The Three Stages of Knowledge

By Fadi Abu-Deeb



It is not an exaggeration to declare the issue of knowledge as the biggest challenge to the human being.  The definition of knowledge, the certainty, truth and validity of the methods through which it is obtained shatters the interior and the exterior world of the individual (in the common meaning of the term).  Therefore, it seems necessary to differentiate between several categories of knowledge.  But the matter of identifying the relationship between these categories, being either separated types or consecutive stages, is still questionable and a subject of research and discussion.

This paper will discuss the categories of knowing things, persons, and God, aiming at the same time to address these categories organically, showing that they are not subjects to absolute separation.

Three types vs. three stages

It may not need a very deep philosophic search for the person to know that his/ her experience of knowing differs, sometimes radically, depending on the object of knowing.  Dr. Bryson Arthur divides the types of knowledge into three categories:  The knowledge of things, the knowledge of persons and the knowledge of God.[1]  But are they really separated as three definitely separated types? Or can they be three consecutive stages of Knowledge?

The knowledge of things

It is always difficult to define the category “thing” very precisely, because a “thing” can sometimes refer to a “person”, as in the Cartesian declaration about the person as “a thing which thinks”.[2]  So perhaps it is more appropriate to reconsider this type of knowledge as the knowledge of the impersonal.  This is the usual theme of the scientific knowledge according to the naturalistic approach generally.  The subject stands here outside of the objects of knowledge.  He observes, examines, studies, and then concludes or infers.  This type of knowledge does not imply any kind of conscious revealedness from the side of the object.  The unravelling of any element of the object is a work of the person or the subject.  The knowledge of the impersonal may tend to be an emphasis on the part instead of the whole, as in the study of Nature for instance, whereby the part, isolated from all the other parts, may fail to demonstrate the personal and rational aspect of Nature.  Max Plank affirms- although this may seem a bit irrelevant at the first glance- that the subject/object model of knowledge, as represented by the process through which the human being aims at knowing things, is not possible, for the observing person himself is a part of the studied mystery, i.e. a studied part is a part of a whole, and the personhood of the subject is a part of the mystery.  He clarifies:  “Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.”[3]  This means that other types (or stages of knowledge) should be addressed before the observer comes into intimacy with the object at study.  Knowledge of God can prove inevitable before any real knowledge of things (which can be seen apparently impersonal).

The Knowledge of God

It is a matter of serious scrutiny to judge whether the knowledge of God is one branch of the knowledge of persons or it is a different category.  But this issue depends on how God is regarded; is it an impersonal force or energy or a personal rational self-conscious and self-determinate being?  The humanity, and sometimes the members of every religion, is far away from having a consensus about this matter.  But in the Christian field it is almost agreed that God is a personal and rational being, whose personhood could be approached in a way analogous to the approaching toward human persons.

In a brilliant attempt to differentiate the knowledge of God from the scientific knowledge, Thomas Aquinas introduces the concept of knowledge through connaturality, distinguishing it from the scientific knowledge that uses reason.  William Johnston explains this term in this way:  to “co-nature” with the object is to embody it in the self.[4]  Johnston adds that “knowledge through connaturality is of special importance when we come to speak about God.  For the one who loves knows God, the one who does not love does not know God.”[5]  This knowledge is a gift of the Holy Spirit according to Thomas Aquinas.[6]  This knowledge is obtained from a substantial and prominent kind of experience “patiens divina”, which denotes the suffering of the mysteries of Christ in prayer.[7]

The Eastern Christian tradition has a lot to say about the knowledge of God.  The knowledge of the Divine is nothing to apprehend by logical reasoning, nor through perplexing studies, but solely through virtuous life and experience of the Divine energies, or in other words, by humility and love.  Maximus the Confessor declares that the knowledge of God is gradual, and it is attainable only through stages that begin first with following the virtues, then by contemplation and faith.[8]  Isaac the Assyrian also introduces a similar conception of the knowledge of God, when he talks about three types (or stages) of knowledge; the first of them is the natural knowledge (the knowledge of things), and the second is the knowledge of invisible things and beings, whereas the third is the real knowledge of God is the third, the higher stage, which is a supernatural knowledge (or the agnostic according to an English translation).  This divine knowledge is immaterial and is revealed in the soul without matter, in a sudden work of grace, unexpectedly, without a cause and without meditation on it.[9]  This knowledge is the coming of the Kingdom of God that is revealed mystically and mysteriously without a reason and without even contemplation, because it is not an object and has no content to contemplate it.[10]   

But for others like Rudolph Otto the knowledge of God is totally different though it is based on faith.  The knowledge of God relies on “conceptual thought”.  Otto goes further to say that this kind of thought defines the rank of the religion, and therefore it can inferred that the knowledge that emerges from this religion is also of a high rank

Rather we count this the very mark and criterion of a religion’s high rank and superior value- that it should have no lack of conceptions about God; that it should admit knowledge- the knowledge that comes by faith of the transcendent in terms of conceptual thought…[11]


So the knowledge here is not that of experiential conceptions, but is of conceptual thoughts and rationality even when it is irrational and dependent on faith.  Christians are really far from attaining any consensus about the nature of the knowledge of God, but at least they agree that this knowledge is a gift that comes from God.  This knowledge pre-requisites an initiation into the knowledge of persons/personhood.

The knowledge of persons/personhood

            The knowledge of persons is radical different type of knowledge from that of the impersonal in its naturalistic approach, but it can be seen also as a higher stage of knowledge.  In this type/stage each person is a subject and an object in the same time.  So to speak, this knowledge depends basically on the will of every person to reveal itself, and it relies also on the empathy that might be employed by the person who is willing to know the other.  Bryson Arthur describes insightfully this way of thinking (includes knowledge) that connects the persons together as a “thinking into” the existence of the other subject (therefore it is an existential thinking).[12]  It can be depicted then that the higher or the deeper modes of this existential thinking are at work when it is more involved with introspection, imagination and emotions, producing the state of empathy.

            Empathy can be considered here as the equivalent of connaturality in Aquinas’ terms.  It is when one person is capable of simulating the inner world of the other.  It is also a corollary of knowing the self, or at least being familiar with its activity and phases of consciousness and moods.  The process of knowing persons is just analogous to the process (if it is proper to use this term) of knowing God.  It is something that is shaded with mystery, for it depends on intimacy, will and the spiritual sphere(s) that enclose the persons.  It is also a matter of mysterious and tacit understanding, unconscious simulation of the inner movements of the other.

            But if the knowledge of persons depends on the spiritual spheres and on the will then it might be valid to give the Nature a chance to unveil its personhood, which might be evident through its regular motions and organized operations that seem purposeful and intelligent.  The person, being on the borders of his interior world and the natural external one, may find that his knowledge depends on a relationship between the two.  It is a personal mutual relationship, not just a relationship that stands on a basis of observing and logical or empirical analysis and inductiveness.  Novalis exhaustively elaborates this concept, explaining this realm of knowledge:

The external world becomes transparent, the interior world multiform and significant. And thus a man finds himself in a condition of relationship between two worlds in completest freedom, plenitude and power. It is natural that a man should seek to eternalise this condition, and to extend it over the whole sum of his impressions, that he should never tire of tracing these associations in both worlds, and of investigating their laws, their sympathies and antipathies. The substance of these impressions which affect us we call Nature, and thus Nature stands in an immediate relationship to those functions of our bodies which we call senses. Unknown and mysterious relations of our body allow us to surmise unknown and mysterious correlations with Nature, and therefore Nature is that wondrous fellowship into which our bodies introduce us, and which we learn to know through the mode of its constitution and abilities.[13]


            The nature then is itself a relationship between the external world and the inmost part of the person.  Or to say it more eloquently, the Nature is the Absolute transfigured in and as a sensory sphere.  The Nature is the “it” that becomes a “thou”, as explained by Martin Buber, who counts the ways that a” tree”, i.e. a “thing” or an impersonal entity, can be studied, concluding in the end that what follows:

It can, however, also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it. The tree is now no longer It. I have been seized by the power of exclusiveness…There is nothing from which I would have to turn my eyes away in order to see, and no knowledge that I would have to forget. Rather is everything, picture and movement, species and type, law and number, indivisibly united in this event…The tree will have a consciousness, then, similar to our own? Of that I have no experience…I encounter no soul or dryad of the tree, but the tree itself.[14]


            Moreover, being a constituent of the Whole, every element of the Natural world becomes a personhood that reveals something of the greatest personhood of the Whole.  As Buber declares, every knowledge of what appears as an “It” or a “thing”, i.e. impersonal, becomes a personal encounter with the Whole.  In other words, the “thing” departs its thing-hood and becomes a referent to the Thou, therefore it becomes a “thou” and a personhood, for it is not anymore an object of knowing, but a partaker in a mutual relationship.  The interconnectedness of all the existents that constitute the Whole allows the person who seeks knowledge, and he is indeed a part of this interconnected Whole, to apply his intuition of the Whole (which is personal) in grasping the information of the parts (things, apparently impersonal), and the collected data of the parts give the person the ability to know the Whole more.  In the end, it is a mutual relationship between the person and Nature which is now a transfiguration of a transcendent personhood.  Whys is the personhood of Nature is important for the knowledge of persons?  Because if the other person is a part and a representative of an aspect of the Absolute, then the approach to this person changes.  It is no more dependent only on the will of the revealer, but on the experience of the receiver of the revelation.  Revelation can be grasped by grasping Nature.  For instance, the person that knows that love is in the heart of every act of giving in Nature is capable know of detecting the acts of love in the other’s actions, without being involved in an intimate communication with this other.

            The knowledge of persons can be seen not only as a separated category from other kinds of knowledge, but a different stage of knowing.  The knowledge of persons is in essence knowledge of personhood(s), which can be approached depending on the degree of relationship and will.  Because of this, the knowledge of God seems nothing but realization of the personhood of existence that transforms the knowledge of things into the knowledge of personhood, and the intimate relationship with this personhood.  All the other facets of that relationship (knowledge of God) constitute now a development of grasping the uncountable riches of this Being or this Whole.  The knowledge of God is a more personalized and passionate stage of the knowledge of persons and personhood of the Whole.

[1] J. Bryson Arthur, “What is Knowledge?” (Unpublished lectures for the course on Epistemology and the Knowledge of God, JETS, Fall semester, 2014), 7.

[2] Rene Descartes, “Metaphysical Meditations,”   The discourse on method and metaphysical meditations, translated by Gertrude Burford Rawlings, 104, 130.

[3] Max Plank, Where Is Science Going?, translated by James Murphy, 217.

[4] William Johnston, Mystical Theology:  The Science of Love, 50.

[5] Ibid., 52.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Maximus the Confessor, Four Hundred Chapters on Love, 2: 25-28.

[9] Two translation are used here:  Isaac of Nineveh, Mystic Treatises, translated by A. J. Wensinck , 253;

 اسحق السرياني، نسكيات، ترجمة اسحق عطا الله، 237.


[10]  إسحق السرياني، 239.

[11] Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy, 1.

[12] J. Bryson Arthur, “Revelation and Religious Pluralism,” (Ph.D Thesis, University of Glasgow, 1993), 97.

[13] Novalis, The Disciples at sais and Other Fragments, 123.

[14] Martin Buber, I and Thou, 7-8.


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