Thursday, September 06, 2007

Polanyi argued that the objective-subjective dualism is false

In chapter 3, “Certainty as the Way to Nihilism,” of his book Proper Confidence, Newbigin discusses a number of dualisms that come to the fore in Modernity, and which can (at least on a traditional read) be trace to Descartes.
The first is the dualism between the res cogitans and the res extensa.
The second and third dualisms consist of a sharp division between objective and subjective, and a dichotomizing view of theoria and praxis.
With regard to the second dualism, Newbigin brings Polanyi’s insights of “personal knowledge” into the conversation. Polanyi, a Hungarian scientist turned philosopher, argued that “the objective-subjective dualism is false and that all knowing of reality involves the personal commitment of the knower as a whole person” (p. 39). One might perhaps see Polanyi’s ability to break through the rather ossified enlightenment-inspired tradition that had come to reign among scientists in terms of approaching the issues of knowledge from a new set of questions. Rather than ask, “how are truth claims to be justified,” Polanyi asks, “how do we come to know, and how are discoveries made?” (p. 40). Discoveries are not typically made as a result of following a set of rigidly defined rules, as discoveries are hitherto unknown and often involve bending the rules. As he explored these epistemological issues, Polanyi came up with the following as possible answers to the question of how discoveries in science occur.
First, one must be apprenticed to a tradition of knowledge. Second, one must “indwell” this tradition. As Newbigin explains,
The assumptions, the assured findings of the past, and the methods of science become part of their own equipment on which they [scientists] rely. All this functions like the lenses of our spectacles. While we are wearing our usual spectacles and exploring the world around us, we do not attend to the lenses; we attend through them to the things we are examining. They function as an extension of the lenses in our own eyes, and we indwell them just as we indwell our own eyes. Likewise when we have come to use a language freely, we indwell the language. We don not look at the language as an object over against us; we think through the language. By indwelling it we are able to make contact with the world around us. We are subsidiarily aware of the words we use, but we focus on the things to which they refer. In the same way, scientists are subsidiarily aware of the tradition to which they are apprenticed, while, at the same time, they are focally attending to the object of their research. If their work is to make progress, they have to trust this tradition, just as we have to trust the lenses in our eyes or in our spectacles. This trust is a precondition for our exploration of the world (pp. 40-41).
Hence, according to Polanyi, the scientific tradition itself serves a kind of “fiduciary framework” in which the scientist must trust so as to make progress in knowledge (p. 41).
Third, in order to further scientific knowledge, one must recognize a problem and attempt to find a solution. Here Polanyi introduces his idea of recognition as a kind of intuition that there is some kind of “pattern or harmony waiting to be found” amongst what hitherto seems to be merely chaotic empirical reality. Such intuitions of course can turn out to be illusory, and in those cases, they would simply be abandoned or redirected. Not only does scientific discovery involve intuition, but it also requires imagination and a kind of prudence that co-exists with risk taking. To this, Newbigin adds,
[a]t every point along this course, there is need of personal judgment in deciding whether a pattern is significant or merely random. None of these things can be covered by formal rules. They all involve the personal commitment of the scientist, and it is absurd to pretend that the findings of science can be understood without taking into account all these subjective factors (p. 41).
Fourth, the scientist’s work involves what Polanyi calls “tacit knowledge.” In other words, much of what we know, which influences our thinking, we are not able to explicitly express (p. 42). Fifth, contrary to the idea promulgated in the 19th century, science will not one day be able to predict and control all events. Such a notion fails to take into consideration the hierarchical structure of the physical world. Here the idea is that one cannot limit the laws governing one field to that of another (e.g., the laws of chemistry cannot be limited to the laws of physics, nor can those of biology be reduced to physics). “The exhaustive examination of the physical, chemical, and mechanical structure of the machine will not enable us to discover the purpose for which the machine was constructed. We have to be informed either by the designer of the machine or by someone who is accustomed to using it for its proper purpose” (p. 42).
Lastly, though it is the case that all knowledge claims involve personal commitment, the scientist makes these “with universal intent” (p. 43). In addition, “a valid truth claim will lead to new discovery” (p. 43). Newbigin adds, for Polanyi, truth claims made by scientists are not “irreformable and indubitable claims to possess the truth; rather, they are claims to be on the way to the fullness of truth. There is thus no absolute dichotomy, such as Descartes has bequeathed to us, between knowing and believing” (p. 43). Newbigin ends the chapter by citing one of Polanyi’s most concise statements of his position. After affirming, “the personal participation of the knower in all acts of understanding,” Polanyi says
[b]ut this does not make our understanding subjective. Comprehension is neither an arbitrary act nor a passive experience, but a responsible act claiming universal validity. Such knowledge is indeed objective in the sense of establishing contact with a hidden reality, contact that is defined as the condition for anticipating an indeterminate range of as yet unknown (and perhaps yet inconceivable) true implications. It seems reasonable to describe this fusion of the personal and the objective as personal knowledge. (Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, pp. vii-viii).[1]
[1] As cited in Proper Confidence, p. 44.
3 Responses to “Newbigin on Polanyi: All Knowing Involves Personal Commitment”
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1 WTM Sep 5th, 2007 at 8:22 am
This is interesting, Cynthia. I didn’t know Newbingen was into Polyani. TF Torrance interacts with him occasionally, and from what I gather, liked what Polyani was doing and found resonances there with his own epistemological work. It’s a shame that Polyani’s “Personal Knowledge” seems to be out of print.
2 Dru Johnson Sep 5th, 2007 at 1:56 pm
WTM - Personal Knowledge should not be out of print. I know I’ve seen it at Borderst recently. But, yes, Newbigin almost becomes a straightforward expositor of Polanyi in PC. I used PC as a text in my epistemology class at the seminary and people seemed to really like it. Trevor Hart (St. Andrews) also has one of the best and most concise theological expositions of Polanyi in his Faith Thinking. Despite the cheesy sound of its title, FT is a wonderful book and a fairly easy read. I think Trevor Hart and Newbigin probably make Polanyi the most accessible to theology.
Although, I think everyone ought to just read Personal Knowledge, IMHO. But it’s a hard read and his motivations are not always perspicuous. The aspect you have picked up on here in Newbigin is generally termed his ‘fiduciary programme’. Once you ‘get’ the import of it, traditional epistemologies floating around today look utterly paltry. As always, it never hurts to throw a little Polanyi into the conversation.
3 Cynthia R. Nielsen Sep 5th, 2007 at 5:34 pm
Dear WTM,
Thanks for dropping by. I’ve really enjoyed Newbigin’s book thusfar. It is an easy read and is a great introduction to a number of philosophical themes/narratives for those not having a background in philosophy.
Dear Dru,
I am glad that you commented, as this post was in your honor. In case you guys were not aware of it, Dru is our local Polanyi expert. He did a guest post series for me on Polanyi that is still widely read. Just do a search on my blog for Polanyi and Dru’s series will pop up.
Best wishes, Cynthia

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