Personal Knowledge Critical Essays

Michael Polanyi


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 1126 words.)