Michael Polanyi’s “Personal Knowledge”

This is a book with whose project I have much sympathy. This sounds awkward and condescending, and that is my fault, but it’s true. It is the effort of a successful chemist (who turned to philosophy later in his career) to engage with the broader implications of scientific knowledge and activity on the wider field of human knowledge. It seeks to challenge what Polanyi considers the orthodoxy of the critical mindset, which he regards as little better than scientism. Ultimately, however, all Polanyi offers us is a mish-mash of unreconstructed realism, pragmatism, and metaphysicism (!).

Both the title and subtitle are misleading, and are something of an insight into difficulties with the book as a whole. The former is problematic because it makes Polanyi‘s project sounds like some sort of psychological intervention in philosophy. Where Polanyi uses “personal”, a later continental philosopher would have had the confidence/coglioni to coin a neologism such as “empersoned”, and this would capture his work more clearly. It is an effort to outline the nature of our minds as implicated in the project to arrogate more knowledge for ourselves. In that regard, it involves working through our interactions with Vernadsky’s noosphere. This is a much more comprehensive effort than Polanyi is often credited for, and indeed he is usually only noted as saying some things vaguely similar to Kuhn or Feyerabend. In actuality, Polanyi prefigured both of these, and Kuhn in fact had a very real debt to Polanyi, which he would later gloss over. (More on this priority dispute in Martin X. Moleski’s “Kuhn vs. Polanyi: Worlds Apart”, available as a pdf here.)

The other point relates to the subtitle, of this being “Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy”. Philosophers would assume that the use of the term critical here might imply Kant’s critical philosophy, but this is not so. Polanyi intends it in the sense of the growth of science from the seventeenth century, through rationalism, empiricism etc., with only perfunctory references made to Kant. As such, it is ‘towards’ philosophy, because it doesn’t fully engage with the philosophical tradition. I am aware that this stinks of disciplinary snobbery, but it is not. Polanyi’s ‘toward’ is only rhetorically so, as it is presented as a corrective to the critical philosophy it – rightly or wrongly – accuses of being insufficient. Sadly, for a work of such breadth of scope, it not very compelling in offering truly new insights, because it attempts to reinvent the philosophical wheel one time too many, wasting effort at continually outlining Polanyi’s take on A, B, or C.

Now, it is only fair to note that Polanyi points out throughout this work that such an ’empersoned’ attempt to outline ’empersoned knowledge’ must take its author’s positions into account, and yet, by further noting that this knowledge is also to be found in the institutions of our knowledge traditions, he could have consistently and fruitfully drawn upon philosophy. As is, by seeking his own idiosyncratic “post-critical” point of view, he also attempts to be “post-philosophy”, and unsuccessfully so. While undoubtedly there is a structure to the argument presented, it sadly too often veers off into minutiae of scientific practice and research, which adds little to the substance of the text, and appears rather as a rhetorical smokescreen, a scientistic appeal to authority which he otherwise and elsewhere criticizes.

I would recommend reading this as a supplement to the debate that people consider Kuhn and Feyerabend to have begun, but beyond this it is a disappointment. The materials and topics marshaled unfortunately do not come together in a sufficienlty compelling, original, and convincing form. Some argue that Polanyi has been unjustly overlooked, and in terms of the priority debate, this is so, but in the light of the trajectory carved out by philosophy of science as a whole, its sidelining is not undeserved.

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5 thoughts on “Michael Polanyi’s “Personal Knowledge”

  1. I found myself getting bogged down in rhetorical devices in the first part of the first chapter, and in the second part I began to detect an anti-secularist agenda that may be of its time, but is also quite unnecessary. I want to know if I should try to read further, but if he continues to apply the same rhetorical techniques and (for want of a less generous term) narrative flair in place of information or argument building, I don’t think I’ll bother.

  2. I have to confess from the outset of this reply that I am not seeing the rhetorical techniques that are so problematic for you. Admittedly the prose doesn’t sparkle, but I can only think of one or two scientists to whom I might turn to for their style as well as the content. The main question I would have is, for what are you reading this? Is there an element of his argument which you have heard about, and which may be of interest to you, or is this for enjoyment? I turned to him as I have an interest in the cross-over of hermeneutics and heuristics, so I enjoyed chapters 4-7 (Skills, Articulation, Intellectual Passions, Conviviality) and got something of worth out of them. These are the meat of the book, dealing with these elements of the “tacit dimension” which makes up personal knowledge, quite apart from scientific knowledge with which Polanyi contrasts it. The rest of part one, and parts three and four are more an attempt to make sense of this tacit knowledge in the context of scientific knowledge, logic, society, and the then new-ish field of emergence. In any work of the philosophy of science there’s always a certain amount of slog, as the same old exegesis and clarification is done to death, so it’s just a question of whether or not you think it’s worth the bother. I read Polanyi for a purpose, as a part of a reading list for myself. I wouldn’t recommend it as a read for enjoyment. That’s what Deleuze is for!

  3. Anti-secularist agenda harry? Strange…

    Well anyway, I love it. He’s the man, it’s funny how his views actually parallel what other people have said, but in other disciplines of study.

  4. The Kuhn v’s Polanyi pdf I link to above is excellent, because it shows just how much he prefigured the debates in the philosophy of science. Still though, the way he wrote was probably the biggest barrier to him getting a more appreciative audience.

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