In the Summer 2007 Memoria Press catalog, called The Classical Teacher, appears an article, “Is Fiction False?” by Martin Cothran. This author likens “modern people” to Thomas Gradgrind, “the schoolmaster in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, who, when he is introduced in chapter two of that book, asks his class to define a horse. He first asks Sissy Jupe, whom he calls ‘Girl number twenty,’ to define a horse. Her father is a horsebreaker, and she has lived around them her whole life; but when Gradgrind asks her to define what a horse is, she is perplexed and speechless.” Gradgrind then asks a boy named Bitzer, who pleases Gradgrind with his definition: “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.”
Cothran then observes, “Of course, Sissy Jupe knew what a horse was better than anyone else in the class, including the knowledgeable Bitzer. She had seen a horse with her eyes, looked upon it, and her hands had handled it. She certainly knew the truth of the horse better than Bitzer, who had simply memorized sterile facts about it.” Yes, no doubt Sissy Jupe knew horses better than Bitzer. But I challenge Cothran to explain how Sissy knew horses apart from facts. Cothran, Jones, and others of their ilk disparage “arid intellectual descriptions,” “bare literal sentences,” and “sterile facts.” (They also sneer at “modern people” and seem to be intent on injecting medievalism—remember the good old Dark Ages when Latin was king and people were brainwashed by the Roman Catholic Church?—into the homeschooling movement.) But again, if Sissy had expressed her knowledge of horses, how would she have done so apart from facts?
So I have officially been challenged, and I accept. It is a duel I hope that both of us survive and which the only casualty will be someone's ignorance--mine or his.
Ditzel and I don't necessary disagree on our conclusions about the importance of fiction (and by 'fiction' I mean the 'poetic' in its broad sense): Both of us, I think, would agree that both the poetic an the non-poetic can convey truth and do it well. So where do we disagree? I think we disagree in a matter of some importance: namely, what is.
I will ignore Ditzel's simplistic view of the Middle Ages and address the horse issue: How did Sissy know a horse? By direct apprehension. Of the horse, that is. And it had nothing to do with any discursive explanation she had heard of the type that Ditzel seems to value so highly. She knew a horse not on the basis of arguments or assertions or even "facts". She knew a horse on the basis of an actual horse.
Ditzel seems to be confused about what things are, which is a great handicap under which to labor when discussing them. I claim that a thing is a thing. Ditzel can contest me all he wants, but I really don't see how the assertion is even debatable--despite the fact that Ditzel seems to want to debate it. Ditzel does not seem to think a thing is a thing. He thinks that a thing is a fact--or a collection of facts. But a fact is a piece of information and a thing is not a piece of information, as Ditzel seems to imply.
I suppose it is possible that Ditzel takes the term 'fact' to mean a thing--or as one dictionary has it, "any unit of being which is capable of bearing meaning"--but, if he does, then he shouldn't make it sound so much like he doesn't. In any case that certainly isn't the meaning Gradgrind--or Dicken's--is using in the passage which I quoted. To Gradgrind, facts mean bits of discrete and disconnected information. But a horse is not a bit of discrete information nor is it a collection bits of disconnected information, therefore a horse is not a fact.
Ditzel clearly does not understand the difference between a thing and the abstract idea of a thing, both of which exist and are useful in their place. But once confounded they lose their proper function and can only confuse.
Cothran has fallen for the notion that knowing something and knowing about it are two different things. What these people fail to do is satisfactorily explain how one can know something apart from knowing about it, and how we can know about something, perhaps know a lot about it, but not know it. We often hear this in regard to Jesus. A preacher might ask, “You might know a lot about Jesus, but do you know Jesus?” What is he talking about? It’s a good question.
Ditzel goes on with a fanciful story about a friend (Bill) whom he knows by spending some interesting time with him, and then concludes:
The real distinction between your knowledge of Bill and mine is degree. It lies in the number of facts and how well I understand the relationship between those facts. By spending so much time with Bill, in so many different circumstances, I have accumulated, both consciously and subconsciously, more facts about Bill than you have. I can put those facts together into a better understanding of Bill than you can. But knowing Bill is the same as knowing about Bill. There is no difference. You know a little about Bill: I know a lot about Bill. Really? It's hard to answer Ditzel's assertion here other than to say it is so obviously and blatantly false that it's hard to imagine how anyone could believe it. On the other hand, it might help prove his case anyway, since his argument consisted of a fictional story which clearly did not support his position.
And why did he feel the need to resort to a fictional story in his case that fictional stories are not superior to abstract reasoning anyway?
Under Ditzel's view, the following two propositions mean the same thing:
I know about the President of the United States
I know the President of the United States
It's hard to believe that he really thinks so, but that is clearly what he is saying. He even goes so far as to say that knowing about Jesus and knowing Jesus is the same thing, and that the only difference between an unbeliever and a believer is that the unbeliever doesn't know enough facts:
Preachers who know what they are talking about know that knowing about Jesus and knowing Jesus are not what is at issue. What is important is that some people know many facts about Jesus, but they miss those that are essential, those that must be revealed by the Father in heaven. The unsaved person does not know Jesus as His Lord and Savior. Cothran’s distinction between knowing and knowing about is false because there is no way to know something other than knowing about it. It is a collection of facts and a synthesis of the relationship between the facts. Gee, and I thought it had something to do with being born again. He truly seems to believe that faith is merely a matter of intellectual assent, a position that is not only not the protestant position--or the reformed position, but is totally outside the scope of Christian thought.
It is ironic that Ditzel has such a low view of the Middle Ages. It is, in fact, where he gets his philosophy. The early 14th century, to be precise. From William of Ockham.
Ditzel is a nominalist, a malady that afflicts many protestants. Nominalism is the belief that things do not possess natures, and that words therefore do not refer to their natures or essences. Words are simply labels we affix to groups of things that happen to have similar characteristics.
Here is Ditzel mouthing the nominalist credo:
Thomas Gradgrind may have been mistaken to think that a handful of scattered facts could sufficiently sum up what a horse is to his students. But the problem was not in the fact that they were facts; the problem lay in not having enough facts!
A thing is what it is only by virtue of the information that can be said about it, nothing more. This is, at bottom, the reason that people like Ditzel side with Bitzer against Sissy Jupe: they don't believe that you know things by direct apprehension--because there is nothing to be apprehended. Sissy cannot know a horse by direct apprehension because there is no horse to know--there is only a set of "facts"--bits of information--which, when culled together, are all that a horse really is. In fact, I think that's why Dickens named him "Bitzer": because all he knew was bits of information. He didn't really know the wholes that make up the world, and that are known not solely by the intellect, but by the whole person.
And what is a person to Ditzel? Humanoid. Omnivorous. 32 teeth: namely, 20 molars, 4 canines, and 8 incisive. Sheds coat (or parka or sweater) in the spring; in coastal places sheds shoes too. Soft feet, but requiring to be shod by Nikes. Age known by ability to use technology and by number of Facebook friends (the more they have, the younger they are).
This is Gradgrind's belief, and Bitzer's--and Ditzel's. Facts, nothing but facts. That's all Ditzel will have. Can we just call him "Ditzer"?