How Do You Know That? - a review

“Our identity and the meaning of our lives depend upon how we know” Have you ever given much thought to the authorities that govern your life? What has authority to help us to know truly? What are those authoritative sources inherently imbued with power to describe reality?

These are the questions Ellis Potter seeks to answer in his book, How Do You Know That?

How Do You Know That Cover

This little treat of an 88-page book is brimming with Potter's delicate yet piercing insights as he helps us to construct a thicker, fuller, and completely real way of knowing reality. In many ways Potter isn't presenting anything "new", but he clearly articulates a squared epistemology with four equal yet distinct complementary, non-competing components.

The 4 corners

Knowing is rich and complex – so much so that we cannot have a total controlling grasp of knowing. We cannot see the whole picture from the point of view of any one way of knowing.

For a full epistemology (way of knowing), Potter provides four different sources which inform our knowing. These are Bible, Rationality, Institution and Experience. The relationships between these four authorities play a unique, distinct and essential role in our understanding of reality. All four corners together are necessary for adequate knowledge, and indeed, Potter warns us of the dangers if one authority were to be taken in isolation and understood apart from the other three:

Our rationality is not safe, if that is all we focus on, because it can disconnect us from our emotions, our intuitions, and our imagination. The institution is not safe either. The church for instance, can become manipulative or strongly associated with the state. The Bible isn’t safe either, if isolated from the other corners, because in order to understand reality fully we also need our reason, our experiences, and the institutions and traditions of the community to contextualize our reading of Scripture.

It's a thought-provoking read and it certainly makes one assess areas in which one places an unhelpful emphasis. We are challenged to identify the corners which take precedence in our own lives, and consider how we may draw upon the strengths of the other sources. “None of them are dependent, none of them is first. They’re all primary and all original.” Get your noetic tendrils around that one! Whilst we all may have a favourite corner we like to play in, this book helps us to assess our predispositions concerning knowing. Potter draws us out and away from potential one-dimensional extremism, which can distort our knowledge of reality, and into the fullness of the four-dimensional flowering of an interrelating web of knowledge.

Potter draws us away from
one-dimensional extremism into the fullness of a
four-dimensional interrelating web of knowledge

Potter enables us to take our “epistemological temperature” through asking a number of pertinent questions which help us to reflect upon our own dealings with knowledge. These questions aren’t of the dusty, inaccessible, top shelf kind either, but of the pavements and streets of our everyday lives. For example, he probes us by asking “What aspect of truth was rewarded and encouraged when you were growing up?” These questions light candles along the ordinary pathways of knowledge to our everyday lives and reveal to us how we have been shaped to view truth over the course of our lives. Doing this helpfully exposes those long, crawling cracks in our thinking which need filling, strengthening and restoring so they are able to withstand the full, joyful, walked-weight of reality.

How deep is your well? How wide is your story?

In the final two sections of How Do You Know That? Potter goes on to show us the intersection between the axis of “well” and the axis of “story” which run vertically and horizontally across and down the square of knowledge. Well is personal, I am the centre of the well. It has to do with my understanding of the Bible, my experiences, my reasoning, my comfort, my data, my rebukes, freedom, mystery, etc. Conversely, story pertains to the overall framework of reality, God or reality completely. It has to do with culture, God’s activity and intention in the text, objectivity, definition and form. In a sense, Potter is asking us to open our eyes, rub the sleep away and look up at the structures which underpin (well) and overarch (story) our lives.

33 questions

the last chapter contains some of the freshest and most helpful insights I have read in some time

Finally, and I think most helpfully, the last chapter (33 questions) contains some of the freshest and most helpful insights I have read in some time. Potter continues to share anecdotes from the vast treasure trove of his encounters with people from around the globe. At the same time he outlines in a little bit more detail a number of nuances behind the fourfold epistemological welled and storied reality.

These 33 questions have been asked of him by others as he has presented the material over the years, and it contains such juicy insights as: “I am grateful to postmodernism because it has restored subjectivity to truth. I am unhappy with postmodernism because it has eliminated objectivity from truth.” Statements such as these bolster the need for a complementary approach to knowing which doesn’t enthrone story over well, but instead recognises the need and place for both the subjective and diverse (well), as well as the objective and unitive (story). This is Ellis Potter at his absolute best, and I for one am so very grateful for these perceptive insights and analyses and how they shape everyday, beautiful living before a good Father.

…plus one more

Having said all of this, however, I would have loved for Potter to have gone a little bit further in explaining why this four-fold construct is the true way of knowing reality. He briefly answers this by referring to his own experience over the years, but to me this seems as though he falls foul of the very thing he asked his readers not to do, i.e. elevate one of the four sides. My question is: why is knowledge of reality thus? How does he know that he knows? I may be very wrong; it just seems like the book is begging the question. But despite this, there is much to love and relish in all that he has to say!

TitleHow Do You Know That?
Author: Ellis Potter
Publisher: Destinee Media
Publication Date: 2016
Pages: 100
Price: Paperback £7.61