Toward a New Epistemology Beyond the Postmodern – Chapter 5

Toward a New Epistemology Beyond the Postmodern

By Lee Karl Palo, © 2005 Lee Karl Palo



[Back to Introduction with the Table of Contents]

[Back to Chapter 4]


Chapter 5

God and Knowing

I. Polanyi’s View of Theology

To begin an integration of Michael Polanyi’s thought with theology, I had the idea to prove the existence of God. If one accepts Michael Polanyi’s theory of personal knowledge as valid as I believe it to be, there are many implications which Polanyi himself was not aware when he developed his theory. Polanyi makes it a point to demonstrate how the development of a new scientific theory quite often entails implications that the developer of the theory could not foresee at the time of the theory’s initial development. Polanyi states: “The mark of discovery is not its fruitfulness but the intimation of its fruitfulness.”1 Polanyi goes on to state how in the formulation of Louis de Broglie’s theory of ascribing “wave nature to ponderable particles” no one could foresee at the time that this theory would imply “that electronic beams would give diffraction patterns similar to X-rays.”2 Thomas S. Kuhn calls such major discoveries “paradigms” in which further research is still to be done, and Polanyi states that there is a necessity to now go back and analyze much of science that can have new implications due to his theory of personal knowledge. The point here is that God’s existence could very well be an implication of Polanyi’s theory of which he himself was unaware.

Firstly when one understands the nature of the universe as comprising ontologically hierarchical levels why would one stop with the level of the human? Of course one can argue that we, as human beings, cannot know beyond the level of the human, else we would cease to be human. Nevertheless that fact has not stopped some from attempting it. Anselm of Canterbury said God is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” I would say, along with many others in the Christian tradition, that God is greater than that which can be conceived. This fact does not make it impossible for us to talk meaningfully about something wholly other and beyond the realm of the human. The fact to the theologian is that God has condescended to the level of humanity in the form of, what we as theologians call, revelation. In this case revelation comes through messages given to prophets, or supremely in God’s self-revelation in the person of Jesus Christ. However this does not mean that we understand God as God is in God’s self. We would say that revelation is watered down into a form palatable to us human beings.3 Thus Theology approximates the true nature of what God reveals to us in its metaphor and analogy. To bring in an analogy: I do not expect my dog to be able to understand me as I really am. During the time of the writing of this thesis my dog Nelson died; he has lived and died without ever understanding why it is that I am (sorry, I mean “was”) so far from him in Kansas City going to Nazarene Theological Seminary. And yet because Nelson did not really understand me does not make me non-existent.

One can now postulate that God is an emergence from reality as we perceive it, over and above it, operating by different principles than the rest of it. As our concept of God implies that there is nothing greater than God, God must therefore be the greatest emergence of a clearly stratified reality. Stop and think about this for awhile…

If you find this conception of God convincing in the slightest I believe it is safe to say you understand Polanyi’s theory. The early part of this thesis has been set up knowing that the Polanyian theory of personal knowledge is radically foreign to most people. So how does one proceed with an integration of Polanyi’s thought with theology in a polemic addressed to everyone? Everyone knows what it is I am reacting against as it is part and parcel of how we think at present (at least on a tacit level). In order to proceed I had to explicate the Polanyian worldview a bit at a time and hope that I could lure the reader out of some of the old ways of conceiving of knowledge. Knowledge and conceptions of knowledge are so basic to who we humans are that it can be said that everyone has a conception of knowledge (to employ Polanyi once more: they are most often tacit). Thinking about knowledge is something few people do (the ones who do are philosophers concerned with epistemology, i.e. epistemologists).

In order to proceed with my polemic I had to provide Polanyi’s theory subtly. Polanyi’s theory, being a radical departure from most other concepts of what knowledge is, could very easily create conflict within someone well versed in those other concepts of knowledge. Conflict in this case could lead to a rejection of Polanyian based epistemology in favor of the status quo. However, by using subtlety I could demonstrate the clear intelligibility of Polanyi’s philosophical theories of knowledge. Hopefully the reader has taken enough time for the theory of personal knowledge to take root. Once this happens I could begin to show some of the inadequacies with some other current epistemologies. When the “two theories” are brought to the surface I could bring them into conflict with each other. If I have done my job the obviousness, the simplicity, the beauty, and the overwhelming superiority of Polanyian epistemology would be the clear choice given the inadequacies of more popular conceptions of knowledge. Now perhaps it can be seen why I created a new conception of God’s existence. This conception of God is a litmus test (i.e. if it makes sense or not) to determine if the reader has come to accept Polanyian theories of knowledge.

If you, the reader, do not buy this conception of God’s existence (which is really more of an argument for the possibility of God’s existence) that is fine. I was hoping for the reader to gain an understanding of this conception of God, and not necessarily to be persuaded by it. If the reader were to find this conception of God even the slightest bit alluring then I am vindicated. I do not buy this conception of God myself, but when I first thought of it I found it quite amusing. Basically the argument, to my mind, is the reverse, in a sense, of the Cosmological argument. St. Thomas Aquinas uses the epistemologically paradigmatic cause-and-effect line of thinking to prove God. I used the Polanyian concept of the emergence of levels to ascend to God. Thomas goes backward to the “first-cause,” while I ascend levels of reality to the greatest level (God). I would say that both arguments suffer the same problems, which I do not wish to go into here in exhaustive detail.

Firstly, Thomas’ “cosmological God” could logically have created the world and then moved away, which is not a Christian affirmation. With my “emergent God” God is wholly dependent on the world, which is not a Christian affirmation (it is pantheism in a sense). In point of fact the closest religious concept to my “emergent God” is the Hindu concept of Brahman, though with a Buddhistmaterialistic bent to it. And, as I already mentioned, this conception of God is really only a possible way of conceiving of God. This entire conception of God’s existence disappears outside a Polanyian framework, unless the reader is a Hindu perhaps. This is why it made such a good test to see if you, the reader, were catching on to Polanyi’s theory of personal knowledge. The more convincing it was, the more likely the reader has come to indwell Polanyi’s conception of epistemology.

Earlier in my thesis I mentioned that I would later defend Polanyi’s theory of the ontological structure of the universe as stratified levels of reality against the claim that it is only that we human beings read that into the universe. It is certainly one thing to assert how human beings come to know things in the Polanyian from-to structure of tacit knowing, but something else entirely to the take this from-to structure and apply it to reality working out its implications for reality (as Polanyi does). One can say that it is mere anthropomorphism, and not really the way reality is. Like my statement defending the from-to structure of tacit knowing, I find that Polanyi’s concept of reality as stratified best makes sense of things. But that argument just sounds weak. Even Polanyi states that the beauty of a scientific theory is a good indicator of its accuracy to reality. I certainly find Polanyi’s theory beautiful in its own way. Basically it comes down to whether or not you, the reader, accept Polanyi’s epistemological paradigm. Truth cannot be coerced, and rabid skepticism will not be denied, much less idiotic stubbornness. In the end one has to choose out of one’s own participation in the philosophical-scientific programme. Even Polanyi says that to declare something to be true is merely to declare that it ought to be accepted by all. One thing that should be clear by now, regarding a Polanyian epistemology, is that knowing is inseparable from doing.4 That how we know what we know (epistemology) is fundamentally linked with the process of learning is also an integral, one might say basic, component in a Polanyian epistemology. Thus, as we shall see in later chapters, factors affecting the learning process are quite relevant to epistemology from within a Polanyian framework.

To begin with an integration of Polanyi’s thought with theology it might be prudent to discuss what it is Polanyi himself has to say about theology. Obviously Polanyi’s theory of knowledge extends to all forms of knowledge, but not all knowledge is of the same type. To utilize Wittgenstein’s concept of “language games,” there are different rules for different games. Different types of knowledge often have unique rules by which they operate. If for Polanyi knowledge is indwelt and can be said to come about from a particular skill, then one wonders what type of skills are employed in the different areas of science and theology. These skills that are developed in a specific area of knowledge comprise the rules that are designed to fit the object of the game/area of knowledge. The scientist theorizes, investigates, and experiments. To Polanyi the theologian worships.5 Obviously the theologian and, to broaden the discussion, the Christian in general does not worship without an object of worship. The object of worship is, of course, the focus of the game. To Polanyi the theologian formulates theology with regards to a given body of revelation accepted by the community of faith as such. However Polanyi follows noted Protestant theologian Paul Tillich’s existential theology for which knowledge of revelation is not open to critical analysis by scientific and historical means. To my way of thinking this opens up a weakness in Polanyi’s thought as regards religious knowledge. It should be noted that I am not the only one to see this as a weakness. Harry Prosch in his book Michael Polanyi: A Critical Exposition notes, “It appears to me from conversations with other theologians generally friendly to Polanyi’s views that there are many who find the distinction he introduces [between the realities dealt with in science and those in the arts and in religion] questionable.”6 Polanyi, it should be remembered, was a scientist and philosopher, and not a theologian. While following and adopting the thought of a major religious thinker as Paul Tillich demonstrates wisdom for not recklessly jumping into another “language game,” in this case there are many who do not agree with Paul Tillich as to the “rules of the game.”

Polanyi does say that “…tacit knowing is in fact the dominant principle of all knowledge, and that its rejection would, therefore, automatically involve the rejection of any knowledge whatever.”7 This clearly means both scientific and religious knowledge. However religious knowledge is meaningful in a way that scientific knowledge never can be. Polanyi even uses the Genesis creation accounts to help illustrate this point.8 Polanyi would not say that the Genesis creation accounts are factual in the scientific manner of being empirically testable or verifiable, and yet they provide meaning for the creation that science is utterly impotent to provide. To help illustrate the problem Prosch states: “…to reject Polanyi’s distinction because of an assumption that nothing can count as real unless it can be thought to be something existing independent of our thought, and that all human articulations must aim at such realities, is to place the arts, myth, and religion in a most awkward position.”9

The problem, as has been alluded to, can be said to stem from the fact that Michael Polanyi was a scientist first and foremost. Sure there are differences but to draw such sharp distinctions is to forget who it is that made the distinctions in the first place. We human beings, by virtue of the ability to focus our attention, can draw distinctions between things and thus not leave them to a continuous flux of experience (i.e. Buddhist meditation strategy). Surely the emergence of this ability in its higher forms through language in humankind comes even prior to science and religion. My argument for the reconciliation between what Michael Polanyi and Harry Prosch have called “tacit knowing” and “tacit meaning” is to put the search for meaning prior to the search for scientific truth. The drive for meaning10 is what brings knowledge into existence. Phrased differently: without a focus of a “game” the “rules” for that game would never come to be. In the act of focusing attention we attempt to ascribe meaning to that which we attend to focally. The drive for meaning is thus tacit. Knowledge itself is a concept that has become meaningful to us, and came about when we reflect on its tacit nature. The problem is when one takes tacit knowledge to be on the same level as tacit meaning. To phrase it another way: science is not at the same level as meaning. Science germinates out of meaning, as does religion, thus one need not say that religious knowledge must never purport to describe something existing independent of our thought. As Nietzsche would say scientific method (scientific epistemology) itself does not exist independent of our thought.11 When we reflect on the tacit knowledge used in the performance of a skill we are not reflecting on something that is independent of our thought, in point of fact it is our thought. That which we focus on through science can be said to have existence independent of our thought. Science, as many would say, has nothing to do with that which exists only in our thought. That which exists only in thought is not by definition empirical. This is also why many scientists do not like psychology for example.

There are many aspects of the arts and religion that do not deal with that which has independent existence from our thought. Psychology, in order to explain behavior, rightly looks to that which has existence only in thought.12 To utilize Polanyi’s theory: the level of thought at which we human beings operate cannot be fully understood in terms of the levels below it. It relies on them for its operation, which is why we can have biological psychology. Biological psychology has noticed that damage to “Broca’s area” of the brain leads to a breakdown in higher language functioning. Thus higher language functioning relies on the biological “gray-matter” for its operation. The line between that which exists only in our thought and that which has existence independent of our thought becomes blurry.

Polanyi, due to his scientific background, sees the arts and religion as not dealing with things that have independent existence from our thought.13 This characterization of religion by Polanyi is not helped by Polanyi’s reliance on Tillich’s existential theology that emphasizes the immanent subjective aspect with little regard for any claim to existence independent from our thought. After all, the importance of religion for Tillich lies not primarily in any claim to realities independent of our existence, but to what religion does in us.

With my placement of the emergence of meaning prior to science and religion, which I believe to be in fundamental agreement with Polanyi’s basic thought, I open up the possibility for religion to be able to talk meaningfully about reality external to our existence. God exists independently of us. Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. These two claims do purport to go beyond the thought life of human beings, although their existential reality in us is also very important. The Apostle Paul spends more time on things that do not have existence independent of our thought, and yet he also makes a very significant assertion that if Christ has not been bodily raised from the dead in then the believer’s faith in Christ is vain.14 N. T. (Tom) Wright says, “(Not long ago there was a survey among bishops in my part of the church; most of them said they did believe in Jesus’ resurrection, but some said that whether or not this was a bodily event didn’t really matter—you could believe it or not as you chose. That is a total misunderstanding of what Paul is talking about—and Paul is our earliest witness for the gospel itself.)”15 It is extremely important to note that to many theologians, including the Apostle Paul, much of religious knowledge is predicated on realities independent of human existence. In early Judaism historical events were imbued with meaning that went beyond the events themselves seen empirically, but were inseparable to those historical events. Thus to attack the reality of historical events is to undermine the level upon which the meaning of the supposed event relies for its successful operation. It is true however for some, that historical reality of events that have meaning ascribed to them is not necessary for the maintenance of the said meaning.16 The meaning of said event can then find a foundation from within one’s higher thought life. One could say that the meaning of an event is far more important than the event itself in many instances. The reason (some would say) that Christ’s crucifixion and subsequent resurrection were actualized in history is for the meaning intended by the author of the events.

In any case, while I think Polanyi may have drawn too sharp a distinction between science and other aspects of culture he does have a point that there are some differences. The Bible is a source of revelation whose underlying authority is not to be fundamentally (pun intended) questioned, thus setting it well apart from science. How this authority is to be defined and issues as to what the Bible really says are hotly debated in the Church. The Bible is paradigmatic for the Christian in a way that a scientific paradigm is not for the scientist. But as one may well recall, there are some defining “dogmas” in scientific investigation that cannot be questioned without putting into jeopardy one’s status as a scientist.

In the end, Polanyi’s view of theology can be seen to be too closely linked to Paul Tillich’s view of theology. While Tillich does have some important things to say to the discipline of theology his views are hardly representative of all partakers of the discipline. Thus in order to relate Polanyian philosophy to theology other perspectives are clearly called for. The work of T. F. Torrance is a good example of a theologian who takes seriously Polanyi’s philosophical views, but who has been influenced by the other great twentieth century Protestant theologian, Karl Barth. I do not intend to merely replicate Torrance’s use of Polanyian philosophy, rather I intend on presenting my own creative use of Polanyian philosophy. I have found elements of both Paul Tillich and Karl Barth (the twentieth century “prophets” of immanent and transcendent theology respectively) to be very significant.

II. Polanyian Investigations into Theology

There have been other philosophical systems that have attempted to describe God’s relationship to the world, and two of them in particular will be of help with the following Polanyian investigations into theology. These two philosophical systems are Neo-Platonism and Process Philosophy/Theology. While there will be some elements in common with a Polanyian theological-ontology of God there will be some differences.

A very important claim to all three of the great monotheistic faiths is God’s transcendence. God is other than, as well as over and above, the universe. The importance of God’s transcending creation cannot be overemphasized (a point of Karl Barth’s). A significant aspect of process philosophy and theology is that God is related to creation in an integral and inseparable way, and still other than creation (Hartshorne’s concept of panentheism). One of my frustrations with how some of my fellow students have appropriated process thought is that God’s activity with relation to the world is exhaustively described. God is greater than that which can be described (as I stated at the beginning of this chapter). Many theologians acknowledge that whatever language is applied to God can only be metaphorical or analogical; that there can never be a one to one correspondence of language to reality in theology.17 To exhaustively describe God puts God, intellectually, wholly within the realm of the human (thus God no longer transcends the intellect). I find many of the concepts of process thought to be useful, especially how God’s activity with relation to the world is described. Thus my annoyance has to do, not with the description of God’s activity with relation to the world, but with a lack of, what I refer to as, “epistemological humility.”18 As I stated earlier God is beyond human understanding, and my own conception of God’s existence (at the beginning of this chapter) could (if misappropriated) have the very same problem. The fact, to the believer, is that God has condescended to the level of the human in order to actually communicate with us, part of God’s creation. Even then, however, God is still seen as quite beyond the level of the human.

There is some use for a Polanyian conception of reality applied to theology. It is important to make clear to the reader, if the reader has not already figured out, that to me theology is wholly contingent to what God has revealed to us. I would make it a principle for all theologies, not necessarily to restrict themselves to God’s revelations in history, but to take revelation as the starting point for theology. While God is over and above creation, it is a similar claim to say that God also understands reality at a level greater than human beings. Process theology has a concept called “panentheism” (already alluded to) which means that God permeates the universe, all of creation, and yet God is somehow other than the universe. This does indeed imply a dualism of sorts that God and the universe are mutually exclusive. I find it necessary to make this relationship of God to the universe clear. I would apply Michael Polanyi’s concept of the stratification of reality here, though not at all in the same sense as my earlier conception of God’s existence did. In this case I would not say that the level at which God exists is an emergence from lower levels of creation. Understood in this light, God’s existence over and above creation makes more sense. God does understand creation at a level far above that of the human.

That God does understand the universe at a level far above that of the human creates a problem for us human beings that obviously are incapable of fully grasping the level at which God exists. How could human beings ever hope to bridge the gap from finite existence to infinite being? Neo-Platonists understood their “god” (in this case “the One”) to exist at a level far above the level of the human. This created a problem in that the nature of God’s existence precluded God from ever coming into contact with the universe. The level at which God exists in Neo-Platonic thought has eternal unchangeable qualities to it, and as the universe is anything but unchangeable, there would be no way for God to interact with the universe. Obviously if one holds to some idea that revelation is from God’s being in contact with the universe one can immediately see the problem. But is there another way to understand how God interacts with the universe?

It should be noted that the problem of God’s interaction with the universe in Neo-Platonic thought is mostly due to the fact that the universe is an emanation from God. As I mentioned, it is important to remember that God is other than the universe, and to say that God is at a level above and beyond the universe is not to attach God to the universe through successive emanations or emergences. The idea that God is at a level above and beyond the universe is a tool to aid our understanding of God, so it is subject to the same restrictions as metaphor. The process concept of panentheism, while not necessary to theology, is useful in theology to emphasize God’s omnipresence without equating that omnipresence with the universe itself, as I already stated.

Aside from the concept “panentheism” in process theology there is a Polanyian concept that might help us to understand how God can interact with the universe. That Polanyian concept is “indwelling.” As we learn a skill we come to indwell the knowledge of that skill over time. God can, in a sense, be said to indwell the universe in terms of being literally present everywhere. This “indwelling of the universe by God” is kind of the reverse of human learning of a skill leading to indwelling of that skill. When we learn to drive a car in a sense the car becomes an extension of our body. The sense data being provided us by the car in the car’s interaction with the environment is indwelt. As Polanyi says we feel the vibrations and the velocity of the car, not as immediate sensations, but as those sensations relate to the position of the car. At first in the learning of a skill the sensations are novel, in that we do not know how they relate to the task of driving. Later on when we indwell the task of driving, in the performance of turning the car to another street, we can gauge the distance from where we are at the speed we are going, to where the next street is. We know tacitly what all that sense data means for how much we will have to slow down and how far we will have to turn. We know the sense data, from the position of driving the car to the point that we can say we feel the car’s relationship to the environment. In reality we are separate from the car so the sense data can be said to be presented just to us, not to the car. Yet we do not understand the sense data as it is presented to us, but by how it is presented to us in relationship to the task of driving. The feeling of turning as immediate sensation can be received by hopping into a centrifuge, which can create the same sensation of turning, but it does not mean the same thing.

In a way God can be said to indwell all of reality, all levels of reality simultaneously, otherwise God would not be said to be omniscient. God, being over and above creation, understands at a level beyond the highest emergence of creation. Indwelling as applied to God would mean that God, being already present everywhere, understands things individually and corporately as they relate to each other at all different levels. Just as we can be said to indwell the car and perceive things as they relate to the car and yet remain ontologically other than the car, so too can God. The necessity to emphasize also that God understands things and exists at a level over and above the universe brings into being the idea of divine will or providence. It is not enough for God to understand things at all of the levels below God, God must also be able to assimilate all of God’s lower level knowledge into a higher level in order to be able to act upon it as the Bible clearly indicates that God does.

Process thought locates God’s ability to assimilate all of God’s lower level knowledge into a higher level in order to act upon it in terms of individual occasions conceived in the smallest constituent elements. God’s ideal result for an actual occasion works on an atomic scale, thus it is beyond human perception. We as human beings can bring lower level knowledge into a higher level in order to act upon it. We humans, by contrast work in much larger terms (Gestalten) we have formed (by virtue of from-to knowing), while God can work at a microscopic level and beyond. The very nature of Polanyian from-to knowing is the taking of tacit lower-level knowledge and proceeding from that to the level at which it can mean something comprehensively and can thus be acted upon. Process thought talks about God’s interaction with the universe in terms of atomic-moment-to-moment “initial aims” of God. Here we see that God not only understands reality in the way described by process thought, but God also understands reality in terms of all higher levels as well.

Perhaps it would be beneficial for the reader to have some of what has just been said restated. God is ontologically present everywhere in the universe, and yet God is other than the universe. There is also evidence in scripture that God knows the universe at multiple levels of reality. God is said to know the number of hairs on our head, as well as things like when a bird falls to the ground. Jesus uses this to point out how much more significant we human beings are to God than how flowers are clothed.

“For this reason I say to you, do not be anxious for your life, as to what you shall eat, or what you shall drink; nor for your body, as to what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body than clothing? “Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? “And which of you by being anxious can add a single cubit to his life’s span? “And why are you anxious about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory did not clothe himself like one of these. “But if God so arrays the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more do so for you, O men of little faith? “Do not be anxious then, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘With what shall we clothe ourselves?’ “For all these things the Gentiles eagerly seek; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you. “Therefore do not be anxious for tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:25-34 NAS)

Clearly there is at least a tacit understanding that there are indeed multiple levels of reality with regard to the level of significance. The Genesis creation account clearly places the creation of human beings as the most significant part of creation, and yet human beings are an emergence from the dust of the ground through a very personal act of creation by God. While the Bible seems to hint of multiple levels of reality it is not unequivocal. But Michael Polanyi’s theory of the stratification of reality would seem to make sense of much of scripture along these lines. The point I am driving at is that God understands and interacts with God’s creation in very personal ways, and that the thought of Michael Polanyi can provide a useful model for how this can be. It must still be remembered that any model is still a human invention, or God’s condescending to our level of reality in revelations construed as some kind of model for understanding some aspect of the universe.

The choice for what might seem to be an excursus into ontological-metaphysical implicatons of Polanyian thought in Christian theology is helpful in a number of ways. One obviously is that even the word theology implies something about God. With concepts like passion and the conscious attending to particular aspects of reality, presupposing as they do some idea of freedom, the realm of the ethical quickly comes into play. Once one recognizes that it is a very small step from focally attending to something, to acting based on what is being focally attended to, and thus the realm of the ethical enters play. The relationship of knowledge to ethics is the goal to which my thesis has been driving toward. The relationship between epistemology and ethics is closer than anyone has imagined previously. That is the topic for the remainder of this thesis: the relationship of epistemology to ethics, specifically theological-epistemology and ethics.


1 Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, 148.

2 Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, 148-149.

3 This being a point John Calvin makes that has been subsequently termed as Calvin’s doctrine of “accommodation.” This will be discussed further in a later chapter.

4 As we have seen in the previous chapter this would include the Hebraic conception of knowing as well.

5 See Harry Prosch’s discussion of Michael Polanyi’s views of theology in the aptly titled book Michael Polanyi: A Critical Exposition.

Prosch, Harry. Michael Polanyi: A Critical Exposition. Albany: State University of New York, 1986.

6 Prosch, Michael Polanyi: A Critical Exposition, 257.

7 Michael Polanyi, The Study of Man. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1959), 13.

8 cf. Prosch, Michael Polanyi: A Critical Exposition, ch. 12.

9 Prosch, Michael Polanyi: A Critical Exposition, 261.

10 A succinct definition of my understanding of meaning would be: The drive to understand the significance of human life.

11 In Nietzsche’s notes gathered together to form “The Will to Power” he says “Man projects his drive to truth, his “goal” in a certain sense, outside himself as a world that has being, as a metaphysical world, as a “thing-in-itself,” as a world already in existence. (p. 299) The majority of the notes in book 3 of The Will to Power speak to this point.

12 Except notably B. F. Skinner.

13 cf. Harry Prosch’s discussion of Polanyi’s views on religion in Michael Polanyi: A Critical Exposition.

14 For example 1st Corinthians 15:12-19. For a thorough defense of a literal bodily resurrection see N. T. Wright’s book The Resurrection of the Son of God.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 3. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.

For an alternative view see chapter 5 of Marcus Borg’s book The Heart of Christianity, in which Borg emphasizes an existential understanding of the resurrection without reference to an historical event.

Borg, Marcus. The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2003.

15 Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians. (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge [SPCK], 2003), 210-211.

16 See for example the difference drawn between the “Pre-Easter Jesus” and the “Post-Easter Jesus” in much of contemporary “Historical Jesus” scholarship.

17 Most if not all of the theologians I have encountered during the course of my education hold to a position like this, though I am told there are those who do not.

18 Epistemological humility is understanding that as finite human beings, with finite intellects, no one can ever exhaustively describe the infinite.


[To Chapter 5]




Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Toward a New Epistemology Beyond the Postmodern – Chapter 4

Toward a New Epistemology Beyond the Postmodern

By Lee Karl Palo, © 2005 Lee Karl Palo



[Back to Introduction with the Table of Contents]

[Back to Chapter 3]


Chapter 4

The Hebraic Conception of Knowledge

The idea of knowledge in scripture (Yadah)

A. Yadah in the Old Testament

As the main focus of this thesis is on theological epistemology with wide reaching implications for other areas of thought, it would be prudent to give some attention to the concept of knowledge in scripture. The word for knowing in Hebrew is yadah. As we shall see, yadah bears more resemblance to Polanyi’s conception of knowledge than most of what is thought today to be knowledge.

Yadah knowing comes through personal participation. Like Polanyi, yadah often refers to the skill a person has in a particular field. As one would guess, yadah knowing comes by one’s direct experience with the thing known. One interesting famous example is when Adam “knew” Eve. In this case yadah is a euphemism for sexual intercourse. Another example, related to the Adam and Eve story in Genesis, is that of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Given the mythological character of the creation and fall accounts it is likely that many of the things described therein took on a much more symbolical character. As knowledge was seen to come through personal participation, it is likely that the tree represents activity which leads to knowledge of good and evil.

The phrase “that you may know that I am YHWH,” used in reference to God’s acts in history, has the idea of personal participation. Ezekiel often uses it as a threat, and Moses uses it in reference to many of the plagues of Egypt in a similar fashion. Thus revelation from God takes on a very personal witness-like character. It is interesting to note that the Feast of Booths like other Hebrew religious observances has as its function to bring the people back, in a sense, to relive God’s acts in history. More striking than this is the Passover Haggadah, the wording of which puts the historical saving act of God in the first person. It is not said that God saved our ancestors, but God saved us from slavery in Egypt! Ever after a grand act of God in history the way the people come to know God is to relive, in a ceremonial celebratory manner, those revelatory events.

On the negative side, the book of Hosea has God condemning Israel because “there is no faithfulness or kindness or knowledge of God in the land” (Hosea 4:1 NAS). In Hosea’s context God is angry with Israel for “prostituting” itself to other “gods,” presumably by participation in religious ceremonies of Baal. Hosea 2:13 puts it thus: “And I will punish [Israel] for the days of the Baals when she used to offer sacrifices to them” (NAS). In consequence God says “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge…” (Hosea 4:6 NAS). As can clearly be seen by the aforementioned examples a good way to state what yadah means (by one of the more helpful books1 in describing yadah):

Knowledge for the Hebrews was not knowledge of abstract principles, or of a reality conceived of as beyond phenomena. Reality was what happens, and knowledge meant apprehension of that. Knowledge of God meant, not thought about an eternal Being or Principle transcending man and the world, but recognition of, and obedience to, one who acted purposefully in the world…2

B. Yadah in the New Testament

As A Theological Word Book of the Bible states knowing the truth in the New Testament sense, based on the Old Testament yadah, “…has in view conduct rather than theory…”3 In the New Testament the Old Testament yadah is conserved when the New Testament speaks of one who comes to know the truth being synonymous with one who becomes a Christian. In light of what has been said about Jewish religious practices one wonders what this might mean for the Christian sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist.

As we have seen William James emphasizes faith as an integral part of knowing, and the Apostle Paul also has this in mind. To the Apostle Paul faith, being related to knowing, issues in Christian behavior. A popular phrase puts it thus: “Good works do not make a Christian, but a Christian does good works.”4 The epistle of James further drives home this point. Because one knows Christ one lives like Christ in one’s life.

C. Yadah and Polanyi today

One may wonder how it is that an understanding of knowledge through personal participation, as has been evidenced by the Hebrew Scriptures, could be so different and removed from many contemporary concepts of knowing? Much of our educational system is designed for learning through books and lectures, and later testing based upon the data disseminated through those books and lectures. Prior to college the vast majority of learning I did was through this method. Interestingly it is through sports and art classes that personal participation in the learning process is most actively utilized prior to college. Once in college this method of learning through books and lectures was still utilized, but it was also much more actively supplemented by personal participation through writing papers, performing experiments, limited internships, volunteering in the field being studied, etc. The gap between the different types of learning was not always bridged, either prior to college or after. Polanyi laments the current educational system when he states that schools teach the data and theories of science, but do not always teach how to formulate new data and theories. Basically the educational system teaches people what is known, rather than how to know.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs provides an explanation for how this state of affairs has come to pass. Maslow’s hierarchy is a hierarchy similar to Polanyi’s hierarchical stratification of reality. There are important differences between the two hierarchies. The book A Guide to Psychologists and Their Concepts describes Maslow’s hierarchy thus:

Maslow’s theory of motivation contains two major concepts, basic needs and metaneeds. Basic needs are those of hunger, affection, security, self-esteem, and the like. … Metaneed is a distinctive concept [to Maslow’s thought]. Maslow argues that man needs beauty, justice, goodness, wholeness, and order in his life just as much as he needs food, air, sex, and security.5

Those who have already satisfied their basic needs undertake the fulfillment of metaneeds. Maslow calls the people who undertake the satisfaction of metaneeds self-actualizing persons. In a Polanyian sense, fulfillment of metaneeds relies on the proper fulfillment of the need levels below them. However the higher level needs (metaneeds) can operate once they have first been actualized even at the expense of improper actualization of lower level needs (basic needs.) A good example of this would be martyrs who permanently forsake the actualization of lower needs in favor of some principle held to that originated at a higher level. Maslow notes that once people reach the levels of metaneeds they prefer to stay there. In the case of many (including the example of martyrs) the lower level needs can be ignored or sublimated should they come into conflict with the higher level needs.

As already referred to in the previous chapter, Nietzsche’s doctrine of the “will to power” is not unrelated to Maslow’s self-actualization. It would not be an exaggeration to say that, in the correspondence between the will to power and self-actualization that I postulate,6 Nietzsche is considerably more pessimistic than Maslow about the average person’s ability to actualize the higher impulses in humankind. I tend to agree with Nietzsche, though I think it could be possible for things to get better. In any case Nietzsche has much more respect for the moral dimension running through his theory than Maslow has of his own theory. I would say that sin in the world must be dealt with in order for people to become greater than they are. That I see Jesus Christ as having something to do with this problem of sin inhibiting people from becoming actualized persons is why I am more optimistic than Nietzsche is. Nietzsche has no doctrine of salvation, as he acknowledges no God that could aid in our salvation.

To get back to the task at hand, Maslow’s theory of self-actualization requires that some time be available to actualize the higher level needs. In a mostly agrarian society people spend most of their time in the satisfaction of basic needs. It follows that the way knowledge was understood by the Israelites would be tied to the satisfaction of basic needs and the skills required for the satisfaction of those needs. Thus knowledge would have a first-hand practical value to someone living in an agrarian society.

One can begin to see how a Polanyian framework can apply to knowledge. Knowledge has a lower level that is very personal and concrete. Knowledge also has a higher level where knowledge becomes more abstract, and because its basis in personal life becomes tacit it then appears as though knowledge is more objective and transcendent. Interestingly, yadah knowing is what is personal and knowledge of God too is personal. It was not knowledge that was transcendent to the Hebrews, but God who was transcendent. The Hebrews personally understood God through God’s acts in their history.

The famous child-psychologist Jean Piaget demonstrates that the way children know things changes over time as children get older. Like the Polanyian general rule that lower levels must operate properly in order for the higher levels to function, Piaget indicates a clear line of succession in the stages of a child’s intellectual development. The intellectual level of concrete operations must be achieved in order for formal operations to develop (which allows more abstract thinking to develop.) Piaget has ages roughly defined when children are at certain stages of intellectual development. Much research has been done on Piaget’s theory to determine if the ages at which Piaget says children go through the different intellectual stages of development are the same cross-culturally. Interestingly, research would indicate that children in third-world countries take longer to get through the stages of intellectual development. This would seem to corroborate my postulation, relying on Maslow’s hierarchy7 of needs, that knowing is related to the fulfillment of needs.

D. Implications of yadah and Polanyian “knowledge” for some of today’s conceptions of knowledge

With these important ideas having been explicated I can now move to another criticism of some current theories of epistemology. When one faces the reality that knowledge is not all on the same intellectual level there are important and absolutely crucial implications for any theory of epistemology. Many other theories of epistemology assume that all knowledge is on the same plane (level). Consequently only a one-plane conception of knowledge is necessary. Polanyi’s theory of the stratification of reality has intrinsic to it a multi-planar concept. The different planes in Polanyi’s theory are related to each other, but, as we have seen, they look very different from each other, even to the point of having radically different rules apply to each successive level. This leads to an understanding of knowledge where there is knowledge that is more personal (like yadah) and knowledge that is more abstract. Separated from each other these types of knowledge appear to have different properties that would lead one to different definitions. The knowledge that comes from the scientific method as well as much, if not all, of knowledge that comes through philosophical thinking are on higher levels than what one would consider every-day personal knowledge (like driving a car).

It should not be a surprise to discover that philosophers and scientists have more time (beyond what is necessary to fulfill their basic needs) to devote to their respective intellectual pursuits, which comprise part of higher level metaneeds. All it would take is self-esteem gone too far into pride for the philosopher/scientist to attribute superiority to their knowledge, being abstract and above the knowledge of most people. Consequently we have some philosophers echoing the famous saying of Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” In the end knowledge becomes defined chiefly by more abstract concepts, whereas Polanyi’s theory of knowledge applies equally well to mundane knowledge (driving a car). This superiority of more abstracted knowledge in the contemporary world is reminiscent (to my mind) of Gnosticism. Abstract, or in Gnostic terms “secret,” knowledge is the primary value that leads to salvation, while mundane knowledge, and much of life, is denigrated. The naturally wise soul is entrapped in the mundane world and loses its identification with reality (reality in this case is the secret, abstract, knowledge).  This phenomenon of the valuation of abstracted knowledge over all mundane knowledge is also a theme uniting all of the various forms of Neo-Platonism from Plotinus and Porphyry to the various religious Neo-Platonisms,8 and it is most overt in the religious movements variously called Gnosticism. As it may be surmised by now this generalization can also be seen in philosophy today. This generalization is most overt in the Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism of the ancient world, which is why I use them in this thesis. Today theories of knowledge like Polanyi’s and James’ stand out due to their ability to incorporate lower, less abstract, forms of knowledge. It has already been demonstrated how Polanyi’s theory relates to that which is not normally considered knowledge, and James defended a right of a person to believe in many things despite higher intellectual criticism.9 It seems to me that Neoplatonism’s valuation of spirit and soul with its denigration of the material realm corresponds to the contemporary prolific valuation of abstract knowledge10 over that of mundane knowledge (much of which is not given the title of knowledge properly so-called). Abstract “high” knowledge has forgotten that it has the “low” as its root,11 which can be understood in a Polanyian “from-to” sense. The naturally wise immortal soul being entrapped in the material, mundane, world sets up a very sharp dichotomy between abstract knowledge and tacit mundane knowledge (that is generally unreflective).

To the Hebrews there really was no concept of an immortal soul, which might help one to understand why the Hebraic concept of yadah was so grounded in the real world. It was the ground out of which human beings were created. To Nietzsche, who had a profoundly great amount of respect for the Jews, belief in the soul was a child’s belief.12

The religious pluralism prevalent during Israel’s ancient history would also impinge on any concept of knowledge that had universal implications. If Israel knew its God, so too did other cultures “know” their gods. To acquire knowledge that would lead to a way that would guarantee that the crops one planted would survive until it was time to harvest them was dependent on what society one lived in. The Philistines, in their worship of Baal, thought, in their acts of worship, they were doing something that would guarantee their harvest. Other cultures had their rites designed for this effect. But, as I mentioned earlier in the chapter, some of the Israelites aside from acknowledging YHWH as God also offered sacrifices to Baal designed to guarantee their harvest. What one will gather is that worship of one’s god was understood to be part of knowing how to raise crops. In this case the Israelites that had offered sacrifices to Baal were only trying to “hedge their bets.” There was no universally understood truth about how one went about raising crops. YHWH God, the ONLY God, the UNIVERSAL God, demanded that the Israelites should have NO other gods except YHWH. Without this claim to universality, truth in philosophy could never have any far-reaching implications. Can it truly be said given what I have just articulated, that it would be surprising that one of the things Socrates and the early Christians were accused of was atheism? A denial of the gods (plural) would be necessary to any claim to universality. There can be only one God, one reality, and one truth.

The problem that we today are back to is that while there may be only one God, one reality, and one truth there are many subjective understandings of that one God, one reality, and one truth. This is precisely what William James meant by “a pluralistic universe.”13 Today we may have given up on the belief that a subjective knower can ever truly know that he or she knows the (universal) truth, but now we have concepts like intersubjective agreement within a specialized knowledge discipline. We also have talk of ‘verifiability,’ etc. To my way of thinking this makes it all the more important that we pay attention to those who develop epistemology through a recognition of the role of the personal, subjective, element in the formulation of knowledge. Some of those developing epistemology along these lines would include Polanyi, James, Nietzsche, and Thomas S. Kuhn. Of course, the Biblical concept of yadah would be useful in the aforementioned regard.

It is ironic that the world would start out understanding truth itself pluralistically, and end up understanding truth through the pluralism of different people. In any case it has been and continues to be the goal of philosophy to understand the universal truth to the best of its ability.

To both Polanyi and the ancient Hebrews knowledge is emergent from reality. To put it succinctly: Knowledge emerges from reality. Philosophical knowledge is an emergence from human existence. Knowledge is an emergence from the corporeal and is not inherently incorporeal, despite what abstraction may make you think it is. Now that there is a sufficient foundation for it, The next chapter will begin with a synthesis of Polanyian epistemology with theology.


1 Alan Richardson ed. A Theological Word Book of the Bible. (London: Camelot Press Ltd., 1950)

I found it ironic that one of the most concise works on Biblical word concepts would be the most helpful. Many of the other works said a lot, but took a lot more time and effort to wade through.

2 Alan Richardson ed. A Theological Word Book of the Bible. (London: Camelot Press Ltd., 1950), 121.

3 Alan Richardson ed. A Theological Word Book of the Bible. (London: Camelot Press Ltd., 1950), 122.

4 I have heard this phrase often, but unfortunately I do not know its source. Perhaps it is just a contemporary Christian colloquialism.

5 Vernon J. Nordby and Calvin S. Hall, A Guide to Psychologists and Their Concepts. (New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1974), 117.

6 And I was affirmed by Walter Kaufmann after reading his book Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist that I had understood Nietzsche’s doctrine of the will to power properly.

7 Maslow himself relied on Polanyi’s concept of the stratification of reality.

8 i.e. Jamblichus, Proclus, etc.

9 James defended religious belief despite empirical or philosophical criticisms, and in Pragmatism James emphasizes that all different types of people can employ the pragmatic method, from intellectuals to non-intellectuals.

10 i.e. math, science, philosophy.

11 cf. the Tao Te Ching, especially ch.39 “The high has the low for its foundation.”

12 cf. Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche [Thus Spoke Zarathustra], 146.


[To Chapter 5]



Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Toward a New Epistemology Beyond the Postmodern – Chapter 3

Toward a New Epistemology Beyond the Postmodern

By Lee Karl Palo, © 2005 Lee Karl Palo



[Back to Introduction with the Table of Contents]

[Back to Chapter 2]


Chapter 3

Passionate vs. “Objective” Knowledge

The Thought of Michael Polanyi Part 3

The Personal Element

In this chapter it will become very obvious just how different Polanyi’s theory of knowledge is, as we will investigate some other ideas of knowledge. First, however, one last major aspect of Michael Polanyi’s theory must be explicated. Thus far I have dealt with more of the “knowledge” part of Polanyi’s theory of “personal knowledge.” Now it is time for an examination of more of the personal dimension of Polanyi’s theory.

A. The involvement of the body in the production of knowledge

There was a time in the history of philosophy when the material-corporeal was routinely denigrated, or seen to be de-facto evil. For the most part, the particular ideas to be discussed are from Neo-Platonism, specifically the ideas of Plotinus, though other related ideas and themes will be considered. The Good (In Plotinus’ case “The One”) was what was eternal, unchangeable, and far removed from this world. The relationship of this physical world to “The One” is a little complicated. The One, being so far transcendent to this corporeal world cannot be readily described in words (any words used to describe the One would be inadequate to the reality of the One, and if taken too literally could be misleading, so please bear this in mind). Even postulating “existence” to the One is misleading as the word “existence” implies a subsistence to something, thus Plotinus asserts that the One is beyond being as such. In its “natural state” it contemplates only itself, but out of its superabundance the One emanates (generates / creates) nous (often translated as “Spirit” or “mind” or “Intellectual-Principle”).1 Nous, being lesser than the One, in turn emanates the “world-soul.” The world-soul, having a double “nature,” in part contemplates nous, and when it forgets to contemplate nous it emanates the material-corporeal world of our mundane experience. A good way of describing it is to use Polanyi’s concept of the stratification of reality. But in this case, instead of beginning with the level of atoms emerging into higher levels,2 it begins with the eternal realm and emanates the lower levels ending with matter.

This conception of reality in Neo-Platonism, and a contemporary religious movement Gnosticism, understood the human being to be mostly comprised of matter, but there also was a soul that all human beings possessed (the world-soul). The soul was of a higher emanation than matter, and thus closer to the realm of the eternal (the One). When the human being reasoned it involved the soul very heavily, but the soul was entrapped in the material emanation. The material emanation corrupted the reasoning capacity of the soul by virtue of its entrapment of the soul. Thus any participation of the body in knowledge would not seem to be good. One example of the body’s interference with the reasoning of the soul would be “fleshly” desires. As a male it can be difficult to think when a beautiful woman walks by, as is illustrated countless times by popular media (movies and television). For Plotinus the goal of reasoning is a mystical contemplation of the One. Surprisingly, unlike Gnosticism, Plotinus does not see the material world as evil, even though it is the lowest emanation, rather he sees it as the expression of the world-soul. As the world-soul is not evil, its expression (the material world emanation) would also not be evil, just lesser than that from which it came. Philip Merlan notes in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Ethics the tensions in Plotinus’ philosophy, one of which is this tension between the material world not being evil and yet its hindering the task of contemplating the One.3 A concise way to phrase this tension in Plotinus’ philosophy would be to say that the material world is aesthetically good, but ethically evil in its hindrance of contemplation.  To take the point further Julian Baggini and Peter S. Fosl note that to Nietzsche a Platonic worldview with its emphasis on that which is otherworldly (the theory of forms for example) necessarily denigrates that which is “this-worldly.”4 Bertrand Russell has an amusing way of putting this when he says “He [Plotinus] turned aside from the spectacle of ruin and misery in the actual world, to contemplate an eternal world of goodness and beauty.”5

With the theory of Michael Polanyi, with its heavy emphasis on indwelling and embodied knowledge we get a very different view on whether the participation of the body corrupts knowledge. I would contend that even though we today no longer view the world in the terms of Neo-Platonism or Gnosticism (at least most of us) much of philosophy has never been able to shake this idea that the body corrupts knowledge.6 While many would not state it quite so bluntly that the body corrupts knowledge it is, in many cases, a tacitly held belief. Under the heading “’Reason’ in Philosophy” Nietzsche puts words in the mouths of those who believe that the body corrupts knowledge:

“…there must be some deception which prevents us from perceiving that which has being: where is the deceiver?”

“We have found him,” they cry ecstatically; “it is the senses! These senses, which are so immoral in other ways too, deceive us concerning the true world. Moral: let us free ourselves from the deception of the senses, from becoming, from history, from lies; history is nothing but faith in the senses, faith in lies. Moral: let us say No to all who have faith in the senses, to all the rest of mankind; they are all ‘mob.’ Let us be philosophers! Let us be mummies! …And above all, away with the body, … it is impudent enough to behave as if it were real!”7

In the words of William James: “There is an over-powering desire at moments to escape personality, to revel in actions that have no respect for our ego, to let the tides flow, even though they flow over us.”8 In context, James is referring to those who, upon encountering people who involve their “personal temperament” in the formulation of knowledge, jump to the opposite pole in reaction. Many of us have seen someone who “woke up on the wrong side of the bed” react to others in illogical, irrational, and inappropriate ways.

Today in popular culture this belief that the body corrupts knowledge is often overtly expressed as the need for objectivity. What is objectivity if not the stepping outside of oneself in order to evaluate something? And why would one need to step outside oneself if there is nothing intrinsic to oneself that could corrupt an accurate analysis of something? But, as Polanyi’s theory shows, one cannot escape the body’s involvement in the formulation and use of knowledge. Polanyi is one of very few to truly provide a comprehensive model of knowledge that does not emphasize the participation of the knower in the formulation of knowledge as necessarily a bad thing (Nietzsche and James also saw the human element in knowledge as not necessarily a bad thing.) In Polanyi’s case it is quite often the other way around—the participation of the knower in the formulation of knowledge is a very good thing. William James states, “For a philosophy to succeed on a universal scale it must define the future congruously with our spontaneous powers.”9

Like Kant, Polanyi emphasizes an active participation of the person in the person’s attempt to comprehend the environment. Polanyi would extend this to the animal world as well as to human beings. The major difference between the animal and the human is language. To Polanyi the emergence of language in human beings brings into being new and more complex levels of understanding far above that of the animal kingdom. Thus the animal has a far more limited ability to comprehend its environment. Polanyi has used the example of chimpanzees that, upon the invention of a tool for a practical task, repeat the use of the tool, outside of the tool’s invented purpose, appearing to derive some kind of joy from the invention of the tool.

This has not been the only idea of how the person is able to interact with the environment. To Plato the recognition of something we encounter is more the recognition, by the soul, of the object’s imperfect reflection of the eternal forms. Plato’s understanding has more of the character of remembering, than an active assimilation of the environment by tacit thought forms of the individual.10 The assimilation of the environment by the individual is a skill that we indwell, most often in tacit form, according to the theory of Michael Polanyi. Mistakes understood through Neo-Platonism are quite often the result of the imperfect material world’s emanation from the higher realm of the forms.

Polanyi’s theory presupposes the emergence of some concept of freedom, though, as an emergence, it relies on the levels below it for its proper function. The concept of “freedom” is a very ambiguous concept in many circles. The point in bringing up freedom is to say that skills that are indwelt are still employed by the person through that person’s ability to choose given the options perceived at the level at which the person is operating at (i.e. the person’s freedom). Thus a mistake one could make, according to a Polanyian model, could creep in at many levels. One such mistake could be at the conscious level of a task (where we are most conscious of our freedom). Other mistakes could be in the indwelling of a potentially faulty way of performing a skill, or if the brain no longer performed its usual physiological function. The reason Polanyi’s theory is better than Neo-Platonism is that it makes better sense of our experience.

The body, being a hindrance to truth through its many needs and desires, has been a problem for many to deal with in their philosophies as evidenced by Neo-Platonism. Polanyi’s theory of knowledge begins with lower levels emerging, bringing into being, successively higher levels that transcend the principles governing the levels below it. Human beings have mental faculties that transcend those of the animal kingdom. Language is seen as a chief facilitator of the human transcendence of the animal kingdom. However human beings still have many of the same bodily needs as animals. Given Polanyi’s concept of emergence and the stratification of reality would it be any surprise that human beings have needs that transcend animal needs? Psychologist Abraham H. Maslow has a theory that deals precisely with this issue, it is referred to as the “hierarchy of needs.”  Maslow’s theory bears some resemblance to Polanyi’s concept of emergence and the stratification of reality (not surprisingly Polanyi is cited more than once in Maslow’s bibliography in Motivation and Personality where he gives the hierarchy of needs its classical expression.)11 Maslow’s level termed as “the need for self-actualization” is the highest level and is not found in the animal kingdom. One need not rely on Maslow for the idea that there is something intrinsic to humanity that is not present in the animal kingdom that drives us toward its transcendence. Nietzsche’s doctrine of the “will to power,” Tillich’s concept of “ultimate concern,” the Christian concept of sanctification, the religious impetus, the thirst for knowledge, and some kind of grand becoming, all speak of some kind of transcendence. Polanyi’s concept of intellectual passions is likewise transcendent and he identifies the scientific expression of it with “…art, religion, morality, law and other constituents of culture.”12 Polanyi does not feel obligated to explain how the pursuit of scientific truth came about in its transcendent manner; rather it is a given fact. This is why I bring up Abraham Maslow who does have a theory (the aforementioned hierarchy of needs) to explain how the pursuit of scientific truth came about in its transcendent manner (as a function of the need for self-actualization.) Maslow’s theory bears no small amount of resemblance to Polanyi’s theory as has already been stated; in fact it can be seen to be a possible implication of Polanyi’s theory. Given the fact that Polanyi does not draw sharp dichotomies between different ways of pursuing truth it can be said that Polanyi’s conception of scientific method can be readily applicable to other fields, such as theology and in psychology as illustrated by T. F. Torrance13 and A. H. Maslow respectively.

As I mentioned, Polanyi does not feel obligated to explain how the pursuit of scientific truth came about in its transcendent manner.  Polanyi does criticize the theory of evolution from his unique theory, and he is not the only one. Nietzsche also criticizes the theory of evolution for many of the same reasons Polanyi does. Walter Kaufmann, a leading authority on Nietzsche, states: “Nietzsche agrees with the Christian tradition and such thinkers as Kant and Hegel that the worth of man must consist in a feature he does not share with any other animal.”14 Through Polanyi’s concept of emergence one can see how humanity could transcend the animal kingdom. Nietzsche was quite pessimistic in that he did not see many people rise above the level of animals, thus his concept of the “will to power.” However evolution, when examined through philosophical-atomism,15 does not provide for a concept of emergence. Evolutionary innovations understood atomistically are due to random mutations at the level of genetics. The trouble, as can be seen, is that life is not lived at the genetic level according to Polanyi’s theory. Our everyday lives do not make sense when interpreted at the genetic level. The purposive aspect to evolutionary innovations cannot be wholly explained at the genetic level with its rules of operation. If one were to move evolutionary theory away from philosophical-atomism and place it into a Polanyian framework it would make a lot more sense. It would then become easier for evolutionary theory to deal with freedom. Instead of mere random gene mutations that happen (accidentally as it were) to be advantageous to the comprehensive entity, one can postulate a more directed change in the comprehensive entity toward an external phenomenon that impinges on said entity’s ability to cope with it.16 Indeed evolutionary theory already can talk about directed change, but a Polanyian framework could make it easier.

B. Objectivity and passion in science

Science has traditionally prided itself on having principles of operation that are not subject to the whims of feeling. In addition, the methods of science have been thought of as guaranteeing results (be it verification or falsification). However to scientists like Michael Polanyi, philosophers of science like Thomas S. Kuhn, and others, science does not work that way. Polanyi states:

Science is regarded as objectively established in spite of its passionate origins.  It should be clear by now that I dissent from that belief… I want to show that scientific passions are no mere psychological by-product, but have a logical function which contributes an indispensable element to science.17

A dominant belief among scientists is that science is supposed to be impartial. From this claim there is no reason why one line of experimentation ought to be pursued over another. But there are so many possibilities for experimentation how could one possibly choose what to explore first? Or ought the scientist to practice meditation of the Buddhist type and be open to the continuous flux of experience without choosing one moment of space and time to direct one’s focal awareness? Sir Francis Bacon, a pioneer of the scientific method, would perform all sorts of experiments just to see what the result would be.18 In his final experiment he was stuffing chickens with snow to see what would happen, but unfortunately what did happen was he became ill and died.19 Today scientists emphasize the need for a hypothesis, and research that is a bit more directed. With regard to the scientific method, Nietzsche states in the Gay Science:

In science convictions have no rights of citizenship, as is said with good reason. Only when they decide to descend to the modesty of a hypothesis, of a provisional experimental point of view, of a regulative fiction, may they be granted admission and even a certain value within the realm of knowledge—though always with the restriction that they remain under police supervision, under the police of mistrust. But does this not mean, more precisely considered, that a conviction may obtain admission to science only when it ceases to be a conviction? …one must still ask whether it is not the case that, in order that this discipline could begin, a conviction must have been there already… But one will gather what I am driving at, namely, that it always remains a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests…20

Michael Polanyi puts it thus in Personal Knowledge:

Science is a system of beliefs to which we are committed. Such a system cannot be accounted for either from experience. Yet this does not signify that we are free to take it or leave it, but simply reflects the fact that it is a system of beliefs to which we are committed and which therefore cannot be represented in non-committal terms.21

From the previous two quotes it would seem that prior to the choice of what kind of experiment to perform there is a choice-commitment to science.22 To Michael Polanyi the art of practicing science is a skill indwelt like any other. Thus in the performance of scientific pursuits there are definitely tacit components. In this case to perform scientific pursuits is an act of shifting one’s awareness to the task of science. At first one shifts one’s focal awareness to the pursuit of science in order to learn the skill. As time goes on one no longer has to preoccupy one’s focal awareness with the shift to scientific pursuits, rather scientific pursuits are now indwelt. The initial choice-commitment to science is now contained in one’s subsidiary awareness and can be said to be a tacit commitment to science. From this point the scientist can, and indeed must, choose by the use of the scientists’s focal awareness a line of scientific investigation.

Why is it that some scientists pursue physics over chemistry or biology? As has been shown, objectivity and impartiality at this level incapacitate the scientist from making any kind of commitment. There are no external criteria with which to determine one line of investigation over another out of infinite possibilities for investigation. William James says, “We cannot live or think at all without some degree of faith. Faith is synonymous with working hypothesis.”23 To apply Polanyian terminology to the Jamesian concept of faith: faith is the indwelling of a commitment. In the task at hand, the scientist (having already indwelt a commitment to science) through the indwelling of the skill of scientific investigation chooses an area to investigate and pursues it.

As scientific skills are indwelt in the same manner as many other aspects of life one is not guaranteed to be free from passion and desire in the application of the indwelt skill of science. William James discusses W. K. Clifford’s idea that for the scientist, as well as for anyone else “…It is wrong always, everywhere, and for every one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”24 In response to Clifford’s maxim William James replies:

I myself find it impossible to go with Clifford. We must remember that these feelings of our duty about either truth or error are in any case only expressions of our passional life. Biologically considered, our minds are as ready to grind out falsehood as veracity, and he who says, “Better go without belief forever than believe a lie!” merely shows his own preponderant private horror of becoming a dupe. … For my own part, I have also a horror of being duped; but I can believe that worse things than being duped may happen to a man in this world: so Clifford’s exhortation has to my ears a thoroughly fantastic sound.25

Based on what James has said, it is clear that in the realm of science when the scientist seems to be least passionately involved and most objective and impartial, it can be said to be a screen masking faith commitments that are quite passional. Not all scientists hold to some ideal of objectivity out of fear, as Clifford would seem to, though perhaps that is the root cause of holding to the ideal of objectivity. Rather, to use Polanyi’s idea of how one learns a skill, the ideal of objectivity is an unconscious tacit commitment passed from the teacher to the student quite possibly without any overt knowledge of why objectivity is a good thing.

It is important to note that for Polanyi, James, and Nietzsche passion is not always a negative thing. The origin of the word “passion” is not unrelated to the idea of suffering, and Friedrich Nietzsche is well known for his emphasis on potential benefits of suffering.26 For James and Polanyi the passion of the seeker of truth propels the seeker toward the goal.27 The Scientist’s infatuation with the pursuit of science and admiration for the beauty of nature are positive aspects of passion. James says, “What we enjoy most in a Huxley or a Clifford is not the professor with his learning, but the human personality ready to go in for what it feels to be right, in spite of appearances.”28

While passion is an unavoidable and necessary component of scientific investigation, all three men are more than willing to admit than it can go too far and hinder the gaining of truth. Nietzsche is an avid, one might even say rabid, proponent of questioning one’s own hypotheses. William James advocates a little skepticism to offset commitments that are passionately held in order to aid objectivity. All three men (Polanyi, James, and Nietzsche) do see value in objectivity for the purpose of avoiding fatal leaps/lapses into error. But none of them would say that complete objectivity is possible, much less desired. Objectivity for them has more to do with being able to “step back” from oneself and critique oneself. Without the commitment to a hypothesis it would be impossible for the scientist to see it validated, but without the ability to “step back” the scientist might never see potential problems with his or her hypothesis. This function (of an objective viewpoint) can be, and often is, performed by the scientific community at large. Basically the pursuit of science from within a Polanyian framework contains more facets of the personal than can be exhaustively articulated.29

“We know more than we can tell.”

C. Polanyi vs. the “Laplacian Mind”

We have seen how Neo-Platonism and another contemporary religious movement (Gnosticism), have viewed the body as a hindrance to the pursuit of truth. Objectivity has been and continues to be of very high value in the pursuit of truth, especially in science. Obviously total objectivity is not possible, but the ideal of total objectivity to this day still exerts a powerful influence in science.

A good question to ask that really has not been asked enough is what the purpose/end/eschatological fulfillment of science is?  What does the pursuit of scientific truth aim toward? Polanyi identifies the philosophy of science of Laplace as the one which best gives expression to the goal of what most people have understood to be that of science. Philosophical atomism or materialistic reductionism (whatever you want to call it) is predicated on the idea that if you pursue the way things are constructed back to their most constituent parts (the “atoms” in atomism) you will understand everything. One could thus predict everything that occurs in the entire universe. This is the goal and what Polanyi refers to as the “Laplacian mind.” It is important to note that Polanyi would not necessarily say that the ideal of the “Laplacian mind” began with Laplace in the nineteenth century. Prior to Laplace it was more of a vague, tacit goal of philosophy and science. For that matter asking the question, “What is the purpose of science?” is not a scientific question. That unscientific question, however, would seem to exert a powerful influence on science.

The next chapter will deal with the ancient Hebraic concept of knowledge (yadah). We will see how this Biblical concept of knowing is indeed consonant with Polanyi’s concept of knowing. We will also examine how these concepts relate to how some see knowledge today. The next chapter will thus continue the critique of  some philosophical and scientific concepts of knowing such as Neo-Platonism begun in this chapter.


1 See Bertrand Russell’s explanation of the difficulty of translating nous on pages 288 & 289 of his History of Western Philosophy.  Following Bertrand Russell I too will leave it untranslated.

Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1945.

2 For want of a better beginning point I choose “atoms” while recognizing that there are subatomic particles.  The idea of the atom can be traced back to Greek philosophy, where it meant “not divisible,” so given the context of my thesis it seems the most appropriate choice.

3 See the article on Plotinus on pages 834-844 in Philosophy and Ethics: Selections from The Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Supplement.

Borchert, Donald ed. Philosophy and Ethics: Selections from The Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Supplement. (New York: Macmillan Library Reference USA, 1999).

4 Julian Baggini and Peter S. Fosl, The Philosopher’s Toolkit. (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 189-190

5 Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1945), 284

6 The main reason I chose Neo-Platonism as an antagonist is that Plato has had an incalculable influence on the history of philosophy (illustrated by A. N. Whitehead’s famous quote in which all philosophy since Plato is merely a footnote to Plato), and the further exploration of Plato’s themes in Neo-Platonism provides the most blunt expression of what I am attacking in the history of philosophy.

7 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche. ed. & trans. Walter Kaufmann. (New York: Penguin, 1954), 480.

8 William James, Essays in Pragmatism. (New York: Hafner Publishing, 1948), 22.

9 William James, Essays in Pragmatism. (New York: Hafner Publishing, 1948), 16.

10 Plato’s doctrine of recollection is first expounded in the Meno and reappears in the Phaedo alongside the Theory of Forms, and is touched on in the Phaedrus.

11 Abraham H. Maslow, Motivation and Personality, Second Edition. (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), 347

Maslow first refers to Polanyi on page xi, which is the third page of text in the book (in the preface)!

12 Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), 133.

13 Torrance went so far as to edit a book with the subtitle “The Relevance of Michael Polanyi’s Thought for Christian Faith and Life”

Torrance, T. F. ed. Belief in Science and in Christian Life: The Relevance of Michael Polanyi’s Thought for Christian Faith and Life. Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1998.

14 Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, 4th edition. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), 151.

15 Philosophical-atomism is the reductive analysis of a given topic to its most constitutive elements.

16 Presumably the evolutionary innovations would be directed by the entity (or its class as a whole) in response to its environment.  One could also cite perhaps God’s intervention, though this would be outside the purview of science.

17 Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), 134.

18 See: Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1945), 544.

Russell states, “Bacon’s inductive method is faulty through insufficient emphasis on hypothesis.”

19 This is one of the fun facts to be found in the book Philosophy for Beginners.

Richard Osborne, Philosophy for Beginners. (New York: Writers and Readers Publishing, 1992), 68.

20 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche. ed. & trans. Walter Kaufmann. (New York: Penguin, 1954), 448-450.

21 Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), 171.

22 James also emphasized this: See James’ essay “The Sentiment of Rationality” in Essays in Pragmatism.

William James, Essays in Pragmatism. (New York: Hafner Publishing, 1948), 3-36.

23 William James, Essays in Pragmatism. (New York: Hafner Publishing, 1948), 25.

24 W. K. Clifford as quoted by William James in his famous essay “The Will to Believe”

William James, Essays in Pragmatism. (New York: Hafner Publishing, 1948), 93.

25 From James’ famous essay “The Will To Believe”

William James, Essays in Pragmatism. (New York: Hafner Publishing, 1948), 100.

26 Nietzsche himself suffered more than a few ailments in his lifetime. See Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist.

Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, 4th edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.

27 With these two thinkers the importance of passion for the pursuit of truth cannot be overstated.

28 William James, Essays in Pragmatism. (New York: Hafner Publishing, 1948), 24.

29 The Scientist’s commitment, a desire for objectivity, the scientist’s enjoyment of science, the scientist’s emotional state while doing science, are but a few examples.  Exhaustively cataloging all the potential personal factors affecting science is not practically helpful, much less possible, but general factors such as those already mentioned are helpful.


[To Chapter 4]



Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Toward a New Epistemology Beyond the Postmodern – Chapter 2

Toward a New Epistemology Beyond the Postmodern

By Lee Karl Palo, © 2005 Lee Karl Palo



[Back to Introduction with the Table of Contents]

[Back to Chapter 1]


Chapter 2

An Ontology of Knowledge

The Thought of Michael Polanyi Part 2

The stratification of reality

In the last chapter we saw how knowledge acts in the knower in the performing of a skill. We saw how knowing has a from-to structure. In addition much of our knowledge is tacit in the sense that we are aware of it only as it relates to the task at hand. The concepts of focal awareness and subsidiary awareness, the concept of indwelling knowledge, and the differentiation between tacit and overt knowledge are crucial to the further concepts to be delineated in this chapter. In this chapter we will investigate implications of these preliminary concepts far beyond what may seem visible at first glance. The two Polanyian concepts that are the implications of the concepts of the previous chapter are emergence and the stratification of reality. Why, one may ask, do I choose to devote a chapter to just two more concepts? The answer is simple: the previous concepts of personal knowledge are used by people all the time every day, while the concepts of emergence and the stratification of reality are far more abstract. Thus the concepts of emergence and the stratification of reality require more space to be dealt with in such a manner so as to facilitate understanding.

These two concepts allow the different “games” discussed in the introduction to be reconciled to each other in one comprehensive system of thought. By the end of the chapter it will be seen how physics and ethics can co-exist without contradiction! Physics and ethics co-existing without contradiction is a feat Kant could only accomplish by keeping them separate and positing God to bridge the, otherwise unbridgeable, gap between them. The concepts of emergence and the stratification of reality are not unrelated to each other. Emergence brings about the stratification of reality. The stratification of reality is like a noun (stratified reality), while emergence is a verb bringing the stratification of reality into being.

To illustrate the concept of emergence it will be helpful to recall the analogy used in the previous chapter of the computer program.

Line 1: Have the letter [X] be equal to the value of 1.

Line 2: Print the current value of the letter [X] in the middle of the screen.

Line 3: If the value of the letter [X] equals 100 then end the program.

Line 4: Have the value of the letter [X] increased by 1.

Line 5: Go to the program [Line 2]

The computer program comprises one level of understanding.  The manipulation of variables (such as X), if-then statements, and other command lines make up the program. There are rules as to how programs can be written. In a programming language many different types of command lines have been devised, that, when combined, can perform a myriad of functions. The word-processor that I am writing this on is a good example of a complex computer program. But the word-processor, when used to write a thesis, has its own set of rules that I obey in order to write this thesis. Indeed, while I am writing I am not thinking about different lines of code and the rules as to how they operate. To do so is counterproductive to writing. If you get the impression that focal awareness is somehow involved in this you are on the right track.

But it is important to note that a computer has no focal or subsidiary awareness. A computer just works. A computer has multiple levels of operation, each with their own set of rules. To us looking at the operation of the computer we can only focus our awareness on one level at a time. As in the previous chapter when driving a car we focus our attention on making the turn as a whole and not on the increments necessary in turning a steering wheel so far. So, in a sense, focal awareness is something we do when looking at the operation of the computer. But, one may wonder, how is it that a computer can be said to contain multiple levels if it is we that can only understand the computer in terms of those levels? Here we hearken back to the Kantian distinction between objects-in-themselves and how those objects appear to us. Kant said that we cannot know objects-in-themselves, but only appearances.

It should be noted that in everyday life we usually do not go around questioning whether or not the objects we encounter are as they appear to us to be. This process of encountering objects during the course of a day is a tacit one, and does not usually become overt unless one of the objects we rely on in the performance of a task does not work in the way it should. Then we quite often question whether or not the object is as it appears to be. Another way of putting it is that when we drive a car we do not focus our attention on whether or not the steering wheel is as it appears to be. If, however, when we are making a turn the steering wheel does not turn like it should then that fact jumps into our focal awareness. We may examine many possibilities such as whether our power steering is out due to some mechanical difficulty etc.

To bring the topic back to the example of the computer’s operation: when I am writing I am concentrating on that task and not concerned with whether the program is operating like it should. Writing philosophy is a very abstract task, and thus requires more conscious attention. Thus to worry about whether or not the word processor is functioning properly is not conducive to writing philosophy. I do have cause to question the program’s operation when something happens that I had not anticipated. This can be very frustrating, especially if I have a great train of philosophical thought going. Usually the unanticipated event comes in the form of a message on my monitor stating that there is a program error.  In my case the message displayed on the monitor is accompanied by the auditory message of Susan Ivanova (a fictional character on the television show Babylon 5) who says “Ah Hell” when a program error occurs, thus shooting the question of the program’s proper operation into my focal awareness. And much to my annoyance when the message is broadcast it disturbs my train of thought.

One can begin to see the different levels of operation at work simultaneously in the example of a computer or car’s operation. The task of driving a car relies on the proper function of the mechanical elements of the car. The level of the word processor with its own rules of operation relies on the level of the computer program with its rules of operation, which, in turn, relies on what is referred to as machine language with its rules of operation. The level of machine language relies on the binary code for its operation. The hardware of the computer and its rules of operation gave rise to the binary code. Each level has its own rules of operation, and when successfully operated, gives rise to the next level of operation. Each level with its own rules is quite different and distinct from each other level, and yet each higher level cannot work without the level below it working. Failure of one of the levels can prove disastrous for the successive levels above it. If the cooling fan over the central processing unit (CPU) in my computer fails to function the CPU will not operate, thus terminating all of the successive levels above it, which rely on it for their operation. The concept of one level with its own distinct rules of operation when combined in certain ways giving rise to a new level above it with its own distinct rules of operation is the Polanyian concept of emergence. The different levels operating in succession illustrate the stratification of reality. One can thus see how the stratification of levels appear to be a part of reality itself, and not merely how we perceive reality. More on the issue of the ontological nature of the stratification of reality as opposed to the subjective perception of reality as stratified will be dealt with in the next chapter.

In larger terms, atoms and their rules of operation comprise one level. When atoms are combined in certain ways they form compounds that have elements (pun intended) in them that were not in the previous level. Each successive level increases in complexity and brings about something new that cannot be found in the previous level. Michael Polanyi himself is quite adamant that to attempt to understand one level of reality by applying the rules of a lower level to the current level that is the focus of attention is ludicrous! Polanyi is severely critical of what can be called philosophical atomism. Philosophical atomism is the belief that truth lies in the breaking down of things into their component parts as far back as it can go. This too will be discussed in more detail in the next chapter. Things are only understood in terms of wholes (Gestalten). When we drive a car we are concentrating on the task as a whole. Thus to shift our focus from the task of driving as a whole to understanding the driving of a car in terms of the constituent parts of the car and their functions, usually contained in one’s subsidiary awareness, is generally disastrous if one is trying to drive somewhere. This should help to illustrate the point that each level has its own rules in some sense independent of other levels and yet wholly reliant on the proper function of all levels below any given level.

The importance of understanding these concepts cannot be overemphasized. Language itself is an interesting phenomenon to look at. It will be helpful to look at language as a further example to help drive home the understanding of emergence and successive levels of reality. Language, in this case written, operates by certain rules. We have letters that, when combined, form words. Words combine to form sentences, and in turn, in proper form, can convey meaning. But rules of the level of sentence structure do not guarantee meaning. I can write, “The translucent dog is a happy ethereal substance.” While the sentence abides by the rules of sentence structure it is technically gibberish. Can language really be understood by an analysis of the rules of sentence structure, or is there something more? Or, worse yet, can a sentence be understood by a careful analysis of the formation of shapes of letters in a sentence? Language is used to channel one’s focal awareness in certain ways. Thus the mind passes through the sentences to image something focally. This can be focally attending to something existing independently of the mind, or it can be attending to something existing only in the noosphere (e.g. a religious experience). Language points to wholes beyond itself and breaks down when one shifts focal awareness from the whole to a careful analysis of sentence structure, spelling, etc.

Derrida’s work illustrates that, like Kant who said one cannot know objects-in-themselves, one cannot know the text-in-itself and requires the active participation of a knower to perceive meaning through the text. Language at the beginning and middle of the twentieth century seemed to be the last bastion of objective reality, especially in light of logical positivism’s effort to know objects-in-themselves as best as humanly possible. The last tool for knowing was language, which was thought to be supremely reliable. That is until a wizened-with-age Wittgenstein and the French deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida did their analyses of language. If anything they help to illustrate that the use of language is a skill employed by people, which brings the topic back into Polanyi’s court.

One uses language to play certain “games.” One does not focus on the structure of language for truth, but one focuses on the (proposed view of) reality and is only subsidiarily aware of the sentence structure. Polanyi says that meaning is always pushed away from us. Another way to put it is that the meaning of a sentence is emergent from the level of sentence structure. Wittgenstein would say that the meaning of the sentence structure is determined by the “language game.” The language game represents the task the words are put to. Words are in the service of the game, but the game breaks down if the rules of sentence structure are broken. Wittgenstein has shown some interesting examples, one being two construction workers working together to build a wall. One worker says “brick” which is short for, “Hand me a brick please.” In Polanyian terms the rest of the sentence that “brick” is short for is a tacit understanding between the two workers in the performance of their task (their “game.”)

Hopefully, by now, the concept of emergence is becoming clear, as well as its implication, the stratification of reality. Polanyi applies the concept of emergence to knowing as well as reality. Polanyi sees the concept of emergence in knowing and, by extension, being itself.  There is some ambiguity as to whether the stratification of reality is something that we humans impose on reality or whether the stratification of reality actually is an intrinsic part of reality. One thing that should be clear by now is that knowledge involves the person to a point that is hard to grasp a hold of, which is to say it is tacit or unconscious.1 Thus we have Polanyi’s theory of knowledge being referred to as “personal knowledge.” The ultimate origins of knowledge are tacit to a point that it seems inconceivable that it can ever be made truly overt.2 Accepting Polanyi’s theory of personal knowledge one would say that one can get to a point where knowledge would seem to emerge from levels where one cannot see how knowledge can exist with the rules of the given level under examination. Can biology explain how I know how to drive a car or write philosophy? And yet the destruction of certain parts of my brain could prevent me from knowing how to drive a car or write philosophy.

As I alluded to in the beginning of the chapter, we would eventually see how physics and ethics can co-exist without contradiction. That time has come. With a level of reality governed by the study of physics issuing in the emergence of successively higher levels of reality one can conceive that eventually a level will be complex enough to allow for what we call freedom. Once freedom has emerged one can then discuss how freedom works out in terms of the lower levels supporting it as well as still higher levels emerging from it. One of these levels is what we call ethics. It is quite amazing to ponder how a computer programming language with its rules of variable manipulation and if-then statements can be used to bring about something as complex as a word processor with its own rules of operation quite incomprehensible in terms of X’s. And yet here I am writing a thesis concentrating on everything to do with explicating Polanyi’s philosophy quite oblivious to the rules of either the word processor or of the program code comprising it. It amazes me too that the study of physics can do what it does, and yet I can decide pros and cons of a way of relating to another person.

The next chapter will deal with more of the “personal” in “personal knowledge” as I have spent a good deal of time explaining the “knowledge” part of “personal knowledge” in this chapter and the previous chapter. In addition, as I have already mentioned, I will begin to tackle other theories of knowing that are competitors with Michael Polanyi’s theory of “personal knowledge.” As should already be clear I find other theories of knowledge wanting, especially in light of Michael Polanyi’s theory. It is my intention to demonstrate how Michael Polanyi’s theory of personal knowledge is superior. This will include a more scrutinized examination of the ontological dimension of the stratification of reality as not being merely an anthropomorphism (an imposing on reality of how it is that we humans know something.) No holds will be barred and I do not intend on pulling any punches in my criticisms.


1 I here use “unconscious” in terms of not being aware, rather than not being awake.

2 This fact makes me rather leery of philosophers and psychologists that attempt to delineate exactly how our mind works, as I believe that it can not be wholly accomplished.


[To Chapter 3]


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Toward a New Epistemology Beyond the Postmodern – Chapter 1

Toward a New Epistemology Beyond the Postmodern

By Lee Karl Palo, © 2005 Lee Karl Palo



[Back to Introduction with the Table of Contents]


Chapter 1

Knowledge and the Human Element

The thought of Michael Polanyi pt. 1

Tacit and overt knowledge; indwelling

The thought of Michael Polanyi is integral to this thesis. How this came to be is significant to note as it colors my appropriation of Michael Polanyi’s thought. I use some of Michael Polanyi’s theories in ways he did not for an end he had not conceived. However Polanyi was open to implications of his thought whose depths he had not plumbed.  Indeed Polanyi knew that his thought had revolutionary implications for just about everything. He states “… my reconsideration of scientific knowledge leads on to a wide range of questions outside science.”1 But the question remains as to why I would choose the philosophy of Michael Polanyi.

A principle I learned during my education in determining the value of one theory over another was to examine the explanatory power of the theory. In Polanyi’s case his theory of “personal knowledge” has great explanatory power. Polanyi’s theory can discuss such divergent topics as the movements of sub-atomic particles as well as whether or not abortion is wrong. Both the objective “hard” science and the relatively subjective realm of ethics come under the same theory.

So why do I choose the theory of knowledge put forward by Michael Polanyi? Polanyi can account for different games (or areas of study) with their different rules and thus not sacrifice the uniqueness of each game in itself. In the theory of personal knowledge all games can be accounted for. Polanyi can deal with vastly different areas of study like science (utilizing the scientific method) as well as biblical interpretation (utilizing biblical criticism), while still maintaining the uniqueness of each area of study. Polanyi’s theory does not “scientize” religion, nor does it turn science into a religion. Polanyi’s theory starts with what is fundamental to all knowing, and then it branches out into other diverse areas of study with their own rules of operation. Thus I choose Polanyi’s theory for its raw power of explanation, without the high cost of having a theory that imposes its explanation on things that would not be agreeable to this in themselves (i.e. “scientizing” religion). I do have one other factor to consider which is the possibility that Polanyi could be wrong. But I refuse to allow the fear that Polanyi could be wrong to petrify me into inaction and indecision. There is too much at stake to remain on the sidelines. Polanyi puts it best in his original 1957 preface to his magnum opus Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy:

Personal knowledge is an intellectual commitment, and as such inherently hazardous. Only affirmations that could be false can be said to convey objective knowledge of this kind. All affirmations published in this book are my own personal commitments; they claim this, and no more than this, for themselves. …ultimately, it is my own allegiance that upholds these convictions, and it is on such warrant alone that they can lay claim to the reader’s attention.2

As to my statement that remaining on the sidelines is not an option I rely on Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of “bad faith.” As a Christian my love for God expresses itself in the love of neighbor and when I see problems with the way in which knowledge is conceived that have real implications that hurt people I want to do something about it. To ignore, trivialize, or to be afraid to address these problems for fear of possibly being wrong is nothing but “bad faith”, as Jean-Paul Sartre would say. My passionate love for God impels me forward to a truth that can care for others and be a glory to God! Polanyi’s theory makes the closest contact with reality as I see it and is the most malleable to my programs of thought in the service of God.

To begin, it might be helpful to get some background on Michael Polanyi. Michael Polanyi was born in Budapest in 1891. He began his career as a scientist, specifically as a chemist, in the early part of the twentieth century. He developed original theories in chemistry, but not without some criticism. His most notable critic was none other than Albert Einstein! Today however, despite the criticism of Albert Einstein, Polanyi’s major scientific theory is seen by the scientific community as valid. Nevertheless he gradually moved out of hard science into the philosophy of science. Instead of utilizing the scientific method Polanyi began to investigate how the scientific method works in the scientist. How does the scientist develop theories in science? Instead of a more abstract formula for going about scientific research Polanyi became increasingly interested in the subjective world of the scientist as the scientist develops scientific theories. This investigation led Polanyi to a theory of personal knowledge that had implications far beyond the realm of science. Not only could Polanyi better describe how the scientific method works, but the same implications for science worked for all other fields of knowledge too without compromising their uniqueness.

It is crucial for a proper understanding of my thesis that the reader understands that I approach the theory of Michael Polanyi from my own unique perspective. My faith in God would not allow for any other view of reality that usurped the place that could only belong to God alone. “Hear O Israel YHWH our God YHWH alone!”3 “There is no god but God”4 “God was in Christ reconciling the world…”5 “You shall love YHWH your God with all your being (all that is you) and your neighbor as yourself.”6 It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of these religious affirmations. Therefore I do not pretend to be merely explicating the theory of Michael Polanyi, I intend to use it in the context of my faith, however my own appropriation of Michael Polanyi’s thought will come later.

To sum up, Polanyi came to his epistemology from science in a quest for a better, more accurate, epistemology for science. I have come to Polanyi’s epistemology from a deep faith commitment in a quest for a better, more accurate, epistemology for the theologian. Now, on to the theory of personal knowledge by Michael Polanyi…

The most basic concept in the theory of personal knowledge is the concept of tacit knowing. Probably the most often repeated quote of Michael Polanyi is that “we know more than we can tell,” which is found in many places in his works and among, most likely, everyone who talks about Polanyi’s theory of knowing. Knowledge that defies articulation would be considered tacit, as well as knowledge that can be articulated only after much thought goes into it. All knowledge in the end partakes of the tacit dimension. Because of the fact that all knowledge in the end partakes of the tacit dimension, which is the most basic component of knowing, Polanyi refers to the knower indwelling his or her knowledge. But all this might seem a little abstract, so I will give some concrete examples.

One example that I find useful in describing tacit knowledge is that of learning to drive a car. At first one has to pay attention to myriad things in driving a car. There are turn-signals, brakes, gear-shifts, accelerations, mirrors to mind, a steering wheel to turn just so far, and many other things. This is not to mention directions for getting to and from a destination. At first this can be quite overwhelming. As time goes on however one pays less and less conscious attention to many of the particulars of driving a car. Now when I am about to make a turn I have signaled without consciously thinking about it and turn the car. I no longer have to consciously feel how much pull I have to do on the steering wheel in order to turn my car at the intersection. I just turn the car–I just intuitively know how far and how fast to turn the steering wheel. Whereas when first I learned to drive a car, the knowledge was something I had to give a lot of attention to, now this knowledge is a part of me. This process of transforming conscious-overt knowledge into unconscious-tacit knowledge is called the process of indwelling. The knowledge of how far to turn the steering wheel for a given turn is not something we take time to consciously reflect on. One could also mention that in some cases focusing attention on just how far how fast to turn the steering wheel for a turn might be detrimental to the task of driving as a whole. Especially if one happens to be making a right-turn-on-red one ought to spend time ensuring that there is no oncoming traffic in the lane in which one wishes to turn right on to, rather than focusing on the steering wheel too much.

Indwelling is not merely a process of habituation, though it does bear some resemblance to the forming of a habit. During the time in which I was researching this thesis I came across William James’ concept of habit in his Principles of Psychology, and found more than a few similarities there. James, however, did not see the unconscious layer of indwelling that goes beyond articulation (“We know more than we can tell.”) There is also the fact that many would say that in order to think, a thought must be conscious and be able to be articulated. I have also never come across anyone who has any idea just how deep and pervasive a further development of the concept of “habit” in the form of Polanyian indwelling really is.

One may well see by now a problem with the idea of indwelling going beyond that which is articulable. The blunt way to phrase the problem is: how can one say that one knows more than one can tell, if one cannot tell what one knows? The perfect example of the concept of knowing more than one can tell came to me during my thesis defense when I thought about my experiences teaching high school students. One of my favorite methods of teaching is to play “Devil’s advocate” by explicating an alternative theological point of view without telling any of my students that it is not the view of the Church of the Nazarene. I can tell my students sense something is not quite right. They can even tell me that something is not quite right, but they cannot always put their finger on just what it is that is bothering them. The position I have explicated makes sense to them, and they would even want to agree with much of the position, but something is holding them back. My students tend to find this method very annoying when I am in the middle of playing “Devil’s advocate” too. That they know something is amiss when I play “Devil’s advocate” is “written all over their faces.”  My students (for the most part) have grown up learning (thus indwelling) Nazarene theology, sometimes unconsciously.  They learn many things that all hint at a particular theological value of the church, though that value may never be stated to them (it is there by necessary inference). What I do with this phenomenon is to lead my students into recognition of the theological value they have indwelt, and thus they can then see what the problem is with the position I explicated while playing “Devil’s advocate.” Once they acknowledge the value they have already indwelt, but could not previously overtly articulate, they are able to use it in a variety of situations in the future. This also alleviates the tension generated by the discrepancy between the values they have indwelt and the values I present to them while playing “Devil’s advocate.” Incidentally many of them like this method so much that the youth pastor says I have a “cult following.” I have also seen my students get progressively better about putting their finger on what is wrong with a “Devil’s advocate” type of position as they have become more consciously aware of the values they have indwelt.

This leads us to the concepts that Polanyi refers to as focal and subsidiary awareness. Focal awareness is a relatively easy concept to grasp, as it is not unrelated to the term focus. Focal awareness is whatever one is paying attention to. Subsidiary awareness, by contrast, is what one is unconsciously aware of in the process of performing a task. In the performance of driving a car the knowledge of how far how fast to turn the steering wheel falls under one’s subsidiary awareness, while one’s focal awareness concentrates on the task of driving the car as a whole. Subsidiary awareness is, as may be surmised by now, tacit (or unconscious). One can shift one’s focal awareness from a whole to bring it to bear on a part of a task. Just as I mentioned, one can shift one’s attention from the task of making the right-turn-on-red to concentrate on how far how fast one needs to turn the steering wheel. The downside to shifting one’s focal awareness from a task as a whole to part of that task that previously comprised a portion of one’s subsidiary awareness in the performance of that task, is that it can put the performance of that task in jeopardy. If one is not attending to the task of driving as a whole, and instead focusing on just part of the task of driving, one can potentially end up in an accident given the wrong circumstances. Polanyi too points out the potential losing of the performance of a task by focally attending to that which was formerly in one’s subsidiary awareness. But it is important to note that one can increase one’s aptitude for a given task by concentrating on part of the task which is usually tacit (a part of one’s subsidiary awareness.)  One can get into bad habits of driving which can be corrected by focally attending to part of the task of driving identified as part or all of the bad habit, thus modifying how that part of the task is done. Eventually one can come to indwell the change in subsidiary awareness and thus not have to concentrate for ever on fixing the bad habit.

My original concept for describing this type of knowing was to use a computer type of analogy. Thus I will use my computer analogy to throw light on Polanyi’s understanding of tacit knowing. In computer programming one has a task in mind, and in order to achieve this task lines of code must be written and subsequently executed by the computer. Each little line of code performs a task in itself. In order to achieve the task all of the little lines of code must perform their individual tasks thus bringing about the larger task they jointly comprise. To give an example here is a program that would count from 1 to 100. Computer programs execute lines of code in the order they are written (i.e. numbered.)

Line 1: Have the letter [X] be equal to the value of 1.

Line 2: Print the current value of the letter [X] in the middle of the screen.

Line 3: If the value of the letter [X] equals 100 then end the program.

Line 4: Have the value of the letter [X] increased by 1.

Line 5: Go to the program [Line 2] (once the computer executes this line it would execute the lines of instruction from [line 2] forward.)

Each line of code performs a specific task, and together they count from 1 to 100. The individual lines of code form the tacit component of the task of counting from 1 to 100. But if one pays attention to merely a single line of code one can lose sight of what the purpose of the program is as a whole. Indeed the meaning of a single line of code does not become clear until the lines of code are considered together. With people small tasks can be used to comprise a larger task as in the example of driving a car. Considering a particular action such as flipping the turn signal on does not say much in itself. One can do that while parked. But the action means more when I am at an intersection flipping my turn signal on to alert other drivers to what my intentions are. In the former case of flipping a turn signal on while parked may be interpreted by observers to mean something to the effect that one is testing the turn signal. In the latter case an observer would interpret my turn signal in terms of my driving. This should help to drive home the point of Michael Polanyi that we human beings attend to wholes, and only rarely to parts.

It can truly be said that we know the parts of a task in terms of the task as a whole, and that we pay attention from the parts comprising the task to the task as a whole. Polanyi refers to this as the from-to structure of tacit knowing. At first when I learn a new skill I pay attention to the particulars and how they relate to the skill. In computer programming I must first concentrate on writing the individual lines of code as they relate to the task of the program. Once completed I can perform the task the program was designed for oblivious of the individual lines of code. Eventually programs are developed that are much more grandiose than their parts, for example the word processor on which I write is comprised of thousands upon thousands of lines of code. But I surely do not want to pay attention to the particular lines of code comprising this word processor as I would surely get lost as to the function of the program as a whole very quickly.

My original concept, that was similar to Polanyi’s concept of tacit knowing, relied heavily on the aforementioned analogy of computer programming. Growing up in a suburb of Seattle Washington (Redmond) I made more than a few observations about how things work. My family had the concept of what we called “auto-pilot.”  When our family returned from somewhere we would notice how we could talk and do a variety of things while the driver would go on what could be considered a pre-programmed path to home. Occasionally we would have to drive past a significant street that was a main road home, and instead of driving past it (as was intended) we turned onto it quite without realizing it consciously. We called this phenomenon our internal auto-pilot. The driver was so used to following a set list of instructions for the destination home that if the driver’s awareness was on something else, like a good conversation, the auto-pilot would take over. One can see how easily one could err if one is not paying attention to the task at hand. I began thinking that the principle had far-reaching implications for how we learn. Each part of a skill is like a line of code in a computer program, and, over time, this “program” becomes a part of you. This can be tremendously advantageous as it means that we can focus on larger tasks as well as multiple tasks simultaneously! I wonder how many assembly-line workers would love having to concentrate with their full awareness on their monotonous task(s). It always amazed me just how many complex routines we can program ourselves for. This would thereby allow the freedom for the conscious mind to go where it would find more rewarding things to focus on. Thus I had in a somewhat lesser articulated form of the concept of tacit knowing, at least in part. I had not yet plumbed the depths of my idea to relate it to other concepts of knowing. In fact, as we shall see, a Polanyian concept of knowing will be seen to be antithetical to some other concepts of knowing in western philosophy.

To help further in the understanding of Polanyi’s concept of tacit knowing another task of some interest to me, that of carving meat, will be used. One of my early jobs was as a meat carver for a buffet restaurant. Once I went away from home to college in Idaho I worked at the food service there and also carved meat for them. I still carve meat occasionally. Learning to carve ham, roast beef, turkey, pork, etc. was not the easiest of tasks to learn, but I enjoy carving very much now and have no problem whatsoever now. Over time I came to indwell the various aspects of meat carving, so that I just do it without having to pay attention to all of the particular aspects of it. Of relevance for us here is the fact that most, if not all, of the aspects of meat carving I cannot articulate even if I were to pay a great amount of attention to them. I have trained many other meat carvers and have often found it difficult in describing some of the particulars of meat carving to the trainees. It seems like I “just know” how to do it; I can do it more easily than I can describe how to do it. In this case some of the particulars of meat carving have never been articulated, but it does make sense to say that I know how to do them. Like Polanyi says, “We know more than we can tell.” This knowledge is tacit, and the tacit particulars of which I am subsidiarily aware combine in such a way that I know how to meat carve. In reality, the touch receptors are tacitly aware of the position of the knife and transmit this information to my brain, which sends the next movements of my hand for the position of the knife. In this from-to structure of meat carving I am only conscious of where the knife is in the meat, and not which muscles in my arm are moving, or which touch receptors are actively transmitting sense data in conjunction with my eyes. When someone asks for a particular slice of meat, be it thick or thin, I attend to the slicing of the meat utilizing my tacit awareness of the particulars involved in the task. While some particulars in one’s subsidiary awareness can be articulated by bringing them into focal awareness, others can defy one’s best attempts to articulate them. And thus I end the chapter by stating once more Polanyi’s dictum that “We always know more than we can tell.”

Some of the implications of the principle of tacit knowing will be pursued in the next chapter. In the third chapter the implications of tacit knowing on some popular contemporary conceptions of knowledge will be explored. Most, if not all, of the important implications of tacit knowing as it relates to the task at hand will be developed, but you will have to pardon the pun in the disclaimer, when I say that I may possess more knowledge of tacit knowing than I can tell…


1 Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), xiii.

2 Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), xiv.

3 The she’ma (Deuteronomy 6:4, my own rendition)

4 Part of one of the five pillars of Islam (the shahadah) that is not up for debate to any monotheist, echoing Deuteronomy 5:7.

5 2 Corinthians 5:19 NAS

6 The greatest commandment (Deuteronomy 6:4) according to Jesus (Matthew 22:37-40; Mark 12:28-31, my own rendition.)


[To Chapter 2]



Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Toward a New Epistemology Beyond the Postmodern – Introduction

What follows is my Master’s Thesis.


Writing a Master’s Thesis is a learning experience to be sure. It was a rather long process from writing, to editing, to defending the thesis orally, to editing for the final library copy. I chose a topic that I thought would be more than a simple exercise in scholarship. Positively speaking, it has some important things to say (even if I would now want to edit it some more). When I finally defended the thesis orally, I was pleased to be told by all three professors that they enjoyed reading it. At least my topic wasn’t boring. Negatively, when my Thesis Advisor, Dr. T.A. Noble, gave me permission to pursue the topic, he said that he wasn’t sure what it was that I was going to do based on my proposal and outline, but he was sure I knew what I was going to do. That should have been a warning to me that this was going to be a lot more work than if I had chosen a more straightforward and mundane topic.

While the title of the Thesis implies a movement toward an answer, in the ten-plus years since I sent a final library approved copy, I can say that I now have the answer. I plan on writing that volume at some point, but I thought publishing this on my blog would have some value. The text is the same as what is in the library of Nazarene Theological Seminary, except for some adjustments resulting from the transition from a print “hardcopy” to a blog format. I have also added occasional hyperlinks.

Lee Karl Palo, December 2015.


Toward a New Epistemology Beyond the Postmodern

By Lee Karl Palo, © 2005 Lee Karl Palo

Table of Contents

Introduction [see below]

Chapter 1 – Knowledge and the Human Element

The Thought of Michael Polanyi Part 1 (Tacit and overt knowledge; indwelling)

Chapter 2 – An Ontology of Knowledge

The Thought of Michael Polanyi Part 2 (The stratification of reality)

Chapter 3 – Passionate vs. “Objective” Knowledge

The Thought of Michael Polanyi Part 3 (Polanyi and some contrasting theories)

Chapter 4 – The Hebraic Conception of Knowledge

The idea of knowledge in scripture (Yadah)

Chapter 5 – God and Knowing

The beginning of a synthesis of Polanyian and Biblical conceptions of knowledge

Chapter 6 – Jesus Christ: Incarnate Knowledge

Implications for a new epistemology pt. 1 (Theological epistemology)

Chapter 7 – The More Excellent Way

Implications for a new epistemology pt. 2 (Philosophical epistemology)

Chapter 8 – Omens and Portents of the Coming Intellectual Apocalypse

Implications and concluding remarks




The Beginning

The first philosophy class I took changed my life forever. It was an introductory class in philosophy taught by Ed Crawford at (what was then) Northwest Nazarene College. I learned that there is no area of life in which philosophy does not exert some influence. Philosophy seemed to be a “watcher” over all other disciplines. This fact took root in my mind. One question began to arise “who watches the watchers?”  Rather quickly other questions cropped up in my study of philosophy. Does philosophy have an understanding of itself outside of the disciplines in which it exerts its powerful influence? How would God have me view philosophy?

How is it that I have come to find the thought of Michael Polanyi to be so very helpful in my attempt to answer some of these questions? I feel very fortunate to have had many people who have encouraged me in my own unique path of education. In a discussion of some of my ideas, a fellow student at Nazarene Theological Seminary, Laurie Mehrwein, told me that many of my ideas sounded a lot like what she had read of Michael Polanyi. Dr. Al Truesdale, upon hearing my interest in Michael Polanyi, encouraged me and recommended The Tacit Dimension to me as an introduction to Polanyi. In a conversation I had with Dr. Paul Bassett, professor of Church history at Nazarene Theological Seminary for over 30 years, he referred to Polanyi quite positively. Dr. Basset mentioned that he had met Michael Polanyi at Duke University and found that Polanyi seemed to be humble in spirit, which is a quality I admire. While a couple positive comments from Dr. Basset is not an unequivocal endorsement of Polanyi’s philosophy it was significant to me. Dr. Noble has been influenced by the thought of Michael Polanyi as well, indeed that is why he was the perfect choice to be my thesis advisor. Dr. Noble allowed me to take on a part of my longstanding question in philosophy (Who watches the watchers?).  Fortunately for me Dr. Noble wisely suggested I tackle a much more manageable chunk of my question.

The Issue at Hand

Here in this thesis I tackle part of a smaller question of how philosophy operates in real life. When I had studied philosophy in the past it had always seemed to be above and beyond every day life. Philosophy had also seemed to be about true and false and nothing more.

…But there is something more going on here…

There can be no difference anywhere that doesn’t make a difference elsewhere—no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere, and somewhen.

William James1

Scientific theories become, as do theological and philosophical ones, optional tools for the facilitation of individual or social projects.

Richard Rorty2

These above quotes do not seem to be merely involved with issues of truth and falsity. Philosophy is very much a part of every day life. Especially with these quotes philosophy seems to be very much involved with issues of right and wrong.

The Task

Rather than delving into the length and breadth of philosophy with my question, it was suggested that I investigate my question in relation to theological epistemology. I certainly have no problem with this as my commitment to God comes before my commitment to philosophy. In fact my faith has had a profound influence on how I have worked with my question. I would go so far as to say that I could never have developed any of the answers to the question that I have developed without my faith. I am part of a faith community that has been guiding me on this intellectual journey of mine, as can be seen by my mention of the involvement of Laurie Mehrwein, Dr. Bassett, Dr. Truesdale, and Dr. Noble.3 I believe that theology should rightfully be as it once was “the queen of the sciences.” Indeed my thesis will undoubtedly hint at this being the proper relationship of the one (theology) to the other (philosophy). My goal is a new understanding of theological epistemology, which would have implications for philosophical epistemology. Theological epistemology is the study of how we know what we know in submission to the reality of the God who was in Christ. Practically speaking theological epistemology is the investigation of how we know religious claims. Aside from the difference in subject matter the commitment to God is what sets theological epistemology apart from philosophical epistemology. I can investigate how we know God, but I cannot doubt that there is a God or else I would no longer be a Christian. Theological epistemology can be done by one who is not committed to God, but to someone committed to God that individual can never do theological epistemology properly without a commitment to God. I use the term “philosophical epistemology” to refer to the study of how we know what we know without necessarily having any commitments. Thus theological epistemology can fall under the rubric of philosophical epistemology, but it ought not to. Philosophical epistemology can also be used to represent the study of how we know claims made in other philosophical disciplines, such as the philosophy of science. All of the implications for philosophical epistemology will have to wait for another day, but the necessary groundwork will be laid down in this thesis. It must be noted that there is no small amount of overlap between theological epistemology and philosophical epistemology. One can analyze the philosophy of science from a fundamental commitment to God. Of course the term “epistemology” can be used as a general term to describe all of the above. As can be surmised, I can only do epistemology from a commitment to God being, as I am, a part of a faith community that shares this commitment to the God who was in Christ.

It is this personal commitment that leads directly to the point of this thesis. My thesis can be stated thus: since, as we shall see, all knowledge is personal, and thus relative to how we personally indwell and articulate it, then knowledge ought to be articulated out of love for God and one’s neighbor. Both before and since the time I have written and orally defended this thesis I have had many opportunities to tell those curious about my thesis what my thesis is about. I keep coming back to a simple statement: people ought to use truth (i.e. their knowledge) to care for others.

The Plan

I have tried to ground all of my philosophizing in Jesus Christ. Later in this thesis I will even discuss how Jesus used knowledge. Beyond that basis in my commitment to my faith in the God who was in Christ, three philosophers have surfaced in my journey who are integral to the answers I have developed. The first is Michael Polanyi who is the backbone of my thesis. Second is my favorite philosopher, William James. Then there is Friedrich Nietzsche who not only supports my thesis, but also does a good job of annihilating my competition (to the question of how knowledge works in real life).

The first chapter will be devoted to the articulation of Polanyi’s concept of tacit knowing. The second chapter will extend the concept of tacit knowing. This will include what Polanyi refers to as ontological implications of tacit knowing. The third chapter will illustrate a few other concepts of philosophical knowing. In light of Polanyi’s theory the inadequacies of these other concepts will begin to become apparent. However those other concepts of philosophical knowing have not been the only concepts of knowing historically. This leads us to the fourth chapter. In the fourth chapter ancient Hebrew knowing and its similarities with tacit knowing will be discussed. In chapter five the main argument of this work begins in earnest, although the seeds of it will come in the previous chapters. The relationship of theology to Polanyian epistemology will be developed. The sixth and seventh chapters will see the argument kick into high gear. The argument of the sixth chapter will be obvious enough, but it is still insufficient. Thus chapter seven will be devoted to the “still more excellent way.” Chapter eight will conclude my explication of what I would like to call an epistemology of love.


1William James, Pragmatism. (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1907), 27.

2Richard Rorty, “Pragmatism as Romantic Polytheism” in The Revival of Pragmatism. Ed. by Morris Dickstein. (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998), 33.

3This is certainly not an exhaustive list of people who have guided me to where I am today.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

What Kind of Truth is the Bible?

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2015 Lee Karl Palo


          What kind of truth is the Bible? The Bible is often a difficult book to make sense of. Certainly the fact that it is an ancient collection of assorted religious texts contributes to this problem. Nevertheless the Bible remains the authoritative text for Christian churches of all kinds. With a diversity of people reading the Bible comes a diversity of perspectives on the Bible, but at times there are some who insistent on only one way of reading the Bible. I occasionally encountered this during the process of writing, editing, and teaching by forthcoming book on Genesis 1-11.

In order to focus on getting my book ready for publication I took a break from blogging. This past weekend I sent out the manuscript for professional feedback, so I have time to devote to other kinds of writing again. One of my book’s features that proved to be valuable, when I taught it in adult Sunday School, are many of the diagrams I incorporated. They helped people to see quite clearly that there was more going on in the text than they were aware of.

Many people assume the Bible ought to be understood “literally.” While I am not sure there are any Christians who would say the Bible should not be taken seriously, not all Christians would say that all parts of the Bible should be taken literally. The very first book known to have been written on Biblical interpretation, Origen’s On First Principles, makes this point.

Casting Doubt on Literalism

          One of the difficulties reading the Bible “literally” in English today is that there are no literal translations. The ancient languages in which the Bible was written didn’t have many of the conventions we today take for granted. Punctuation, paragraph divisions, and even spaces between words are not present in those languages. Hence all English translations organize the text into paragraphs and sentences. Most English translations also utilize the chapter and verse numbering that was added to the text much later. This doesn’t mean those who composed the books we have in the Bible were unsophisticated about how to organize and arrange their material. However, when you see how they did often arrange their works, it can cast doubt on any kind of simplistic literal reading.

One common way to arrange material was through chiasmus—arranging it in a chiastic structure. Material was paralleled so that the first part paralleled the last part, the second part paralleled the second-to-last part, the third part paralleled the third-to-last part, and so on until there is one part left in the center that has no parallel. Typically the most significant parts are the unparalleled center point and the final parallel, or to put it a different way: the climax and the conclusion. Today, in many ways, this isn’t all that different from having a standard narrative form for works of fiction: introduction, rising action, complication, resolution, and denouement. In many ancient works, including the Bible, chiasmus was often used to varying degrees within a larger chiastic framework.

Chiasmus can be diagrammed using a combination of letters and numbers. Letters can be used to represent the inverted parallels with the addition of an apostrophe to designate the second set of parallels, for example A, B, C, X, C’, B’, A’. Let’s look at a few examples of chiasmus from Genesis that I use in my book. Some of these structures have been documented before, but some are newly presented here.

The Flood—Genesis 6:5-9:17

Chiasm Diagram - Noah

Here is a good example of a chiasm within a chiasm in Genesis 9:11b-17. This can also be pictured as follows with the chiasm beginning from the lower left and proceeding up and down the rainbow in a clockwise fashion to the lower right.

Rainbow 0-1

The Abraham Cycle—The Stories of Genesis 11:26-22:24

Chiasm Diagram - Abraham

The Isaac Cycle—The Stories of Genesis 20:1-27:40

This particular chiasm is presented here for the first time. It was thought that since there was only a small gap between the Abraham and Jacob cycles, that there was no overarching structure to the Isaac story.

Chiasm Diagram - Isaac

The Jacob Cycle—The Stories of Genesis 25:1-36:43

Chiasm Diagram - Jacob

The Joseph Cycle—The Stories of Genesis 37:1-50:26

Chiasm Diagram - Joseph

What does all of this mean? If you are unfamiliar with this structure in the Bible, it may take some time to ponder that question. What was important to the Biblical authors is still important to us today: there are religious truths that need to be conveyed. The Biblical authors clearly had a type of poetic romanticization where information that does not fit the structure is either omitted or edited so it does fit the chiastic form. Chiasmus was used to highlight certain theological truths, and also to give the audience a sense of rhythm to a work.

Where does that leave questions of history and of science that we may want to ask of the Biblical text? Clearly the communication of some type of historical or scientific truth was not the driving factor in the Bible’s composition. If there was additional information available to the Biblical writers, they may not have included it if it distracted from their theological points or especially if it didn’t fit their use of the chiastic form. What they did include was clearly crafted and edited to work within a chiastic framework.

In conclusion, it is clear that fact is not as important as meaning when it comes to the Bible. The “literal” takes a back seat to the “artistic.”


There is also a fascinating structure to the Prehistory (Genesis 1-11), but I am saving that for the publication of my book. If you would like to see what has been done before with the Prehistory of Genesis, before my book is published, see Jack M. Sasson’s essay, “The Tower of Babel and the Primeval History” found on pages 448-457 in the book I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood.

Hess, Richard S. and David Toshio Tsumura eds. I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary, and Linguistic Approaches to Genesis 1-11. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1994. ISBN: 9780931464881

For a great introduction to the chiastic structure of Genesis see Gary A. Rendsburg’s lecture in the Great Courses lecture series entitled The Book of Genesis, specifically, “Lecture 15: the Literary Structure of Genesis.”  For even more background on this, see Gary Rendsburg’s book, The Redaction of Genesis.

Rendsburg, Gary A. The Book of Genesis Transcript Book. Chantilly: The Teaching Company, 2006. ISBN: 9781598031928 pp. 209-225.

Rendsburg, Gary A. The Redaction of Genesis. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1986. ISBN: 9781575062402


© 2015 Lee Karl Palo

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment