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Connatural Knowledge -- Knowing Through Direct Experience

Cathy Kreyche

Jacques Maritain, a 20th-century French Catholic philosopher, explored a perennial question for philosophers, how do we know, and in doing so contrasted two kinds of knowledge — connatural knowledge, embodied knowledge that emanates from one’s being, and conceptual knowledge, knowledge based on mental constructs, on the intellect alone.

Connatural knowledge is direct knowingness in which the mind, the heart, the will, and desire all are participating. It is preconscious and preverbal, and may be difficult to articulate. Connatural knowledge is embodied knowledge — it is “in our very being.” It manifests in different ways — in mystical union (direct knowledge of God’s love), poetic knowledge (intuitive knowledge expressed through creativity of the spirit), and moral knowledge or knowledge of “moral virtues.” Connatural knowledge is knowledge that takes into account the whole person, emanating from energies beyond the mind — will and desire and love.

Maritain traced the notion of connatural knowledge from Aristotle in 4th century B.C. Greece to the 6th century neo-Platonist the Pseudo-Dionysus to Thomas Aquinas in the 14th century. He also recognized connatural knowledge being used to describe this form of direct knowing in Eastern thought.

Connatural knowledge is knowledge borne of an affinity, an attraction or pull based on desire towards the what may be revealed from the encounter itself. It is non-mental knowledge, not based on reason—a thinking about things—not an outcome or product of the workings of the rational mind. Rather, it comes out of one’s being, of one’s being in the world and encounter with other beings. It could be described as knowledge based on a being with and within what the knower is drawn toward.

Implicit in this notion of connatural knowledge is a kind of aliveness of the world contrasted with a staid, predictable rational and mechanical universe. Connatural knowledge puts the human being at the center of knowingness, not in a hyper-individualistic way but as a participant, like someone who come to know the ocean because they are drawn to swimming in it, and know the ocean through a union or encounter—this in contrast to someone looking at the ocean describing the ocean from the shore.

In exploring connatural knowledge, Maritain takes the example of direct moral knowledge. A person could could have knowledge of ethics, could, for example, answer the question correctly when asked about what was right and what what was wrong — so for example, don’t lie, don’t kill, don’t knowingly harm others. But that person could simply parroting what they know to be “right” does not ensure that they will act in alignment with what they espouse.

This reminds me of an academic who was astounded that someone who espoused economic equality treated her hired help poorly. Thus, saying what was “right” did not ensure moral behavior. Maritain sees this as a kind of lesser morality because because it is the “doing the right thing” because of obedience to some principle that says doing so makes one “good” and moral. It is inferior to acting in a moral fashion because that morality or sense of right is inherent in a person’s character, in who they are and how they are in the world.

Connatural knowledge differs from the typical or stereotypical Western concept of knowledge—as a kind of acquisition and empire-building. It is opposed to the systems-building. It is nonlinear and grounded in presence and relationship.

Maritain describes connatural knowledge as something hidden and obscure. He implies a will, desire, and receptivity to this direct experience — action and nonaction. There seems to be in connatural knowledge a drawing toward something or someone, an affinity called forth by love.

While it seems to link the “higher” spiritual to the “lower” material — in connatural knowing the line between the two is erased. The human being who knows naturally, moves toward a union with what is to be known, and what flows from this knowledge is love of God (mystical), poetic expression, or morality. While this knowledge may be preconscious or subconscious, and therefore may be difficult to put into words, it is superior to external systems of knowledge that may be logically clear and understandable, but are not expressions of beingness.

By contrast, conceptual knowledge tends to be systems-based, often resulting in an effort to achieve consistency, uniformity, and standards against which to measure experience. Using concepts and ideas as the basis for knowledge isolates the minds from the rest of the human being. It excludes will and desire, which are fundamental to connatural knowledge. If concepts and ideas serve as a means of self-identity there is no possibility for dynamic engagement. Little changes. While our idea of our self gives us an apparently stable base from which to view the world and for the world to view us;, that base requires a constancy of stance that may not allow for movement, for life to occur. And fundamental to connatural knowledge is the notion of movement, of interaction, of inclination towards, of affinity with. We are drawn to something, and that is how we know it.

For example, systems of natural law or metaphysics are based on logic and reason. This knowledge is a kind of knowledge at a distance, knowledge of the intellect. By contrast, connatural knowledge is as much sensed and imbibed as understood or grasped by the mind. Connatural knowledge is knowledge that grows from will and desire rather than intellectual concepts.

It is primary

It is nonsystematic

It is subjective and essentially participatory

It is non-conceptual

It is preconscious

It is direct

Maritain’s description of connatural knowledge sounds very much like awareness.

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