I now know why Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy
(Chicago: University of Chicago, 1962) is highly cited and appropriated by quite a few modern theologians and philosophers: because it is an outstanding work. In some ways, it is parallel to Barth’s bombshell, only in the realm of epistemology. This “bomb” from Polanyi is that he rejects “the ideal of scientific detachment” (p. vii). He sets out to establish “an alternative ideal of knowledge,” an ideal which most scientists (in the mid 20th century and before) would reject: “In every act of knowing there enters a passionate contribution of the person knowing what is being known” (p. viii).
The book has four parts: 1) The Art of Knowing, 2) The Tacit Component, 3) The Justification of Personal Knowledge, and 4) Knowing and Being. I’m still making my way through this, but so far it is clear, cogent, and very stimulating. Some parts are difficult, because Polanyi uses illustrations from his realm (chemistry) to make points. For example, when he talks about how order and probability in natural things involves personal choices and some subjectivity, he uses the law of chemical proportions and crystallography to illustrate his point. His points are pretty easy to understand, so even if I have no idea what hc/2e2 = integer 137; 137~307 means, I still understood what he was getting at.
In chapter four, Polanyi talks about tradition (among other things). To learn a trade – from a doctor setting a cast to an engineer setting his laser to cut sheet metal – you take many things for granted because of the tradition you work within. Some knowledge of things can only be passed on “by example from master to apprentice” (p. 53). The wheel is not reinvented each time a doctor is trained; she is trained and operates on hundreds and hundreds of physicians’ traditions that are sometimes very old.
“To learn by example is to submit to authority. You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things even when you cannot analyze and account in detail for its effectiveness. By watching the master and emulating his efforts in the presence of his example, the apprentice unconsciously picks up the rules of the art, including those which are not explicitly known to the master himself…. A society which wants to preserve a fund of personal knowledge must submit to tradition” (Ibid.).
The point is that purely objective knowledge of a topic is impossible. Half (if not more!) the assumptions and presuppositions by which any scientist works are not original to him. He has to accept them – sometimes unknowingly – and work by them, and they become tacit, much like a hammer becomes almost “one with” the hand when a carpenter pounds a nail into the 2×4. He personally embodies and accepts the tradition, though he cannot objectively account for it or claim it as originating with himself. You cannot really master a tradition objectively, because you are “in” it, personally.
Of course there is more to this argument, and there are many more helpful points that Polanyi makes. Again, this book is not overly difficult – it should be on your shelf if you enjoy apologetics and/or epistemology. It is rather long (c. 400 pages), but it is structured well and can be read in sections. I’m guessing it could be used as a college textbook. This book makes an excellent supplement to much of Lesslie Newbigin’s work, along with Cornelius Van Til, Herman Bavinck, Esther Meek, Tim Keller, C. S. Lewis, and so forth.