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]



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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]


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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]



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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.

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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

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A Q Footnote (Trash-Talkin’ Elaine Pagels)

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2015 Lee Karl Palo


          I wrote the post about A New Paradigm for Understanding Q in response to a comment made by Elaine Pagels in the PBS documentary From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians. Pagels makes a comment, something to the effect that the author of Q wasn’t interested in the narrative details of Jesus’ life. My first thought was that that cannot be established with any kind of certainty, and is in fact speculation. I figured I could propose a couple of alternative understandings of Q that may be more plausible than Pagel’s concept of Q. To be completely fair, documentaries often pull quotes from longer conversations. This removes the quotes from the speaker’s conversational context and places them within a new context constructed by the filmmaker. Would Elaine Pagels be comfortable with how that line was used? Only she knows for sure.

That said, her quote does seem to typify much of the popular understanding of Q. It also annoys me greatly. Some scholars seem to have an axe to grind with the Christian faith, while others maintain a certain professional detachment that neither endorses nor repudiates faith. There is also a common problem with new discoveries. They tempt people to overestimate the significance of a given discovery. The discovery of the Gospel of Thomas among the Nag Hammadi Library has certainly been significant, and yet its dating to the second century of the Common Era can hardly be ignored when using it to discuss the varieties of early Christianity. It is the culmination of traditions within certain early Christian communities that developed into a written form much later than the Biblical or proto-orthodox traditions. If you want to have a good understanding of the most primitive forms of Christianity, and track its development, you are still better off looking at the Biblical materials, and prioritizing them before you come to later works like the Gospel of Thomas.

Being a fan of professional wrestling and the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche has give me an appreciation for the art of “trash talking” (the poignant use of ad hominems). Analogies are fun to work with, and it is good to keep in mind their limitations. Nevertheless, here is my stab at trash-talking Elaine Pagels…

When it comes to Q, has Elaine Pagels ground up a copy of the Gospel of Thomas, then snorted it—getting high on its Gnostic aroma? Does she then look at all else from out of a Gnostic haze. Coming across the imagined Q source that no one has ever seen, can she think clearly enough to question how similar the religious values of the authors of the respective documents could have been? I think not.

I got to meet Chris Jericho at a book signing (November 2007) for his first autobiographical work. I also got my WrestleMania XIX ticket signed by Chris.

I got to meet professional wrestler Chris Jericho at a book signing (November 2007) for his first autobiographical work. He also signed my WrestleMania XIX ticket. Chris Jericho is a very gifted trash-talker on TV, but is very polite when you meet him.

After writing that it feels like time to go watch the WWE Network (you too can subscribe for only $9.99). There is an episode of the series “WWE Countdown” on the top 10 trash talkers of all-time.

[Trash-talking shouldn’t be taken too seriously. I really don’t bear Elaine Pagels any ill will, but that doesn’t mean I can’t ever voice my disagreements with her.]


© 2015 Lee Karl Palo

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A New Paradigm for Understanding Q

Q Cover

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2015 Lee Karl Palo


          What is “Q,” you may ask? Well, being the geek that I am, the first thing that comes to my mind is the character in Star Trek: The Next Generation portrayed by John de Lancie (especially as I saw him at a Star Trek convention in Boise, Idaho on June 2, 1996, and got his autograph on a game card).


In this case however, it refers to a concept in Biblical studies. In brief, it is thought that the respective authors of Matthew and Luke used the Gospel of Mark as a framework for writing their own gospels as well as material from a couple of other sources, one of which we call “Q” (short for the German word Quelle, that means “source”). There is some material in Matthew and Luke, not found in Mark, that is very similar, and some material that is unique to their respective gospels. “Q” represents material common to Matthew and Luke that is not found in Mark. Among other things, the Lord’s Prayer is one such example of material that is in both Matthew and Luke, but not Mark. Given the high degree of similar wording between the common material, it is conjectured that Q was a written source (in Greek).

The Q hypothesis supposes that this early written source originally just contained sayings of Jesus with perhaps an expanded temptation narrative from what is found in Mark. What has colored many interpretations and understandings of Q has been the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas among the Nag Hammadi library. The Gospel of Thomas has no narrative, and is just a collection of sayings of Jesus, some in the context of conversations with others, typically the Disciples. There are a number of similarities between the Gospel of Thomas and the canonical Gospels (including John). For a variety of reasons the majority of scholars would not assume that the Gospel of Thomas was written prior to the Gospels we have in the Bible. The Gospel of Thomas and other works found among the Nag Hammadi library have helped to provide a much broader perspective on the diversity of early Christianity (which might better be called “Christianities” in the plural). Clearly there were early forms of Christianity that had little value for narrative details about Jesus’ life, instead prioritizing Jesus’ teaching. Was Q the product of an early Christian community that valued Jesus’ teachings over the narrative details of his life?

Ludwig Feuerbach’s insight that we make God in our own image holds true for a variety of religious and scholarly phenomena. It isn’t merely our concept of God that we craft in ways we find personally comfortable or appealing. At times this holds true for sacred texts as well. Thomas Jefferson rewrote the gospels in order to leave out the parts he didn’t like, and emphasize the teachings of Jesus that he admired. That is hardly the act of a proto-evangelical Christian conservative, despite what David Barton might want you to believe. This Jeffersonian type of tradition where people craft portraits of Jesus into what is more comfortable to them has been around for a long time, and is still very much alive today.

Due to the standard methods of historical inquiry, subjects like miraculous deeds fall outside the scope of the discipline. As a consequence, historians can’t talk about whether Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead or whether Jesus himself rose from the dead in bodily form. This isn’t some insidious conspiracy to marginalize the beliefs of devout Christians, but an honest acknowledgement of the limitations of the discipline. The difference shows up in cases like, for example, someone who has a religious experience and talks about it as “God touched my soul.” Such a statement cannot be verified. It would be easier just to say that the person understood herself to have had a religious experience, but that whether or not it had divine involvement is a subject for theologians, not historians. Thus historians are comfortable saying that the majority of the early Christians believed that God raised Jesus from the dead. What that looked like, and how the early Christians came to attribute Jesus’ resurrection to divine intervention, is beyond the scope of historical inquiry. How could you design an objective experiment to detect divine causation?

There are some historians who may be uncomfortable with religious experience in any case, and perhaps not only find the ethical content of Jesus’ message easier to deal with, but also ascribe to it paramount importance. There are criteria that scholars of history use by which sayings attributed to a historical figure can be said to have varying degrees of probability to have come from that historical figure. All this is to say that a theory of Q which holds that the author’s only interest is in the sayings of Jesus may reflect the scholar’s own level of comfort, and, or preference with regard to various aspects of religious materials. The bare-bones of the theory of Q is just that it was a document that contained material common to Matthew and Luke, but not also in Mark. That this material is predominantly sayings of Jesus is merely a fact. Surely the claim that those who produced the Q document had no interest in details about Jesus’ life, including his birth, death, and resurrection, is overstating the matter. What can reasonably be said is that Q likely did not contain very much, if any, narrative details, but that the motives for the lack of inclusion for such details remain a mystery. It would be an argument from silence that makes the leap to impute a motive behind an omission (talking about this particular logical fallacy sounds funny since Q itself is a hypothesis—we don’t have a single written copy of it). Is it plausible that one explanation for the absence of narrative material in Q represents a lack of interest in such materials by the author? Yes, of course, but there is no way to prove this.

Other Possible Interpretations of Q

          Leaving behind the theory, based on an argument from silence, that the author of Q had little to no interest in narrative materials to explain the absence of such materials, we can now look at other possibilities. First of all, it is important to note that Q was employed by the proto-orthodox writers of the New Testament Gospels, Matthew and Luke. Clearly the Q source was in wide enough circulation among proto-orthodox Christian communities that both Matthew and Luke were able to use it in the construction of their respective gospels. It may be likely that Q was also produced by a proto-orthodox author. Why would they use it if it was known to have been produced by a community with questionable beliefs? Debates about correct belief were already raging in some of our earliest New Testament writings (in Paul’s letters), so the authors of Matthew and Luke may have been understandably reluctant to employ a source known to have come from outside the emerging proto-orthodoxy. The logical alternative to this would be that the authors of Matthew and Luke may not have known who or what community produced Q, but that Q was not seen to have any questionable theological content, nor have ties to deviant groups (deviant from a proto-orthodox perspective). For two independent Gospel authors to both come to the same conclusion that Q fit within their respective proto-orthodox worldviews is strong evidence that Q was not perceived to be problematic to their theology.

Given the prominent place the proto-orthodox placed on certain narrative details of Jesus life, particularly his crucifixion, it would be reasonable to assume that the author of Q (assuming the author of Q to be proto-orthodox) also had an interest in such materials. We can look to Paul’s early summation of the Christian message for evidence of the importance of certain narrative details of Jesus’ life. One memorable way Paul puts it is, “I passed on to you as most important what I also received: Christ died for our sins in line with the scriptures, he was buried, and he rose on the third day in line with the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Paul here makes no claim that this basic message originated with him, quite the contrary, he asserts that others passed it on to him, and that this is the widespread understanding. How then can the lack of certain narrative details in Q be explained?

It may be helpful to consider the nature of writing in antiquity. In the post-literate society of today, most everyone can read, and it is hard for people to function in society if they cannot. In the first century, literacy was not common. Evangelism was not done by passing out tracts. People heard the Christian message, they didn’t read it. The spoken word was the primary means of communication in early Christianity. The written word had other functions, like letter writing. Even there it was presumed in many cases, like most of the letters of Paul, that the letter would be read aloud to the community to which it was addressed. It was not passed around for everyone to read for themselves.

Q may not have had to contain any kind of crucifixion narrative because this was already the basic Christian message that everyone knew. Consider that by the time Q would have likely been composed, there would have been a large percentage of Gentile Christians for whom access to Aramaic oral traditions of the sayings of Jesus may not have been accessible. As time went on, those who were companions of Jesus, prior to his crucifixion, died themselves. The function of Q, it seems to me, is that it preserved in written form the sayings of Jesus that did not get the same high degree of oral circulation that some variation on the crucifixion and resurrection “creed” did. It may be that the Q document was for the purpose of educating new converts (particularly Greek-speaking Gentiles), and so would not need to rehash a basic, oft-repeated, liturgical message like, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

It is plausible that Q was produced by proto-orthodox Christians who had a great deal of value for the narrative details of Jesus’ life, like his crucifixion and resurrection, but that the function of Q was to address other needs not being met by the predominant oral traditions of the proto-orthodox. Paul, being our earliest Biblical author, is rather blunt in describing the universality of the basic Christian message amongst the various early Christian missionaries, “So then, whether you heard the message from me or them, this is what we preach and this is what you have believed” (1 Corinthians 15:11). There may simply have been more need for a written compilation of Jesus’ teachings earlier than a written compilation of narratives about Jesus.

A Narrative Q?

          There is another possibility that Q did in fact contain narratives of Jesus’ birth, baptism, crucifixion, and resurrection, albeit greatly abbreviated. This could explain the divergences in Matthew and Luke where each of them have greatly expanded narratives from what is found in Mark. It will be recalled that the original ending of the Gospel of Mark was deemed by many later scribes to be unsatisfactory, thus longer endings of Mark were added later. If Q had some narrative details about Jesus, beyond the temptation narratives, it is likely they were not very substantive. If they were, we would have expected to see more agreement between Matthew and Luke as regarding the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, for example. It is interesting to note that both Matthew and Luke mention Jesus’ virgin birth as well as Jesus having been born in Bethlehem. Could Q have had a simple statement affirming both of those points without providing the sort of details later Christians desired? Perhaps something like “Jesus was born of the virgin, according to the scriptures, in the town of Bethlehem, according to the scriptures.” A statement like that would put it more in line with the character of the basic gospel message already cited above (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). We know of apocryphal Infancy Gospels that were written to expand on what little details Matthew and Luke provide us. Perhaps Q had a bare-bones literate preservation of the earliest oral proclamations about Jesus’ birth. This stoked a desire for more details that evolved into Matthew and Luke’s respective infancy narratives, and much later culminated in the production of Infancy Gospels.

If the expanded temptation narratives of Matthew and Luke came from Q, then it would seem a little odd not to have also had some sort of narrative about the immediately preceding stories of Jesus’ baptism and the ministry of John the Baptist. Again, one can speculate that a possible baptism narrative in Q may have been deemed by the authors of Matthew and Luke to be inadequate when compared to Mark. It may also be that Q had some brief information about John the Baptist’s message (see for example: Luke 3:7; Matthew 3:7). Perhaps there was also something of an abbreviated crucifixion and resurrection narrative in Q. Both Matthew and Luke mention some disciples having doubt about Jesus’ resurrection despite Jesus appearing to them (Matthew leaves this doubt unresolved, whereas Luke takes great pains to resolve the doubt). Once again, it may be that Q simply did not have much of a satisfactory post-Easter narrative, which prompted the authors of Matthew and Luke to rectify that.

In any case it is likely that if Q contained any narrative details about Jesus, they were for the most part not terribly substantive (the obvious exception being the temptation narrative). Thus it would still seem appropriate to assert that the teachings of Jesus were the primary focus of Q, even if there were some narratives about Jesus.


          What is it that I have endeavored to do with this article? It is not my intention to prove that these ways of looking at Q are certain. Q itself is still just a hypothesis. Rather, I hope that by providing alternative ways of looking at Q, this can undermine any kind of easy certainty for the notion that the author of Q only valued the sayings of Jesus. It may be that the function of Q, operating in proto-orthodox communities that were saturated with the basic gospel message, filled a need for deepening the communities’ understanding of Jesus’ own teachings. Alternatively, it is also plausible that there may have been more biographical material in Q that, over time, was found to be unsatisfactory. Could Q have represented an expansion of the gospel message from good news about Jesus to include messages by Jesus himself?

What then can be said? For reasons unknown, Q likely did not contain much, if any, narrative details of Jesus life. Any assertion that the author of Q had no interest in such details is unwarranted. It is possible that the author of Q didn’t value narrative details, but it is far from certain, as I hope to have demonstrated here. The reverse may actually be more likely. Such statements asserting that the author of Q did not value the narrative details of Jesus life are overreaching what little evidence we have for the existence of Q. They further strike me as an example of creating a theory of Q that fits better what some scholars are more comfortable with—creating a gospel that better reflects the biases of scholars who are uncomfortable with miracle stories. I myself am a self-avowed, practicing, United Methodist. I don’t have a problem with the Christ of faith, even as I endeavor to understand Jesus better through the methods of literary and historical-critical inquiry. If Q existed as a written source for both Matthew and Luke, it makes the most sense that it wasn’t copied for ever if, after the composition of the four canonical gospels, there just wasn’t any substantive unique material left in Q. I think it best to see Q as a type of proto-orthodox stepping stone toward the evolution of the canonical Gospels, and not as representing any kind of alternative early Christianity that was devoid of focus on beliefs like Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.


© 2015 Lee Karl Palo

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