Re-conceiving Knowing, Scientific Knowledge, and Scientific Practice

By the middle and late forties, Polanyi began to work out an alternative narrative (about science) to what he believed had become powerfully dominant and culturally destructive in his lifetime. Re-conceiving scientific practice and scientific knowledge and ultimately all human knowing became the ambitious constructive philosophical project to which Polanyi devoted the last 30 years of his life. In a 1948 essay, Polanyi asserted that we must examine the “foundations of modern thought” and “realise at last that skepticism cannot in itself ever discover anything new”. Skepticism can release “powers of discovery, but the powers must always spring from belief” (Polanyi 1948, 100). For Polanyi, discovery is the central puzzling foundation of modern science, but scientists and philosophers of science have paid little attention to this foundation. Polanyi linked discovery in science to belief and ordinary human perception, and thus discovery became the paradigm case of human knowing (SFS, 21-25, 31-38).

Rather than focusing on scientific method (or verification and falsification) and the so-called objectivity and impersonality of scientific inquiry and scientific knowledge, Polanyi emphasized the skillful nature of scientific inquiry (which includes the formulation of good problems) and the extraordinary skills of the master scientist who makes discoveries. Special skills and conceptual tools are cultivated in a specialized community and a practicing scientist working in such a community acquires certain beliefs and a form of specialized perception. However, Polanyi emphasized the continuity between ordinary perception and the specialized perception of the scientist who first sees and then solves scientific problems. He also stressed, given his emphasis on the sophisticated skills of a scientist, that much about scientific knowledge and any other kind of knowledge remains unspecifiable. All knowers are actively engaged participants in acts of comprehension. They dwell in certain elements of which they are subsidiarily aware (i.e., tacitly held elements) and integrate such elements to attend to what is of focal interest. As Marjorie Grene put it, this anti-Cartesian Polanyian approach focusing on “tacit knowing” provides “grounds for a revolution in philosophy”:27

I regard knowing as an active comprehension of the things known, an action performed by subordinating a set of particulars, as clues or tools, to the shaping of a skillful achievement, whether practical or theoretical. We may then be said to become “subsidiarily aware” of these particulars within our “focal awareness” of the coherent entity that we achieve.

(PK, xiii)

This is Polanyi’s account of the profoundly “personal” nature of knowing that involves the “participation” of the knower in shaping knowledge and that produces “personal knowledge”:

The participation of the knower in shaping his knowledge, which had hitherto been tolerated only as a flaw — a shortcoming to be eliminated from perfect knowledge - is now recognized as the true guide and master of our cognitive powers. ... We must learn to accept as our ideal a knowledge that is manifestly personal.

(Polanyi 1959, 26-27)28

Polanyi emphasized that inquiry is a peculiarly human vocation always infused with intellectual passions. Such passions drive the quest for scientific discovery and for ordinary understanding. Polanyi called his account of scientific inquiry, and, more generally, his description of human knowing, his “fiduciary” philosophy (PK, ix, 264-268) :29

We must now recognize belief once more as the source of all knowledge. Tacit assent and intellectual passions, the sharing of an idiom and of a cultural heritage, affiliation to a like-minded community: such are the impulses which shape our vision of the nature of things on which we rely for our mastery of things. No intelligence, however critical or original, can operate outside such a fiduciary framework.

(PK, 266)

Scientists and indeed all knowers, Polanyi contended, trustingly rely on tacit knowledge as that from which they attend to matters of direct interest. All knowledge thus has a from-to structure. The person’s fund of subsidiary knowledge is learned in trusting interaction with others in a like-minded community. Although scientists and all human beings acquire and hold what Polanyi dubbed “personal knowledge”, such knowledge is not merely whimsically subjective. “Personal knowledge” is backed by commitment and held with what Polanyi called “universal intent” (PK, 65, 300-306, 308—316, 377— 379). That is, it is held in such a way that one believes that other inquirers who make contact with reality will arrive at the same conclusion.

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