Monday, August 10, 2009

True Enlargement of Mind

That only is true enlargement of mind which is the power of viewing many things at once as one whole, of referring them severally to their true place in the universal system, of understanding their respective values, and determining their mutual dependence. Thus is that form of Universal Knowledge, of which I have on a former occasion spoken, set up in the individual intellect, and constitutes its perfection. Possessed of this real illumination, the mind never views any part of the extended subject-matter of Knowledge without recollecting that it is but a part, or without the associations which spring from this recollection. It makes every thing in some sort lead to every thing else; it would communicate the image of the whole to every separate portion, till that whole becomes in imagination like a spirit, every where pervading and penetrating its component parts, and giving them one definite meaning. Just as our bodily organs, when mentioned, recall their function in the body, as the word "creation" suggests the Creator, and "subjects" a sovereign, so, in the mind of the Philosopher, as we are abstractedly conceiving of him, the elements of the physical and moral world, sciences, arts, pursuits, ranks, offices, events, opinions, individualities, are all viewed as one, with correlative functions, and as gradually by successive combinations converging, one and all, to the true centre.

John Henry Newman, Idea of a University, Discourse 6. In his The Achievement of John Henry Newman, Ian Ker notes that it is to this that Newman attributes any and all value in a liberal arts education: not so much the particulars of what is taught, but the fact that if it is taught properly it provides tools for, and practice in, seeing how different things one might learn fit together and cohere. Obviously the "abstractedly" conceived Philosopher mentioned here is an idealization; but when Newman says that a University exists to teach Universal Knowledge, he does not mean omniscience, nor even knowledge of everything that there is to know (which has not been possible for millenia), but this ability to pick up any bit of new knowledge during one's entire life and see, so to speak, where it goes in the library of all knowledge and what its potential value to human civilization might be.

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