Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

Process, Insight, and Empirical Method 

An Argument for the Compatibility of the Philosophies of Alfred North Whitehead and Bernard J. F. Lonergan and Its Implications for Foundational Theology.

A Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of the Divinity School, The University of Chicago, for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy

December 1983

Thomas Hosinski, C.S.C.

Chapter II:

The Tenability of Whitehead’s and Lonergan’s Interpretations of Scientific Method (Continued)


Michael Polanyi on Scientific Method and Knowledge


There are a number of similarities between the analyses of empirical scientific method and human knowing produced by Karl Popper and Michael Polanyi.  One example is Polanyi’s reaction to Marxist doctrine as proclaimed by communism that motivated his interest in the philosophy of science. Polanyi, in a way similar to Popper, was appalled at what communism was doing in Europe under the guise of a “scientifically-based” socialism.  In particular, the suppression of freedom of research in the natural sciences in Soviet Russia and the persecution of biologists who did not accept the authority accorded by the state to T. D. Lysenko’s Marxist philosophy of science, caused Polanyi to ask:

What philosophy of science had we in the West to pit against this?  How was its general acceptance among us to be accounted for?  Was this acceptance justified?  On what grounds?  Marxism has challenged me to answer these questions . . .

Michael Polanyi, “Background and Prospect,” Science, Faith and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), p. 9. [Hereafter cited as S.F.S] The essays in this work, except for the introductory chapter new to the 1964 edition, were originally published in 1946.  See also Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (New York: Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1966), pp. 3-4. [Hereafter cited as T.D.]

As a result, Polanyi abandoned a distinguished career as a chemist and turned his attention and effort to an analysis of empirical scientific method and human knowing.  We will have occasion to see below that in addition to this similarity in motivation, there are similarities between Popper and Polanyi in several conclusions regarding scientific method and human knowing.

All the similarities in their interpretations, however, are overshadowed by a major disagreement with far-reaching implications.  This disagreement causes Polanyi to evaluate Popper’s interpretation of science as a major example of the “objectivist” ideal of science and knowledge.  Polanyi considers this view to be not only mistaken but also a dangerous force in modern thought that is inevitably destructive of the very bases of knowledge and action, and he tries to discredit it.

See T.D., 78-79 and 98-99 note 10; and Michael Polanyi and Harry Prosch, Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), pp. 27, 195, 224-225 note 2.  See also Richard Gelwick, The Way of Discovery: An Introduction to the Thought of Michael Polanyi (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 15, 26, 160 (note 20).

On the other hand, though Popper does not trouble himself to consider Polanyi’s work in any of his writings, it is nevertheless clear from Popper’s single reference to Polanyi that he regards Polanyi’s work as an example of a very da?~ gerous interpretation that is in fact an undermining of rational thought.

See Popper, “Replies,” p. 1067, which is the single reference to Polanyi by name in all of Popper’s writings.  He there states that the end of his preface to the English edition of L.Sc.D. was a critical allusion to Polanyi’s work. The relevant passage is L.Sc.D., p. 23: “For myself, I am interested in science and in philosophy only because I want to learn something about the riddle of the world in which we live, and the riddle of man’s knowledge of that world.  And I believe that only a revival of interest in these riddles can save the sciences and philosophy from narrow specialization and from an obscurantist faith in the expert’s special skill, and in his personal knowledge and authority; a faith that so well fits our ‘post-rationalist’ and ‘post-critical’ age, proudly dedicated to the destruction of the tradition of rational philosophy, and of rational thought itself.”

This mutual proclamation of the danger inherent in the other’s interpretation is a very good indication of the extent of their disagreement and the distance between their positions.  This disagreement can be discerned in their interpretations of science and its method, in their cognitional theories and epistemologies, and in the wider implications of their philosophies.

Polanyi argues that interpretations such as Popper’s overlook a crucial element or dimension of the knowing process.  In their attempt to characterize knowledge by the remainder of its aspects, such interpretations present an ideal of “objective” knowledge that is skewed or distorted. This distorted ideal of “objective”; knowledge has had and continues to have disastrous effects not only for our understanding of knowledge, but also for our self-understanding and for the bases of our communal or societal life.  The attempt to repair this unfortunate situation in human understanding must begin with a more adequate interpretation of the knowing process.  For this task, an analysis of the nature of scientific discovery serves as the best starting point because, first of all, the empirical sciences are widely taken to be the best examples of the pursuit of “objective” knowledge and, secondly, the process of scientific discovery contains the clues to those aspects of the knowing process that the “objectivist” interpretation overlooks.  I will begin, then, with Polanyi’s discussion of the “objectivist” ideal of empirical science and his analysis of the actual nature of scientific discovery.


The Nature of Scientific Discovery

“The declared aim of modern science,” Polanyi observes, “is to establish a strictly detached, objective knowledge.” [T.D., p. 20.] The elements of this “objectivist” ideal of knowledge are quite familiar because for so long this ideal has been presented as the reason for the success of science and the guarantee of its reliability.  The scientist works dispassionately, this ideal would have it, conscientiously striving to eliminate all personal biases, considering only the facts and all the facts, in order to arrive at “objective” knowledge.  The scientist’s method is described as detached, impersonal, dispassionate, “objective.”  Since it uses this objective method, science does not affirm anything that cannot be tested in experience; it never affirms anything beyond what the empirical facts will allow.  It rests on the solid empirical base of observation, and the moment an observation conflicts with a theory or an hypothesis, the scientist is ready to abandon the theory and formulate a new one based on the newly observed fact.  Because of the scientist’s critical skepticism, the scientist’s refusal to reason beyond the facts at hand, the scientist’s total dependence on the firm rock of observation, and the scientist’s exclusion of personal beliefs, interests, passions, and involvements—because of all this, science is successful and, above all, “objective.”

Polanyi’s starting point is to ask whether or not the actual pursuit of science bears out this objectivist ideal.  He will argue that it does not, that no matter how often scientists repeat the objectivist ideal when asked about scientific method, their actual practice inevitably ignores this ideal and departs from it in significant ways.  The primary evidence for his argument comes from his analysis of scientific discovery.  The activities of a scientist in making a discovery illustrate that there is a dimension to the knowing process that the objectivist ideal overlooks and that cannot be accounted for by that ideal.

Polanyi notes that scientific discovery begins with a problem.

T.D., p. 21; S.F.S., pp. 23-24.  As we have seen, Popper also holds that science begins with problems.

The selection of the problem to be studied is one of the first and most crucial decisions made by a scientist undertaking research.  There are two aspects of this simple fact that are of importance: how a scientist recognizes a problem, and how a scientist attempts to resolve a problem.  Involved in both of these is the dimension of knowing that Polanyi believes has been overlooked by most accounts of scientific discovery and knowing.  I will consider first the recognition of a problem.

To recognize a problem is a kind of knowledge in itself; it is a foreknowledge of something as yet unknown.

See Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (New York: Harper and Row, 1964; a pb. ed. of the 1962 revised edition, p. 120. (Hereafter cited as P.K.)

“To see a problem,” Polanyi writes, “is to see something that is hidden.  It is to have an intimation of the coherence of hitherto not comprehended particulars.” [T.D., p. 21.] There is, however, a logical difficulty involved in understanding how it is possible to have such knowledge as is contained in the recognition of a problem.  Plato pointed out this logical paradox in the Meno, saying that to entertain a problem and seek its solution is an apparent absurdity, for either one knows what one is looking for, and then there is no problem; or one does not know what one is looking for, and then one cannot expect to find anything. [Ibid., p. 22.] To resolve this paradox Plato posited the theory of knowledge as recollection, a solution that most thinkers have found unsatisfying.  Every other attempt to resolve this paradox, however, has been found wanting as well. In spite of this, humanity has continued to advance in knowledge by recognizing problems and making discoveries to solve those problems.  If all knowledge is explicit, that is, if it can be clearly stated and the process of its development formalized in a set of logical operations, the paradox of the Meno ought to remain supreme.  If, on the other hand, problems nevertheless exist and discoveries in solving them contribute to the growth of knowledge, then a part of our knowledge and the knowing process cannot be made explicit: “we can know things, and important things, that we cannot tell.” [Ibid; see also p. 4.] One of these things we know but cannot formalize in a series of logical rules is how a scientist initially recognizes a problem.

Science is not interested in just any problem.  In order for science to progress, the problems chosen must be good problems, fruitful ones, problems that can be solved and that are worth solving. [See T.D., p. 21; P.K.., pp. 120, 124.] A scientist initially recognizes such a problem by noticing certain particulars and taking them as clues pointing to an as yet unknown aspect of reality.  There is much akin here, Polanyi states in an analogy, to the way a person waking up in the middle of the night notices certain curious sounds in the home and takes them to suggest that all is not as it usually is. [S.F.S., pp. 22-23.]  There is, in Polanyi’s terms, a tacit integration of particulars taking place leading to the recognition of a problem. In science, we have said, the problem must be a good one, a fruitful one, one worth solving.  If pressed, we cannot give a formalized set of rules for how such a recognition of a good problem takes place.  It seems nonsensical to say that scientists recognize good problems by their fruitfulness when they do not yet explicitly know what might be discovered in solving the problem.  The only way to make sense of the scientific search for fruitful problems is to say that the recognition of a problem is itself a tacit foreknowledge of yet undiscovered aspects of reality. [T .D., p. 23.]

The characteristics of the tacit contribution to the knowing process become more clear when we consider how scientists go about solving a problem they have recognized.  Let us begin by continuing with Polanyi’s analogy.  Once a person has awakened and taken the curious sounds to be an indication that all is not as usual in the home, a process of guesswork begins.  Are the sounds caused by the wind, the heating system, the house creaking as it cools, the activity of some animal, or is it perhaps a burgler? “We try to guess. Was that a foot-fall? That means a burglar!  Convinced, we pluck up courage, rise, and proceed to verify our assumption.” [S.F.S., p. 23.]  This example or analogy presents several features of the activities involved in making a discovery.  Once the problem has been recognized, there is a collection and integration of clues, in connection with a series of speculations (about wind, heating systems, the thermal behavior of building materials, animals, and criminals).  The speculations are evaluated in light of the integrated clues.  Finally one more clue is noticed and taken to be decisive, and the burglar theory is established.  The person then proceeds to try to verify this theory.

If the burglar theory stands for a scientific discovery, then the significant features of discovery can be seen in how the theory is created.  Following the recognition of the problem, there is the collection of clues combined with a consistent effort to guess their cause—and to guess correctly.  The burglar theory “does not involve any definite relation of observational data from which further new observations can be definitely predicted.” [Ibid.]  The theory is consistent with any number of possible future observations.  In other words, while the theory does assume that the observational data refer to something real, something definite, the data may equally well support other theories, and even if our theory is correct we can make no definite predictions of how the reality will manifest itself in future observations.  In terms of the analogy, we might see the burglar when we turn on the hall light, we might hear his running steps as he leaves the house, or we might never see or hear him at all, but only discover we were correct after we take inventory of our possessions.  We do not know with any definiteness how our theory will bear fruit in the future.

Secondly, we must note the interplay of observation, imagination, and intuition that occurs in arriving at the discovery.  Clues are collected and integrated, possibilities are evaluated in an attempt to guess the solution of the problem.  Finally, however, some clue is taken to be decisive and the guess of a definite solution is made.  This is something different from both observation and imagination, and is essential to the process of discovery.  This taking of some clue to be decisive and hazarding a guess of a definite solution is mediated by intuition.  It is one of the more striking elements of what Polanyi often refers to as the “personal” dimension involved in the process of making a discovery.  We might initially get at this “personal” dimension by expanding Polanyi’s analogy.  Let us suppose that all five members of a family are awakened by the curious sounds, but that four of them, assuming the noises are merely the family cat paying a nightly visit to the litter box, go back to sleep.  How are we to explain that only the one member of the family arrived at the burglar theory?  If the theory is later proven to be correct, we might account for it by referring to that person’s “powers of intuition,” or ability to “see” in the data what others overlooked. Something similar is at work in the making of a scientific discovery.

Very often a scientific theory does not solve a problem by selecting an already known element of reality (like a burglar), but by postulating an entirely new one. [See ibid., p. 24.] This intensifies our problem.  How is it that a scientist is able to guess the presence of a real relationship between observed data if its existence has never before been known? Polanyi argues that this ability to discern a coherence in previously not comprehended particulars is similar to ordinary perception but is guided by a trained intuition.

. . . the capacity of scientists to guess the presence of shapes as tokens of reality differs from the capacity of our ordinary perception, only by the fact that it can integrate shapes presented to it in terms which the perception of ordinary people cannot readily handle.  The scientist’s intuition can integrate widely dispersed data, camouflaged by sundry irrelevant connexions, and indeed seek out such data by experiments guided by a dim foreknowledge of the possibilities which lie ahead. [See ibid.]

Polanyi’s first meaning when he speaks of the “personal” component of the knowing process is the essential contribution of the scientist’s intuition in arriving at an hypothesis.  The scientist’s imagination throws up several possibilities as solutions to the problem, but it is the scientist’s intuition that narrows the choice of possibilities and eventually commits him or her to the pursuit of a definite line of inquiry. The intuition is itself a “dim foreknowledge” of the yet unknown reality.  It is like the feeling of the awakened person that there is something new and unusual in the nighttime noises of the home.  This intuition begins to function in recognizing the problem and continues to function in the attempt to solve it.  It is here that we begin to see the weakness of the objectivist ideal of science.  The formation of an hypothesis is the central moment in scientific discovery because it is the formulation of a solution to the originating problem.  The hypothesis is a scientific proposition that the answer to the problem is such and such.  Yet Polanyi has shown that such propositions cannot be derived by definitely formulated operations applied to primary observations.  Rather, they are guesses or conjectures, and “the process of their discovery must involve an intuitive perception of the real structure of natural phenomena.

Ibid., p. 25.  I might note that Popper recognizes this.  It is for these very reasons that Popper relegates the formation of hypotheses to psychology and restricts the logic of scientific discovery to the logic of testing.  Polanyi, on the other hand, insists that there is method to scientific guesswork and that to understand correctly the character of knowledge, it is essential to understand that method.  In terms of Whitehead’s distinction (Thesis pp. 14-15), Popper restricts his analysis to the “logic of the discovered,” while Polanyi attempts to analyze the “logic of discovery” and to show how the “personal” component discovered there is also present in the “logic of the discovered.”  I shall return to this contrast between Popper and Polanyi below.

Thus there is an undeniably personal component in the process of discovery.

This personal component is not restricted to the process of arriving at the hypothesis.  Polanyi argues that it can also be detected in the process of testing and verification.  The objectivist interpretation of science would have us believe that the testing of hypotheses is governed by strictly formalized procedures of experimentation and new observation that result in an “objective” evaluation (verification or falsification) of the hypothesis.  In fact, however, the actual practice of scientists departs from this ideal account.  There are not explicit or formalized rules governing the scientist’s decision whether to uphold or abandon any scientific proposition in the face of any new particular observation.  Here, too, is found the “personal” component:

The part of observation is to supply clues for the apprehension of reality: that is the process underlying scientific discovery.  The apprehen-sion of reality thus gained forms in its turn a clue to future observations: that is the process underlying verification.  In both processes there is involved an intuition of the relation between observation and reality . . . . Verification, even though usually more subject to rules than discovery, rests ultimately on mental powers which go beyond the application of any definite rules. [S.F.S., p. 29.]

Conditioned as we have been by the objectivist account of science, this understanding of verification may seem strange until we consider the process a scientist goes through before he or she will publicly state that an hypothesis has been verified or confirmed.

In the course of any single experimental inquiry the mutual stimulus between intuition and observation goes on all the time and takes on the most varied forms.  Most of the time is spent in fruitless efforts, sustained by a fascination which will take beating after beating for months on end, and produce ever new outbursts of hope, each as fresh as the last so bitterly crushed the week or month before.  Vague shapes of the surmised truth suddenly take on the sharp outlines of certainty, only to dissolve again in the light of second thoughts or of further experimental observations.  Yet from time to time certain visions of the truth, having made their appearance, continue to gain strength both by further reflection and additional evidence. These are the claims which may be accepted as final by the investigator and for which he may assume public responsibility by communicating them in print.  This is how scientific propositions normally come into existence. [Ibid. p. 30.]

The certainty accorded to such propositions, Polanyi points out, can differ only in degree from that accorded the preliminary results, which for one reason or another were judged to be erroneous, incomplete, or in need of modification.  In short, the scientist’s decision about what to accept as established “cannot be wholly derived from any explicit rules but must be taken in the light of our own personal judgement of the evidence.” [Ibid.] To be sure, there are rules to guide verification. Among the most powerful criteria are reproducibility of results, agreement between determinations made by different and independent methods, and fulfilment of predictions.  In the last resort, however, none of these can be relied on with absolute confidence.  Polanyi gives examples of cases in which all these criteria were fulfilled and yet the statement which they appeared to confirm later turned out to be false. [See ibid., pp. 94-96.]

The same sort of considerations apply to the rules governing falsification or refutation.  While it is generally true that a scientist must be ready to accept the refutation of a hypothesis by observational evidence to the contrary, this is not done in a mechancal way.  The scientist uses his or her judgment in applying this rule.  For example, Polanyi notes,

The periodic system of elements is formally contradicted by the fact that argon and potassium, as well as tellurium and iodine, fit in only in a sequence of decreasing, instead of increasing, atomic weights.  This contradiction, however, did at no time cause the system to be abandoned.  The quantum theory of light was first proposed by Einstein—and upheld subsequently for twenty years—in spite of its being in sharp conflict with the evidence of optical diffraction.  [Ibid., p. 29; see also pp. 90-94.]

Polanyi also notes that in the normal routine of scientific research, deviations from expected results are continually explained away by the assumption of experimental error.  While such a policy might cause the scientist to miss a great discovery, it is nevertheless employed.  If it were not, if every anomaly were taken as an indication of some new phenomenon and tracked down, research would degenerate into a wild-goose chase.

We may conclude that just as there is no proof of a proposition in natural science which cannot conceivably turn out to be incomplete, so also there is no refutation which cannot conceivably turn out to have been unfounded. There is a residue of personal judgment required in deciding—as the scientist eventually must—what weight to attach to any particular set of evidence in regard to the validity of a particular proposition. [Ibid., p. 31.]

An analysis of scientific discovery, then, reveals that the propositions of science have two characteristics usually overlooked by the objectivist ideal of science.  They have the character of guesses or conjectures, even when the scientist affirms them as established.  Secondly, both the process leading to the formulation of these propositions and the process in which they are tested and affirmed contain distinct and inescapable personal components, namely, the scientist’s intuition and the exercise of the scientist’s judgment.

There is yet a third way in which the personal component of the knowing process manifests itself: the passionate involvement of the scientist in his or her work.  I shall discuss this in the following subsection.

This is the evidence which the objectivist ideal of science overlooks, but it seems to result in the position that science is mere guesswork and that its success is entirely dependent on the personal abilities of the scientist.  Does this not reduce science to some esoteric form of subjectivism?  Polanyi is convinced that there is great truth in science, and so he does not believe that its guesses are unfounded nor that its pursuit is mere subjectivism.  The guess-work of science must be further examined to determine if any method can be discovered in the operations of the scientist and to discover what it is that safeguards science from subjectivism.


Scientific Method: The Transcendence of Subjectivity in Personal Knowing

Since science begins with problems and the attempt to solve them, the clue to the true character of scientific method can be sought in a study of how scientists go about attempting to solve problems. Polanyi argues that the process scientists follow in this attempt is methodical, but not strictly formalizable.  Scientific discovery, as we have seen, cannot be produced automatically simply by applying some formalized method, as a cake can be produced simply by following the recipe.  Yet the process scientists follow is methodical in the sense that when scientific discoveries occur, they occur as the result of following the same general method of problem-solving.  Polanyi appeals to heuristics—the study of the general method of problem-solving in mathematics—as substantiating the interpretation he proposes, and he argues that the same general method is at work in all the natural sciences. [See S.F.S., pp. 32-34; P.K., pp. 120-131.]

Heuristics reveals two important characteristics of the methodical process of problem-solving.  First, the chain of reasoning that precedes the solution or discovery is guided by a dim foreknowledge of the yet unknown solution.

It is characteristic of the process of ·scientific conjecture that it can guess . . . the several consecutive elements of a coherent sequence—even though each step guessed at a time can be justified only by the success of the further yet unguessed steps with which it will eventually combine to the final solution. This is particularly clear in the case of a mathematical discovery consisting of a whole new chain of arguments. . . . In order to guess a series of such steps, an intimation of approaching nearer towards a solution must be received at every step.  There must be a sufficient foreknowledge of the whole solution to guide conjecture with reasonable proba-bility in making the right choice at each consecutive stage.

S.F.S., p. 32. Polanyi here refers to the analysis of G. Polya, How To Solve It (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1945).

Polanyi elsewhere refers to this foreknowledge of the yet unknown solution as “anticipatory intuition.” [Knowing and Being: Essays by Michael Polanyi, ed. Marjorie Grene (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), p. 202.] While the influence of this foreknowledge on mathematical reasoning cannot be formalized, it is utterly essential to success.  The final advice from master mathematicians on how to proceed in problem-solving is contained in such paradoxical statements as: “Look at the unknown!  Look at the end.  Remember your aim.  Do not lose sight of what is required.  Keep in mind what you are working for.  Look at the unknown.  Look at the conclusion.”  [G. Polya, How To Solve It, p. 112; quoted in P.K., p. 127.  Polya’s italics.]

The second important feature of problem-solving revealed by heuristics is that the solution does not came automatically at the culmination of mental effort.  While intense effort and mental activity is required in preparation, the discovery itself is not a product of the active mental effort.  Rather, the discovery or final solution most often comes in a flash of illumination during a period of rest or distraction when the problem is not the focus of mental attention. [S.F.S., pp. 33-34; P.K., pp. 121-122, 127-129.]

There can actually be no doubt that, at any rate in mathematics, the most essential phase of discovery represents a process of spontaneous emergence. . . . All the efforts of the discoverer are but preparations for the main event of discovery, which eventually takes place—if at all—by a process of spontaneous mental reorganization uncon-trolled by conscious effort.

S.F.S., p. 34.  Polanyi here refers to the analysis of mathematical discovery by Henri Poincare, Science et Methode (Paris: Flammarion, 1908) .

Things click. The solution suddenly appears to be in hand. Polanyi refers to this as the “final intuition.” [Knowing and Being, p. 202.]  Once this flash of illumination has occurred, the solution is then expressed in formal public language and prepared for testing.  Henri Poincare, the great mathematician of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was one of the first to analyze the stages of mathematical discovery (on the basis of his own experience and discoveries).  He outlined the process of discovery as consisting of four phases: Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and Verification.  

While this analysis is Poincare’s, the terminology comes from G. Wallas, The Art of Thought (London: 1946), pp. 40-42. See P.K., p. 121 note 2; and S.F.S., p. 34.

These four phases of discovery can be used as a framework around which to gather in a coherent description those elements I have discussed thusfar. The period of Preparation begins with the recognition of a problem.  This involves the first function of “anticipatory intuition,” the recognition that there is a problem.  Clearly, this recognition is preceded by a series of observations that constitute the data of the problem.  Once the problem has been recognized, the thinker engages in definite and formalized operations geared toward solving the problem.  In mathematics this involves the use of symbols and doing computations; in empirical science it might involve further observations and descriptions and definite quantitative measurements.  This preparatory work is guided by the second function of “anticipatory intuition”: a dim, unspecified foreknowledge of the yet unknown solution.  Further, the operations of this phase of Preparation are driven by the scientist’s belief that there is some reality (or aspect of reality) that can account for or explain the problem and by the scientist’s desire to discover that reality.  

I shall discuss this belief and desire in more detail below.

The conscious, active operations of this preparatory phase, however, do not produce a solution of the problem.

The second phase, Incubation, is a situation of heuristic tension.  [See P.K., p. 122.] The unknown solution has not been encountered, yet the investigator knows it must be there.  He or she has exerted his or her best efforts, yet the solution remains tantalizingly out of reach.  All the clues are there, but the pattern cannot be grasped.  This period of tension may persist for lengthy periods of time. Then suddenly, very often when the mind is not consciously entertaining the problem in all its complexity, the solution presents itself in a flash of illumination.  The “final intuition” has occurred, and carried with it a conviction of its rightness.  The clues are seen in a new light, integrated into a new pattern by the flash of illumination.

Polanyi often points out that Gestalt psychology has observed and studied this phenomenon of the sudden reintegration of clues that reveals a hitherto unnoticed pattern.  See S.F.S., pp. 11-12; P.K., pp. 55-58 & passim.

Once this insight has occurred, the scientist can again use conscious and definite operations in order to state the solution or hypothesis in public, formal language and proceed to the fourth phase of testing or verification.

The heuristic tension in the phase of Incubation, and the resumption of determined activity after the illumination, are clues to a very important aspect of the process of discovery.  There is a “logical gap” separating the recognition of a problem and the solution of that problem.  [See P.K., pp. 123-140, and numerous other references (see Index, “logical gap”).] Once the solution has been discovered, that particular problem never again causes the state of heuristic tension in the investigator.  This indicates that heuristic progress is irreversible; that is, the procedure of discovery cannot be traced back step by step from conclusion to beginning and repeated at will.  In short, discovery is not a strictly formalized procedure.

It follows that true discovery is not a strictly logical performance, and accordingly, we may describe the obstacle to be overcome in solving a problem as a “logical gap,” . . . . “Illumination” is then the leap by which the logical gap is crossed.  [Ibid., p. 123.]

Thus Polanyi would agree with Popper that the process by which hypotheses are produced is not susceptible to logical analysis. But in contrast to Popper, Polanyi insists that the informal and a-critical act by which the logical gap is crossed in the quest for understanding

In Michael Polanyi, The Study of Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959), p. 20, Polanyi refers to all the operations leading to discovery as “understanding.”  Note the agreement with both Whitehead and Lonergan in calling the stage of untested hypothesis or theory “understanding,” but reserving the word “knowledge” for the culmination of the stage of testing.

cannot be relegated to psychology, but must be considered an integral part of scientific method.  As we shall see below, this leads Polanyi to positions on the problem of induction and the character of knowledge radically different from those taken by Popper.

This analysis, drawn from heuristics but applicable to any process of discovery, provides a structure which reveals the methodical character of scientific inquiry.  Science begins with a period of preparation. In this period, observation and intuition lead to the recognition of a problem, and conscious operations lead the scientist to the brink of the logical gap.  The scientist then enters the phase of incubation, when he or she must live at the brink of that logical gap in heuristic tension: convinced that there is a reality to be discovered, earnestly desiring to reach that reality, but unable to reach across the logical gap by formal operations.  If and when Illumination occurs, the gap is bridged in a flash of intuition, and the solution is then worked out and expressed in formal language.  Even though this “final intuition” has carried with it a conviction of its rightness, even though understanding has been achieved, the solution must be tested.  The fourth phase of Verification, then, involves the use of explicit and formal operations geared to test the solution.  As we have seen above, however, even in this last stage where explicit and formal operations play a central role, the ultimate decision as to whether certain observations confirm or refute the hypothesis is not completely formal.  In the end, the decision rests on the scientist’s intuition and judgment.  Therefore, even though there are formal operations used in attempting to solve problems and in testing the proposed solutions, there are key roles for intuition and judgment both at the beginning and the end, and the success of the whole method depends on the intervening moment of illumination, which is informal and a-critical in character.

Thusfar we have discovered that there is a methodical structure to the various operations and elements involved in the pursuit of science.  Polanyi has shown that though science is guesswork, it is methodical.  But this in itself does not yet absolve Polanyi’s interpretation of the charge of subjectivism. Science still seems to depend entirely on the private illumination and judgment of the scientist.  Polanyi now draws attention to certain features of the practice of science in an attempt to show that although knowledge must always remain personal, it is not what is usually meant by subjective.  The first step is to examine more carefully the character of the scientist’s judgment.

One important characteristic of a scientist’s exercise of judgment is “the curious fact that he is himself the ultimate judge of what he accepts as true.  His brain labours to satisfy its own demands according to criteria applied by its own judgment.” [S.F.S., p. 38.] Although there are standards and criteria that guide scientific work, ultimately it is the scientist’s personal judgment that decides how these criteria are to be applied and whether the standards have been met. The scientist’s personal judgment is an act of commitment for which the scientist accepts personal responsibility.

The scientist’s task is not to observe any allegedly correct procedure but to get the right results.  He has to establish contact, by whatever means, with the hidden reality of which he is predicating.  His conscience must therefore give its ultimate assent always from a sense of having established that contact. And he will accept therefore the duty of committing himself on the strength of evidence which can, admittedly, never be complete; and trust that such a gamble, when based on the dictates of his scientific conscience, is in fact his competent function and his proper chance of making his contribution to science. [Ibid., p. 40.]

There is, then, a moral dimension to the exercise of scientific judgment.  The making of such a judgment involves personal commitment and responsibility, and the exercise of what can only be called “conscience.”

What evokes the scientist’s commitment?  Why is the making of a scientific judgment a matter of conscience?  The answer to both these questions lies in the objective of science: the pursuit of truth, a fuller understanding of reality.  As we have seen before, the pursuit of discovery in science i.e. motivated by the conviction that there is something there to be discovered.

The discoverer is filled with a compelling sense of responsibility for the pursuit of a hidden truth, which demands his services for revealing it. His act of knowing exercises a personal judgment in relating evidence to an external reality, an aspect of which he is seeking to apprehend. [T.D., p. 25.]

The choices are made by the scientist: they are his acts, but what he pursues is not of his making; his acts stand under the judgment of the hidden reality he seeks to uncover.  His vision of the problem, his obsession with it, and his final leap to discovery are all filled from beginning to end with an obligation to an external objective.  In these intensely personal acts, therefore, there is no self-will. Originality is commanded at every stage by a sense of responsibility for advancing the growth of truth in men’s minds. [Ibid., p . 77.]

It is this commitment to and service of the truth that is expressed in the assertion of a scientific proposition.  Scientific propositions are born in the environment of the person: personal recognition of a problem, personal struggle to solve the problem, the exercise of personal intuition and judgment.  But in the making of a judgment the scientist asserts his or her propositions with “universal intent.” [Ibid., p. 78; P.K., passim, esp. pp. 308-312.]  In these propositions the scientist claims that contact has been established with the hidden reality, and in them also the scientist intends to describe and explain that hidden external reality in such a way that anyone with the proper training and expertise can also understand the newly discovered truth.  Scientific propositions, though personal, are not subjective: they are affirmed with the intention of universal validity.

The enquiring scientist’s intimations of a hidden reality are personal.  They are his own beliefs, which—owing to his originality—as yet he alone holds.  Yet they are not a subjective state of mind, but convictions held with universal intent, and heavy with arduous projects.  It was he who decided what to believe, yet there is no arbitrariness in his decision.  For he arrived at his conclusions by the utmost exercise of responsibility.  He has reached responsible beliefs, born of necessity, and not changeable at will.  In a heuristic commitment, affirmation, surrender and legislation are fused into a single thought, bearing on a hidden reality.  [P.K., p. 311.]

This accounts for the passionate interest and involvement of the scientist in his or her work.  The objectivist ideal describes scientific work as dispassionate, uninvolved, and impersonal, but every scientist knows that this is the very opposite of the truth.  The excitement of struggling with a problem, the thrill of discovering a solution, the intense disappointment if the solution proves to be false, the bitter frustration of prolonged failure, the joyful and near-ecstatic release when at last a solution is discovered that holds up in testing—all of these experiences are clear indications of the scientist’s passionate and personal involvement in discovery. [See S.F.S., pp. 38-39; T.D., pp. 78-79; P.K., Chapter 6 passim.]  These passions are born of the desire to know, the desire to serve the truth and expand knowledge.  The creative work of science cannot be done without this passionate interest in the outcome. The depth and intensity of these passions are due to the scientist’s pursuit of the truth.  They have an urgency about them because they spring from the moral character of the scientist’s commitment to the truth and his or her acceptance of personal responsibility in exercising scientific judgment with universal intent.

These are the elements in the practice of science that rescue Polanyi’s interpretation from the charge of subjectivism.  Conscience, commitment, the passionate but responsible pursuit of truth, are all part of the scientist’s exercise of judgment; they are the personal participation of the scientist in the act of scientific knowing.  Precisely because they all involve a deep sense of obligation to the external objective of knowing, these acts of personal participation bridge the gap between subjectivity and objectivity. The full character of the scientist’s exercise of judgment reveals that it is impossible to achieve true objectivity without the personal participation of the knower in the act of knowing.

. . . this personal coefficient, which shapes all factual knowledge, bridges in doing so the disjunction between subjectivity and objectivity.  It implies the claim that man can transcend his own subjectivity by striving passionately to fulfil his personal obligations to universal standards. [P.K., p. 17; see also p. 300.]

. . . personal knowledge in science is not made but discovered, and as such it claims to establish contact with reality beyond the clues on which it relies.  It commits us, passionately and far beyond our comprehension, to a vision of reality.  Of this responsibility we cannot divest ourselves by setting up objective criteria of verifiability—or falsifiability, or testability, or what you will.  For we live in it as in the garment of our own skin.  Like love, to which it is akin, this commitment is a “shirt of flame,” blazing with passion and, also like love, consumed by devotion to a universal demand.  Such is the true sense of objectivity in science . . . [P.K., p. 64.]

Objectivity in science, then, depends on the scientist’s commitment to the pursuit of truth and to the responsible exercise of personal judgment in fulfilling his or her obligations to the truth.  When such judgments are made, they commit the scientist to a vision of reality.  The responsibility for this vision of reality cannot be shifted from the knower to some set of external or “objective” criteria, for that responsibility and commitment constitute the dwelling place of the inquiring and judging subject. There is no path to scientific objectivity that does not require and call forth the personal participation of the scientist.

It is the act of commitment in its full structure that saves personal knowledge from being merely subjective.  Intellectual commitment is a responsible decision, in submission to the compelling claims of what in good conscience I conceive to be true.  It is an act of hope, striving to fulfil an obligation . . . This hope and this obligation are expressed in the universal intent of personal knowledge.

P.K., p. 65.  We will see below that conscious commitment is a reflection of the necessary tacit component of all knowing which Polanyi calls “indwelling,” and that it is at the root of the “fiduciary” character of knowledge.  See ibid., Chapter 10, pp. 299-324.

Thus the personal participation of the scientist is an essential part of the methodical pursuit of scientific knowledge.  Rather than leading to subjectivism, this personal participation is discovered to be an inherent constituent of scientific objectivity.

There is one other element of the pursuit of science that is relevant to the present topic, and that is the role and authority of the scientific community. [See S.F.S., pp. 42-62; P.K., pp. 162-165, 216-222; T.D., 61-74.]  Although science is often a solitary pursuit, it is never carried out in isolation.  The common tradition, commitment, and shared authority of the scientific community make themselves felt in a number of ways and constitute a continual check on the work of individual scientists, insuring as far as possible that personal knowledge does not slip into subjective delusion.  This begins with the teaching and training of the young.  At first, the student must submit to the authority of the teacher, who continually assures the student that certain things at present beyond the student’s comprehension and ability to understand are not only important, but true and valuable. Through increasingly advanced education and training, the student is steeped in the scientific tradition, trained in the methods of science, and guided to fuller and deeper understandings, all the while absorbing the unspoken convictions of the teachers concerning the nature of reality and the human ability to make contact with the hidden aspects of reality.  The student’s perception is changed, his or her intuition is trained, and he or she gradually absorbs and accepts the commitments and standards of scientific judgment.  This is possible only because the student submits to the authority of science in the person of the teacher.  This submission to authority, however, has the purpose of eventually forming an independently judging scientist.  By the time the apprenticeship in science is completed, the trained scientist has assumed personal responsibility for the whole process of science; that is, even the authority of science will be mediated through his or her personal judgment.

As he approaches maturity the student will rely for his beliefs less and less on authority and more and more on his own judgment.  His own intuition and conscience will take over responsibility in the measure in which authority is eclipsed.  This does not mean that he will rely no more on the report of other scientists—far from it—but it means that such reliance will henceforth be entirely subject to his own judgment.  Submission to authority will henceforth form merely a part of the process of discovery, for which—as for the process as a whole—he will assume full responsibility before his own conscience. [S.F.B., pp. 45-46.]

In short, the scientist’s personal judgment, exercised under the dictates of his or her scientific conscience, is always personal, but is formed and trained by the scientific tradition and community during the period of apprenticeship.  Thus scientists form a community with shared convictions and a shared tradition, and this always acts as a check on the personal judgments of the individual scientist.

Secondly, the community exercises a check on subjectivism by the disciplined way in which it regulates the publication of scientific work.  The results of scientific inquiry, if they are to be any contribution to the advancement of science, must become known or publicized.  In science this is usually done by publication in refereed journals. Before ever seeing the light of day, the scientist’s propositions are subject to the judgment of peers in the scientific community who are entrusted with the upholding of minimum standards.  Once a paper has been printed, it is laid open to even wider scrutiny by all scientists.  After a time the scientific community reaches a more or less settled consensus on the value of this work.  Finally, if the general consensus is favorable, the results of the work will eventually be included in scientific textbooks and standard reference works, and thus gain wider dissemination. In all of these steps there is a reliance on the personal judgments of members of the scientific community and a mutually accepted discipline based on the trust that scientists will exercise their judgment responsibly and in good conscience. Similar considerations enter into the funding of research projects, the assignment of the necessary facilities for research, and the appointments made to important scientific posts. [See ibid., pp. 47-50.]

Finally, there is the remarkable fact that though science depends on personal judgment, a consensus of opinion usually prevails in the scientific community.  How can this consensus be explained? If one studies instances of scientific controversy, it becomes clear that the basis for scientific consensus is a tradition of shared convictions. [See ibid., pp. 50-56.] Both sides in a dispute appeal to that tradition, and both sides acknowledge it as the common ground between them.  The pioneer who has discovered some novel aspect of reality does not advocate the discarding of scientific tradition, but claims that his or her discovery is an advancement within the scientific tradition.  In short, the reason why controversies in science do not result in fragmentation but in the growth of science as a whole is that all parties subscribe to the same convictions, premises, and ideals.  It is this living tradition that molds the conscience of all scientists, acting as the norm of scientific judgment.

It would thus appear that when the premisses of science are held in common by the scientific community each must subscribe to them by an act of devotion.  These premisses form not merely a guide to intuition, but also a guide to conscience; they are not merely indicative, but also normative.  The tradition of science . . . is a spiritual reality which stands over [scientists] and compels their allegiance.

I have spoken before of scientific conscience, as the normative principle arbitrating between intuitive impulses and critical procedure . . . . We see now how a scientific community organizes the conscience of its members through the joint cultivation of scientific ideals. . . .

There exists then a community of consciences jointly rooted in the same ideals recognized by all.  And the community becomes an embodiment of these ideals and a living demonstration of their reality. [See ibid., pp. 54-55, 56.]

In sum, though the personal judgment of the scientist always remains personal, it is formed and trained by and exercised within a community of similarity dedicated scientists bound together by a living tradition of conscientious service to seeking the truth.  Hence in addition to the methodical structure of empirical scientific method itself and the moral dimension of the scientist’s acts of judgment, the nature and influence of the scientific community constitute another force which contributes to the transcendence of subjectivity in personal knowing.


The Problem of Induction

Before I trace the development of Polanyi’s analysis of scientific method into a theory of knowledge, I must first discuss how his analysis resolves the problem of induction.  I may begin by contrasting Polanyi’s approach to that of Popper.

A fuller contrast of their interpretations will be provided in the third major section of this chapter.

As we have seen, Popper’s recognition that an hypothesis is not the result of a logical chain of inference caused him to deny that there is such a procedure as induction and that the production of hypotheses is part of scientific method.  He relegates the causes of hypotheses production to psychology and claims that scientific method is restricted to the deductive operations of critically testing these psychologically produced hypotheses.  For Polanyi, on the other hand, arriving at an hypothesis is the central creative moment in scientific method; it is the very heart of scientific discovery.  If the process leading to discovery is an integral part of the process of gaining scientific knowledge, then it simply will not do to relegate it to psychology and build a theory of scientific method on the processes of testing alone. Therefore, in his view, an analysis of scientific method and the knowledge arrived at by this method must include some account of how hypotheses originate.

Both Popper and Polanyi recognize that there is a “logical gap” between the recognition of a problem and the formulation of the hypothesis proposed as the resolution of the problem.  Popper takes this logical gap as an indication that the process of arriving at an hypothesis is not part of the logic of scientific discovery.  Polanyi, in contrast, takes the logical gap as an indication that the process of scientific discovery is not strictly formal, and that consequently our understanding of scientific method, knowledge, and objectivity must be modified accordingly.

Popper denies that scientific method has any inductive character, since induction cannot be shown to be a formal logical procedure.  Polanyi, in contrast, argues that though induction is not a formal logical procedure, scientific method nevertheless includes a tacit or informal procedure of induction which is an essential part of the process of discovery.  The logical gap indicates that this necessary element of scientific method is dependent on the tacit or personal dimension of scientific knowing.  Polanyi seems to have Popper’s interpretation in mind when he writes of two

major errors which have resulted from the attempt to define empirical validity by strict criteria.  First, since no formal procedure could be found for producing a good idea from which to start an inquiry, philosophers virtually abandon the attempt to understand how this is done.  Second, having arrived at the conclusion that no formal rule of inference can establish a valid empirical generalization, they denied that any such generalization can be derived from experimental data—while ignoring the fact that valid generalizations are commonly arrived at by empirical inquiries based on informal procedures. [Meaning, p. 56.]

The solution to the problem of induction lies not in denying that there is such a procedure, but in recognizing that the procedure is informal.  Polanyi assembles a good bit of evidence to support his insistence that an informal procedure of inductive inference does occur in empirical science.  He appeals to studies of learning processes and problem-solving in animals; and he appeals to Piaget’s research on learning in children.  [P.K., pp. 71-77; 364-373.] He shows that such learning is based on the same tacit heuristic powers as is problem-solving in mathematics and the natural sciences.  He shows that the intentionality and heuristic effort exercised in the attempt to solve problems is an attempt to comprehend a hidden whole by working with the known particulars; that is, the heuristic attempt to solve a problem is essentially the same as inductive inference.

On the intentionality involved in the informal procedure of inductive inference, see P.K., pp. 115-116.  On the link between learning, problem-solving, and inductive inference, see especially P.K., pp. 364-367, 370-371.  See also Knowing and Being, pp. 171-173.

Induction as it is practiced in learning, problem-solving, and scientific inquiries is not strictly a logical form of inference, but rather is an act of integration: “the capacity to know a problem is the most striking instance of our powers to integrate the meaning of a set of particulars by fixing our attention on a gap behind which we anticipate the presence of yet hidden knowledge. [Knowing and Being, p. 171.]

If induction is not a logical form of inference, however, is not Popper correct in relegating it to psychology and refusing to admit it to the logic of scientific discovery?  Polanyi’s answer is a resounding “No!”  Because, as we have seen at length, this tacit and informal process of discovery is so essential to scientific method, it is necessary to include it in any analysis of scientific method.  If we try to exclude it, we end up with the skewed and truncated interpretation of objectivism, which presents a distorted explanation of how we come to know and a false characterization of the knowledge we achieve.  In short, Polanyi finds nothing wrong with Popper’s logical analysis in itself, but insists that there is more to the knowing process than formal logic.  If the formal logical operations of scientific method are considered in isolation from the entire context of the knowing process, the consequent analysis is bound to be misled and misleading. Furthermore, Polanyi suggests that when dealing with the knowing process—which must include tacit and informal procedures as well as formal ones—perhaps the classic distinction between logic and psychology is too blurred to be of value.

My own attempts to acknowledge tacit powers of personal judgment as the decisive organon of discovery and the ultimate criterion of scientific truth, have been opposed by describing these agencies as psychological, not logical, in character.  But this distinction is not explained by my critics.  Is an act of perception which sees an object in a way that assimilates it to past instances of the same kind, a psychological process or a logical inference?  We have seen that it can be mistaken and its results be false; and it certainly has a considerable likelihood of being true.  To me this suggests that it is a logical process of inference even though it is not explicit.  In any case, to perceive things rightly is certainly part of the process of scientific inquiry and to hold perceptions to be right underlies the holding of scientific propositions to be true. [Ibid., p. 173. See also P.K., p. 370.]

But what of Popper’s argument that observation cannot occur without prior expectations, that all observations are “theory-laden” and guided by some hypothesis?  Does this not indicate that what we call induction is really a form of deductive testing that occurs in an inductive direction? [See Thesis, pp. 128-129, 137-140, 141-143.] Polanyi is willing to cede that

to an important degree all discovery is deductive.  For no inquiry can succeed unless it starts from a true, or at least partly true, conception of the nature of things.  Such foreknowledge is indispensible, and all discovery is but a step towards the verification of such foreknowledge. [Knowing and Being, p. 130.]

Thus it is true that in one sense all scientific inquiry is deductive.  This does not mean that it is formally deductive, however, as Popper would have it.  It is not some explicitly stated hypothesis which guides scientific inquiry, but a dim and vague foreknowledge of the yet unknown.  It is not a formalized hypothesis, but a dimly-intuited one that guides the scientist, and the scientist must inductively sift the clues, exercise imagination, and gradually narrow the inquiry until finally some generalization is accepted as final.  Only then does the hypothesis which has been guiding inquiry receive formal expression.  In short, the influence of theory on observation is not explicit and formal during the process leading to discovery, and so the tacit operations that are seeking both the evidence for the hypothesis and the hypothesis itself can be considered to be inductive as well as deductive in character, but neither in a formal sense.

Polanyi summarizes his interpretation of induction as follows:

Successful induction can be conducted only in light of a genuine problem.  An inductive problem is an intimation of coherence among hitherto uncomprehended particulars, and the problem is genuine to the extent to which this intimation is true.  Such a surmise vaguely anticipates the evidence which will support it and guides the mind engrossed by it to the discovery of this evidence.  This usually proceeds stepwise, the original problem and surmise being modified and corrected by each new piece of evidence, a process which is repeated until eventually some, generalization is accepted as final.  [Ibid., p. 131.]


The Structure of Tacit Knowing

Having seen how Polanyi’s analysis of scientific method as personal knowing resolves the problem of induction, I must now turn to his development of this interpretation into a theory of knowing.  At several points in my discussion thusfar it has been evident that Polanyi’s argument was already overflowing the bounds of an analysis of empirical scientific method and spilling over into an interpretation of the structure of knowing itself.  Polanyi is convinced that the general structure of personal knowing he discovered at the heart of scientific inquiry is also the general structure of all human knowing.  His epistemology is an attempt to work out with more precision the structure of tacit knowing as it is present in any act of knowing.

The primary statement of Polanyi’s mature epistemology is T.D., which is a more formalized and precise presentation of the epistemology worked out in P.K.  This is supplemented by a number of essays collected in Knowing and Being and Meaning.  For a thorough study of Polanyi’s epistemology, see Harold Kuester, “The Epistemology of Michael Polanyi.”

I will briefly trace the main features of this epistemology in order to illustrate how completely Polanyi rejects the objectivist interpretation of knowledge.

Polanyi begins by noticing that in any instance of human knowing we know more than we can tell.  [T.D., pp. 4-5. ] A striking example of this fact is our ability to recognize an individual human face.  We know that face and can pick it out from among thousands of faces, but we find it extremely difficult to describe that face in its particularity.  Yet we do know its particulars.  The police have devised a method for coaxing this particular knowledge out of witnesses by asking them to select from a collection of various facial features (eyes, chins, mouths, etc.) those most closely approximating the features of the face they know.  Polanyi notes that this dimension of knowing is remarkably similar to the characteristics of a skillful performance. [P.K., pp. 49-55; T.D., pp. 6, 10, 20.] We may know very well how to ride a bicycle, but find it very difficult to put that knowledge into words in order to instruct someone else how to ride.  A particular physician might be well-known for his or her skill in diagnosing illnesses, and unable to express completely how he or she exercises this skill. A carpenter may be extremely skilled in the use of carpentry tools and yet unable to describe in explicit terms how those tools ought to be used in order to achieve his or her level of skill.  What is this type of knowing that cannot be told?  

In answering this question Polanyi takes his clue from Gestalt psychology but goes beyond what Gestalt psychology made of its discovery. [T.D., pp. 6-7; P.K., pp. 55-57.] Its discovery was that a coherent pattern is perceived by a spontaneous integration of a set of clues or stimuli.  The pattern is discovered not by attending to each of the particular clues and adding them up into a pattern, but rather by an act of integration that grasps the clues and the pattern together in an instant.  Gestalt psychology assumed that this recognition of the pattern

takes place through the spontaneous equilibration of its particulars impressed on the retina or on the brain.  However, I am looking at Gestalt, on the contrary, as the outcome of an active shaping of experience performed in the pursuit of knowledge.  This shaping or integrating I hold to be the great and indispensible tacit power by which all knowledge is discovered and, once discovered, is held to be true.  [T.D., p. 6.]

This insight reveals the structure of all knowing. There are two terms, the particulars and the whole (or pattern); and there is the experiencing person mediating between the particulars and the whole. Using the language of anatomy Polanyi calls the two terms “proximal” and “distal” [T.D, p. 10.] and notes that the person relies on his or her awareness of the proximal term (the particulars) in order to attend to the distal term (the pattern or whole).  Our knowledge of the proximal term remains tacit in our focusing of attention on the distal term.  For example, when we recognize the face of a friend in a crowd, the particulars of the friend’s face are the proximal term of our knowledge, and the recognition of that face as our friend’s is the distal term.  We rely on our awareness of the particulars in making the identification of the face as our friend’s, but if asked to describe that face so that someone who did not know our friend could recognize him or her, we might find ourselves at a loss for words.  This is because our reliance on our knowledge of the particulars of his or her face has been tacit; it has not been the focus of our attention.  Knowledge, then, has a “from-to” structure: we attend from the particular facial features to the face.  Hence the functional relationship between the two terms of knowing it for attending to the distal term.  

Ibid.  The fact that we always attend from the proximal to the distal term, Polanyi calls the “functional structure” of tacit knowing.

We are aware of both terms, but in tacitly relying on the proximal in order to attend specifically to the distal, we may not be able to state explicitly all that we know.

Polanyi refers to these two different sorts of awareness as “subsidiary awareness” and “focal awareness.” [P.K., pp. 55-56.]  When we are engaged in an act of knowing or in performing a skillful act, we have a focus, a target for our attention.  But in carrying out this act we rely subsidiarily on our awareness of particulars that are not the focus of our attention.  In the example above, when we recognize our friend’s face, we are focally aware of his or her face, and subsidiarily aware of the particular features of that face.  In shooting a basketball, we have a target or focus in the basket, and we are only subsidiarily aware of the position of our body and the muscular movements required to get the ball into the basket.  In a scientific inquiry, the solution to the problem under consideration is the focus of attention and when the scientist resolves the problem he or she is subsidiarily aware of the clues upon which he or she relied to reach the solution.  These clues may very well have been the focus of attention earlier in the inquiry (with a subsidiary awareness of yet other factors), but when the solution is at hand, they are relied upon subsidiarily as the solution itself absorbs the focal awareness of the scientist.  Subsidiary and focal awareness occur together, but are mutually exclusive.  [Ibid., pp. 56.]  That is, while we have both sorts of awareness at the same time, we cannot attend to both at the same time; we must always attend from the one to the other.

Polanyi refers to this as the “phenomenal structure” of tacit knowing: “We may say, in general, that we are aware of the proximal term of an act of tacit knowing in the appearance of its distal term; we are aware of that from which we are attending to another thing, in the appearance of that thing.  We may call this the phenomenal structure of tacit knowing.”  T.D., p. 11.  Polanyi’s italics.

For example, when a pianist shifts the focus of attention from the piece of music he or she is playing to how his or her fingers are moving on the keyboard, it may become impossible for the pianist to continue playing.

This example of the pianist serves to introduce another element to the structure of tacit knowing: meaning. [T.D., pp. 11-13; P.K., pp. 57-58.] When the pianist shifts focal awareness from the music to the movement of fingers on the keyboard, he or she loses the meaning of the piece of music.  The meaning resides not in the fingers striking individual notes, but in the musical relationship of all the notes struck.  The particular notes themselves become meaningless when we lose sight of the pattern they jointly constitute.  Another good example is language.  When we are reading or listening to someone speak, the focus of our attention is the joint relationship of the words: their meaning as a pattern. The moment we shift our attention to the individual words, their spelling or inflection, we lose the meaning of their relationship to the other words in the sentence.  But if we do not hear all the words in an address, or if many of the words in our book are inked out, we will never grasp the meaning at all.  We need the tacit knowledge of particulars in order to gain focal knowledge of their joint meaning.  When we are focally aware of the meaning of language, we integrate the series of words into a pattern in which we grasp meaning, but we are able to do this only because we are subsidiarily aware of the letters and words of a language, and its grammar, and we rely on this subsidiary awareness in our act of integration. The meaning resides in the distal term, but in order to grasp it we must rely subsidiarily on the proximal term.

This same process can be seen in the use of tools and instruments.  We may take the example of someone using a probe in a dark cavern, or a blind person using a stick to feel his or her way.  When the probe or the stick is used initially, there is great awareness of the impact on the fingers and palm. But as one becomes accustomed to and experienced in its use, these feelings are transformed into a sense of the tip of the probe or stick touching the objects we are exploring.  We learn how to interpret what were initially meaningless feelings in our hands as meaningful contact with objects at some distance from us.  At this stage we are subsidiarily aware of the feelings in our hands in terms of their meaning out at the tip of the probe to which we are attending with focal awareness.  Thus “all meaning tends to be displaced away from ourselves,”

T.D., p. 13; italics omitted.  Polanyi calls this the “semantic aspect” of tacit knowing.  He goes on to say that “From the three aspects of tacit knowing that I have defined so far—the functional, the phenomenal, and the semantic—we can deduce a fourth aspect, which tells us what tacit knowing is a knowledge of.  This will represent its ontological aspect.  Since tacit knowing establishes a meaningful relationship between two terms, we may identify it with the understanding of the comprehensive entity which these two terms jointly constitute.  Thus the proximal term represents the particulars of this entity, and we can say, accordingly, that we comprehend the entity by relying on our awareness of its particulars for attending to their joint meaning.” Ibid.

to the distal term, yet in grasping that meaning we rely on and interpret the particulars of the proximal term.  This is the case for the use of all tools and instruments.

There are tools, however, of other sorts than physical ones such as probes, canes, and hammers. Polanyi notes that we use interpretive frameworks in the same way that we use physical tools. [P.K., pp. 59-62.] He means not the specific assertions of the sciences, but “the suppositions which underlie the method by which these assertions are arrived at.” [Ibid., p. 59.] These presuppositions, so difficult to state explicitly and so resistant to formalization, are the proximal term on which we depend with subsidiary awareness in order to focus our attention on the distal term in our attempts at understanding.

Polanyi at this point makes an important observation.  In our use of tools, in perception, and in our thought, there is a dependence on bodily experiences. [Ibid.]  The proper use of tools involves reliance on bodily sensations which are automatically interpreted by our brains, as well as the proper functioning of our muscular system which is automatically ordered into action by our brains.  In perception we rely on ocular sensations and their interpretation by our brains.  In our thinking we depend on the proper functioning of our neural systems.  We transpose our bodily sensations and operations into perceptions of, acts upon, and thoughts about entities outside our bodies.  We attend from these internal bodily processes to entities outside.  There is thus a bodily base underlying all our knowing and acting.

Our body is the ultimate instrument of all our external knowledge, whether intellectual or practical.  In all our waking moments we are relying on our awareness of contacts of our body with things outside for attending to these things.  Our own body is the only thing in the world which we normally never experience as an object, but experience always in terms of the world to which we are attending from our body.

T.D., pp. 15-16.  Polanyi’s italics.  There is great similarity here to Whitehead’s argument that the most primitive level of experience is the feeling of the functioning of the body—the experience of the “withness” of the body—at the base of all sense perception. See Thesis, pp. 243, 245-258.

This is the basis for Polanyi’s crucial notion of “indwelling.”  [Ibid. pp. 16-18; P.K., pp. 59-65 and passim.] Attention to this bodily base of our knowing and acting makes it possible to recognize that we use tools and interpretive frameworks in a way very similar to how we use our eyes.  We make our tools and our interpretive frameworks parts of our body, as it were.  In our reliance upon them in subsidiary awareness for the purpose of attending to entities outside of us, we incorporate them—or extend our bodies to include them—so that we dwell in our tools and interpretive frameworks as in our bodies.  These tools and interpretive frameworks (together with our bodies) form the proximal term of tacit knowing, of which we remain subsidiarily aware while we are using them.  They lie not outside, in the field of operations, but inside, “forming part of ourselves, the operating persons. [P.K., p. 59. Hence in any act of knowing we interiorize the proximal term, and this establishes the tacit framework for our judgments. [T.D., p. 17.]

It is the notion of indwelling that reveals the structural necessity of commitment in tacit knowing. It reveals that the fiduciary character of personal knowing is a structurally necessary element of any act of knowing.  It reveals why knowing has at its roots a moral dimension inherent in the act itself, an obligation that cannot be evaded nor shifted to external criteria.  By dwelling in interpretive frameworks the knower commits himself or herself to these frameworks, relying on them as on the body itself.  The person must make some such commitment in order to know, but can make the particular commitment he or she makes only if he or she believes the framework dwelt within is reliable. The reliability of the particular framework chosen cannot be questioned at the same time it is being relied upon in order to make sense out of experience.

See P.K., pp. 59-60, 160-171 for Polanyi’s application of this to the presuppositions of science.

This is the source of the personal responsibility of the knower: we are responsible for the judgments we make from within the interpretive framework to which we have committed ourselves.

This sense of responsibility, however, this moral dimension to the act of knowing, reflects not only inward on the knowing subject, but also outward on reality.  We are responsible because in our act of knowing we are responding to intimations of reality, and in announcing our judgments we are claiming to have discovered an aspect of reality to which we have faithfully submitted ourselves in the act of knowing.  Our judgments are personal acts asserted with universal intent.  This inherent obligation to the truth is what evokes the initial commitment of indwelling and the final commitment of judgment. Commitment, then, has a dipolar structure revealed in the interplay between responsibility and truth: “Responsibility and truth are in fact but two aspects of such a commitment: the act of judgment is its personal pole and the independent reality on which it bears is its external pole.” [T.D., p. 87.] The act of knowing is thus dependent on the commitment of the knower in judgment; but this commitment follows upon the prior commitment of the knower in indwelling.

The arts of doing and knowing, the valuation and the understanding of meanings, are thus seen to be only different aspects of the act of extending our person into the subsidiary awareness of particulars which comprise a whole.  The inherent structure of this fundamental act of personal knowing makes us both necessarily participate in its shaping and acknowledge its results with universal intent. This is the prototype of intellectual commitment.  [P.K., p. 65See also pp. 299-324.]

The notion of indwelling, then, reveals that the personal participation of the knower in the act of knowing is a structurally necessary element of all knowledge.  In turn, this personal participation reveals the inherently dynamic character of that structure.  The knower must pour himself or herself out into the particulars given in experience and dwell in them subsidiarily in order to discover their meaning in their joint relationship.  [Ibid., pp. 60-63.] This requires of the knower an intense personal effort, and the person is dynamically involved in the act of knowing from start to finish.  This dynamic relationship of person to knowing enables Polanyi to account more fully for the logical unspecifiability of tacit knowing.

Since we originally gained control over the parts in question in terms of their contribution to a reasonable result, they have never been known and were still less willed in themselves, and therefore to transpose a significant whole into the terms of its constituent elements is to transpose it into terms deprived of any purpose or meaning.  Such dismemberment leaves us with the bare, relatively objective facts, which had formed the clues for a supervening personal fact.  It is a destructive analysis of personal knowledge in terms of the underlying relatively objective knowledge. [Ibid., p. 63.]

The meaning we comprehend and affirm with universal intent in any act of knowing is dependent upon the whole structural dynamic of the act of knowing.  This act necessarily involves the personal contribution of the knower.  Since meaning is achieved by this intensely personal act of integration, it cannot be reduced to the object of knowing alone, nor can an accurate account of its achievement be given if the personal contribution and involvement of the knower is ignored.  This is the fundamental epistemological evidence on the basis of which any objectivist epistemology must be rejected as inaccurate and destructive of our understanding.

See P.K., p. 267: “This then is our liberation from objectivism: to realize that we can voice our ultimate convictions only from within our convictions—from within the whole system of acceptances that are logically prior to any particular assertion of our own, prior to the holding of any particular piece of knowledge.  If an ultimate logical level is to be attained and made explicit, this must be a declaration of my personal beliefs.  I believe that the function of philosophic reflection consists in bringing to light, and affirming as my own, the beliefs implied in such of my thoughts and practices as I believe to be valid; that I must aim at discovering what I truly believe in and at formulating the convictions which I find myself holding; that I must conquer my self-doubt, so as to retain a firm hold on this programme of self-identification.” See also ibid., pp. 311-312.

Once Polanyi has established the framework of his epistemology, he goes on to develop an ontology and a metaphysical interpretive framework on the basis of his epistemology.  [See P.K., Part IV, “Knowing and Being,” pp. 327-405; T.D., Chapter 2, “Emergence,” pp. 29-52, and pp. 87-92.] Although in these developments there are some interesting similarities to the thought of both Whitehead and Lonergan, the confines of my study will not permit me to pursue those developments here.  I must now turn my attention to the purpose for which I embarked on these studies of Popper and Polanyi.  Using their interpretations of empirical scientific method as representative positions within a spectrum of interpretations, I shall compare Whitehead’s and Lonergan’s interpretations to them in order to determine whether Whitehead’s and Lonergan’s interpretations may be judged tenable.


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Chapter II: A Comparison of Whitehead’s and Lonergan’s Interpretations of Empirical Scientific Method to those of Karl Popper and Michael Polanyi

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