Personal Knowledge

by Michael Polanyi
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1126

Much of Personal Knowledge constitutes an attack on the positivist claim for total objectivity in scientific knowledge. Polanyi argues that modern scientism enslaves thought and action more tyrannically than religious thought ever did. Indeed, the ideal of scientific detachment offers human beings no scope for their most vital beliefs and even forces them to disguise these beliefs in debilitatingly inadequate ways. Yet these beliefs will not remain hidden, and through numerous examples from the history of science, Polanyi shows that scientific discoveries cannot be explained in terms of wholly explicit knowledge. In doing so, he uncovers an interesting paradox: Many scientists of the positivist persuasion insist that science rests on wholly explicit truth, but in their actions they show that science lives by discovery, and these discoveries depend on imprecise hunches and a faith in the orderliness of nature.

For Polanyi, knowledge has two faces: explicit knowledge, usually displayed in written words or mathematical formulas, and tacit knowledge, generally exemplified in skilled actions. Through his analysis of tacit knowing, Polanyi shows that scientific discovery demands intuitive and patiently acquired skills that are in principle irreducible to explicit rules. He finds that there is always something ineffable about such skills, and that they can be learned only by close association with a master and a community of practitioners. Between the subject and object, then, stands the community, which is creative like the subject and refractory like the object. Consequently, science is a vast system of beliefs, deeply rooted in history and cultivated by a specially organized section of society.

Besides his negative thesis of scientific objectivity’s weaknesses as an ideal, Polanyi has a positive thesis of personal knowledge as a realistic ideal. This positive ideal centers on the notion of commitment. Without conscious commitment to value judgments the human being cannot arrive at the truth, which Polanyi sees as the least coercive relationship between man and society. To say that something is true is to express a belief and therefore to commit oneself to a course of action consonant with this belief. This commitment is both subjective and objective. In making it, the person is inevitably motivated by subjective factors rooted in his individuality, but there is something universal and therefore objective in personal commitment, since the person becomes responsible, together with sharers of his belief, for following that course of action. Polanyi insists that all knowledge takes place within a framework of personal commitment. For him, personal knowledge means the knowledge possessed by a responsible person who is part of an intellectually healthy community.

Polanyi saw the modern mind as sick, and he thought that he could cure it. The modern dilemma arises from the relation between the scientistic claim of detached knowledge and the moral dynamism of contemporary social and political movements. To bridge the gap, one needs belief. The scientist must believe that the methods of science are fundamentally sound if he or she is to acquire the skills of scientific inquiry. In the eleventh century Saint Anselm wrote that he did not seek to understand so that he might believe, but he believed in order to understand. Polanyi, too, argues that one must believe to know, for the meaning of all of one’s judgments ultimately depends on realities grasped only tacitly by a mind in action. Polanyi believed that human minds are capable of making contact with reality and that the intellectual passion impelling them toward this contact will so faithfully guide their actions that they will achieve the full measure of truth.

For Polanyi, the vocation of the scientist is to uncover the truth about the natural world. What he fought against is severing scientific activity from the scientist’s belief in his own power to construct a meaningful picture of reality. Detachment dehumanizes people and alienates them from society. Science does not require that one study the world and society in a detached manner; instead, science is essentially a human activity. Polanyi saw man primarily as a meaning-seeking creature whose brain has been programmed to discover systems of meaning both within and without himself. Five million centuries of evolution, groping upward along numberless paths, have led to the human being, who is, so far as is known, the only bearer of responsible thought in the universe.

From this analysis it is clear that personal knowledge has implications for religion. Polanyi rejects the traditional division between science and religion because it assumes that science proceeds by deductive logic and inductive generalization whereas religion proceeds by acts of faith that often defy logic. In his distinction Polanyi sees science as seeking to uncover realities which exist independently of people’s knowledge of them, whereas religious realities are brought into being by people’s creative efforts to achieve meaning in their lives. Religious realities are valid in the sense that they reveal more of what they mean as time goes on, but Polanyi thinks that it would be illusory to view them as existing before humans discovered them. Religion is related to experience as are mathematics and art. To someone prepared to live in their world, they convey their own meaning, which is related to human experience but not corroborated by external experience in the way the natural sciences are.

Polanyi recognizes that religious conversion changes a person in a way that growth in natural knowledge never does, but the difference between scientific and religious knowledge is one of degree, not of kind, since both science and religion require commitment and dynamic contexts to have understanding and meaning. In Personal Knowledge Polanyi states that religion builds up its own universe, using secular experience as its raw material. Every great religious system is constructed by elaborating some external experience in terms of an internal experience. The convert surrenders to this personal experience and through his life accredits its validity. God exists, then, not as a scientific fact. Like truth, goodness, beauty, and justice, God can be appreciated only in serving Him.

The conclusion of Personal Knowledge is a meditation on man in the universe. Polanyi sees the appearance of the human mind as the ultimate stage in the awakening of the world. Everything before man, from the big bang through the evolution of the galaxies to the appearance of the planets and the strivings of many forms of life, is part of the same endeavor toward liberation. In his final words, Polanyi sums up the contribution that these various centers of activity have made to human existence:We may envisage then a cosmic field which called forth all these centres by offering them a short-lived, limited, hazardous opportunity for making some progress of their own towards an unthinkable consummation. And that is also, I believe, how a Christian is placed when worshipping God.

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