Philosopher Michael Polanyi

Michael Polanyi was largely a product of the environment which surrounded him throughout his life. He reflected upon the scientific method of the Enlightenment from a scientist’s point of view. He believed that humanity’s flawed understanding of knowledge played a major contributing factor to the destruction wrought upon the European continent through two world wars. Polanyi aptly asserted that knowledge could not be separated from faith and ethical responsibility. While modern science insisted that science, not tradition, could be trusted because it relied only upon quantifiable knowledge which could be measured and proven objectively, Polanyi pointed out that science itself relies upon tradition and faith in its paradigms. Furthermore, one cannot know anything concerning the intangibles like justice and love if one cannot believe in anything that cannot be tested and measured. This meant that the modern scientific method eroded the use of morals in decision making. Polanyi’s thesis was that all knowledge requires or has the root of tacit knowing. Tacit knowledge is essentially deep knowledge which one cannot place in to words.

Polanyi said that “tacit knowledge serves as the foundation for a harmonious view of thought and existence rooted in the universe” (Mars Hill). He used examples such as swimming and cycling in order to describe tacit knowledge. For instance, a child cannot understand or explain the rules governing his/her performance on a bike, but nevertheless is able to cycle/ride it and believes he/she can. Furthermore, the only way in which tacit knowledge is shared is through a master and apprentice relationship. The apprentice trusts the ways of his/her master. Likewise, the master passes on knowledge to the apprentice concerning a set of skills either explicitly or without knowledge that he/she is doing so. The master and the apprentice are thus able to create a masterpiece by using these intuitive skills that have been picked up through this relationship. Intuition/tacit knowledge is often highly developed knowledge that cannot be formulated or explained in detail. In the Mars Hill recording, the master Luthier called this knowledge “feel”. Polanyi thus argues that society must also follow tradition and faith in search for knowledge. True science must employ Augustinian logic in its attempt to know the truth. St. Augustine stated that one must “believe in order to know.”

Tacit knowing consists of subsidiary and focal knowledge. One must become subsidiarily aware of the details in order to understand the focal. For instance, a surgeon must become subsidiarily (peripherally) aware of the probe in his/her hand in order to remain focally (centrally) aware of the cavity in which he/she is working to have a successful surgery. Polanyi called “indwelling” the key to successful tacit knowing. It is not by looking at things that we are able to know. Only by indwelling can we know reality. We cannot know by being detached, as with modern scientific claims, but only by indwelling or meditation. Indwelling allows us to “tune in” to nature; it accepts a natural order. Polanyi said that to know something involves and creates responsibility. He would thus say that there should be no separation between what we know theoretically and what we do practically (i.e. Enlightenment). Although Polanyi spoke about personal knowledge, he did not advocate self truth as in Postmodernism. Polanyi held that there was a deep and universal truth that could be found and depended upon.

Polanyi’s work impacted me in the way that I thought about both biblical exegesis and holiness/discipleship. I could not help but to think of myself as the apprentice who is trying hard to learn from the Master. I know that I cannot create the masterpieces that he can. However, if I watch, study and emulate, I can become more like Him. I can perhaps learn a little more of the truth the closer I get to the Master; I am excited by thoughts like this. I thought about the impact of Polanyi’s thesis upon biblical exegesis. Critical study of the biblical text tries to claim objectivism. It would seem, however, that we are better exegetes by admitting and/or recognizing our own presuppositions when approaching scripture. This also means that it is ok to come to the text with your tradition in mind. Tradition is a way in which we come to know the truth. However, we must be willing to part ways with tradition and presuppositions when faced with truth which disagrees with them.


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