The Resplendent Completion of the Liberal Arts

Prolegomena of Meaning

We live in a world mediated by meaning.[1] I begin with a well-worn phrase, one that you may never have seen worn thin, and one that cannot be immediately understood. I know that you read it and wonder what on earth I mean by it. Still, you know it is meaningful somehow. At the least you know that I mean something by it, whatever that might be. In other words, in reading it, you know and do not know. This is how the first minutes of the day strike each of us: there, already somehow present to our bleary-eyed consciousness, brimming with an unannounced something. I cannot say what. I can say only that I am awake, and that the morning is not nothing to me.

We live in a world mediated by meaning. I begin here and I will explain what it means, though I know it is not readily apparent. I begin here in part because “knowing is not like taking a good look,”[2] is not like staring and seeing, as if I could dominate the world with a mere glance. As if I could know you just by looking, let alone know anything at all that way. No: the world is mediated. I begin here because my own meaning is also, always mediated. It is not apparent. Like almost all things, it will take time to unfold. No student understands in that first moment, not really. Dawn is, after all, only a beginning.

We awaken daily to meaningfulness, to that which has significance for us and pulls us out of bed. Even if we leap into the morning panicked at all that must be done, still what needs doing is accompanied by the meaning we hold for the tasks, the people, and the words that span the day. Everywhere, we move among meaning. We are most excited by what we find meaningful. We wander along sidewalks and into rooms carrying the meanings that have brought us there: the significance of a life given over to a career, a field of study, a family. The readings are patterned by the logic of the syllabus, by the secret drama of the human beings gathered together for the hour.

That which is meaningful has its meaning for me, the thinking, feeling subject[3] who stands aware of the meaning that binds me to my moment. Of the various claims that I might make in any given day, what I will most willingly announce is that which has a claim on me: on what means to me. In the shared encounter between two people, what we first share is that which we think we understand best. We offer the meaning that has the most concrete hold on us ourselves. We are most comfortable giving away what is most clearly our own.[4]

Yet there are other faces in the room, other gazes that look upon one another. Each of us offers the meaning that he or she sees. Suddenly the air is charged not only with the many meanings that I value, but also those that others value. A community awakens in the face of its own diversity. Being human shines with the fiercest light when we provoke one another into apprehending this diversity, and when this diversity trembles with potential conflict. What if we two, we four, we dozen disagree? We are left wondering what to do when one meaning stands in contradiction to another.

Let us say that you and I simply cannot come to some agreement. Let us imagine that we are students caught in opposition, and there is no seeing its resolution. The classroom often forces us into these tender realities. We attempt to bridge the chasm of our disagreement, to wonder how the other one of us could be so (wonderfully) wrong-headed. We try to sway the fool into wisdom. This task is a strange gift to both of us, if we would receive it. A good conflict is one able to be had at all. So let us say that, even at the end of this good divide, we sit across from one another exasperated and a little ashamed: agreeing to disagree. What means to you does not mean to me.

Still, there is a secret more that has already spanned us both. Still, we are able to disagree. Even if our whole attempt to offer meaning to one another fails, we have unveiled to one another a further meaning: we already share a certain meaningfulness together.[5] In discovering our disagreement, we implicitly agree not only that meaning can be shared, but we also agree that agreement is possible at all. That potency is with us before we have opened our mouths, and after we have closed them. It is a wonderful gift. We can disagree! That we can disagree gestures toward meaning that we share even if we remain divided over some particular meaning that we do not. Meaning is meaningful to me and to you and to us.[6]

We live in a world mediated by meaning, and this mediation offers me to myself; it offers myself to you; it offers you to me. Meaning awakens us to all that is ours and all that is not. Meaning awakens us, and awakens us to the world.[7]

It is delightful to discover the world.[8] We are amazed at meaning, and its splendor drives us to ask question after question about the world that is mediated to us. We are swept into a tide of endless possible questions, into a world of questions with an infinite potential range.[9] Scholarship stands as one of many responses to the splendor of meaning and our insatiable yearning for it. Scholarship, like our questions, does not end. This is one reason why the world of education requires many hands.

Mediation and the splendor of meaning offer us a final, double insight into the world. I will hint at it here, and allow philosophy to complete it in a later passage. The twin understanding is this: in meaning there is that which is affirmable, and that which is signified. That is a compact way of saying that I do not merely enjoy meaning without a response to it, one that affirms the meaning itself. The “object” of my knowing has that which is its own, which I do not dominate, but instead simply affirm. I affirm you, you yourself; I do not give you your meaning as if I could say for you who you are (You are yours). There is in this, too, a certain naming, an act of relating. We give things names, and we know that this is a way of relating to what we encounter: you have a name, and if I know it, I relate to you in a new way. Your name, your signification, is not the same as you: you remain a mystery, still, even when I know you. Still, now I have a whole symbolic universe of words and images that I can relate to, even in my imagination. Something other than you can remind me of you, and I think of your name. Even if I do not know your name, I will think, “Oh, I bet that one guy who likes bowties would enjoy this situation.” You are signified: “that one guy.” “The tall woman who wore that blue shirt once.” In other words: we want to know more about what is meaningful through and through: we want to know what offered meaning in the first place, and the name that gives us to the offering.

Meaning and the Liberal Arts

The more we delight in meaning, the more its infinity appears to us.[10] Even as the meaning itself is clearly fragmentary, still it gestures toward further meaning. That is, the more questions we ask about the world, the more we experience meaning as inexhaustible. It becomes clear that we have an infinite set of possible of options, and that some ways of approaching this infinity are more effective than others. Questions have a kind of sharpness about them when they are asked well rather than asked at random. I am finite even if the possibilities set before me are infinite, and so I must choose what I will ask first and what I will ask next. I cannot ask all at once.

To study well requires a strong willingness or “zeal” to keep asking questions (studium in Latin means not only “study,” but also “desire” or “zeal”).  It also necessarily engages my freedom, and in more than one aspect: I need to be able to ask questions in the first place, which means that I need to have leisure[11] enough to do so; and in asking these questions, I actively employ my own will in a decision among possible choices, which means that I have enacted or acted using my own freedom.[12] To study well also, finally, requires that I learn to study in more effective ways, and this means that I am able to experience development in the manner I ask questions. I must learn better how to learn. To put it another way: I increasingly acquire and hone the skills of good study using my freedom and my desire, and the more I hone these skills the more they become my own. In Latin, these meanings are present in a single word: ars means both “power/craft” and “skill/art.” An artist is one who has the power to act skillfully. One who achieves “art” is one who has mastered a skill, so much so that the doing is more art than the finished work is.

Now, it is important to notice for a moment that I use neither “skill” nor “art” as they are typically employed today. These are skills for good study, and in the liberal arts these are always directed toward what is good. It is not about doing anything at all, but about doing what is good. Only this can make a skill an art in the fullest sense, can make a “critical tool” into a motivated faculty. Into an animated and animating power. The word used for professors at a college, “faculty,” means power or ability. Not an action, but what enables an act. We professors are those who enable acts in our students: we enrich in them those good skills that, with time, become freeing arts. Free because they are good, and only free if they are good.

The liberal arts are, therefore, the practiced craft of free study of what is good. They “are those steady and right shapings of works achieved by the mind within itself…which are known in being made and made in being known.”[13]  In other words, the liberal arts are works of knowledge, are achievements of the mind, that by their very nature come to be in the work of the mind as it works. The liberal artēs are the skills of the free mind, the arts of liberal knowing, done only in their doing. Here, practice is not preliminary work; practice is the work.; practice is in the work.[14]

As in any skill, the liberal arts have their distinctions among one another. Each art is its own horizon of questions about meaning, and in Ancient Greece these were divided into grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, and philosophy. Each art is its own “discipline.” The trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) disciplines the mind in skills that ready it for the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music), which are the final paths into the “highest” art, which is philosophy. Every skill remained peculiar to its discipline, and every skill was drawn into the new discipline that followed it. Thus the liberal arts are several (multi-disciplinary) yet a unity (in philosophy). The emergence of Christianity would see the addition of theology as the highest art, but for now we need to understand the liberal arts in their original unity.

Philosophy as the Unity of the Liberal Arts

Philosophy stands apart from the liberal arts as their unity and height because it alone is able to employ every skill (though not every skill at all times) in its efforts to navigate meaning. Philosophy alone of the arts explicitly seeks wisdom: for the Greeks, wisdom varied in meaning but always implied a grasp of the whole.[15] That is to say, philosophy desires to comprehend the unity of things.[16] This unity is called “wisdom,” and wisdom is distinct from all other forms of knowledge because it is what allows us to navigate the multiplicity of meanings in the world in a way that perceives both their differences and their similarities. The wise person is one who is able to see that which ultimately unites the incredible diversity that the world presents to us.

Classical Greek philosophy, which is invested in unity, desires to navigate both “meaning” and “not-meaning.” It wants to be able to explain both. This would be a profound unity indeed, since it could span meaning and its absence. For philosophy, one of the most important sources of wisdom is therefore a simple question: “Is it so?”[17] In other words, “Is this meaning meaningful? Or is this meaning a lie?” If the philosopher, drawing carefully upon the liberal arts, gathers together enough meaning to judge whether something is so, we have arrived at a new and fundamental aspect of knowledge. We have stepped into something more. If I judge that it is so, it is true.

We have at this point begun to exhaust the helpfulness of the word “meaning.” Not everything is meaningful, after all. Certainly not everything is meaningful in the same way. The most concrete example here is a lie: if exposed, what it meant no longer means, but the claim itself remains. I claimed to bake a birthday cake. I did not bake one. That cake does not exist; my claim does. If the cake did exist because I had made it, I would not be lying about it. Even if the cake exists but I did not make it, still my making does not exist. Lies reveal the tenuousness of meaning.

Truth is the judgment that meaning “is so,” that it really is meaningful. A lie is the inverse of truth: it is a meaning that “is not so.” It still has meaning, but it is not really meaningful.[18] It is not trustworthy. Truth, though, is trustworthy. An honest human being can be relied upon, and the practical reality is a lived version of the philosophical understanding of truth. For philosophers, truth is not experienced without the judgment that something is so. Truth is trustworthy because it is so. We are able to understand many things, but we have not grasped truth without this fundamental question and its answer. Truth is the judgment that something exists. Truth therefore only exists to a knower, and to a knower who knows that something exists. I do not run into a truth sitting along the side of a road, waiting for me to pick it up and carry it home. Truth is only real when I know that something is real, when I have judged that it is so.

If it is so and therefore trustworthy, then I am able to entrust further questions to the reality. Indeed, I am able to announce what is true: I am able to speak truth, to describe it, to express it. I am able to say a sentence that is true, that I know to be true, and it is known as truth when the one who hears it judges that it is so. It is true: I baked that cake. You know the truth: the cake is so. You do not know the truth of my statement until you know whether that cake exists by my hands. The cake is a lie, or the cake is a truth.[19] In other words, I want to signify and to know, really know, through what is signified.

Truths are still incredibly diverse. While they all have a common quality—they are so—the truth that they are is wonderfully varied. Truth is, for a classical philosopher, both fragmented and unified. That which I judge to exist does not summarize all of existence, not at all, but it does exist like all of existence does: this is what all true things have in common. For philosophers, being (that which is) implies a unity of being (all that is). This unity is indeed infinite, which is why our questions never end.

The root of philosophy is love of wisdom (philo–sophia). In the realm of philosophy, the unity of truth is sought with a particular kind of zeal: that of love (eros). This love for wisdom is insatiable; love drives our endless questions. We move from question to question in order to be united to beings that have being (to be united to meaning that exists). Philosophy is associated with erotic love because of its nature as a seeking discipline, one that wishes to be united with what it seeks. In philosophy, the freeing arts of studying the world are transformed into love for wisdom. They are transformed, too, into a dialogue with someone: Socrates with his interlocutors, professors with their students. This enhances philosophy’s closeness to love. Philosophy is done together, even if eventually only the individual is the one who knows: together, but apart.

So it is that the liberal arts are unified through philosophy into a final opening: as wisdom is limitless, so is the journey of philosophy. The liberal arts are therefore free (and freeing) in one further respect: they are ways into that which transcends everything we know. The arts are practiced toward an end that does not end. At no point do the liberal arts, in being known, come to a close. They may be abandoned, but they have not been abandoned because all their questions have been answered. When I say that philosophy in particular is a way into what transcends, I mean that philosophy seeks what is more than itself and more than any particular skill that it knows: philosophy is a disciplining into the truth that has no limit. Thus philosophy does not end. Philosophy is not a discreet series of propositions about wisdom; it is the seeking itself. This is why philosophy is the highest of the liberal arts, and why it unifies them.

Summary: Meaning and the Natural Liberal Arts

It is helpful at this point for me to summarize where I have taken us so far and why. We began with the simple meaningfulness of the world to us. At first, this meaning is most readily available to me as something of my own. Still, through experience we come to see that not only do others have what is meaningful to them, but also that meaning can be shared and indeed there is meaning that is implicitly already shared even when we disagree. Precisely because we can disagree at all, we judge by some shared meaning, one that upholds us both. Thus meaning is richer than we anticipate. Its richness is so profound that our questions about meaning never end, which we know by the simple reality that we continually ask questions. It is a reality that we want to know intimately, in its own splendor, which we give a name.

The liberal arts enter this picture as particular instruments for asking questions that, with questions proper to each art, teach us how to study well. What characterizes the liberal arts is that they bear a zeal for learning that requires our free use of practiced skills (arts). The order of the various skills raises the student through horizons of questions to their height in philosophy, the lover of wisdom, which seeks the unity of (infinite) truth through an eros that does not end. At every point, the liberal arts are work. They are the work of the mind that wants to understand the world, to love wisdom. The liberal arts are the work of a journey, a way “to” somewhere good, and good “in” the way.

We also encountered that most difficult and freeing of words: truth. That is, the judgment whether what we ask really is so. This question about our questions—the answer to which, if a Yes, is truth—is the height of wisdom and the heart of yearning. “Can I trust this? Is it real? Am I able to see and say the truth?” Here we have an ancient view of truth that ought to shock us with its lack of violence. Truth is really the question of a child, not a master. “Is that so?” Only one willing to trust that things might be so, trust like a child, is able to grasp truth. The beginning of philosophy is not simply a meaningful world, but rather wonder at the world.[20]

It is with wonder that I leave our original unity. There is much in philosophy and in the ancient liberal arts that I have not mentioned. There are many words that I have left aside. You might recognize some of these. I have, for example, continually referred to what has been called the problem of the One and the Many. I have quietly presumed participation in the Good. As my endnotes make clear, I have also written with Christian theology in mind.

And still, there is God. I have not mentioned God. Most of all, I have not mentioned God. Hellenistic philosophers did, and I have not. My silence is not reticence. I have used a relatively simple form of speech intended to make the beauty of the liberal arts more obvious to my reader. I have gestured toward meaning because I am assured that even the most cynical reader will be aware of some meaning, even if that meaning is that there is none. (That is still a meaning.) I want, in other words, for my reader to find a place in this tradition. Even if not every shape of the architecture is recognizable or convincing, still there are a thousand places in which one might stand among the liberal arts.

God, as much as truth, is a word that we think we know when we have heard it. I have not wanted you to hear it. My silence is purely theological. I have every reason to have paused, and it was not to be more convincing to you by leaving aside God as some dark secret. No: I wanted you to see the world that theology sees. The goodness and meaningfulness of the world, the truth that is diverse in it and native to it. I wanted you to see philosophy as the resplendent completion of the liberal arts. There is much, so much, that is the world’s own. This is so.

The liberal arts do not need theology. Theology does not fill in what is clearly missing. It is not the solution to epistemological algebra, to some lack. Nor is theology some foreign addition, awkward and heavy. A miserable new porch barely fitting to the edge of an old home. No: theology is something else.

It is to this strange newness, to Catholic theology itself, that I now turn. I ask from you nothing at all except the same generosity that I have shown toward the world: let theology be its own. That is, attend to what I say without presupposing what I mean. Allow myself and the world I represent to be genuinely present with you as you read.


Editorial Statement: During the month of July Church Life Journal will meditate upon the topic of leisure, its necessity for a mature spiritual life, and all the cultural, technological, and economic obstacles that stand in its way.

Featured Image: Gentile da Fabriano, Grammar - Hall of the Liberal Arts and of the Planets, Trinci Palace, c. 1411; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.

[1] See Bernard Lonergan, “The World Mediated by Meaning,” Lectures at MIT, Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan Volume 17: Philosophical Papers 1965-1980, edited by Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 107-118..

[2] Cf. Bernard Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan Volume 3: Philosophical Papers 1965-1980, edited by Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004) 344-346. See especially page 344: “Consciousness is not to be thought of as some sort of inward look. People are apt to think of knowing by imagining a man taking a look at something, and further, they are apt to think of consciousness by imagining themselves looking into themselves.”

[3] A “subject” is one who has both intellect and will: that is, is able to know and is free. It is not a “subjective” stance or claim in the way it is typically used to proclaim the uncertainty or personal claim over an idea, as in René Descartes. Rather, I mean “thinking” and “feeling” as participles: a verb used as an adjective, thus describing something about the “subject.” Therefore a subject is one who thinks, feels, and acts. I do not mean that a subject is always thinking and acting, only that one has these faculties, and so is a subject.

[4] This is an imitation of positions held by Enlighteners such as Immanuel Kant and Descartes.

[5] So Heidegger will speak not only of aletheia but also Sorge (care). See Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John MacQuarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1962), esp. 180-231.

[6] Kant’s epistemology thus has a profound scotoma at its heart.

[7] This is a blend of Insight (mediating meaning) and Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theo-Logic (awakening to meaning).  “The subject needs the object in order to unfold itself and to attain its own truth . . . It is not until the other enters into the space of the subject that, Sleeping Beauty, it awakens from its slumber—at once to the world and to itself.” Hans Urs von Balthsar, Theo-Logic: Theological Logical Theory vol. 1: Truth of the World, trans. Adrian J. Walker (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 67.

[8] Beauty is delight in the true. See: Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles 90, 4; Summa Theologica, Prima Pars Q. 5 a. 4.

[9] We have a pure, unrestricted desire to know (Lonergan), which implies an unrestricted object that exists (Aquinas). Lonergan, Insight, “An Unrestricted Notion,” 375-77; Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Prima Pars Q. 7.

[10] Being, Balthasar says, appears. And it is being that appears. Balthasar, Theo-Logic I, 37.

[11] See Josef Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009).

[12] Here I refer not only to the original “liberality” of the arts (a free person of leisure) but also a more contemporary Christian understanding of freedom (all are intended to be free and at leisure to contemplate truth).

[13] Joseph Lanagin, “Catholicity and Saint Mary’s College,” Saint Mary’s College Faculty Symposia (1987-1988), 3.

[14] The Christian monastic life strongly adopted this perspective regarding their own “way” of life.  See for example Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture (New York: Fordham University Press, 1982).

[15] Here I only highlight a small portion of the wisdom tradition in Hellenistic thought.

[16] I’m being clever with my Latin: comprehendo. To grasp, seize. Eventually: to grasp, seize entirely.

[17] As Lonergan summarizes the long tradition. Lonergan, Insight, 296-342.

[18] Who says, “I love that you lied to me”? Or, “I enjoy living a lie”?

[19] This is the existential dilemma of the video-game Portal (Valve Corporation, 2009).

[20] Both Josef Pieper and Martin Heidegger agree on this point, although for different reasons. See Pieper, Leisure; Heidegger, Being and Time (both noted above).


Anne M. Carpenter

Anne M. Carpenter is the Danforth Chair in Theological Studies at Saint Louis University. Her current work has focused on theologies of tradition, recovering the thought of Maurice Blondel, and other topics.

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