Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1096
Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, Michael Polanyi’s magnum opus, recapitulated in many ways his own intellectual odyssey. Throughout his early years in Hungary, he demonstrated the versatility that would characterize his later work. For example, while majoring in medicine at Budapest University, he was already publishing papers in chemistry and physics. By 1920, when he joined the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, he was one of Europe’s most distinguished physical chemists. Although his main interest was in the rates of chemical reactions, he also did research in X-ray crystallography, physical adsorption, and thermodynamics. In 1933 he resigned from the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in protest against the Nazi treatment of Jewish scientists. He then went to England, where he became professor of physical chemistry at the University of Manchester. Yet he could not ignore his experience of the political forces that were tearing Europe apart, and he tried to integrate these experiences into the objective approach to the world that had characterized his science. He began to spend so much time on humanistic issues that he became, for the last ten years at Manchester, a professor of social studies. Upon his retirement in 1958, Personal Knowledge was published.
The book’s appearance at the end of Polanyi’s formal academic life was no accident, and its provenance owed much to his experiences as a doctor, chemist, and professor of social studies. While a scientist, Polanyi had become critical of the positivistic view of science, the doctrine that only sense perceptions can lead to genuine knowledge and that events can be understood only in terms of physical laws. He thought that this view made a mockery of such things as human responsibility and moral ideals. His experiences in Germany during the 1920’s and early 1930’s convinced him of the intellectual connection between positivism and the ruthless political movements of the Left and Right. He witnessed how the Nazis used a distorted Darwinism in their racist theories, and on a 1935 visit to Moscow he saw how T.D. Lysenko, a Communist ideologue, persecuted N.I. Vavilov, Russia’s most distinguished geneticist. To counter these tyrannies, Polanyi saw the importance of believing passionately in certain ideals essential to a free society. He held that a complete rethinking of scientific knowledge was necessary to dispel these threats to freedom and to science itself. If moral ideals were simply matters of emotional preference, then they lacked the intellectual muscle to oppose powerful Fascist and Communist ideologies.
To resolve what he saw as a great crisis, Polanyi did not try to make moral principles provable; instead, he tried to show how both morality and science depended upon unprovable principles. The unprovability of these beliefs did not render them worthless; rather, it showed that science was essentially a human enterprise within a community of inquirers bound together by a common faith. This conviction, burned into Polanyi’s consciousness by his experiences in Nazi Germany and Communist Russia, contributed to the emergence of the philosopher from the scientist. This transformation found its greatest concretization in Personal Knowledge.
The book’s form grew out of the circumstances of its composition. In 1951 and 1952 Polanyi delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen. The Scottish jurist Adam Gifford had established the series in the nineteenth century to promote the study of natural theology. Like many lecturers before him, Polanyi interpreted the mandate quite broadly as an investigation into the intellectual foundations of theology and ethics. In particular, he saw the series as an opportunity to develop a new theory of knowledge that would have important implications for theology. He used the lectures to inquire into the nature of knowledge, its origins, and the need for a new epistemology, the rudimentary elements of which he described. In the six years after the lectures, he continued to develop his ideas, increasing the range of supporting evidence and deepening his analysis into a truly alternative ideal of knowledge. His principal theme was that the personal did not hinder but focused the activity of knowing.
The motivation behind Polanyi’s book was to provide a firm foundation for humans’ core beliefs. For him, scientific truth and moral goodness are not two separate categories; rather, truth is the rightness of an action, and the verification of a statement is the rationale, not wholly specifiable, for its acceptance. In the positivist view of science there is no room for personal participation. Polanyi, on the other hand, realized that the self-involvement of scientists in discovery is invariably impassioned. The joy of grasping a new scientific insight causes the mind to expand into a deeper understanding of the world and to live thereafter in a more active preoccupation with its problems. What the positivist view of science lacks, according to Polanyi, is the involving reality of individual experience.
The book’s title implies that it comprises two sharply contrasting types of material. Indeed, critics who saw genuine knowledge as impersonal and objective viewed the title as a contradiction, since personal participation makes knowledge arbitrary and subjective. To counter this criticism, Polanyi marshaled evidence to show that scientific detachment exercises a destructive influence in biology, psychology, and sociology. Furthermore, he established an alternative ideal of knowledge, applicable to both the sciences and the humanities, and he used the findings of Gestalt psychology to bolster this ideal. Gestalt psychologists emphasized the doctrine that psychological phenomena are irreducible wholes, with properties that cannot be derived from their parts. Scientific knowing, for Polanyi, consists in discerning such wholes. Early in his writings he called this intuition; in Personal Knowledge he describes it as the tacit, or hidden, coefficient of knowing. Every interpretation of nature, whether scientific or humanistic, is based on some intuitive conception of the general nature of things. To interpret nature insightfully requires both tacit skills and passionate personal participation. Around this central idea of intellectual commitment Polanyi structured his book.
Personal Knowledge has four parts, moving from specific inquiries into the exact sciences through an investigation into the philosophical foundations of these inquiries to a justification for his general theory of knowledge. Part 1, “The Art of Knowing,” examines scientific knowledge by analyzing discoveries in physics and chemistry to reveal the personal elements that are often hidden. Part 2, “The Tacit Component,” shows that all knowledge is guided by personal and social factors that are rarely articulated. In part 3, “The Justification of Personal Knowledge,” Polanyi considers modern philosophical and religious beliefs in elaborating his program of epistemological reform. The book’s final part, “Knowing and Being,” shows how the structure of human knowing mirrors the structure of being.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 111
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