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.

From Dorothea Frede, “The Cognitive Role of Phantasia

“Knowledge is ‘remembered’ only accidentally (Mem. 450a12-14), i.e. we only remember when and how we first learned Pythagorus’ theorem, but not the theorem itself. This is not as strange as it may sound at first, given Aristotle’s presuppositions: I do not recall a past phantasia in the case of theoretical knowledge; the question is rather whether I still know it, that is understand it.”

I cannot explain now, but this is important, related to Michael Polanyi, and I need to save it.

“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.

“The Epidemonology of Men Without Ombilical Chords of Mystic Memory”, Gagdad Bob

This is thought provoking:

“As Polanyi pointed out that what distinguishes Leftism in all its forms is the combination of contempt for traditional moral values with an unbounded moral passion for utopian perfection. The first step in this process is a complete skepticism that rejects traditional ideals of moral authority and transcendent moral obligation — a complete materialistic skepticism combined with a boundless, utopian moral fervour to transform mankind.”

On Being an Academic and a Churchman

I think one of the reasons it can be frustrating to be both an academic and a church man is that for an academic, a question can be raised and he will spend 35 years pursuing an answer. For a churchman, if a question is raised, it seems like it must be answered and put to rest in 35 minutes. The heuristic passion which is brought about by open questions and which drives academic inquiry is looked upon with suspicion by churchmen. For the churchman, questions can be corrosive to faith, or worse, idols themselves. For the academic (understood charitably), they are the means to worship.