Eddington 1927: Symbolic Knowledge and Intimate Knowledge

Reference: Eddington’s 1927 Book

This paper presents Chapter XV (section 2) from the book THE NATURE OF THE PHYSICAL WORLD by A. S. EDDINGTON. The contents of this book are based on the lectures that Eddington delivered at the University of Edinburgh in January to March 1927.

The paragraphs of original material are accompanied by brief comments in color, based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below links to the original materials.


Symbolic Knowledge and Intimate Knowledge

May I elaborate this objection to introspection? We have two kinds of knowledge which I call symbolic knowledge and intimate knowledge. I do not know whether it would be correct to say that reasoning is only applicable to symbolic knowledge, but the more customary forms of reasoning have been developed for symbolic knowledge only. The intimate knowledge will not submit to codification and analysis; or, rather, when we attempt to analyse it the intimacy is lost and it is replaced by symbolism.

For an illustration let us consider Humour. I suppose that humour can be analysed to some extent and the essential ingredients of the different kinds of wit classified. Suppose that we are offered an alleged joke. We subject it to scientific analysis as we would a chemical salt of doubtful nature, and perhaps after careful consideration of all its aspects we are able to confirm that it really and truly is a joke. Logically, I suppose, our next procedure would be to laugh. But it may certainly be predicted that as the result of this scrutiny we shall have lost all inclination we may ever have had to laugh at it. It simply does not do to expose the inner workings of a joke. The classification concerns a symbolic knowledge of humour which preserves all the characteristics of a joke except its laughableness. The real appreciation must come spontaneously, not introspectively. I think this is a not unfair analogy for our mystical feeling for Nature, and I would venture even to apply it to our mystical experience of God. There are some to whom the sense of a divine presence irradiating the soul is one of the most obvious things of experience. In their view a man without this sense is to be regarded as we regard a man without a sense of humour. The absence is a kind of mental deficiency. We may try to analyse the experience as we analyse humour, and construct a theology, or it may be an atheistic philosophy, which shall put into scientific form what is to be inferred about it. But let us not forget that the theology is symbolic knowledge whereas the experience is intimate knowledge. And as laughter cannot be compelled by the scientific exposition of the structure of a joke, so a philosophic discussion of the attributes of God (or an impersonal substitute) is likely to miss the intimate response of the spirit which is the central point of the religious experience.

Intimate knowledge is spontaneous. It does not require any reasoning. But symbolic knowledge requires reasoning. Somewhere along the way, the reasoning through symbolic knowledge may trigger the ecstasy of intimate knowledge.  


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