than one and perhaps incomparable means to arrive at knowledge. Even without understanding the functionality of our brains our feelings of fear, anger, sadness, and happiness mean something.

Il Duomo, Florence. For centuries cathedrals catered to the illiterate and uneducated, bringing community and meaning into lives. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Up against Feynman’s weighty appreciation of science, I proffer beloved film critic Roger Ebert, a man who was the quintessential guide to the emotional core of movies for more than fifty years.

Although Ebert understood technical aspects of film, even he admitted that when he didn’t understand a film, he wrote about how it made him feel.

Applying this advice early in his career to films like Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ebert developed the ability to connect even the most frustratingly complex films to our most human natures.2

Opposite the critic is the artist, and indeed many artists want their work to be interpreted emotionally. Primarily and sometimes exclusively.

Francis Bacon desired that his work would affect people’s nervous systems directly, while British modern sculptor Barbara Hepworth sought to express in sculpture what was beyond words.

Would Bacon’s paintings mean more if we knew what his studio looked like? Or the exact nature of blue light?

Perhaps. Scientific context certainly embellishes.

But regardless art means something to even the most uninformed viewers. I defy anyone to view Bacon’s work and not feel the artist’s pain. Pain in general.

Rouen Cathedral, France. The grandeur of these places sought to communicate the grandeur of the Divine. Is that the same as knowledge? Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Feeling might not be the same as knowledge, but it is some form of understanding.

Understanding of our feelings leads to understand of others’ feelings. This, argues Goleman, is the nature of empathy and the root of our human connection.

When the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was built in Berlin, there was controversy that it did not say enough. Few doubted the emotional impact, but the knowledge it was supposed to present – who died and how and why – was inadequate.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin featured in post "Carrying the Burden of Witness."
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

“Ours is not to know but to understand.” wrote Elie Wiesel in Night, a singular story of the limits of humanity.

Wiesel addresses the issue of collective memory. How do we ensure future generations remember something they never experienced? The purpose of memorials.

Wiesel knew he couldn’t. But what he could do was make people care for him and, thus, for everyone who had been affected by the Holocaust. The emotions one feels when reading Night—and the emotions one feels at the Memorial — create empathy and understanding for things we did not experience and people we will never know.

That feeling becomes our new truth. We become witnesses of those feelings.

Feelings are the binding sinews of humanity and the means by which we “know” one another.

We cannot compel people to listen, to understand and certainly not to care. But we can push our society to allow feelings to mean something. To acknowledge our emotions and find ways to make sense of them.

Feelings are not the end of the knowledge, but they are a critical beginning.