Polanyi on the Need for Tradition in Science

Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension, 63-64.

“Let me display the inescapable need for a tradi­tional framework first in one example of great mod­ern endeavor, which may then serve as a paradigm for other intellectual and moral progress in a free, dynamic society. My example will be the pursuit of the natural sciences. This may be surprising, for modern science was founded through the violent rejection of authority. Throughout the formative cen­turies of modem science, the revolt against author­ity was its battle cry: it was sounded by Bacon and Descartes, and by the founders of the Royal Society in their device, Nullius in Verba, What these men said was true and important at the time, but once the adversaries they fought had been defeated, the repudiation of all authority or tradition by science became a misleading slogan.

“The popular conception of science teaches that science is a collection of observable facts, which any­ body can verify for himself. We have seen that this is not true in the case of expert knowledge, as in diagnosing a disease. But it is not true either in the physical sciences. In the first place, you cannot pos­sibly get hold of the equipment for testing, for ex­ample, a statement of astronomy or of chemistry. And supposing you could somehow get the use of an observatory or a chemical laboratory, you would probably damage their instruments beyond repair before you ever made an observation. And even if you should succeed in carrying out an observation to check upon a statement of science and you found a result which contradicted it, you would rightly assume that you had made a mistake.

“The acceptance of scientific statements by lay­ men is based on authority, and this is true to nearly the same extent for scientists using results from branches of science other than their own. Scientists must rely heavily for their facts on the authority of fellow scientists.

“This authority is enforced in an even more personal manner in the control exercised by scientists over the channels through which contributions are submitted to all other scientists. Only offerings that are deemed sufficiently plausible are accepted for publication in scientific journals, and what is re­jected will be ignored by science. Such decisions are based on fundamental convictions about the nature of things and about the method which is therefore likely to yield results of scientific merit. These be­liefs and the art of scientific inquiry based on them are hardly codified: they are, in the main, tacitly implied in the traditional pursuit of scientific inquiry.”

Polanyi, “they know many more things than they can tell”

“These observations show that strictly speaking nothing we know can be said precisely; and so what I call ‘ineffable’ may simply mean something that I know and can describe less precisely than usual, or even only very vaguely. … Although the expert diagnostician, taxonomist and cotton-classer can indicate their clues and formulate their maxims, they know many more things than they can tell, knowing them only in practice, as instrumental particulars, and not explicitly, as objects. The knowledge of such particulars is therefore ineffable, and the pondering of a judgment in terms of such particulars is an ineffable process of thought. This applies equally to connoisseurship as the art of knowing and to skills as the art of doing, wherefore both can be taught only by aid of practical example and never solely by precept.”

“It is not difficult to recall such ineffable experiences, and philosophic objections to doing so invoke quixotic standards of valid meaning which, if rigorously practised, would reduce us all to voluntary imbecility.”

Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, 87-88.

Discordant Hebrew Poetry, Psalm 10:3

One of the joys of poetry is that it often forces the reader to come to terms with jarring, discordant meanings. In Meaning, Michael Polanyi cites Max Black on metaphor: “In the end Black seems to think that ‘the secret and mystery of metaphor’ reside in the connection that the reader is forced to make between the two ideas in a metaphor, but how this works remains unexplained.” (Meaning, 76) He provides an example, “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously . . . It is easy to see that ‘green ideas sleep furiously’ may mean simply that ‘immature ideas foster violent dreams’” (77). The point for Polanyi is that in addition to the subject matter, the metaphor itself has a significance. Both the metaphor and the subject matter work in reciprocity to convey the meaning of what is written. Both the metaphor and the subject matter have intrinsic interest for the reader.

I sometimes think–though I’m not an Old Testament scholar–that Hebrew poetry especially from the Psalms is so horribly mutilated by English translations that the metaphors have almost wholly lost the jarring discordant quality, which is present in the original (Perhaps this is done in the name of the perspicuity of Scripture?). And this loss, due to bad translation, is a loss of a good portion of the meaning of the metaphors. I present an example from this morning’s reading from Psalm 10:3:

Yes, the wicked man boasts because he gets what he wants;
the one who robs others curses and rejects the LORD.

For the wicked boasts of the desires of his soul,
and the one greedy for gain curses and renounces the LORD.

For the wicked boasteth of his heart’s desire,
and blesseth the covetous, whom the LORD abhorreth.

The Hebrew reads:
2013-05-25 07.40.33 am

Structually, the poetic line looks like this (read right to left):
(noun) (verb) (verb) (subj, participle)-(conj) (noun) (noun)-(prep) (subj, noun) (verb)-(conj)
(the LORD) (despise) (bless) (and the greedy) (of his soul) (over the desire) (the wicked) (for, praise)

Admittedly, it’s difficult to discern what is happening here. But clearly the conjunctions signal the division of the couplet pair. Further, the two subjects, which are parallel, are “the wicked” and “the greedy.” What’s jarring and fascinating about this particular line, however, is that the wicked are said to “praise” and the greedy are said to “bless.” Seemingly, the poet means that these wicked men are praising and blessing the LORD. Yet, he avoids giving an object to these transitive verbs, instead providing the illicit reason for praising in the first couplet, “over the desire of his soul” and jamming an antonym between the verb and its object in the second couplet. It might literally read, “and the greedy bless (that is to!) despise the LORD.”

In other words, the wicked may even be thanking God for the bounty they receive, but even this thanksgiving is an act of despising God because their gains have taken advantage of the poor (vs. 2) for the end of their own desires.