KNOWING: Saber versus Conocer

Last Sunday I went to New York City with a group of fellow students to see a play called Shadowlands. The play was about the true love story of C.S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, and his wife, Joy Davidman.

At the beginning of the play, C.S. Lewis believes that it is possible for someone to know a thing without having any sort of personal experience with it. However, after he falls in love with Joy, he finds that there are many things he thought he knew—love, pain, vulnerability, commitment—but actually did not.

The problem here, I believe, is in the English language. I took Spanish for six years before college, and all the tests, presentations, and homework were worth it for these two words, which really make one concept: saber versus conocer.

Both express a kind of knowing. Saber is a factual knowing: “I know all the state capitals.” Conocer is a personal knowing: “I know Emily.” You would use conocer when you express that you have met a person.

Now, think of applying these two types of knowing to people. Steve could saber know Angela: how old she is, where she went to school, how tall she is, where she lives, etc. If he knew her enough in this way, he might be able to write a biography about her or find her the perfect job. However, he could saber know Angela with practically no personal knowledge of her at all.

Steve could also conocer know Angela. In this case, Steve meets Angela. Through this kind of knowing he experiences all of her idiosyncrasies, her movements, her disposition. He partakes in her presence. Furthermore, since her presence insists that she is existing, or being, he literally partakes in her being.

While watching the play, I noticed that as Lewis fell in love, he had to learn how to know in a conocer way rather than in a saber way. And as he fell in love, Lewis realized the great danger about this type of knowing: vulnerability. It involves a giving as well as a taking. To partake in someone’s being, you must necessarily be there so they can partake in yours as well.

A great danger, but also extremely meaningful. Lewis discovered that although the saber knowing can lead one to write many books about something or someone (and he wrote many books indeed), it cannot lead one to love something or someone.

In the end, I do not believe that these two types of knowing are mutually exclusive. In fact, I think they often support and complement one another. I also think having the capability to know in both ways may be necessary to fully experience something. However, I do think it is important to realize, and to celebrate, the ways to know that make it possible to love—love people, sports, music, nature, art, or anything at all.


Artwork by Elizabeth Yeh

Edited by Amber Yildizel





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