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