Toward a New Epistemology Beyond the Postmodern
By Lee Karl Palo, © 2005 Lee Karl Palo
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.