Personal Knowledge: Polanyi

Product DetailsI 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.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

4 thoughts on “Personal Knowledge: Polanyi”

  1. This is a good thing to keep in mind in the ‘science v. religion’ debates. Science can make fantastic observations about our physical world, but they remain just that- subjective observations. The conclusions about a geo-centric universe scientists made pre-Copernicus were valid according to the paradigm they operated within, but the discovery of their presuppositional flaws made them look like idiots. It’s the height of arrogance to assume our present observations, as amazing as they may be, represent absolute knowledge. How foolish will we seem when the next scientific paradigm shift comes?

    Neo-Calvinists try to conform our understanding of special revelation to fit our observations of general revelation. This, of course, is completely backwards. Which would you rather hang your hat on: scientific observation, which any honest person knows is subjective and prone to error, or Biblical truth, which by the indwelling of the Spirit we know is objective and inerrant?

    It’s easy as theologians to look down our nose at the scientific community and throw works like Polanyi or Kuhn in their face, but first we need to take the log out of our own eye. Do we hold young earth, anti-big bang/evolution theories because they’re the most Biblical, or because they most conform to our traditions? It’s not ‘un-Christian’ to consider theories that conflict with our traditional understanding of our origin, as long as those theories are governed by the ex-nihlo, verbal fiat creation paradigm taught by scripture. (for the record, I believe that the young earth Genesis creation narrative is both scientifically and theologically the most sound theory).

    This post is timely, because last night I watched a NOVA show about cosmology- particularly about the size and scope of the universe (and 10’ diameter black holes just waiting to swallow up our solar system!). Even these hard core cosmologists had to add the caveat that they only observed a small fraction of the whole, and even these observations are subject to change, yet it was presented in grand PBS style to hammer another nail in God’s coffin and to reinforce the cosmic insignificance of mankind.
    However, the same information could be reformatted to demonstrate the absolute sovereignty and magnificence of the Creator, both in terms of the order displayed in the universe, as well as boosting our self worth when we realize we’ve been created in the image of this God.

    By the way… I consider nearly everything I’ve read by Barth to be a bombshell- which one in particular were you referring to?


  2. You know, CW, I agree with you that scientific paradigms seem to be in continual flux. Of course there is the possibility that things will one day be understood differently, making our current approaches look to those in the future the way past paradigms look to us now.

    Your comment got me thinking along a similar line, but with a possibly different focus.

    The thing that I tend to find among conservative evangelicals, is that they are so much more confident in their ability to interpret special revelation than they are in their ability to interpret general revelation. Thus they’re quick to say what scientists can or cannot be certain about, while being equally quick to note just how certain they are about the relevance of a particular Bible passage to a given discussion. Paradigms of biblical interpretation, however, are just as much in flux as are scientific paradigms.

    Now of course the Bible is true – confessional readers don’t dispute this. But *how* it demonstrates its truth is a different question that will be answered differently by different interpretive paradigms. We need to ask questions like: “In what *way* is the Bible true?” “About *what* is the Bible true?” “About what is the Bible truly *seeking* to be true?” How one answers these questions aren’t just self-evident; readers of different hermeneutical persuasions will disagree.

    Of course I’m well aware of (and in agreement with) VanTil’s critique of autonomy, but this critique must always be tempered by critical reflection on hermeneutical paradigms. I sometimes think that CVT simply assumed the legitimacy of his hermeneutical approach which at times gave a fairly *flat* reading of the biblical text.

    At the end of the day, Christians need to be able to wrestle with the findings of science, not simply by capitulating to what the scientific-guild is saying, nor by hiding their head in the sand and ignoring the guild. What is key, however, is that we can’t pull out the “scientific paradigms are constantly shifting” card too often. It *is indeed* a legitimate card to use at times, but it is often overplayed.


  3. Let me clarify a bit- I was using the term ‘science’ in a pejorative sense to mean “the community of thinkers/observers not adhering to theistic presuppositions.” I’m not attempting to set science as a discipline against theology as a fundamentalist might.

    I wholeheartedly agree with Andrew’s comment, and although I could of done so more clearly, I was trying to illustrate that often times Christians are no more objective in their conclusions than non-xians.

    I do struggle a bit with Andrew’s comment that some folks “are so much more confident in their ability to interpret special revelation than they are in their ability to interpret general revelation.”

    I read a passage several weeks ago that I can’t find again for the life of me, but I think it was from BB Warfield. He wrote something like “we can know truth objectively through scripture b/c our interpretation is guided by the Spirit – our very subjectivity becomes objective.” In other words. the very essence of objectivity turns our stone cold subjective senses toward His truth as communicated in the Bible. So in this sense, yes I can be much more confident in my ability to interpret scripture.
    (I know I probably butchered this, and I’d appreciate some feedback).

    I guess what I’m reacting to is the increasing tendency of many evangelicals to let general revelation govern/trump our interpretation of special rev. rather than simply inform our interpretation. To stick with the creation narrative for an example, since ‘science’ concludes our universe is billions of years old, and the Bible seems to teach a relatively young earth, t/f the new evangelical paradigm is that Biblical creation accounts are simply allegorical.

    When I take Polyani, Kuhn and Van Til and throw them in the blender, here’s what I conclude:
    Apart from the presupposition of absolute truth externally infused to me through the Spirit by the means of the Word, my paradigms and interpretations of both general and special revelation are moored to nothing and will subsequently float anywhere and everywhere.

    I think my clarification is more confusing than my original comment!


  4. just wanted to thank you. I had a homework related to Polanyi and your review gave me good insights.


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