“Beyond Post-Modernism via Polanyi’s Post-Critical Philosophy” by Dale Cannon

If you are looking for something that explains why I am interested in Michael Polanyi, this is what I’d give to you: “Beyond Post-Modernism via Polanyi’s Post-Critical Philosophy” by Dale Cannon. Dale Cannon does a good job emphasizing how Polanyi’s “Post-Critical Philosophy” can provide a viable alternative to either modernism or post=modernism. It is worth your time to read the whole article, especially to take a look at the common characteristics of the “Post-Critical ethos.” But for a summary see the chart below:

Situatedness(Context) of Claims
Truth & Tradition
Pre-Modern (Pre-Critical) intellectual ethos Parochially situated but making unqualified, naïvely universal claims. Truth (territory) is undifferentiated from a tradition’s own representations (its maps).
Modern (Critical) intellectual ethos Makes universal claims allegedly situation-less(“the view from nowhere”); foundationalist (presumes there are absolute criteria for establishing knowledge claims). Attainment of Truth requires a divorce from tradition-based/bred thinking (escaping any and all situated points ofview); Truth is what ends up on the one objective map, same for all.
Post-Modern (Hyper-Critical) intellectual ethos (note continuity with the Modern intellectual ethos, via its inordinate emphasis on medthodological doubt) Avoids universal claims.Because we are radically situated, attaining universality is inconceivable; anti-foundationalist.A radically diverse plurality of perspectives. Only traditional representations (situated points of view) exist; there is no meaningfulsense of transcendent Truth (no territory beyond our maps); the scientific map is just one among others.
Post-Critical intellectual ethos(also construable as “Constructive Post-Modern”) Situated, fallible but makes claims of universal intent; seeks ahorizontal universality /transcendence vs. moderism’s presumed vertical universality /transcendence. Truth regarded as uncertainly glimpsed from within traditions(situated points of view);efforts to attain it are rooted but not confined.
Methodological Faith (fides) & Doubt Knowable World/ Reality Objectivity (how achieved)
Unquestioned, uncritical faith (not yet having confronted its finitude and fallibility); methodological doubt toward other ‘faiths’. The world seen from one perspective only; no consideration of how things appear from other perspectives. Objectivity identified with faithfulness with adherence to cultural authority and its representations.
Aims to purge by methodological doubtallfallible (error prone), fiduciary elements(anything subjective, anything faith-based);(except surrepticiously it keeps faith in methodological doubt and liberal ideals). One objective world, universally structured (invariant for all); inprinciple wholly specifiable within a single formal framework(a single perspective of apparent perspectivelessness). Objectivity attained via a uniformalization—that presumes to transcend all particular perspectives, invariant for all (i.e., adherence to the one map). (Note the unacknowledged place of authority and tradition here.)
Because methodological doubt is dominant, fiduciary, fallible factors are recognized impossible to eliminate or to be transcended, making objectivity and Truth impossible; modern liberal ideals now in question (yet still a methodological faith in the hermeneutic of suspicion). Each in his/her own separate world (constituted by each different perspective); no confidence of inter-accessibility. The modern uniformalized,”objective” perspective is now seen as only one among others and problematic (not what it pretends to be). Objectivity deemed impossible (except as appearance, as pretense).Ironically, objectivity of a sort is achieved in repudiating attachment to any one view. (Note the tacit role of authority and tradition here.)
Fiduciary factors seen as a positive though fallible means toward objectivity and Truth; methodological faith and doubt kept in balance, with a chastened faith taking the lead. One world transcendent to any one perspective,but in principle accessible simultaneously from multiple but partial perspectives, which we seek (one by one) to integrate. Note necessary role of empathy. Objectivity to be attained via the on going intersection of different relevant perspectives; traditional authorities play a subordinate role in affording access to their unique angle onto the world.

7 thoughts on ““Beyond Post-Modernism via Polanyi’s Post-Critical Philosophy” by Dale Cannon”

  1. Matt,

    I read the Cannon article in some detail and found it well organized and informative. It seemed like a good introduction to Polanyi’s work. Personal Knowledge sounds fascinating; I’m assuming you’ve already gotten to that one. I couldn’t help but note the similarity between the post-critical approach and C.S. Lewis’ work, especially as it relats to the issues of truth and objectivity. As Cannon points out, post-critical philosophy sees truth as “uncertainly glimpsed from within traditions.” Objectivity is attained by “the on going intersection of different relevant perspectives.” As you are probably aware, Lewis refers to such an intersection of perspectives as the Tao (or more aptly, the moral law). He uses the persistence of certain attitudes across cultures to argue that people have an innate sense of right and wrong which is the standard by which we make all moral judgments. The conflict between our actions and the Tao is offered as evidence of a transcendent Source of the moral law. I had a few observations along these lines. By the way, I am in no position to criticize a thinker of Polanyi’s eminence – I’m merely trying to clarify a few things.

    1. There is a problem with the notion of the “intersection of perspectives.” I think of “intersection” in terms of set theory: “The intersection (denoted as ∩) of two sets A and B is the set that contains all elements of A that also belong to B (or equivalently, all elements of B that also belong to A), but no other elements.” However, when we apply “intersection” to linguistic statements, we are making a comparison that in fact rests on an individual’s sense of similarity. It seems possible that two different individuals may make radically different assessments of a given perspective. They may have different perspectives on a particular perspective, if you’ll forgive me. Practically speaking, the “intersection of perspectives” actually presumes the objectivity at which it attempts to arrive. Without an agreed upon means of evaluating the similarity between two perspectives, progress cannot be made. A “meta-perspective” is implicit in the scheme. A similar charge could be leveled against Nietzsche’s perspectivism: “The value of the world lies in our interpretation … that every elevation of man brings with it the overcoming of narrower interpretation; that every strengthening and increase of power opens up new perspectives and believing in new horizons” (Will to Power:616). I’d be curious to know how you feel about this issue.

    2. I was also interested in post-critical justification: “knowledge does not require certainty. Justification, as needed, only requires meeting reasonable doubt, not unreasonable doubt, not doubt for doubt’s sake.” I completely agree that, practically speaking, most people accept the legal definition of justification involving proof beyond reasonable doubt. It seems that Polanyi feel that certainty in the modernist (Cartesian) sense is unattainable. Does he offer further explanation of the term “reasonable?” Who sets the standards for reasonableness? Is it left to the individual (or society) or does he appeal to some kind of “meta-reason?”

    3. It was refreshing to see a contemporary thinker own up to the inevitability of methodological faith in the epistemic program. The recognition of the social dimensions of knowledge also seems promising. The post-critical distinction between “comprehensive entities and their particulars” is also exciting (V.M. Smiles, “What is Life and How Do We Know It? Theological Possibilities in Michael Polanyi’s Epistemology”). I was curious if you see any directions for further research based in the post-critical approach? Open problems?

  2. Chris, thank you for your comment. Please forgive my tardiness in replying. I have a page typed out, but need to rethink my response. At the moment I’m pushed behind PhD application deadlines. I will put something up soon.

  3. Chris, again thanks for taking the time to comment. I have read Personal Knowledge and it was one of the books which most changed my own views on epistemology. Rather I should say, I found PK (as it is called by Polanyians) to make explicit everything that I already tacitly believed about epistemology. I should quibble a bit with your opening connection Cannon’s point about “objectivity” and Lewis’s Tao. The connection seems to be that both are “realists” in a general sense. But I Cannon is speaking at this point at how one seeks “objectivity,” which seems to be something like the quality of being universal and not unduly influenced by one’s own prejudices. Lewis uses the term Tao to refer to moral reality in an abstract sense. He finds the intersection of perspectives as demonstration of the fact that the real exists with regard to morals (something which is difficult to account for as a naturalist). So my point is the authors are doing different things with the “intersection” language. The startling thing about Cannon (and thus Polanyi) is that he does not seem to find it necessary to prove that ‘the real’ exists, but seems to presume realism as necessary for scientific endeavor.

    With regard to your first point, Polanyi’s philosophy resists linguistic reductionism. In other words, the priority for meaning for Polanyi seems to be on the tacit. You could say that language makes explicit and brings a clarity and sharpness to what meaning already lies beneath tacitly. Or perhaps, the explicit focuses the tacit. For that reason, I’m not sure that your linguistic criticism are really touching on something with which Polanyi would be troubled. You might say that actually Polanyi’s philosophy makes the problem even messier and more profound with no apparent anxiety about it. (He has been “postmodern” by some)

    With regard to your second paragraph, again, I think that Polanyi is untroubled by calls for justification. For him, truth emerges in convivial discovery when one respects tradition relies on authoritative guides. Polanyi’s major contribution, it seems to me, is in explicating how knowing occurs, that is as an embodied person, respecting tradition, involving fiduciary elements, while presuming realism. He also does particularly criticize methodological doubt as a first principle for doing science. I am afraid I cannot say more about “reasonable” because I frankly do not remember what he has to say about it. This seems to be a topic worth thinking about. I’ve been told that Andrew Davison writes a good chapter on it in his Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition.

    With regard to the last paragraph, my own interest in Polanyi is related to virtue epistemology. It seems that Polanyian epistemology is virtue epistemology. I think that Christian’s need to start talking about knowing in terms of agents performing skillful acts of knowing. We need to revive the term wisdom. Knowing involves tacit awareness of things like beauty and unfolding potentiality. My own project seeks to apply Polanyi to moral knowing, especially as theological hermeneutics is collapsing the categories of interpretation and application. My ideas center around the tacit awareness of moral concepts (for lack of a better way of putting it. “Concept” is really not the right word as this has linguistic and semantic baggage from the logical positivists).

    Let me know if any of this was completely non-sense.

  4. Matt,

    Thanks for your response. I did a bit of reading on Polanyi before writing this and feel better able to understand your statements. I am sometimes frustrated by the ambiguities of natural language philosophy – too many contexts for too few words. Please feel free to invent words in the interest of clarity when you write your dissertation. I would much rather wade through a bunch of technical terminology than attempt to parse twenty different senses in which the same word (knowledge, concept, substance, etc.) is used. Arg! ;>)

    With respect to my first point, I agree that it largely misses the point of Polanyi’s work. As you know, he expands the definition of knowledge from that usually associated with “propositionary knowledge” (facts) to include tacit knowledge that cannot be expressed linguistically. One is reminded of Wittgenstein here: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” I wonder if my objection in point 1 would be more appropriate if restricted to propositional knowledge?

    However, I do think that objectivity is something of an issue here. Polanyi: “Knowledge is objective in the sense of establishing contact with a hidden reality.” He certainly seems to be a realist. Each tradition, as Cannon points out, contributes a slightly different perspective. I am wondering if Polanyi discusses how to evaluate the intersections between the traditions? How does one know that in fact these intersections contact “reality?” Most wouldn’t resist the idea that knowledge requires a knower who relies to a certain degree on a model of reality to which he/she is (fiduciarily) committed. Nor can you expect much resistance to the idea that some knowledge is socially constructed (see the whole corpus of Cultural Studies). Is an intersection of perspectives, regardless of the role of tacit knowledge, really a guarantee of truth? That is to say, how does he account for the possibility of error among a group of traditions? How do you distinguish between traditions that make contact with reality and those that do not? Forgive me if I am again missing the point.

    Personally (no Polanyi pun inteded), I am less interested in the attempts to leverage Polanyi’s philosophy to defend objectivity or “realism” as by his enlarging of knowledge beyond “logic” and “facts.” If we “know more than we can say,” perhaps there is a kind of knowledge that is beyond any attempt at justification, that has to be experienced in order to be known.

    Thanks again for your response. I’d be curious to know more about your view of Polanyi as it relates to virtue epistemology.

  5. Chris said, “I wonder if my objection in point 1 would be more appropriate if restricted to propositional knowledge?”

    Perhaps, but even here, the problem lies with the logical positivists, not Polanyi. Anyone who tries to deal exclusively with “words” has also to adopt a view of concepts which is far too restrictive. Meaning is much richer than the positivists can imagine.

    #2, yes I agree that Polanyi is a realist. The point I was trying to make is that “objectivity” for Polanyi is a value, not an absolute 3rd person disembodied position for knowing. This idea he thinks is impossible and worse, not how knowing actually functions. The point is to engage with the real in a way that seeks “objectivity” as a value, which I take to mean something like being critical of one’s own prejudices and inviting criticism from one’s community.

    With regard to differing traditions, this question is a bit more complicated I think. And I’m not sure I’m qualified to work out his philosophy in this regard. After all, I’ve read only three of his books and 20 articles or so. I’m certainly no expert. I do think that among the “Polanyi Society” there are some who take this idea very seriously especially with regard to religious beliefs, e.g. studying mysticism in general by accounting for all the various mystical streams. On the other hand, there are also quite a few Christians who don’t go this far with it. But it’s important to remember, the context of this kind of quote is someone who was a chemist. Polanyi was not working in the humanities when he first began to do philosophical work. “Traditions” in chemistry vary from “traditions” in religious studies for instance.

    Obviously, intersection of traditions is no guarantee of truth, but there again Polanyi is not promising this. He is inviting people to come into contact with the real with no guarantees against the possibility that they may be wrong. The guarantees are something only deluded moderns can offer. Polanyi’s uncertainty fits with a chastened critical realism.

    Finally, I think you have it exactly right that we shouldn’t use Polanyi to defend realism, rather that Polanyi helps us to understand how we actually know in a way that levels serious criticisms against logical positivism and scientism. I think that Polanyi would be very comfortable saying that one must encounter the real. Esther Meek is doing some good work with Polanyian philosophy arguing that we are doing damage to our epistemic health by insisting that we think of knowing in impersonal terms both with the knower and the known. Meek suggests that knowing involves a personal knower and a personal known, i.e. God, others, animals, etc. She wants Christians to think of knowing God like knowing your auto mechanic. This is a type of knowledge that one has to experience and that cannot simply be read about.

    Remind me again to write about virtue epistemology. This is all I have time for today.


  6. Matt,

    Thanks for the link to the Polanyi society site; I’ll tuck that away for future reference.

    In preparing to respond I did a little research on logical positivism and its reductionism. Let me summarize a bit to keep my thoughts from dissipating. It seems that the Vienna circle took on a couple of big projects: 1) critique metaphysics in light of the verification principle, and 2) show that all words ultimately refer to something in experience (an variant of empiricism). I understand the verification principle in this way: a claim is meaningful to the extent that it can by confirmed via observation. The positivists claimed that metaphysical statements were meaningless because they flaunted the verification principle (I believe the late John Hick has a good response to this line of criticism http://www.johnhick.org.uk/jsite/). This was an overt attempt to exalt science as the sole repository of true knowledge. Project #1 pretty much collapsed when someone noticed that the verification principle fails the verification principle. Achtung! I’m not sure how they fared with Project #2, though it seems Quine pointed out some difficulties.

    Getting back to the issue at hand, I agree that tacit knowledge, being “trans-linguistic”, resists the kind of linguistic justification on which the positivists insist. However, I don’t believe my objection, while linguistic, really fits with either Project #1 or #2. That certainly wasn’t my intent.

    Your clarification of Polanyi’s particular flavor of objectivity (more specific terms, please philosophers!) is well taken, as is your point about the centrality of an encounter with reality over fictitious guarantees of truth. I’ll have to track down Meek’s Loving to Know so I can better relate to this notion.

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